|Bernard Carpinter reports on the renaissance men of NZ motorcycle racing.
New Zealand motorcycle racing is on the up, with strong entries for the present season and new stars emerging after a period of stagnation. The Suzuki International Tri-Series, raced over three rounds in December, illustrated this resurgence, although it also showed that we cannot quite match the standard of the top Australians right now.
We still have a way to go to get back to our earlier golden ages, such as when Aaron Slight came so close to winning the World Superbike Championship, Simon Crafar won a 500cc Grand Prix and Andrew Stroud – who had competed in both those series – won the world BEARS (British European American Racing Series) on the bike designed and built in Christchurch by John Britten.
A little before that Graeme Crosby won the old Formula One motorbike world championship, and finished second in the 500cc championship. In the early 1970s Ginger Molloy and Keith Turner both also finished second in the world 500cc championship, both times to the great Giacomo Agostini, and Kim Newcombe led it on a bike he had built himself before he was killed in a crash. Hugh Anderson won world championships in the smaller classes and, in a slightly different form of racing, Robert Holden, Bruce Anstey and Shaun Harris won TT races on the Isle of Man.
We have been short of stars since the Slight-Crafar-Stroud generation and several of our top riders are in their late 30s or early 40s. Stroud himself is 44 and the father of eight, but he is fit and fast and he won the 2010 and 2011 New Zealand Superbike Championships.
Indeed, Hamilton-based Stroud also won the Tri-Series Superbike class – for modified road bikes with about 200hp from their 1000cc engines - on his David Reid Homes Suzuki GSX-R1000 although he finished first only once in his six races. That was the second race at Manfeild, in round two.
Rising star Nick Cole, 25 and also from Hamilton, achieved his first victory at the top level when intelligent riding in very difficult conditions brought him the win in the first Manfeild race on his Kawasaki ZX-10.
Cole, a former 600cc Supersport champion just starting his second season in Superbikes, rode a very strategic race. A damp track forced the riders to start with wet-weather tyres but during the race the track dried out and the tyres took a hammering. Cole restrained himself early on to conserve his tyres, so he could charge later on when others were coping with worn-out tyres. Ray Clee had a big lead on his Suzuki but Cole reeled him in. “I could see Ray’s tyres were getting wrecked and he was sliding around, so I thought I’ll make my charge now,” says Cole. He grabbed the lead on the last lap, getting a better drive out of the hairpin.
Wellington’s Sloan Frost, also in his 20s, had some bad luck during the series but still managed a third and a fourth on his BMW S1000RR. Rookie Scott Moir, an accomplished rider in several other categories including motocross, did very well in his first Superbike races and finished fifth in the series on his Honda CBR1000RR, one place behind the young but much more experienced Hayden Fitzgerald from New Plymouth on another Honda.
Of the more established riders, Craig Shirriffs from Feilding scored two podium finishes on his Suzuki but did not finish the other two races he contested. He did not race in the final round at Wanganui. Ray Clee from Kumeu had been very fast in earlier seasons but in recent times he had lost some of his pace – mainly because he builds race engines for other riders and gets so busy before the season he does not have time to prepare himself properly. This time he managed to get in some pre-season racing at minor events with his Suzuki and he was back to his best, very nearly beating Stroud in the second heat at Manfeild.
Going back to the first round at Hampton Downs, Australian Robbie Bugden, a former New Zealand champion, won both the races riding a Suzuki for Peter “Red” Fenton’s Christchurch-based Triple R team. Bugden, who has had some great battles with Stroud over the years, was race-sharp after contesting the Australian Superbike Championship but he did not have things all his own way.
Stroud led the first race till a gremlin struck. “It was like someone had turned the key off,” says Stroud. “I pulled off and Robbie and Craig [Shirriffs] came past. But then it started again and it was fine till the end of the race.” He finished third, behind Bugden and Shirriffs. In race two, Stroud tailed the Australian through the first half of the race, but lost ground when he got held up by a lapped rider.
These two meetings were the lead-up to the big one - Wanganui, a street race with history going back to the early 1950s and always attracting at least 10,000 fans. The tight, bumpy little Cemetery Circuit (yes, it goes through the town cemetery) is quite different from a proper racetrack and usually it takes riders a few visits before they can really go fast. It doesn’t pay to make mistakes, because most of the corners have no run-off and if you go too fast you hit a hay bale or worse.
In 2010 Australian Dan Stauffer amazed the locals by winning the Robert Holden Memorial feature race at his first attempt, riding a Yamaha for Brian Bernard’s Wanganui-based team. At his second appearance, with the same team, he excelled himself by winning the two preliminary races as well as the feature event. With a background in motocross he was not too worried about having the bike bouncing and sliding around.