The somewhat grim name of Whanganui's Cemetery Circuit simply reflects its location; yes, this is a circuit that really does pass through an old burial ground, complete with tombs and headstones.
Distinctly unusual, the street course is a throwback to a different era of road racing and it is no surprise that it has always been a popular end-of-year destination for many racers from the Isle of Man TT.
The daylong meeting is traditionally held on Boxing Day (26 December) each year and has been running since 1951, though 2021's event was sadly cancelled due to coronavirus restrictions. Happily, it is back for 2022.
The circuit was first used in 1951, when the Whanganui Summer Carnival Committee and the Sports Motorcycle Club decided that a 'round-the-houses' European-style street race for motorcycles would be an ideal way to promote the city. Both groups worked closely with the City Council as the motorcycle races were just the one event in a range of summertime carnival attractions. A committee was formed to make the races a reality, prime among the members being Percy Coleman, a prominent Whanganui businessman who in the 1930s became the first New Zealander to race at the Isle of Man.
A course was laid out on the streets surrounding the cemetery and alongside the river, which meant that – among the many other challenges – the riders would cross over railway tracks twice; once directly over the rail lines on the entry to the esses and then a second time over a bridge. Hazards such as street lamps and the walls of the buildings were given a protective layer of straw bales, but that was about the total of the concessions to safety.
The first race was held on Boxing Day 1951 and the event quickly became a festive season tradition. The two feature races were won by Syd Jensen, who took the Junior Handicap for machines up to 350cc on his AJS 7R, and Dennis Hollier who won the Open Handicap on his 500cc Triumph GP.
The race would develop over the next decade into a popular fixture which drew racers from across New Zealand. Events would start at 1pm each Boxing Day and would feature a card of five to six races of between 12 and 15 laps, each drawing a good crowd of spectators. Despite these successes, in 1963 the City Council decided that the races would have to move, as the course was in the way of traffic detours off the newly-opened Cobham bridge. The races moved a few blocks north to a course around Moutoa Gardens but the event proved a failure and was not repeated.
Without a suitable circuit to race on, in 1964 motocross events were organised on a dirt course before switching back to road racing in 1965 on the defunct Matarawa country road circuit south of the city. However, it was clear to all that the city had lost something unique and in 1966 a change of heart saw racing resume once more on the Cemetery Circuit. It has been there ever since.
The true hey-day of the event came in the 1970s, when the races were held as part of the International Marlboro Series. This saw some the top bike racers of the day head to the Antipodes for end-of-season road races, which were televised live. The money also flowed freely to attract the big stars; the prize money grew from NZ$10,000 in 1973 to NZ$35,000 by the time the series ended in January 1978.
The likes of Giacomo Agostini had already sampled success at Wanganui, but were now joined by riders such as Greg Hansford, Chas Mortimer, a young Randy Mamola, Graeme Crosby and American Pat Hennan. The Arizonan would win three times in row at the Cemetery Circuit from 1974-76, en route to the series title. He reckoned the street circuit was something akin to riding motocross, so often would the machinery want to raise a front wheel on the bumpy streets. Hennan's last win came aboard his Suzuki RG500 Grand Prix machine (on which he had won the 1976 Finnish Grand Prix), setting a searing lap record which would hold for another six years.
After the demise of the Marlboro Series, the Boxing Day races continued on, often featuring some of the top riders from Australia. In 1986, local rider Richard Scott won the feature race on a RS500 Grand Prix Honda, setting the first sub-50 second lap record at 49.91s in the process. This would stand for an incredible 20 years until finally broken by Craig Shirriffs in 2005, then Chris Seaton and Andrew Stroud in 2006, with Stroud finally setting the fastest time of 49.061 seconds.
During the 1980s and 1990s, the biggest name at the circuit was ex-pat Brit Robert Holden, who would return from international duties to his adopted country each Christmas to take part at Whanganui. Holden raced at the Cemetery Circuit for 19 consecutive years and at his last appearance in 1995 he started in twelve races in five different classes for nine wins and three second places. If Wanganui was Holden's favourite circuit, he was also the city's favourite son.
Sadly he would not get the chance to compete at Whanganui again, being killed in a crash during practice for the 1996 Isle of Man TT. At that year's Boxing Day races, his ashes were laid to rest at the flower-garden corner, which was subsequently named Robert Holden Corner, in a permanent tribute to the memory of the circuit's most successful rider. A bronze plague marks the spot, while the racers now compete for the prestigious Robert Holden Trophy.
The races celebrated their 60th running in 2013 and look set to continue well into the future, now part of the three-race Suzuki Series. This has seen a new generation of overseas visitors take part such as television daredevil and TT Racer Guy Martin, who became a hit with the public in his first appearance in 2013 and added Whanganui to his schedule again in 2014.