From the early 1900s bike owners grouped together and held trials to test the reliability of their model of motorcycle. These trials were popular with enthusiasts and dealers as they could use results to advertise their models – if they performed well.
A high tide sometimes left only a narrow strip of smooth sand for beach racers to ride on. Racer Geoff Hockley recalls occasions ‘when the rideable strip of sand between the soft sand of the upper beach and the rough, wet portion on the sea side was barely ten feet wide, and the “whoosh” as two riders passed each other travelling in opposite directions at a combined speed of something approaching 200 m.p.h. [320 kilometres an hour] was somewhat disconcerting.’1
Racing on beaches was one of the earliest forms of motorcycle competition. Beaches were wide open spaces where riders could test their machines’ speed without worrying about horses on the roads. From around 1905 a number of beaches – including New Brighton in Canterbury, Ōhope in the Bay of Plenty and Ōreti in Southland – were used for organised races. In the 2000s, only certain beaches can be used by vehicles, and these are often designated as legal roads, so they still have speed limits.
Grass track and speedway racing
Early motorcycle owners wanted to test how fast their bikes could go, and it was not long before they were racing each other on grass tracks – mostly at horse-racing venues such as Trentham Racecourse in Wellington. Racing events were usually over a mile (1.6 kilometres). The first grass race-track fatality was in 1914 at Palmerston North’s Awapuni Racecourse.
In the 1920s the horse-racing fraternity began to look down on the numbers of people attracted to these events, and banned motorcycle racing on their courses. Motorcycle fans then developed dirt-track racing, also known as speedway. New Zealand’s first speedway course was at Kilbirnie Stadium in Wellington. It opened in 1929 with 13,000 spectators attending the opening night, and the track lighted for night racing.
While most riders were male, the visit of Irish speedway rider Fay Taylour in 1929 showed that women could foot it with the men. New Zealanders such as Ivan Mauger and Brian Briggs (‘Briggo’) established themselves as professional riders in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s. Briggs won four world speedway titles and Mauger six.
Road racing and motocross
New Zealand’s first grand prix (organised road race) was held at Cust in rural Canterbury, at Easter 1936. Around 6,000 people showed up to watch the race, which was held on gravel roads. There were 24 starters, and the winner was W. Nelson, with a time of 2 hours 41 minutes and 12.6 seconds. The New Zealand Grand Prix became an annual event at Cust. It was moved to Ruapuna race track in Christchurch in 1963.
Motorcycles were also raced on gravel roads and isolated tar-sealed roads. Tourist trophy racing took place on roads closed to other traffic. It began on Waiheke Island in 1931, although New Zealanders had been competing at the Isle of Man event (the world’s most famous tourist trophy race) since 1910.
Motocross, which involves racing trail bikes on an off-road circuit with many mounds and hollows, often in muddy conditions, became increasingly popular from the late 1960s.
The Brass Monkey Rally is New Zealand’s best-known rally and has become a regular event on the keen motorcyclist’s calendar. It is held at Ōturehua in Central Otago over Queen’s Birthday Weekend. The rally’s name alludes to the low winter temperatures, often below freezing – ‘cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey’, as the saying goes. The first rally in 1980 attracted 309 riders – in 2007 around 3,500 took part. A huge bonfire is lit to help keep riders warm, and there are prizes for the best and worst bikes, and for the longest distance travelled to the event.