Cate Foster gets an earful as she spins her training wheels at Meremere.
Just south of Auckland lies petrol-head heaven - the Fram Autolite Dragway at Meremere.
Although slightly off SH1 it's hard to miss with large signage, and on race days the distant roar of very noisy engines. I surreptitiously felt round for my box of ear plugs. I didn't want to seem a wuss but already I was glad I had them. My car-mad companions Dan and Caleb didn't seem bothered, but 8-year-old Pepper and I exchanged glances and thankfully stuffed them in. Already the division between the sexes was showing.
Once through the gates, with the smell of burning rubber mingling with hamburgers, this difference seemed less apparent but more confusing at the same time. Sure, there were a good number of men with tattoos and black T-shirts, but there were just as many wives and girlfriends, who, along with their children, were ignoring the stupendous noise just metres away. Many kids were playing with hand-held electronics and generally being quietly well behaved.
The only age group and category missing were the ones I had most expected to see - young men of what loosely could be categorised as the boy racer variety. Caleb put me straight. Apparently what we were seeing were V8s, it being the NZ Dragway Northern Nationals, and V8s don't appeal to boy racers. They prefer Japanese imports with large engines. I did feel chastened as my lack of knowledge showed up loud and clear. Apparently there had been an event only a few weeks ago where even the surrounding hillsides had been packed with a crowd that included far fewer families.
Meanwhile, the cars in front of me seemed to be doing incomprehensible things. Two at a time they seemed to take off at great speed with huge amounts of burning rubber, but then stop. Caleb explained that this was to warm up the tyres to achieve maximum traction and result in faster times.
Once back at the start and given the signal, they were off with a (literally) deafening roar for what seemed no time at all, until pulled to a stop by little parachutes coming out of the rears. An electronic sensor a few hundred metres up the track calculated the results, based on a combination of speed plus breakout time (the speed of the driver's reaction after getting the green light), and as the heats wore on winners began to emerge. I was getting the hang of this.
Pepper however was becoming bored, though was much too well behaved to say so. Caleb suggested we visit the pits. Dan and I tagged along, knowing as much as Pepper about the modification of the internal combustion engine. But behind the scenes was really where the heart of the action was - there were cars of all sizes and types, from the million-dollar purpose-built babies, to lovingly modified street cars. Around them clustered groups of men, all intently involved in what they were doing. Encircling this hive of activity were picnic umbrellas with spouses and girlfriends laying out lunch. This was a well-rehearsed activity.
Caleb explained that many of the drivers would have come up through the ranks of the juniors, and that for many families this was no different than a day at the beach or the pony club. Thinking about it I could see it was exactly that. Replace the show-pony with an equally highly tuned piece of engineering and what did you get? A like-minded fraternity enjoying itself amid bursts of frantic activity with prizes and titles and admiration to aim for. Nothing could be simpler.
Driving out through the drifting rubber smoke in my fully loaded Nissan March I did feel I had learned a new way of having fun. I also felt a bit silly. I should have borrowed a set of wheels that didn't get me looked at for all the wrong reasons.
What's on track?
Coming up at the Dragway:
* March 20: NZ Nationals, tickets $25
* March 25: Night Speed Drag Wars, $15
* April 2: Club Champs, $20
* April 3: Nostalgia, $20
* April 16: Fram/PHRC performance swap meet, $5NB: No eftpos on site framautolitedragway.co.nz