Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Grinch council spurns Santa for petrol heads

The contest couldn't have been held at a worse time, or place. Illustration / Peter Bromhead
The contest couldn't have been held at a worse time, or place. Illustration / Peter Bromhead

In a stand-off between Santa Claus and a group of professional boyracers, you might have thought Auckland Council would have backed the jolly man in the sleigh, especially three weeks before Christmas. But no, the bureaucrats' legendary ability to surprise lives on.

So on Saturday evening, those driving from the North Shore and eastern suburbs to view the annual Franklin Rd Christmas lights in Freemans Bay will discover the bottom of Franklin Rd and the whole of Victoria St running the length of Victoria Park barricaded off.

Why? So the energy drink multi-national Red Bull can run an experimental contest for international "drift shifters".

In publicity for the event, "Mad Mike" Whiddett, who claims credit for the concept, explained to the Herald's Brad Lord that after a "high-speed entry routine" where "sideways speeds will top 120km/h, drivers will have 45 seconds to clock up as many points as possible while negotiating a variety of obstacles".

For anyone who enjoys the smell of burning rubber and cars sliding all over the road, this must be very exciting. But the obvious question remains, why does it have to take place on a busy arterial road - apart from the fact that it's very convenient for Red Bull executives, whose offices are in nearby Hargreaves St.

If they have to have a central city venue, what is wrong with the wide, and out-of-the-way, open spaces of the old Tank Farm? Better still, what about the underused Queens Wharf? Slipping and sliding racecars across the wharf at up to 120km/h would truly add the extra frisson of excitement that Red Bull claims to strive for in its various adventure sport circuses.

The racing along Victoria St takes place tomorrow from noon until 3pm, but to get all the barriers and other fixtures and fittings up and down, Auckland Transport has declared the part of the street between Halsey and Beaumont Sts and part of Franklin Rd will be closed from 10 tonight until 5am on Sunday. Through a council spokesman, Auckland Events says it approved the closure because Auckland Transport okayed it. Auckland Transport says it's the other way around.

Auckland Council also says the Waitemata Local Board and local residents were consulted, but the board and Franklin Rd residents deny this. Board chairman Shale Chambers says his board opposed the proposal when it was slated for November 4, and still has not been officially notified that it is now going ahead a month later.

"So it's gone from bad to absolutely worst, because it's now been plonked in the middle of the Franklin Rd lights display and the Telecom Christmas tree across in Victoria Park. It's an absolute disaster."

The board's "unequivocal" opposition to the original date was because "it's the wrong event for this community and in the wrong place ... we didn't want petrol-head events in the inner city". A month later, the clash with the spectacular annual Christmas light display in Franklin Rd - part-sponsored by the board - has strengthened the board's opposition. As a mark of this, Mr Chambers says they've refused to allow the newly restored - and vacant - Campbell Free Kindergarten to be used as Red Bull's media centre.

Franklin Rd's "Father Christmas", Hamish Keith, says the street closure is "outrageous" and, far from being consulted, he says a phone call yesterday was the first he or any of the other locals involved in the street lighting knew about the "shift drifters". Also grumpy are the residents of adjacent apartment precinct Beaumont Quarter, who have lodged a complaint over lack of consultation.

Mr Chambers says "no one can quite work out why this event got approval", and after two days of fruitless questioning, that includes me.

Blocking a major access road for this length of time for a niche event - be it for petrol-heads or a tiddlywinks contest - is perverse. There are plenty of dead-end streets in industrial areas better suited.

In recent years, the Christmas lights have pulled tens of thousands of Aucklanders to wander up and down Franklin Rd and, in recent times, to then stroll across Victoria St to the giant illuminated Christmas tree. Tomorrow might not be the smartest time to make the pilgrimage.

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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