We ride one of the world's maddest road races
One of the craziest road races on earth takes place in New Zealand on Boxing Day. Last year was the 60th anniversary of the Cemetery Circuit so we sent MCN’s road racer and senior road tester Adam Child to mix it with the locals doing the Graveyard shift
his is stupid. really bloody stupid. Even by my standards – and I’ve raced in horrendous conditions at the North West in 2011 and made my debut at the TT last year. It’s Boxing Day and I’m on the grid at the Cemetery track in Wanganui, on the west coast of New Zealand’s North Island, on a borrowed, big-bore, 1979 Suzuki GS1000. I’m about to start a 15 minute qualifying session when I should be eating dry turkey sandwiches and watching Only Fools and Horses. I should not be sweating in fear while my stomach, half full of last night’s Guinness, does somersaults.
As I missed the first practice session due to mechanical gremlins I don’t even know if the first corner goes left or right. I also have no idea how the big old GS will handle the circuit and, to cap it all, it’s just started pissing down – a proper tropical rain storm. Obviously I don’t have wets. Still, I do have some Bridgestone R10 track day tyres so I should have some grip compared to others on slicks. Not long to the off now, and I’m suddenly aware of being surrounded by 40 locals who might enjoy showing a Brit in flash leathers how it’s done. I’m in the pre ’89 superbike class; anything goes, from big-bore GSX-R 1100s to mint condition, well-prepared Suzuki RG500s.
There’s no way out. I can’t just trundle around because there’s a cut-off qualification time – and I didn’t come half way round the world to do a few laps and watch a race I should be in. Cock. This seemed like such a good idea a few months back.
The Cemetery Circuit in NZ is like our TT, but at 0.93 miles it’s considerably smaller. It’s also celebrating its 60th anniversary. Every famous New Zealand racer has had to prove himself at the Cemetery at some stage – it’s still part of the national championship and pulls in big crowds and sponsorship. TT winner Bruce Anstey, WSB winner Aaron Slight and 500GP winner Simon Crafer have all cut their teeth at this track, along with famous New Zealand names from the past such as Hugh Anderson, Robert Holden, Andrew Stroud, Graeme Crosby, Tony Rees and Jason McEwan (who famously won around here on the Britten). The track has also attracted a few international stars, ranging from a young Randy Mamola to, more recently, Guy Martin.
And now it’s my turn. At least the bike is as ready as it can be - I spent a surreal Christmas day getting scrutineered in a tyre depot in blistering 34 degree heat. The paddock itself was just as odd – some real characters, both men and women, all friendly and helpful despite their rural appearance. No hair gel, shades and six-pack posers like in BSB – this was a proper paddock where racers work on their own bikes from the back of vans or trucks.
Everyone was helpful. They seemed to like the fact a lad from Yorkshire had come over to give it a go – “Good on you boy, it be right.” I loved the paddock atmosphere, everyone helping each other out, like racing should be. But I had no special VIP pass – I had to qualify to be in the race.
We’re waved off. The first two qualifying laps are a tip-toe, working out where it goes, avoiding the white paint and grates. There’s cement dust everywhere, due to a sidecar blowing up on the previous practice. Sidecars, eh? Hated the world over. On lap four I decide to risk it a little, braking upright but later, turning as tightly as I can, squaring the corners off and exiting hard, getting the rear Bridgestone to slide a little. Some of the corners aren’t too bad but the fast chicane across the railway crossing (see pic above) in the wet on track day tyres is terrifying every lap. Did I forget to mention the railway crossing is taken while banked over? After passing a few riders I know I’m not last, but there’s no way I can compete with the good guys on wets. I end up qualifying 24th out of 30. That puts me on the fifth row, two rows from the back.
Race one and I’m praying for a dry line – it’s so hot that one should appear as soon as the rain abates. Former NZ superbike champion Tony Rees goes out on slicks after a hard shower and I write him off as insane, but sure enough he knows the conditions and it’s completely dry in 15 minutes. I wish it was like this back home.
