In the prosperous 1920s vehicle ownership increased rapidly, as did enthusiasm for using cars on social and sporting occasions. Beach racing, gymkhanas and hill climbs were popular motor-sport events. The New Zealand Motor Cup, run by the Auckland Automobile Association on Muriwai Beach in 1921, was a 40-kilometre sprint along the sand. Howard Nattrass won, driving a Cadillac at an average speed of 141 kilometres per hour. This became an annual 80-kilometre four-lap event, with a Stutz driven by Bob Wilson the most successful car of the 1920s.
The 1950s – golden years of Grand Prix racing
Once New Zealand motor racing graduated from beach races, the first races took place on airfields and horse-racing circuits. The earliest was in 1949 at Wigram airforce base, near Christchurch, where runways and connecting roads were arranged in a 3.4-kilometre circuit. The 1950s were exciting years for motor sport in New Zealand and, boosted by unprecedented activity in international motor racing, it was the start of a golden age in single-seater racing car competitions, known as Grand Prix.
First Grand Prix
The first New Zealand Grand Prix was held in 1950 at Ōhakea air base, and was won by John McMillan, driving a Jackson special (a ‘special’ is a modified car). By 1954, when the annual New Zealand Grand Prix first admitted overseas drivers, it was held at the 3.2-kilometre Ardmore airfield in Auckland. The winner’s average speed was more than 116 kilometres per hour for the 200 laps of the circuit. This Grand Prix saw the arrival of English driver Ken Wharton and the famous British Racing Motor, which had a 1.5-litre, high-revving engine that emitted a piercing scream at high speeds. However, it had mechanical problems and Australian Stan Jones won at the wheel of a Maybach special. Later Grand Prix races at Ardmore saw notable overseas drivers such as Prince Bira, Stirling Moss, Reg Parnell, Jack Brabham and John Surtees take the chequered flag (win).
Until 1964 all major events were held under Formula Libre rules, with no limits on engine size, fuel type, car weight or design. This ‘allcomers’ formula generated great interest among the many thousands of spectators and enthusiasts. They could watch the cream of overseas cars and drivers competing with specials, sports cars, older Formula One cars imported by New Zealand drivers, and even comparatively tiny half-litre single-seaters like the Cooper Norton.
Smash and crash
Despite stringent safety measures, crashes are a feature of high-speed motor sport. In 1968 then-world champion Formula One driver Denis Hulme was involved in a horrific crash at Pukekohe with fellow New Zealander Laurence Brownlie. In the closing stages of the race, with Chris Amon in the lead, Hulme and Brownlie were vying for third. Their cars touched and were catapulted onto either side of the track, both turning over and disintegrating. Brownlie was trapped inside his car with a broken leg and foot, and later faced hours of surgery.
The Grand Prix, by then New Zealand’s most prominent international sporting event, moved to Pukekohe in 1964 and thereafter was run under Formula One rules, with limits to engine size and other technical specifications. Several New Zealand stars of the international Formula One circuit emerged, such as Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon. In 1967 Denis Hulme became the first (and only) New Zealander to win the Formula One World Championship title.
Aucklander Bruce McLaren brought New Zealand motor racing to world attention by winning the US Grand Prix in 1959. Aged 22, he was then the youngest-ever winner. In 1963 he formed his own racing team, designing and building some of the most successful racing cars in world competition. In 1969 he won the 11-race Can Am sports car series. McLaren died in a testing accident in the United Kingdom in 1970. His company continued to produce world championship-winning cars and by 2009 employed more than 1,300 people.
Formula Pacific and other categories
For the 1970 Grand Prix a new category, Formula A, was introduced. These massive 5-litre V8 cars immediately attracted drivers from Europe, North America and Australia.
In 1977 a further category, Formula Pacific, with high-performance 1,600-cc engines, was introduced.
Since 2007 the New Zealand Grand Prix has been contested by 1,800-cc Toyota-powered Tatuus cars designed exclusively for New Zealand racing. In 2012 it was one of only two national Grand Prix in the world not to be a Formula One race.
In 2012 championships for open-wheeled single-seater racing cars also included:
- Formula First, previously called Formula Vee, which provides low-cost racing using the 1,200-cc Volkswagen engine
- Formula Ford, a series for emerging young drivers.