The Wanganui Cemetery Circuit ran for the first time on the day after Boxing Day in 1951 and this Wednesday it will celebrate its 60th anniversary.
The organisers were the Summer Carnival Committee and the Sports Motorcycle Club. They had a vision of staging “Continental Round-the-Houses” style motorcycle racing on the closed-off city streets of Wanganui.
Both groups worked closely with the City Council as the motorcycle races were just one event in a range of summertime carnival attractions.
The two feature races on that inaugural day were won by Syd Jensen and Dene Hollier. Jensen won the Junior Handicap, for machines up to 350cc, on his AJS 7R. Hollier won the Open Handicap on his Triumph GP. Both riders were from Palmerston North and it was Syd Jensen’s only ever appearance at the circuit. Remarkably, both went on to become successful motor racing drivers in New Zealand.
The first decade was dominated by Wanganui’s own Rod Coleman, New Zealand’s first Isle of Man TT winner in 1954 and a Senior feature race winner in five of those first 10 years. He did not ride in the first event in 1951 with his bikes still stowed on board a ship in Auckland harbour. Toddy Sollitt was another high profile Wanganui rider on solo and sidecars.
A feature of the early years was the regular attendance of a number of competitive riders. This elite list included John Farnsworth (Auckland), Bob Newbrook (Upper Hutt), Bill Holmes (Mangakino), Garth Spooner (Hastings), and Bill Wetzel (Lower Hutt).
Aucklander Peter Murphy, an Isle of Man regular and New Zealand team representative was a winner in 1955 and 1957. He won both Junior and Senior feature races in both years in his only appearances at the circuit.
The event in those days was more often than not referred to as “Round the Houses” and for the first decade the programme generally featured either five or six races. There was always a balance between clubman’s and racing class events and there was at least one sidecar race every year, except for the first year.
In 1957 Peter Pawson (Auckland), John Anderson (Wellington) and Noel McCutcheon (Dunedin) all competed in the Senior Racing Class, and six months later they won both the Junior and Senior Teams Prize as the Official NZ Team at the Isle of Man.
In 1958 the racing was dominated by John Anderson and John Hempleman Auckland), both on Manx Nortons. Anderson won the Junior Racing Class just ahead of Hempleman. In the Senior race the results were reversed in a 15-lap thriller, which saw the one-minute lap achieved for the first time, firstly by Anderson then equalled by Hempleman.
Two other riders of interest in that first decade were Forrest Cardon, a winner in 1960, and Paul Fahey who rode here in 1957 after competing at the Isle of Man the previous year. Both, like first-up winners Dene Hollier and Syd Jensen later became prominent race drivers, Cardon in the New Zealand-built aero-engined Lycoming Special and Fahey who went on to win nine New Zealand Saloon championships, four in the spectacular PDL Ford Mustang.
The second decade, beginning in 1961 was a decade notable for the number of New Zealander’s competing overseas. We were fortunate that on their return most raced here. On the wider international scene it was also the decade of huge technological change.
Hugh Anderson won here in 1961 and 1962. By the end of 1963 he was a successful Suzuki works rider, a multi-Grand Prix winner and already the winner of two of the four world titles he would ultimately claim. And he would later return to race at the Cemetery Circuit again.
It was also the decade when the very continuance of the circuit was severely threatened. The City Council Traffic Department decided the circuit had to go, as it was in the way of holiday traffic detours off the new river bridge. A new circuit, around Moutoa Gardens, just a few blocks away, considered by some organisers to be a better venue, was used for the first time in 1963. As it turned out it was also the last time. The Moutoa Gardens experiment was an abject failure.
The main motorcycle event in the region in 1964 was an off-road double-header, a motocross on the one day followed by a New Zealand Miniature TT championship event the next, and in 1965 the club returned to running a road race at Matarawa, a country road circuit south of the city.
In 1966 the City Council, the Traffic Department and the Wanganui Motorcycle Club had a major re-think and the council agreed the city had lost a lot through there not being an annual motorcycle event on the city’s streets, that adequate alternative holiday traffic detours were available, and that for the good of the city, the Boxing Day races on the Cemetery Circuit needed to resume.
Fast moving developments in all aspects of international motorcycling spilled over from the late fifties into the sixties. The advances in machine technology were consolidated in the three years (1963-65) there was no Cemetery Circuit. The British motorcycle industry, long in its death-throes, was finally turned on its head and AJS and Matchless had virtually disappeared overnight. Italian and Japanese multi’s, two-stroke and four, headed by Gilera, MV Agusta, Suzuki and Honda dominated world championships.
