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Motor sport

by Jim Webber

Hundreds of thousands of spectators watch motor-sport events throughout New Zealand every year, from motorcycle, go-kart and stock-car racing to rallying and circuit events. Many New Zealanders have excelled in motor sport at an international level. One was Formula One driver Bruce McLaren, and the team he founded continued to be successful for decades after his death in 1970.

Earliest motor sports

The challenge of early roads

History and geography have been major factors in New Zealanders’ wide-ranging involvement in motor sport. The connection between sport and everyday transport was quickly established after horses were brought to New Zealand for military use in 1840. Horse-racing events became popular throughout the country in the 1840s, setting a pattern for motor sport that followed soon after the first car imports.

Roads often preceded rail in the early years of settlement of the young, sparsely populated colony. The first roads were barely an improvement on existing foot, horse and cattle tracks, but they became increasingly important for transport and access. In the early 20th century most roads were still unmetalled and often turned to mud when it rained. Vehicles made in the United States were designed to cope with similar conditions and were therefore especially popular among the first New Zealand car owners.

Car wars

Celebrated early car races included return runs between Invercargill and Dunedin by Thomas Stone and R. M. Murie. Their 1908 challenge for a £50 bet saw Stone’s De Dion finish in 11 hours, 32 minutes. Murie’s Russell broke a spring and arrived back in Invercargill by rail. The following year Murie used an 18-horsepower Reo for the rematch while Stone drove a 10–12-horsepower Darracq. Neither finished – Stone’s car went over a bank and Murie’s ran into a load of hay.

First car races in New Zealand

William McLean of Wellington imported the first cars in 1898. His two Paris-made Benzes were followed by other early famous-name imports such as Darracq and De Dion Bouton from France, Argyll from Scotland, Star Stuart from England, and the American Eagle, Oldsmobile Stanley, Pope Toledo and steam-powered Locomobile from the United States. By the early 1900s these carmakers were aiming to boost sales by claiming success for their models in major events and land-speed record runs overseas. New Zealand car owners were therefore well aware of the impact of motor sport in the US, Britain and continental Europe.

Christchurch claims to have staged the first motor sport races in New Zealand. Four vehicles competed during a ‘gaslight gala’ at Hagley Park in 1901. It was won by R. H. Every of Temuka on a home-made motorcycle.

First car clubs

The Automobile Association (AA) established its first New Zealand clubs in Auckland and Canterbury in 1903. By 1905 clubs had also been formed in Nelson, Otago and Wellington, each marking the occasion with a mass rally of members. In December 1905 Canterbury AA organised the first full-scale car race. Its Great Automobile Gymkhana (a race that includes skill tests, such as obstacles) at Addington trotting grounds saw 30 cars take part, watched by 800 people.

First car trials

Competitive reliability trials followed early efforts to achieve long-distance runs between towns and cities. Auckland AA organised the first major reliability trial in 1905. This four-day event to Taupō and back was won by a Darracq, followed by a Rover and a Cadillac. Auckland AA also ran a trial from Auckland to Wellington in 1906, again won by a Darracq. Canterbury AA followed the sporting example in 1908 with a four-day event. Of the 37 starters, only 27 finished the 880-kilometre course. The run included a hill climb at Barry’s Bay, won by a 20-horsepower Vauxhall. In later years this car gained fame in speed tests and trials, reaching a speed of more than 100 kilometres per hour on New Brighton beach in 1912.

Grand Prix

Beach races

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).

Formula Libre

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.

Formula One

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.

Bruce McLaren

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.

Race tracks and racing organisations

Rise of car clubs

After the Second World War New Zealanders were quick to resume their love affair with motor cars, and car clubs proliferated. In 1947 representatives of eight clubs formed the Association of New Zealand Car Clubs (ANZCC), which drafted common rules for competitions. It also introduced a grading system and licences for competition drivers, created national championships for a variety of motor sport events and defined strict controls for events conducted by member clubs.

MotorSport New Zealand

In 1967 the ANZCC became the MotorSport Association of New Zealand and then, in 1996, MotorSport New Zealand. In 2010 MotorSport New Zealand had nearly 100 member car clubs throughout New Zealand and was the governing body for mainstream motor sport in the country. It issued event and competition licences and monitored technical, safety and training standards in all aspects of mainstream motor sport.

