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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.