And everything that was happening on the race tracks of the world was replicated right here. In1966, and before a record crowd, John Hempleman, New Zealand Isle of Man Team Captain and a works rider for the East German MZ factory, became the first rider to win on the Cemetery Circuit on a Japanese machine when he won four of the six solo races on his 305cc Honda. And continuing the trend of non-British machine success, Aucklander Bob Haldane won the 250cc Lighweight race on his 250cc Spanish Bultaco.
Ginger Molloy, returning home from a busy international season as a Bultaco works rider in three world championship classes, won here on a 350cc Bultaco in 1968.
And the winning was not confined to our top riders returning home. A double-winner in 1969 was the tall American-based Englishman, Ron Grant. He was the first overseas solo rider to won here.
By the end of the decade the programme price had decimalised at 20 cents, the “Shell Race of the Year” was a regular feature – and some meetings counted towards National Championship honours. Local riders were competing in increasing numbers. Laurie Love, Don Cosford, Steve Palmer, Rex Ponting, Des Eades, Anton Eyre and Joe Lett were all prominent in the results.
And on the race-track half the fields were Japanese bikes dominated by 250cc and 350cc air-cooled Yamaha two-stroke twins with six-speed gearboxes, the forerunners of some of the most successful race bikes ever to be developed. There were though early frustrations with the Japanese machines, for riders and spectators, when plugs oiled up at the completion of warm-up laps, and the bikes wouldn’t fire up for push starts.
Regular winners from around New Zealand included Keith Turner (Hawkes Bay) Trevor Discombe (Cambridge), Dale Wyllie (Christchurch), Geoff Perry (Auckland), Bryan Scobie (Hamilton), and Cliff Kingston (Tauranga).
In 1970 Ginger Molloy was runner-up in the 500cc Road Racing World Championship to Giacomo Agostini. And, as in 1968, he was back here on Boxing Day.
The 1971-1980 decade remains the most momentous in the history of the sport in this country. The Cemetery Circuit was the thrilling centre-stage for all the international glitz and spectacle that was the International Marlboro Series.
The decade began with Keith Turner finishing in the runner-up spot to Giacomo Agostini in the 1971 500cc world championship. And, like Ginger Molloy before him, Keith Turner also returned here for Boxing Day.
The Marlboro Series began in the summer of 1973/74 and ran for 5 years and the first Marlboro Series round was at the Cemetery Circuit on Boxing Day 1973. The prize money grew from $10,000 in that first year to $35,000 by the time the series ended in January 1978.
The fields were star-studded – the racing was showpiece. And we came here to be part of it in our record-breaking thousands. By two years into the Marlboro Series the Cemetery Circuit had achieved international fame – and a little notoriety as well. One widely read international publication described it as “a controversial, primitive, one-mile long street circuit of eight corners, two railway crossings, an over-bridge and blind-esses flanked on either side by headstones, where over 10,000 spectators cram every nook and cranny as bikes race by almost within touching distance.” The article also claimed that overseas riders couldn’t believe it, while spectators loved it.
Some highlight moments of those Marlboro years include Italian Marco Luchinelli’s huge “end-o” on the overhead bridge, Australian Greg Hansford winning a Marlboro Leg on the KR250 Kawasaki, the speed and skill of the Peter Campbell/Doug Chivas Aussie sidecar team, the nerve-racking dicing between Pat Hennen and Greg Hansford, Rick Perry’s nose-dive in the flower garden, 16-year old American Randy Mamola’s spectacular high-side on Taupo Quay, Graeme Crosby heading off the international stars and thrilling the world on his Yoshimura Kawasaki, and the sheer artistry of the young Californian, Pat Hennen on the RG500 Suzuki.
He became the first American to win a world 500cc Grand Prix and he rode that same Grand Prix winning machine at the Cemetery Circuit on his way to winning the Marlboro Series for the third time and setting a new lap record that would last for six years.
His domination of the circuit, his Marlboro Series victories, the lap record he put well beyond the reach of any of his rivals, have ensured his name will be forever etched in the history of the Cemetery Circuit
New Zealand winners during this halcyon period included, Trevor Discombe, John Boote, Mike Vinsen, Des Barry, John Woodley, Roger Freeth, Brent Wyllie and his older brother Dale as the inaugural Marlboro Series winner.