I sit on the form-up grid for race one, melting in race leathers, knowing I have a big job ahead. Climbing from 24th on the grid against much quicker bikes is going to be tough. My other half Sarah does her best to shelter me from the sun with a borrowed brolly but I’m still baking, sweat washing sun cream into my mouth. At least the track’s dry.
I give Sarah a nod and start my warm-up lap. The street circuit is packed, with crowds lining the entire track, protected by nothing more than plastic fencing and chicken wire. This is going to be intense. I’m feeling good, telling myself I’m not here to make up the numbers, ordering myself to get my head down and prove what I can do. I line up with a sea of bikes ahead, psyched for the tight first-gear turn one. It will be mad, but it can’t be any madder than turn one at Oliver’s Mount, so elbows out.
Lights go out and the GS rockets forward. Wow! I didn’t think it would be this quick, firing through the close-ratio Yoshi race gearbox, making progress. I pass a few bikes off the line and then a few more into turn one. The next few laps are manic – I’m still learning the track but picking off riders and the GS is going far better than it really should. The exhaust keeps clipping the kerbs on the apex, but the Bridgestones are taking the abuse and lap times tumble.
Soon I’m up to sixth, battling for fifth – not bad from 24th on the grid. Maybe a top three is possible if I push hard. But by lap four the brakes are starting to fade – then they suddenly fail completely, back to the bar and I lose a place as I run wide. Scary. I try to pump the brakes back up, use the back more and slow a little. Two more riders overtake me and when I go for the front again there’s nothing. Running seriously fading brakes around a street track is too dangerous in my book, risking other riders and the crowd standing on the kerb edge. I make a quick exit to the pits and retire from ninth position, gutted, punching the tank like a spoilt Child.
In the pits it’s obvious we have a serious brake problem. The discs aren’t a perfect match for the calipers and we need different spacers to sort it out. But we don’t have any. We bleed the brakes but still nothing. It looks like my day’s racing is over. But in typical friendly New Zealand style, Randall Dixon comes to my rescue and offers me his lovely Suzuki GSX-R1100 for the second race. I’ve shared his pit, and we have a mutual friend. But he only met me a few hours ago, and now he’s offering me his beautiful old-school GSX-R 1100. What a star. What a sportsman.
The organisers agree I can race the GSX-R but without any practice it’s going to be hard work from the back. Randall also runs a road shift and I’ve been running race shift all day. This is going to be hard work, even more so as dark clouds loom overhead. I promise Randall if it’s wet I won’t race, but as we line up for the grid it looks like it will stay dry.
I get a crap start, but the big 1100 plays its trump card on the straight, lifting the front wheel on the power and overtaking with ease. The big girl is set up on the soft side, grinding out her underbelly on the apex, but it’s much quicker than the old GS1000 and the brakes aren’t half bad. As the laps fall we’re already up to around seventh. But at the far end of the track it’s raining hard and everyone backs off. It’s guesswork for grip, a nightmare situation – one end of the track has a dry line, the other is soaked. I’m in the top ten but I have to adhere to my promise to Randall and I pull in. He looks relieved.
Back in the pits I feel like I’ve got one of those school reports which reads, “showed some potential but didn’t get the results”. Lap times on both bikes weren’t bad – a few seconds off the fastest boys – but, as adrenaline dips and perspective returns, I console myself with the thought that I’ve taken part in the 60th Anniversary of the Cemetery Circuit. That’s another box ticked on my bucket list. But I can’t help feeling I never finished the job.
The prize giving is at the local horse racing track in the VIP bar. As you’d expect, the place is overflowing with characters, drink and grub. Even the stars stay around and I have a few drinks with Aaron Slight and multiple NZ champion Tony Rees. However, the end of the night turns out to be the highlight as Randall Dixon is presented with the inaugural Malcolm Foster Award for Sportsmanship – Malcolm lost his life to racing earlier in the year and was, everyone agrees, a true gent.
Randall had given up his ride and lent me his bike because he didn’t want to see someone who had travelled so far go without a ride. What a top bloke. The Foster family handed over the award and Randall was speechless and overwhelmed.
Even by the day’s high standards, it was a very special moment. I feel proud to have been a part of it.
Pictures Paul Lance, Alec Saunders