MotorSport New Zealand was the national sanctioning body appointed by the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, the Paris-based governing body which administered rules and regulations for most international four-wheeled motor sport.

MotorSport New Zealand ran championships that began with entry-level and low-cost single-seater racing and culminated in the New Zealand V8 championship and the Toyota Racing Series, which included the New Zealand Grand Prix. The Wellington-based governing body, in partnership with a number of its member car clubs, owns Rally of New Zealand Limited, organiser of the New Zealand Rally Championships, which includes the Rally of New Zealand, a round of the World Rally Championship, every second year.

Ron Frost

Levin Motor Racing Circuit, a sealed circuit within the Levin horse-racing track, attracted crowds of more than 20,000 in the 1950s and 1960s. It was the brainchild of British-born racing enthusiast Ron Frost, who was keen on the ‘500’ movement, introduced to encourage cheaper motor sport using 500-cc motorcycle engines. Frost was president of the Association of New Zealand Car Clubs from 1958 to 1977 and was a member of the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile and the World Motor Sport Council.

New Zealand’s racing circuits

By 2012 New Zealand had seven major motor sport circuits. Pukekohe Park was the longest-running of the North Island circuits. Originally mainly a horse-racing venue, it opened in 1963 and replaced Ardmore aerodrome as the venue for the New Zealand Grand Prix. In the 1960s and early 1970s it became the home of New Zealand’s main production-car races, the Wills six-hour and the Benson and Hedges 500. (Production cars are unmodified or lightly modified regular vehicles.) These became the second most important motor races after the New Zealand Grand Prix. They pleased the crowds due to the mix of cars with vastly different performance – Volkswagen Beetles and Fiat Bambinas shared track space with the latest Jaguars, Alfa Romeos and Lotus Cortinas. From 1964 to 1975 Pukekohe’s fast 2.8-kilometre track also hosted the Tasman series, which attracted many Europe-based Grand Prix drivers such as Stirling Moss, Graham Hill, Jim Clark and Jackie Stewart.

The 2.8-kilometre Hampton Downs, which opened in 2009, was in 2012 New Zealand’s newest motor racing circuit. It was located near the Meremere Drag Strip, south of Auckland, and was privately owned and part of a multi-purpose industrial park. The other North Island circuits were the company-owned Taupō Motorsport Park, which had four racetrack configurations from 1.3 to 3.4 kilometres, and the trust-owned Manfeild circuit, which featured a 3-kilometre track.

South Island circuits were owned by car clubs. Teretonga Park, a purpose-built raceway constructed by the Southland Sports Car Club in 1957, was a 2.6-kilometre circuit in Invercargill. Timaru International Motor Raceway, also known as the Levels, was operated by the South Canterbury Car Club and had circuit options of 1.6 and 2.4 kilometres. Ruapuna Park near Christchurch, owned by the Canterbury Car Club, was a 3.3-kilometre circuit with various configuration choices.

Production- and saloon-car racing

Production and touring cars

Win on Sunday, sell on Monday’ became a familiar saying among New Zealand car dealers from the 1960s onwards. They recognised that if a production car’s performance was demonstrated on the racetrack, it was more likely to be popular with ordinary car buyers. A range of racing events and classes was developed for production cars. In general, production-car racing has given drivers access to high-performance motor sport at a much lower cost than the purpose-built racing cars used in Grand Prix racing.

Saloon cars are production cars with a closed body and a separate boot (trunk); they are sometimes known as sedans. More heavily modified vehicles are known as touring cars.

Early modified saloons

The longstanding New Zealand tradition of DIY (do-it-yourself) invention and modification provided an early incentive to would-be racing drivers. From the 1920s mechanically minded improvisers such as Aucklander George Smith swapped engines between different vehicle bodies and suspension systems to find a winning combination. Smith’s homemade Gee Cee Ess Special, with a powerful US-made V8 engine, remained a strong competitor into the 1950s. Other bizarre New Zealand ‘specials’ included the Cropduster, powered with a 6-litre aeroplane engine, and the Morrari (a Morris Minor body on a Ferrari chassis).

