Many folk forget, in this part of the world, the temporary racetrack phenomenon actually began in New Zealand. It kicked off in early 1985 with Wellington’s ‘round the docks’ Nissan Sport 500. The windy city’s street circuit lived on for another 11 years as NZ’s highest pro le motor race of the era.
The ‘wharfare’ ceased in late 1996, just as Australia’s Group A category was rebranded and reorganised into V8 Supercars. Controlling body AVESCO, later known as V8 Supercars Australia, spent the next decade hell-bent on getting a street race up in Kiwiland.
Auckland was initially announced as the venue, with a media event held in CBD involving drivers, promotional cars and a track map handed out. However, the country’s Resource Management Act, helping Kiwis manage (and mismanage) environmental issues, killed the proposed track and stillborn event stone cold. Strike one.
Plan B saw Wellington thrust back into the limelight, with a circuit skirting Westpac stadium and harbour touted. Despite overwhelming support for the race (85 percent of the 12,000 public submissions were pro-race), the RMA again sank hopes of a rejuvenated dockside event. Strike two.
Next to step up to the plate was Hamilton, NZ’s fourth biggest city, population 165,000. Now, we’re sure that Hamilton has plenty of things going for it, but the Frankton business district is not exactly a picture-postcard location. Yes, the 3.31km layout ran alongside Waikato Stadium – home of Super 14 rugby team the Chiefs – and also past the international cricket venue at Seddon Park. But it also took in ‘landmarks’ as diverse as plumbing supply businesses, op shops, mechanical workshops and railway sidings. Think street circuits and images of harbours, beaches or parklands spring to mind. Aerial shots of Hamilton’s roofs – admittedly in an impressive range of building materials and shades of grey – fell a long way short of other glamour locations. It lacked the pizzazz needed to get paying punters back for more.
The whole thing smacked of V8 Supercars Australia’s desperation to get a New Zealand street race happening and accepting the only deal that came its way. Underwriting it all was a promoter named Caleta Streetrace Management Limited, which had a deal to run the event with Hamilton City Council.
If history tells us anything, it’s that getting things right in year one is vital. To be fair, the 2008 Hamilton 400 was a solid first-up effort. Well organised and well patronised. Yet a common complaint from those with grandstand tickets was poor visibility of the action from their seats.
Drivers and team owners commented on the circuit’s unforgiving nature, with constant changes of directions and ever present kerbs and walls. “When you hit the kerbs it was like being punched in the head,” driver Paul Morris said. Team owner Ross Stone described it as “a hard street race. Hard on the drivers, crews and car – especially on brakes.”
Interestingly enough, Hamilton had the fastest average lap speed, 146km/h, of the five street circuits on the 2010 schedule.
The most memorable moment in year one was Jamie Whincup crashing out of the meeting during qualifying in his Vodafone Falcon. Other cars took flight over a double-chicane that punctuated the main straight. The chicane – a right-left-right flick – was the layout’s most notable feature. As Tony D’Alberto explained, “You have to be very aggressive with it. If you don’t take the correct approach for the final bit then it will fire you into the wall.”
Many experienced just that. But not Garth Tander, who went down in the history books as the first overall winner of the event.
Revisions were made to both the chicane and the grandstands for year two to make it more user-friendly. Crowds were capped pre-event to ensure a more comfortable experience for all, while Whincup returned in 2009 to win both 200km legs. As he did in 2010, although now aboard a VE Commodore.
Organisers dropped ticket prices for year three “in response to tougher economic times” post-GFC, but it wasn’t enough to ensure the event’s viability and the promoter, Caleta Streetrace Management Limited, went broke and pulled out.
V8 Supercars Australia’s own event arm stepped in as the new promoter, entering a new agreement with the Council. But after two more runnings, the category determined that it could not make a go of it and a seven-year contract was cut short.
“While I am sorry to see such a high profile event go,” the local mayor explained at the time, “there has been a cost to the ratepayers which is not sustainable.”
The mayor also cited “ongoing challenges”’ including modest hotel infrastructure, the Canterbury earthquake, Rugby World Cup and economic downturn eating into attendance and corporate sponsorship given Hamilton’s distance from a major corporate centre. Strike three.
For the record, those final two events in Hamilton were won by Rick Kelly and Will Davison.
Thus, the V8s returned to their original NZ venue, Pukekohe Park thereafter, meaning things turned full circle and a Kiwi touring car street race is now consigned to history. Will Australia follow a similar path to trendsetting New Zealand regarding such events?