Hawkesbury, New Zealand
Hawkesbury Road Races, Renwick NZ
I decided that as a former competitor and long-time motorcyclist I would like to return something to the sport that has been (and continues to be) a large part of my life. A recent article in OBA on the road racing circuit at Cust in NZ prompted me to write a piece on another Kiwi circuit which although popular, has long-since become defunct.
The popularity of motorcycle racing accelerated during the post-war years due to young people seeking to enjoy a society with fewer restrictions. There were no circuits built, so local clubs took the initiative and arranged for racing meetings to be held on closed-off public roads. These “roads” were little more than unsealed, dusty gravel tracks but this did little to deter the riders who took to these circuits with great enthusiasm – some on racing machinery, others on their road bikes with home-grown modifications, all in the search for speed. As road racing became more popular, there were many dedicated motor racing circuits built in NZ and Australia. As a result of the transition to these purposebuilt venues only a few true “road” racing circuits remain which were used regularly – the Isle of Man (IOM) is obviously the most well-known of these. The Mount Panorama circuit at Bathurst is one closer to home, although motorcycle racing was discontinued there in the ‘80s as a result of a heavy-handed approach to crowd management. However, there were several just “across the ditch” in New Zealand; one of which was in the Marlborough district at the top of the South Island of New Zealand. The story of the Hawkesbury circuit needs to be told so that its contribution to motorcycle racing is not lost.
During research, I came across very little documented history of this racing circuit so I began to compile a small piece from some personal experiences. However, subsequently I have managed to make contact with office-bearers of the Marlborough Motor Cycle Club (MMCC) who have been good enough to put me in touch with Mr Ron Hebberd, a past President of the club and motorcycle shop owner who still resides in the Marlborough district. Ron has very kindly permitted the use of material from his excellent book entitled “Motorcycle Clubs of Marlborough” and I’d like to acknowledge Ron for his significant contribution to this article, as well as to the MMCC who organised a wide variety of racing events, including the Hawkesbury road races, throughout the district for many years. The Hawkesbury circuit was first raced on in 1950; this was an unofficial event where riders from the Nelson and Marlborough Motorcycle Clubs were invited to compete on an unprepared, gravelled track formed by 4 country roads. These were Hawkesbury Road, Kennedy’s Road, Brookby Road and Dog Point Road which roughly formed a 4.6 mile rectangle, not far from the small town of Renwick – itself set in the heart of the Marlborough district which is now world-renowned as a leading wine producing region. Riders who were competing in the 1950 Easter NZ Grand Prix at Cust later that year used this inaugural, informal meeting as a preliminary test of their machinery and skills. This first race was won by a Nelson rider, Ted Baumfield on a 350cc BSA, with Ray Anderson (also from Nelson) second on a 500cc Norton, and local rider Les Gibbons on a 500cc Triumph in third place.
Official NZACU-sanctioned road race meetings were held at Hawkesbury every two years from the first National Class Event in 1953 until 1962 when it was decided to run the event on an annual ‚
basis. However, as only a few riders competed in the 1962 event and because of the effort involved in organising the event, racing was not held there again until the 50th Jubilee of the MMCC in 1971. The event continued annually from then until the use of the circuit was discontinued in 1983. Unfortunately, the Hawkesbury racing circuit suffered a fate similar to that of the Mt Panorama circuit at Bathurst; it was similarly condemned because of the unruly and uncontrollable crowds of spectators that descended upon the local township after the race meeting. The Blenheim Police could not handle the situation and the MMCC President at the time, Fred Schroder, said that the club would not hold the races as a goodwill gesture to stop the trouble in town afterwards. Some of NZ’s most talented riders (as well as some less so, but no less enthusiastic) competed at Hawkesbury in a full calendar of events. Riders who featured in the top places in the early days were Syd Jensen and Tommy and Kevin McCleary. British machines such as AJS, Velocette, Matchless, Norton and BSA were raced there and were dominant until the ‘70s. More recently Dale Wylie, Rodger Freeth, Robert Holden and locals such as John Woodley, Paul (Stan) Corbett/Stu Forbes (sidecar) and Ross Cunningham were prominent on the “podium” riding machinery from the “Big Four” from Japan: Honda, Yamaha, Kawasaki and Suzuki. Others who competed at Hawkesbury included Gary Boote, Paul McLachlan, Stu Avant, Bob Haldane, Ken Fletcher, John Wood, Owen Galbraith, and Lou Murray/Russ Anderson (sidecar). A number of top local riders who were very competitive were Bruce and John Woodley, Bob Uddstrom, Neil Smith and Colin Verry as well as local top sidecar teams of Hugh Lasenby/”Nod” Hartnell and Chris Moller/”Lofty” Johnston.