In the 1960s fast and exciting US road cars such as the Mustang appeared on New Zealand racetracks. However, more modest road cars such as the Mini Cooper could sometimes take the national title. This era of production-car racing was later revived by the Pre65 racing class, restricted to vehicles produced before 1965. This class pitted giant V8s against six-cylinder Holdens and smaller Minis and Cortinas.

Benson and Hedges 500 and V8 Supercars

New Zealand's premier production-car competition in the 1970s was the Benson and Hedges 500-mile (later 1,000-kilometre) race, held at Pukekohe. It was dominated by Valiant Charger vehicles.

An annual round of the Australian V8 Supercar race was held at Pukekohe Raceway from 2001 to 2007, and at the Hamilton Street Circuit from 2008 to 2012. By 2012 the V8 Supercars series attracted more interest from fans, television broadcasters, drivers and teams than any New Zealand-based motor-sport series. By 2021, New Zealanders Shane van Gisbergen and Scott McLaughlin had both won the Supercars series twice.

Street racing

Street races, in which production cars race around a circuit of city streets, have proved among the most controversial forms of motor sport. The Nissan Mobil 500 Wellington Street Race, a 500-kilometre touring-car race was held along the capital’s waterfront from 1985 to 1996. A proposal to revive it failed to satisfy the requirements of the Resource Management Act.

Other racing classes

Other championship classes included Suzuki Swifts, Porsche cars and V8 utes. The New Zealand V8 championship, the most glamorous of the touring-car events, was raced at circuits in the North Island – Pukekohe, Taupō and Manfeild – and three in the South Island – Invercargill, Timaru and Christchurch.

Car club motor sport

Local club events

At club level, popular events included hill climbs, rallies, sprints and navigation trials. Other championship rounds in New Zealand were clubsport events and the national hill-climb series, which ran two two-day qualifying events on tarmac and gravel in both the North and South islands. An annual championship final alternates between the two islands.

Fast woman

One of New Zealand’s rare female motor sport champions was Sybil Lupp. In 1949 she won a South Island hill climb driving a supercharged MGTC. Lupp later spent many years as owner and manager of a Wellington garage specialising in Jaguars.

One-make and classic-car clubs

Cars with sporting traditions appeal greatly to owners in New Zealand. In classic and one-make car club competitions performance cars of the past maintain their sporting traditions in events tailored to their age and durability. The Porsche Club of New Zealand is one of the largest single-make clubs, claiming 600 members. It organises driver training and events at major motor sport circuits. Other clubs cater for owners of Ferraris, the Mazda MX-5 (the largest single-model club, with 500 members), MGs, Morgans and Austin Healeys and Alfa Romeos. There are also clubs for owners of sporty versions of the Mini and other models from volume-vehicle makers that have made cars with strong competition appeal.

Jowett Javelins and Jupiters

The Jowett car club was formed in 1962 to ‘provide fellowship amongst owners’ of the British-made Jowett cars. A Jowett first arrived in New Zealand in 1916. From 1948 two-cylinder Bradford vans made by the Jowett company were assembled in Auckland. These and other Jowett makes, such as the fast four-cylinder Javelin and Jupiter, are regularly raced by club members.

Classic and vintage cars

Classic and vintage cars are catered for by clubs that arrange mostly social events and touring runs. Some also include competitive gymkhanas in their programmes. One such is the New Zealand Jowett Club, whose members have 20 examples of the sporty Jupiter, which had class wins at Le Mans from 1950 to 1952, and 89 Javelins, another European rally-winning model in 1949 and 1953. Also in the club are more than 100 Bradford vans and 18 Jowetts built between 1916 and 1939.

Four-wheel-drive vehicles

The New Zealand Four Wheel Drive Association, founded in 1974, represented about 60 national, regional and special-interest clubs, totalling more than 2,000 members in 2012. The association sponsored a series of national cross-country trials over difficult terrain such as hills, watercourses, bogs and steep slopes, for both production and modified vehicles. Vehicles are equipped with winches and, when stalled by an obstacle, the co-driver operates the winch to get the vehicle back on firm ground.

