Speed reading, Bernard Carpinter

50 Years on Track
Sandy Myhre
Hodder Moa Beckett, $79.99,
ISBN 186958936X

Classic Racers – New Zealand’s Grand Prix Greats
Eoin Young
HarperSports, $34.99,
ISBN 1869504607

If you noticed that McLaren cars won the first two Formula One Grands Prix this year, did you pause to reflect that the team was founded by New Zealander Bruce McLaren? McLaren won many big races in his own cars, especially in sports car racing. He also won the Le Mans 24-hour classic for Ford, with Chris Amon sharing the driving, and later hired Denny Hulme – the 1967 world champion – to drive for him. Amon and Hulme were also New Zealanders.

Yes, New Zealand motor racing has a history well worth writing about. And not just our achievements on the world stage: back home we have seen notable displays of the proverbial Kiwi ingenuity on our own tracks, and the emergence of some colourful characters.

These books both make good use of the rich material available and present it in very readable ways while taking different approaches. They do not set out to be definitive histories of New Zealand motor racing; Myhre’s book is restricted to the period from about 1950 on, while Young’s dips and delves into subjects that interest him.

50 Years on Track is a large-format volume with plenty of photographs, organised into topics such as “Kiwi World Conquerors” and “Marathon Motoring”. Classic Racers – subtitled New Zealand’s Grand Prix Greats – is actually a collection of articles Young had already written for various publications, put out as a trade paperback, and including some pictures.

Myhre and Young are both long-established journalists in their field. Young worked for McLaren for some years and was on the spot for many of our drivers’ greatest accomplishments; he is based in Britain most of the time and his work is published internationally.

In the articles in Classic Racers, Young is as much a raconteur as he is a journalist. You can imagine him telling his tales – many of them involving himself to some degree – during a long night in a pub. Young has a chapter each on McLaren, Hulme and Amon, the latter still regarded as the best driver never to win a Grand Prix. He tells how Amon decided to retire after witnessing a bad crash, and indeed the casualty rate among drivers in those days was appalling.

McLaren was unassuming, sociable and infectiously enthusiastic, while Hulme’s gruffness earned him the nickname “The Bear”. “How you felt about him really depended on what type of bear you saw him as,” Young writes. “Some in the motorsports press saw him as a grizzly, but there was a lot of Paddington and Pooh about the happy-go-lucky Hulme.” There is also a chapter on Howden Ganley, who had a few seasons in Formula One and was good enough to score points (by finishing in the top six), but was virtually unknown in his home country.

Young also has a strong interest in classic cars and New Zealand motor racing history. Many of his articles are devoted to older drivers and cars in New Zealand, the cars ranging from Ferraris and Alfa Romeos to the Kiwi specials. He presents some very thorough research.

Ralph Watson built the highly successful Lycoming special, powered by a 4.7 litre, four-cylinder aircraft engine, from scratch and some of his ideas influenced Lotus designer Colin Chapman. Watson could also turn a nice phrase: “With the motor lightly loaded, the piston slap was always there, increasing on the throttle and sounding like a team of panel beaters working in unison,” Young quotes him as saying.

Another Kiwi special consisted of a Ferrari chassis with a Chevrolet V8 engine and a wonderfully incongruous Morris Minor body perched atop. Young does not believe Ferraris should be treated this way. One of the characters in his stories is Allan Bramwell, a Cantabrian who likes old cars but also likes to do things his own way – such as putting a Jaguar gearbox in a lovely Rolls Royce that he both raced and took on fishing trips. “The upholders of vintage authenticity may demand that old vehicles should be as original as the day they left the factory, but Bramwell regards this as something of an infringement of his personal liberties,” Young says.

In Myhre’s book we meet many of the same characters, especially Hulme, whom she also knew well. However, her concern is more with bringing the history up to the present, after giving the background, and she writes in more of a straight, journalistic sort of way. Thus she traces the careers of contemporary drivers like Paul Radisich, Craig Baird and Greg Murphy, all now racing in Australia, and New Zealand’s great hope for the future, Scott Dixon.

She also makes clear the huge changes in the way motor racing operates. No longer can a fast young Kiwi head for Europe, America or Australia and expect to hit the big time through sheer talent. Everything is so much more expensive these days – and the driver has to find the money himself (it remains an almost exclusively male sport). You have to get a long way up the ladder before anyone actually pays you to drive their car.

Dixon achieved his breakthrough in America through an innovative scheme in which a group of business people, in effect, speculated on him. They paid his way early on in the hope that he would reach the top and pay them back with interest. Their gamble has worked – Dixon is a very fine driver – and the system is now being tried with other young drivers like Matt Halliday.

Myhre also has plenty of anecdotes, many revealing the larrikin element in the sport. There was the time some Kiwis “nudged” – with a vehicle – a toilet with world champion Jim Clark in it, and the cops arrived just as it fell to the ground. Mechanic Alastair Caldwell – later McLaren team boss – confesses to driving a race car through Christchurch at 160kmh to impress a new girlfriend. However, some of the juicier gossip seems to have been restrained by fear of defamation laws or the wish to maintain a working relationship with the people involved.

New Zealand motor racing has been in the doldrums for a while but is now on the upswing, with the advent of the Australian V8s catching the popular interest and Dixon showing that we can still hit the top at world level. Let’s hope we keep producing drivers, designers and characters worth writing about, and that at some time in the future, other writers will present the history of our time as well as these two books.


Bernard Carpinter is a Napier journalist and speed fiend.


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Posted in Non-fiction, Review, Sport
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