The racing was done on very narrow, country roads with spectators scattered around the circuit, watching from various vantage points in paddocks and on hillsides. A task which was necessary back in the early days of dirt/gravel road racing was the oiling of the road to reduce the dust (a hazard to spectators as well as riders). This required grading and sweeping of the road prior to spraying of the surface with waste oil collected from garages. This was a huge task and was done entirely by MMCC volunteers including stalwarts such as Ron Hebberd and Graeme Varcoe with assistance from locals including Tom Brown, Eric Fairfield, Dick Adams and Jim Flowers. This was carried out in the middle of the night for the first three meetings until it was decided that it could be done in the daylight over the weekend before the racing. Besides, tractors didn’t have lights back in those days and someone had to sit on the bonnet with a torch!
The circuit was eventually fully sealed and with the modern racing machinery available, race speeds increased and lap times improved significantly as a result. The circuit had some quite long straights and there were some pretty high speeds achieved; attention to braking points was paramount as there was little runoff and all sorts of things to avoid should anyone be unfortunate to “lose it” (trees, barbed wire fences, power poles and bridges to mention a few). There were some accidents at Hawkesbury but none more serious than at the 12th annual road races in 1976 when five riders were badly injured due to “excursions” off the track. Three of these riders suffered very serious injuries requiring extended hospitalisation. Local rider Ross Cunningham, on his TZ700 Yamaha, clipped the hay bales at the Hawkesbury Bridge and received serious back injuries; sidecar rider Lew Murray and his passenger Russ Anderson were also badly injured when they departed the track along the back straight and finished up in some willow stumps.
The locals were hard to beat – possibly due to some local knowledge of the circuit? They often took the opportunity of putting in a few unofficial “practice laps” prior to the race meeting; it was not unusual to see some of them take a detour around the track perhaps after work at the local RNZAF Base Woodbourne or at the weekends to polish up their lines (at legal speeds of course). As an airman based at RNZAF Base Woodbourne in 1974 with (finally) a competitive machine (1973 H2A 750 Kawasaki) and a little riding experience, I competed at Hawkesbury in several races including the Hawkesbury Open Trophy Race, Open Production and B grade Open Racing events. One exciting point on the course (for riders and spectators alike) was through the “dipper” coming out of Blue Gum Corner where it was almost impossible to keep the front wheel down under acceleration – not that the H2 was all that reluctant to lift its head, of course. Another “interesting” section was along the Brookby Road where a highspeed (100MPH +) bridge crossing was followed by a sharp right-hand bend then a left-hand sweeper. It was quite important for the front wheel to be back down on the black stuff before the peeloff into the right-hander!
I collected my first racing prizemoney cheque at the 1974 meeting (4th in the Open Production race – and I still have the cheque for $2- 00). I couldn’t believe it when I pulled up after the race; there were only 3 bikes in front of me – everyone else must have fallen off!