Motor sport volunteers

The long-established car clubs movement, which controlled motor sport in New Zealand until 1967, provided thousands of motor sport enthusiasts who supported the organisation of events in many ways. There is even a club in New Zealand for people who are interested in motor sport but who don’t own cars. The Motorsport Club seeks to encourage volunteers with a passion for motor sport, seeing them as integral to the sport. Volunteers carry out tasks such as administration, documentation, scrutineering, block marshalling, flag marshalling, grid, startline, timekeeping, fire rescue and track marshalling.

Long-distance rallies

First road rallies

Road rallying is a form of motoring competition in which vehicles compete over public roads. The driver is often accompanied by a co-driver who provides information about the road ahead. For special-stage rallying, roads are closed to the public to allow drivers to go as fast as possible. One of the first such rallies in New Zealand was the 1966 Rally of the Pines, held on forestry roads near Taupō.

Possum Bourne

One of New Zealand’s greatest rally drivers was Aucklander Peter ‘Possum’ Bourne. (He received his nickname as a teenager, after rolling his mother’s car while trying to avoid a possum.) Bourne won numerous New Zealand, Australian and Pacific rally championships, often driving a turbocharged Subaru. In 2001 Bourne won the famous Race to the Sky hill climb in the Cardrona Valley near Wānaka. He died in a car accident on the same route two years later. His life-sized statue now overlooks the valley.

Rally of New Zealand

The Rally of New Zealand has run annually since 1969 and attracted international drivers from 1971. It was a round of the World Rally Championship in most years between 1977 and 2012. It was named Rally of the Year in 2001. In 2016 Hayden Paddon became the first New Zealander to win a round of the World Rally Championship when he won the Rally of Argentina.

Targa New Zealand rally

The annual three-round Targa New Zealand rally brings old and new cars together. The event was inspired by the Targa Florio rally, which was run in Sicily from 1906 until 1973. Modern-day Targa events take place in several countries, each with variations on the theme of sporty cars of the past competing against the clock with new models on closed roads. The New Zealand competition follows the classic rally formula of open-road touring sections between several hundred kilometres of special stages on closed sealed roads. Organised by Targa New Zealand, a member club of MotorSport New Zealand, the event has grown from an entry list of 74 cars in 1995, its first year, to as many as 200 entries.

Targa New Zealand claims to be the longest motor-sport event in Australasia held on closed sealed roads. It caters for vehicles from the 1950s to the present, ranging from affordable to very expensive purpose-built cars. They are entered in classic two-wheel-drive or four-wheel-drive categories, and allcomers four-wheel-drive, and further classified according to age and engine size.

Silver Fern rally

The Silver Fern rally follows a similar format to the Targa but is a gravel-road event. Started in 2006 by the Marathon Rally Car Club, it is run every second year, alternating with the Safari Rally in Africa. Entries, which number around 50, are limited to two-wheel-drive cars, with both classic and open classes. The seven-day event, which attracts both local and overseas teams, comprises 1,000 kilometres of special stages including at least one stage of 90 or more kilometres. Initially a South Island event, the Silver Fern rally was run in the North Island in 2012.

New Zealand Rally Championship

The New Zealand Rally Championship series, for production, modified and World Rally Cars (cars built to World Rally Championship specifications), was the important local rally competition in 2012. Masterton co-driver Sara Mason became the most successful female competitor in New Zealand motor sport when she won the New Zealand Rally Championship in 2012 for the third time, in a Subaru STI.

Speedway and drag racing

First speedway races

Speedway races are generally held on an oval dirt track. Midget cars joined motorbikes on Wellington speedway circuits in 1936. From the mid-1950s stockcars (originally standard production cars, rather than specially designed racing cars) dominated speedway racing. Super-modified and saloon speedway cars arrived in the 1960s, and sprint cars from 1974.

Stock-car racing

Stock-car racing is administered by Speedway New Zealand, which supervises 24 tracks throughout New Zealand. A mix of 24 different speedway classes are run from October to May. Stock cars are the largest class in speedway racing and probably the most entertaining, with their traditional ‘bump-and-crash’ driving techniques. Cars are built to an extremely rigid design to protect the driver during collisions. They are grouped into:

  • superstocks, which have purpose-built chassis and 4-litre engines
  • stock cars, which have some technical restraints to control costs
  • streetstocks, which are based on strengthened road cars and have limited-contact rules.

