Pukekohe Park Raceway near Auckland had more than 50 years of action under its belt, during which time it became the spiritual home of New Zealand motor racing.
Winding its way around the outside of a horse racing facility, it was the latter which ultimately sealed its fate as a motorsport facility. April 2023 will see the last car racing event before owners Auckland Thoroughbred Racing focus all redevelopment plans on horse racing only.
For many years the venue for New Zealand's premier production car race, the Benson and Hedges 500 mile race (later 1000 km), the circuit became more latterly best known as the home of the overseas round of the Australian Supercars series.
Pukekohe Park was opened in 1963 as a replacement for the temporary Ardmore airfield course, in order to host the New Zealand Grand Prix.
Largely flat, the track boasts a series of fast corners and a curving back straight leading to a tight hairpin, which has been the scene of plenty of overtaking action over the years. The first iteration however featured an additional loop which caused drivers and riders to turn sharp left down a short straight, before heading through a hairpin and doubling back on themselves to rejoin the main circuit.
The early years were dominated by the annual visit of the European stars for the winter Tasman Series. The likes of Graham Hill, Jackie Stewart, Jim Clarke and Stirling Moss would thrill local crowds in powerful single seaters – effectively contemporary Grand Prix cars powered by the previous generation of 2.5 litre F1 engines.
Pukekohe flourished, with crowds of more than 40,000 for its first races. John Surtees won the first event, run to Formula Libre rules, in a Lola Climax. Over the next few years, now under the Tasman banner, winners included Bruce McLaren, Graham Hill, Jackie Stewart and Chris Amon.
From 1967 onwards, the long version of the circuit was bypassed, never to be used again in competition; instead of the sharp first turn leading to the hairpin, the track now swept right through a fast bend, up to a left-right chicane before rejoining the old course at Castrol Corner.
Formula Tasman continued until 1969, when F5000 cars based on Chevy V8s took over. Gradually the international stars faded away, though there remained good rivalry among the Australian and New Zealand drivers.
Two wheels to the fore
While the four wheeled brigade increasingly turned their attentions to touring car racing, the 1970s saw motorcycle racing establish itself at the venue, thanks to the end-of-season Marlboro Series. Bike racing enthusiasts saw racing machinery that would battle on European circuits in the coming Northern Hemisphere season, along with a number of imported overseas riders.
Tragedy struck during the 1973 event, when American star Cal Rayborn – a hero at home due to his exploits for Harley Davidson – was killed in the sweeping first turn after the engine apparently seized, pitching bike and hapless rider into a fence post.
Increasingly Pukekohe's safety was coming into question, complicated by the dual nature of the course. In truth, there was always something of a tension between Counties Racing, which owned the land and horse racing facilities, and the Raceway, and investment in new facilities was scarce.
Into the 1980s Pukekohe's status as the country's premier circuit was challenged by the establishment of the Wellington street race. In the end, however, it may have been its ultimate saviour, as the races proved popular with the local crowds and the overseas visitors themselves. In 1988, Pukekohe was included alongside Wellington on the newly created FIA Asia-Pacific Touring Car Championship. Andrew Miedecke and Steve Soper drove to victory in their flame-spitting turbo Ford Sierra RS500.
Refurbishments bring back the tin tops
In the hope of attracting further visits, a new extended pit lane, complete with new pit garages, was opened in 1990. While the APTCC foundered after a year before being briefly revived in 1994 (without Pukekohe), the appetite for the big Australian touring cars had been whetted. Pairing with Wellington again in 1996, Pukekohe hosted the first leg of an end-of-season double-header, known as the Mobil Sprints. Local star Greg Murphy took a clean sweep of victories for Holden.
In 2001, Pukekohe at last achieved its ambition by being included on the calendar for a round of the V8 Supercar Championship proper. The races didn't disappoint, with Murphy again on top form to take the round win for K-Mart Racing. He maintained his 100% record in 2002 and 2003, to the delight of the partisan crowd, until finally, in 2004, Jason Bright claimed the crown.
Spectator numbers were third behind Adelaide and Bathurst and as a round of the Australian V8 Championship, Pukekohe enjoyed the international limelight once again.
Storm clouds were brewing, however, with the city of Hamilton lining itself up to snatch away the race from 2007. The city persevered with its street circuit at crippling cost to ratepayers until 2012, before the local politicians called time on the event.
Hamilton's demise is Pukekohe's gain
Opportunity knocked once again for Pukekohe, but it was clear that if the V8 Supercars were to return, major investment would be needed. In October 2012, a $6.6 million upgrade was announced, jointly financed by Auckland Tourism Events and Economic Development, the Ministry of Economic Development and V8 Supercars.
Much of the infrastructure from Hamilton was transported north and installed at Pukekohe. The concrete safety barriers were erected around the whole circuit perimeter, as were the pit lane buildings and control tower. A new three-turn complex was added to the back straight to slow cars into the hairpin and the entire circuit was resurfaced.
In time for the circuit's 50th birthday celebrations, the V8 Supercars returned for a set of thrilling races, which saw an emotional round win taken by Jason Bright to take the inaugural Jason Richards Trophy, awarded in memory of his late team mate who had succumbed to cancer in 2011.
In January 2020, the circuit unexpectedly had to relinquish the ITM Auckland Super400 Supercars event due to noise restrictions which has been brought in 2016. Auckland Council's Unitary Plan, which governs the use the Pukekohe Park Precinct, specifically prohibits car racing from taking place on Good Friday, Easter Sunday, and Anzac Day. With the clause unknown at the time of the 2020 schedule being fixed and the event planned around Anzac Day, there was little choice but to move the race, as consultation on changes to the legislation would have taken too long.
The continuing travel restrictions between Australia and New Zealand scuppered plans for a 2021 return but Pukekohe Park returned to the Supercars schedule in 2022.
Final hurrah before closure
The return of the ITR Auckland 500 to the calendar sadly proved to be something of a swansong, with the somewhat unexpected announcement in July 2022 that the circuit was to close permanently for motorsport the following year. Owner Auckland Thoroughbred Racing plans to increase the stabling facilities at the site, a move it says is incompatible with the continuation of motorsport.
The final racing event will therefore take place on April 2, 2023, after which Pukekohe Motorsports' lease will not be renewed.
Managing director of Pukekohe Motorsport, Gary Stirling, whose company has enjoyed a lease with the Club since 2020, reflected on the decision by saying: “This will be a loss for the motorsport fraternity and also a game changer for motorsport in New Zealand. Pukekohe has been the start of many great careers that have put New Zealand on the world stage and dominated the pinnacle of world motorsport.
“Although I am unhappy to be losing use of the park; I understand ATR’s future plans and respect their decision for them to grow their business. Hearing their plans, it was clear to see that motorsport just could not function at the park in conjunction with the Club’s future plans.
“In recent years my team has worked hard to rejuvenate the motorsport facility and bring the sport at Pukekohe back to its former glory. I have enjoyed my time at Pukekohe and would like to thank all those who have attended over the years and been part of its motorsport history.
“The next nine months will be busy for us and I am sure we can all add to the history prior to the last chequered flag.”