And the list of other prominent international stars should stir memories…
Australians Kenny Blake, Warren Willing, brothers Jeff and Murray Sayle, and Vaughan Coburn; from England Chas Mortimer, leading Americans Randy Cleek, Phil McDonald, Mike Ninci and Wes Cooley, Japanese works Yamaha rider Hideo Kanaya and champion Aussie sidecar exponents Peter Campbell and Storkey Holmes.
And with the riders came the latest bikes; Team Kawasaki Australia’s KR250 in-line twins and the KR KR750 liquid-cooled two-stroke triples, the TZ750 liquid-cooled four-cylinder two-stroke Yamaha’s, at first the TR500 and 750’s and then later the successful RG500 liquid-cooled, square-four two-stroke Suzuki’s. There were few machines more exotic than Kanaya’s YZR750 Yamaha. The Cemetery Circuit was the ultimate test for them all.
In the latter years of the Marlboro Series and through to the turn of the fourth decade there was another phenomenon unfolding – close-action racing brought about by the increasingly popular big-bore Japanese multi’s, and again the Cemetery Circuit was the perfect stage for the country’s top production racers. Bill Biber, Peter Fleming, Glen Williams, Vince Sharpe , Peter Stark, Eric Bone, Alan de Latour, Robbie Dean, and the Wellington Motorcycle Centre trio of Neville Hiscock, his younger brother David and teenage star Robert Holden thrilled the large crowds with their hard-at-it, knee-to-knee racing.
During those same years, sidecar racing also gained a huge boost in popularity with a lot of Australian influence especially through Storky Holmes, Peter Campbell and Stan Bayliss. The list of names of Howard Gregory, Shorty Reay, Phil Sowersby, Alan Francis, Charlie Dolph, Paul Corbett, Dick Leppard, Gordon Skilton, and Lew Murray read like an honours board of New Zealand sidecar racing.
The post-Marlboro Series decade saw numerous attempts to recreate the Marlboro Series concept – a variety of sponsors became involved – Brutt 33, Countrywide Bank, Europa, Taubmans, and for a period of six years the Cemetery Circuit went live to New Zealand sport’s fans through the camera’s of Television NZ’s “Sport-on-One”.
Viewers were treated to some outstanding race action. Two very memorable events were the three-way Mike Pero/Paul Pavletich/Glen Williams Formula Two classic in 1982 and the unforgettable Bob Toomey/Robert Holden match-up in 1987.
Incredibly, even today, motorsport fans still talk of Boxing Days past, slumped in front of the TV taking in the Cemetery Circuit action.
The popularity and uniqueness of the Cemetery Circuit meant that every international series included a round here at Wanganui. The circuit has played host to top Australians like Michael Dowson, Paul Feeney, Geoff McNaughton, Robbie Phillis, Craig Trinder, Lenny Willing, and the very likeable and talented Kevin Magee on the 600 Ducati.
And the Australian sidecar stars Storky Homes and Jeff Rowe came here to take on American champions Bruce Lind and Jack Hart.
Even without the international stars some of the feature Brian Scobie Memorial races were classic encounters. One result sheet shows David Hiscock winning from Dennis Ireland ahead of Roger Freeth, Glen Williams and Robert Holden.
Racing didn’t get much hotter than that.
In 1986 Richard Scott won on the RS500 Grand Prix Honda to be the first local rider in 30 years to win a feature race. He also became the first rider to lap the track in under 50 seconds. Some kerbing realignment after Scott’s record lap added maybe a second or two to lap times but for all that his time of 49.91secs remained unbeaten for an incredible twenty four years. Superbiker’s Daniel Stauffer of Australia (Yamaha) and New Zealand’s Nick Cole (Kawasaki) were both accredited the new lap record of 49.334secs in 2010.
In the smaller capacity classes we remember the super talents of Brent Wyllie, Jock Woodley, Brent Jones, and especially Mike Pero, later of mortgage fame.
And in the latter years of the decade two younger riders, on their own days, stamped their own class on this unforgiving track. Aaron Slight and Simon Crafar each won here first, before taking on the world.
The decade of the nineties saw the elevation of sidecars to centre-stage recognising the fact that there can be few circuits in the world better suited to the cut and thrust of the three-wheelers – or for that matter, one better liked by competitors.