Other speedway classes

Other four-wheel speedway classes are saloon-based groups, and open-wheel categories such as sprint cars, midgets, minisprints and modifieds. Sprint cars, which are also popular in Australia and the United States, are high-powered V8s with massive wings (to create downforce) – the fastest four-wheelers around New Zealand speedway tracks. A race format unique to New Zealand stock car racing is team racing, where two teams of four cars each work together to win a race, often by eliminating opponents.

Stock-car racing has been a family-orientated form of motor sport for many years and many competitors move out of the youth ministock class into adult racing when they reach the age of 17. The most active region for speedway racing is the lower North Island, which includes the Palmerston North and Wellington tracks.

Drag racing

In drag racing specially modified vehicles compete in pairs to travel a set distance, typically 400 metres, from a standing start. Drag racing started in New Zealand in the mid-1960s, originally under the New Zealand Hot Rod Association. The first drag meeting is believed to have been held in 1966 in an opencast coal mine south of Auckland. The fastest time was 17 seconds by a 1937 V8 coupe. Garth Hagen was the first New Zealand drag racer to break the five-second barrier, in 1987.

The first purpose-built drag-racing strip opened at Meremere in 1973. In 2012 the main strips were at Meremere, Taupō and Christchurch. Races were also held on airfield strips at Alexandra, Nelson, Masterton and Tokoroa. Since 1993 drag races have been conducted under the New Zealand Drag Racing Association, which claims 2,000 licensed competitors.

Motorcycle racing

Speedway bikes

Two-wheeled motor sport evolved in New Zealand in parallel with car racing – from beach races and grass-track racing at horse-racing venues, to purpose-built tracks. The first of these were dirt or cinder-covered speedway tracks. One of the earliest speedway meetings in New Zealand was a motorcycle race at English Park, Christchurch in 1928. Other speedway venues appeared in Wellington and Auckland in 1929. In 1954 New Zealander Ronnie Moore won the world motorcycle speedway title, and he repeated the feat in 1959.

Don’t scare the horses

A young New Zealander, Johnny Hoskins, was a pioneer of motorcycle speedway. In 1923, looking for a way to improve the finances of an agricultural society in New South Wales, Australia, he tried staging motorcycle races around its trotting track. This proved wildly successful and the sport soon spread throughout Australasia and elsewhere.

Modern speedway motorcycles have 500-cc methanol-fuelled engines and no brakes, rear suspension or gears. Perhaps the greatest motorcycle speedway rider of all time was Ivan Mauger of Christchurch, winner of six world championships between 1968 and 1979. His gold-plated bike is in the Canterbury Museum.


Motocross is a form of motorcycle racing held on enclosed off-road circuits. Palmerston-born Courtney Duncan was women’s world motocross champion in 2019, 2020 and 2021. Motueka-born Josh Coppins has been New Zealand’s most successful male motocross rider, winning 12 international Grand Prix races over a two-decade career that ended in 2012. 

Burt Munro

One of the most remarkable figures in two-wheeled motor sport was Invercargill mechanic Burt Munro. In 1920 he bought a new US-made 600-cc Indian motorcycle and began modifying it in his home garage for greater speed. He made his own tools and parts to save costs. In 1938 he set his first New Zealand speed record, and later set seven more. In the mid-1960s Munro made several trips with the by-then highly modified ‘Munro Special’ to the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, United States. There he set three world records, one of which was still standing in 2012. Munro’s story was told in the 2005 feature film The world’s fastest Indian.

The Burt Munro Challenge, a motorcycling rally, has been held annually in Invercargill since 2006.

Road racing

New Zealand’s first motorcycle Grand Prix was held in 1936 on rural gravel roads at Cust in Canterbury. In 1963 the event transferred to the sealed circuit at Ruapuna Park, southwest of Christchurch, where it has since been held annually, apart from commemorative returns to Cust in 1983 and 1993. From 1963 to 1965 New Zealander Hugh Anderson was the world champion Grand Prix rider in the 50-cc and 125-cc classes.

