Sidecars weren’t included in the first Cemetery Circuit meeting in 1951 but they were in 1952 in a 10-lap event for machines up to 500cc.
That race reeked of high risk and the crowd loved it, perhaps even the best race of the day. The organisers also liked it and the following year the one sidecar race on the programme was also the New Zealand Sidecar Championship.
The first sidecars in New Zealand were built in Napier in 1950 by Bill Plummer, a qualified engineer who assembled a batch of 500cc machines to FIM specifications.
The only circuit available for regular racing was Kitchener Park in Feilding and it became a favourite track for the Hawke’s Bay teams.
However, the Wanganui race on Boxing Day 1952 was won by Palmerston North teenagers Ron Philps and passenger Murray McHugh. Their BSA B33 converted English boat-body sidecar was not to FIM specifications and they had previously been excluded from a Kitchener Park meeting by the Hawke’s Bay crews because of that.
When Philps heard about the Cemetery Circuit meeting he couldn’t wait to take on the teams from the Bay. Wanganui organisers weren’t concerned about FIM specs. Philps and McHugh rode their sidecar to the Cemetery Circuit on Boxing Day on the State Highway and won the hotly contested race.
One newspaper report read, “The sidecar racing provided some of the most thrilling riding of the day with the contestants cornering dangerously fast.”
Ron Philps dominated sidecar racing at the Cemetery Circuit for the next decade. When he rode his 650cc BSA to a runaway victory in 1957 a young apprentice mechanic was there with his boss, Hawkes Bay competitor Bill Plummer. That young man was Gordon Skilton who liked what he saw. In 1959 with passenger Ray Larson he won the first of his eleven wins, the most by any sidecar competitor on the Cemetery Circuit.
In the late 1950’s Marton teenagers Frank Holder and Dick O’Regan won on an Ariel square-four outfit and Wanganui’s Toddy Sollitt, well known in local swimming circles, began his successful sidecar racing career.
Sidecar racing at the Cemetery Circuit reached new heights of spectacular entertainment in 1960 when first Skilton with passenger Larson flipped their outfit off the overhead bridge into the yard below and in the second race, at the same spot, Wanganui’s Paul Daws with passenger Owen Sutter catapaulted their outfit high in the air as they fell free. Their spectacular crash was captured on film in graphic black and white detail with the old brick gasworks as a backdrop and it remains the most iconic of all the circuit’s action shots.
After the Philps and Skilton years there followed a lineup of very fast New Zealand teams headed by Howard Gregory, Charles Dolph, Dick Leppard, Andy Kippen, Andy Scrivener, Chris Lawrance, Dave Beresford, Glen Murray, Colin Buckley, Gary West, Phillip Law and John Blaymires with all their various passengers, and often also chasing national points and TT titles.
Australians have been regular visitors. In 1962 their national champion Ian Hogg on his 650cc Norton outfit was the first non-Kiwi to win on the circuit. In the Marlboro Series years (1973-1977) Peter Campbell/Doug Chivas and Storky Holmes/Mick Gosdan were the pacesetters against tough New Zealand opposition. Chivas later changed roles and with passenger Margaret Halliday won the NZ Sidecar title and took on American champions Bruce Lind/Jack Hart in a Cemetery Circuit showdown in 1984, and won. These results were all the more remarkable given that neither the Americans nor the Australians had circuits that could in any way be compared to the tight Cemetery Circuit.
Australians were back again in force in 1995 and former champions Neville and Glen Hazelman lead their team to a Trans Tasman Trophy win in changeable conditions, and in more recent years Doug Chivas with passenger Mitchell Cluff and Queensland champion Stacey Sellar with Wanganui’s Leighton Minnell have had impressive lap-record breaking wins.
In the past three years Wanganui’s Adam Unsworth/Stu Dawe and Steve Bron/Dennis Simonsen have been winners and lap record holders. Bron and Simonsen currently hold the sidecar lap record set in 2010.
Sidecars the way they used to be, some nothing more than modified road-going models, will feature in two Cemetery Circuit races in the Pre-82 Classic class in the final round of the Suzuki Series. Compare these to the latest high-tech, 260 Kph purpose-built monocoque chassis F1 machines, of design and technology more akin to open-wheel race cars and related to motorcycles only by the engines they use. Fast ones can lap the circuit inside 5 seconds of the fastest F1 Superbike times.
From that first grudge race in 1952 Cemetery Circuit fans for sixty years have thrilled to the spectacle of sidecar racing on a circuit popular with competitors and rated by many as good as any in the world for three-wheeler action.
© Words by Ray Whitham
© Photo by Andy McGechan, www.BikesportNZ.com
Meanwhile, here is some sidecars action from Hampton Downs at the weekend.