In 1997 the Aussies first came here for a Trans-Tasman Challenge – they loved what they saw – nothing in their country compares. And the excitement of the sidecar action hasn’t been confined to the Cemetery Circuit. In the nineties decade we saw the evolution of the “Battle of the Streets” series, with street circuits in Gisborne and Paeroa forming the three-round series. The Cemetery Circuit meeting has always been the flagship event, always the under-pinning round of a series, while the “Battle of the Streets” remains one of the biggest spectator drawcards in the New Zealand sporting summer.
And many of those riders who won Battle-of-the-Streets honours won here first. Andrew Stroud, Robert Holden, Russell Josiah, Jason McEwen, Loren Poole, Chris Haldane, Terry Fitzgerald, Sean Harris and Tony Rees, were all New Zealand champions.
In the early years of the nineties decade one rider dominated like none other before. The hugely experienced and well-liked Robert Holden always returned from his international duties to compete here on Boxing Day.
In 1995 in his 19th year of racing he won 8 races on three different bikes. The Cemetery Circuit was his favourite circuit.
Sadly the following year, Robert lost his life in a practise crash at the Isle of Man. On Boxing Day 1996 in a moving ceremony his ashes were laid to rest at the flower-garden corner. The flower-garden has since become a traffic island, and the corner is now the Robert Holden Corner, in a permanent tribute to the memory of the Cemetery Circuit’s most successful rider. A bronze plague marks the spot.
And in a huge shift in sentiment the following year sidecar champion Andy Scrivener exchanged marriage vows in a service conducted by the His Worship the Mayor, Mr Chas Poynter.
In 1998 we honoured the Lap of Honour ridden by the late Len Perry, the elder statesman of our sport in New Zealand. Len Perry won more New Zealand motorcycle titles than anyone else, in more classes than anyone else which included speedway, miniature TT, beach racing, hill climbs and NZ Tourist Trophy and Grand Prix titles in road racing. He was a NZ Isle of Man representative in 1939 and again in 1951, returning home to race in the inaugural Cemetery Circuit meeting, and finishing runner-up to Dene Hollier in the Senior feature race. He retired in the Junior race with a steering problem on his 1929 KTT Velocette, the same machine he rode on his Lap of Honour at the circuit in 1998.
The first decade of the new millennium was a busy decade. To start with the “Battle of the Streets” had become a popular high profile championship. Since 1997 the winners trophy has honoured the memory of the late Robert Holden and has become the most prestigious prize in New Zealand motorcycling even more so now that it is a one-off invitation race and the feature event at the Cemetery Circuit.
In 2010 Australian Daniel Stauffer, in his first visit to the circuit, raised the eyebrows of thousands of New Zealand fans and some very talented rivals when he became the first non-Kiwi to win the coveted trophy. Those same eyebrows remained raised when he won it again in 2011.
In mid-decade there were sweeping changes to the management of the event and in a controversial decision race day included an off-road section for Super Motard machines. The experiment had no redeeming features and was unpopular with leading riders. The nonsense of the decision was exemplified when the same committee did it for a second year and then two years later Italian Super Motard stars set the meeting alight in showing how spectacular the class could be on a street circuit without the unnecessary distraction of off-road sections.
Wanganui’s Brian Bernard, himself a former New Zealand champion and a winner on the circuit, excels at putting race teams together and young Australian riders Chris Seaton, in 2008 and Gareth Jones in 2009 were star attractions under his guidance and mentorship. Jones in particular was a special talent, a serious threat to the dominance of Kiwi riders on the circuit. Two months later he matched the cut and thrust of circuit supremo Craig Shirriffs to score an outstanding win and set a new lap record on the streets of Paeroa. His performances were just the inspiration Team Bernard Racing’s Daniel Stauffer needed in 2010.
This year, 2012, the warmest welcome is extended to all race fans to join in a celebration of the 60 years that motorcycle racing has been held on the same streets that every Boxing Day recreate into a motorcycle racing circuit of international fame, the circuit known and respected throughout the motor sport world as the Cemetery Circuit.
As we reflect on what has gone before and enjoy the excitement and the action of the present – we also look forward to turning a page of the calendar into the next era, and more beyond, in the cherished hope that this very unique sporting venue, the Cemetery Circuit, will continue to thrill riders and spectators alike for many years yet to come. Enjoy the celebrations.
© Words by Ray Whitham, www.BikesportNZ.com
© Photos by Andy McGechan, www.BikesportNZ.com