Teretonga Park is New Zealand's oldest permanent race track still in operation and one of the most southerly in the world, located as it is at the tip of the South Island.
It derives its nickname 'Terrible Tonga' as a result of its unpredictability; weather can veer from near freezing in the mornings to hot sunshine in the afternoons. Almost invariably windswept, the chances of making it through a race weekend without using rain tyres are also often fairly slim.
The course was built by the Southland Sports Car Club, which had formed in 1948 and quickly harboured ambitions to build a permanent circuit to replace the grass tracks, hillclimbs and beach races that made up its racing calendar. By November 1953, the first of many working bees was held, where club members began preparing the land at Sandy Point, near Invercargill.
Over the next four years huge amounts of sand were moved as the land was graded and grass seeded to form the circuit and its surroundings. All of the volunteer hours were carefully logged and, in return, passes to future race meetings were gifted depending on the hours worked.
While this activity was going on, the Club was invited to hold an event as part of Southland Centennial programme in 1956. With the track not yet completed, a course using public roads at Ryal Bush was created, becoming in one move the longest and fastest circuit in the country. A cast of international stars such as Reg Parnell, Peter Whitehead, Tony Gaze and David McKay was assembled and the event proved a great success. The following year a second race at Ryal Bush was organised, on the understanding that proceeds would go towards financing the permanent circuit. The second event marked the South Island debuts of Jack Brabham and Bruce McLaren.
By November 1957 the 1.5 mile road course was ready for action. Named Teretonga Park after the Maori for "Swift South", the first races took place on November 30. An eclectic mix of sportscars, motor cycles, Formula Two and Formula Three single-seaters and saloon cars was organised. Merv Neil won the feature event in a Cooper Climax Bobtail. The first international meeting followed on February 8, 1958 with Ross Jensen the winner of the feature event on that occasion driving a 250F Maserati.
The circuit's heyday arrived in 1964, when the Tasman Series included Teretonga on its schedule for the first time. Many top drivers from European racing competed at the track as a result, with Bruce McLaren, Chris Amon, Jack Brabham, Danny Hulme, Phil Hill, Jim Clark, Graham Hill and Jackie Stewart among their number.
In December 1966, the track was altered with the final few sweeping corners bypassed in favour of short straight leading to a sharp left-hand band leading onto an enlarged main straight. The revised course was just short of 1.6 miles.
By the 1970s, the Formula One teams had given way to F5000 cars and the Tasman Series gradually began to lose its lustre. Teretonga Park thus slipped away from the international scene and concentrated on organising a calendar of national and club racing. With continual improvements (the track is homologated to FIA Grade 3) Teretonga Park is regarded as among the safest in the country.
Today the Southland Sports Car Club organises a racing programme which includes rounds of the NZ V8 Touring Cars, the local Clubmans Series featuring rounds of the South Island Racing Registers and a very large Classic Car meeting in February of each year. Meanwhile, an element of the old Tasman days has been recaptured at the Toyota Racing Series events. Held in January of each year, up-and-coming single seat aces from Europe join their New Zealand and Australian cousins across the best tracks in New Zealand. Past competitors have included Brendon Hartley, Richie Stanaway, Mitch Evans and Red Bull Formula One driver Daniil Kvyat.