Street racing

City streets are converted annually into temporary motorcycle racetracks in several New Zealand centres. Since 1951 a street race has been held in central Whanganui every Boxing Day. Greymouth’s street race began in 1988 as part of its Oktoberfest, and in 2012 was the only surviving activity from that festival. One of the largest street races, attracting up to 15,000 people every February, is Paeroa’s Battle of the Streets.

Motorcycle rallying

New Zealand’s sinuous and scenic rural roads have encouraged rallying events since the 1920s and remain among the most popular forms of two-wheeled motor sport. The Brass Monkey Rally, New Zealand’s best-known motorcycle rally, has been held at Ōturehua in Central Otago over Queen’s Birthday Weekend since 1981. Its name refers to the district’s low winter temperatures, which often fall below freezing.

Superbike racing

Superbikes are modified production motorcycles. Christchurch inventor John Britten dominated world superbike racing in the early 1990s with his hand-built and self-designed Brittan V1000 bikes. Only 10 of these V-twin bikes were ever made, each with a striking pink-and-blue carbon-fibre body. A Britten was the first locally built machine to win the New Zealand motorcycle Grand Prix, in 1993. Reaching speeds of over 300 kilometres per hour, the V-1000 is widely considered the most technically advanced motorcycle ever built. The second model made is displayed at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.


From go-karts to karting

Originally known as go-karts, karts are miniature racing vehicles with engines as small as 85 cc. Despite their miniature specifications and relatively modest performance, karts are a nationally and internationally organized form of motor sport. The technology of modern karts is well advanced from the early machines but they retain the simple construction and traditional appeal that make them an inexpensive way to enjoy motor racing in a safe and controlled environment.

Truck racing

The opposite extreme of motor sport from kart racing is truck racing, in vehicles with engines as large as 12 litres. Truck racing was established in New Zealand in 1989 and in 1991 the first Trans-Tasman truck race, known as the Thunder Down Under Challenge, was held and became an annual event. Truck racing drivers have included former Formula 1 world champion Denis Hulme. In 2012 truck racing took place mainly on raceways in Timaru, Christchurch and Taupō. These races were said to attract the largest crowds of any motor sport in New Zealand.

First karting clubs

Karting in New Zealand dates from 1959. Several clubs claim to be the oldest in the country, including the Tauranga Go Kart Club, formed in July 1959. The New Zealand Kart Federation was formed in 1963 and, as Kartsport New Zealand, was recognised by MotorSport New Zealand in 2002. Through that body it had delegated authority from the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile’s karting commission for control of the sport in New Zealand. Race meetings were run by 20 affiliated clubs on permanent sprint tracks, motor-racing circuits, speedway ovals and off-road venues (‘grass karting’).

Drivers from six to 70

Kartsport has a good safety record and appeals to drivers aged from six to 70. Several generations of the same family sometimes compete in races. Drivers are required to wear purpose-made and approved driving suits or leathers and other safety wear. Karts have an inherently safe design, with a low centre of gravity, making them very difficult to turn over. Being so close to the ground, the impression of speed and excitement is high.

Types of kart racing

Kart racing takes three main forms:

  • sprint events, where competitors race on permanent circuits ranging from 400 to 1,000 metres in length
  • superkart racing, which takes place on full-sized motor-racing circuits
  • dirt racing, in which sprint kart chassis and engines race on dirt or clay speedway tracks.

There are many classes of kart racing – junior classes start from six years old and seniors from 15. All have strict rules and regulations to ensure that competition is as even as possible. Engine sizes start at 85 cc and go up to 250 cc for superkart classes.

From low to go

Many international Grand Prix drivers started their careers in karts. Top New Zealand drivers Scott Dixon (who went on to win the Indianapolis 500 in the US in 2008), Greg Murphy, Craig Baird and Jonny Reid all spent time racing karts. Aucklander Wade Cunningham won the Karting World Championship in Italy in 2003.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Jim Webber, 'Motor sport', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 June 2024)

Story by Jim Webber, published 5 September 2013, updated 1 April 2016