This circuit helped to hone the skills of a number of NZ riders who went on to greater things. Some of these were John Woodley and Vince Sharpe (fellow airmen) and Robert Holden – all of whom gained international success in various classes at many venues. Robert demonstrated his considerable talent at Hawkesbury and other circuits in NZ and became a top contender at the IOM before his untimely death as the result of an accident in practice there in 1996. John continues to participate at the top level in racing with a focus on classic machinery; he competed at many race events across Australasia and in the European Circus over the 70s and 80s where he distinguished himself despite injuries and some mechanical issues which plagued him. Vince was a force to be reckoned with in the now-defunct Open Production Class races in NZ and
Australia and he featured in the inaugural CocaCola 800 at Oran Park. He continues to be very competitive and was runner-up in the Period 5 Unlimited at the 2015 Barry Sheene Festival of Speed at Eastern Creek. Another up and coming rider back in the ‘70s was Ken Weal – another fellow airman. In 1975 Ken was unbeatable in the Open Production races at Hawkesbury when he thrashed the latest batch of 4 cylinder, 4 stroke Japanese super-bikes on a ’73 H2A 750cc two-stroke triple. He even gave the guys something to think about in the Open Racing Class events! Ken’s bike was “in dock” at the time so he borrowed a mate’s machine. With a well-prepared bike and a slightly raised final drive gear ratio, Ken was electrically timed at 131 mph at the fastest part of the circuit. As it happened Ken used to live in a farmhouse with some other “troops” and his route to/from work at the base encompassed the circuit. His local knowledge of the circuit would have been quite handy – I’m sure!
Sadly, this circuit (which in its day was quite unique in its layout and length, in New Zealand at least) and others like it are no longer in use and their glory has since faded. This is a result of the much more powerful machinery and the higher risk to riders and spectators, requiring stringent safety measures which have made it increasingly difficult to obtain road closures. The Hawkesbury Road Race circuit played an important part in motorcycle racing in New Zealand; it is regrettable that its time has passed, along with other great racing venues such as Levin, New Plymouth, Napier, Lady Wigram, Ohakea, Gracefield, Porirua and Bay Park in New Zealand as well as Amaroo, Oran Park and many more in Australia. However, it is pleasing to see that others have also seen fit to share their stories and thus revive memories of these circuits.
TOP RIGHT Syd Jensen, AJS 7R – 1953 Inaugural National Senior and Junior Race Winner. MAIN Bruce Woodley skims the hay bales in 1981.
BELOW LEFT Dick Adams using an Allis Chambers tractor to tow the old country broom to sweep the road before it could be oiled. BELOW Tom Brown and Jim Flowers spraying the road with waste sump oil.
ABOVE Riders lined up on Brookby Road prior to the start of the first race in 1950: (L-R) Wally Greenem (Nelson), Kevan Freeth (Blenheim), Ted Baumfield (Nelson), Les Gibbons (Blenheim), Ray Anderson (Nelson).
At the 1972 meeting; Mike Sinclair, followed by Dave Ellis and Reg. Ingram, all on TR500 Suzukis over one of the hump back bridges. John Woodley on his Yamaha TZ350A coming out of Walsh’s Corner in 1973. 250cc Production riders coming into Coleman’s Corner: 13 Dave Moore (Christchurch), 114 Martin Wood, followed by Alan Ramage and Richard Kock, all on water-cooled RD250LC Yamahas.
ABOVE The author powering out of Blue Gum Corner during the1974 race meeting. LEFT The author landing after “take-off” from the Seven Oaks Bridge.Photos – Brian Hopping
ABOVE Action from 1979: Paul McLaughlan (309), Trevor Discombe (24) andJohn Woodley (6). BELOW Glenn Williams with his Z1R Kawasaki in 1981.LEFT Paul McLaughlan leading John Woodley in 1979.
ABOVE LEFT John Woodley accepts the laurel wreath after another Hawkesbury success. ABOVE RIGHT First corner jostling in the Production Race 1981 with Bob Toomey (57), Glenn Williams (9), winner Vince Sharp (7), and Robbie Dean (56). RIGHT Suzuki poster extolls success in 1982.