Calder At Large
Peter Calder on life in New Zealand

Peter Calder: Where the furious battle the fast

Western Springs Speedway nears the end of another season under the shadow of local opposition.

Colin Waite has been going to the Springs since 1937. Photo / Peter Calder
Colin Waite has been going to the Springs since 1937. Photo / Peter Calder

The punters come early to the speedway at Western Springs. They want a good spot or more likely "their" spot, to which they are driven by habit or perhaps superstition.

"If they find someone sitting in their spot," an old hand told me on Saturday night, "they'll ask them - politely - to move on. 'I've been sitting here since nineteen and fifty-six,' they'll say, and that's usually enough."

So the patrons form a wide, flat horseshoe of humanity on the concrete terraces, and settle in on folding chairs for the programme of two dozen races.

To call it fast and furious doesn't begin to do it justice. Barring incidents or accidents, most races last barely three minutes. The single-seaters, from the 300hp midgets - now there's a contradiction in terms - to the 900hp sprint cars complete the quarter-mile circuit in a matter of seconds. The latter remain on the track only thanks to rooftop "wings" that catch the wind and hold them on the ground.

Such is their speed that these cars move forwards only by going sideways; the entire race is a controlled four-wheel drift (although as they hit the back and front straights there's usually one wheel clear of the ground, fluttering slightly as the drivers fight to bite the clay track).

On the corners, they spray a bow wave of dirt and as the evening progresses, the clay gets polished by the squealing tyres to a lustrous blue-black. The sweet, slightly grassy, smell of methanol fills the air.

As the slightly awestruck tone of the foregoing suggests, I am not an aficionado of motorsport, nor even a fan. I'm really here to say hello to the neighbours. I've been in the hood since 1997; they've been around since 1929 when the then-new circuit hosted its first dirt-bike race - the midget cars started up in 1937.

I wrote to the deputy mayor a few years ago to point out that the group claiming to represent the opposition of the locals had never spoken to this one. A young woman from the group came round and communicated her displeasure in blunt terms - one of those terms actually rhymed with "blunt". Yet even though motorsport has always bored me almost to tears, I always thought the speedway added to the colour and texture of the neighbourhood. And if the wind's in the northeast I can't hear them at all - though they'll be deafening in Mt Albert.

I couldn't help wondering if there was a bit of snobbery at work: whether the objectors were really just dismayed at the working-class petrol-heads messing up their slice of high-priced heaven.

In fact, mulleted and tattooed petrol-heads were in a minority on Saturday night, the third-to-last meeting of the season. Even in the pits, where teams adjust suspensions and tyre pressures for changing conditions, they were outnumbered by dedicated men (and not a few women) devoted to their sport.

Out in the crowd, the atmosphere was more genteel than at the average one-day cricket match. Family groups proliferated. Kids slid down the brown-dry grassy slope on bits of cardboard. Grannies applauded the on-track action wildly or turned grim when their favourite was outmanoeuvred on a tight corner. Lion Red and bourbon-and-coke premixes were on sale at the bar, but there was no aggro.

"You never see any fights except sometimes between the drivers in the pits. I've seen them rolling in the mud there," Colin Waite tells me, and roars with laughter at the memories. He'll have a few. He's 84 this year and he's been coming to the Springs since 1937. He spent a good chunk of that time in pit crews.

Waite, who ran a panelbeating business in Morningside all his working life, says that "if you've been in the motor game and know a bit about cars, you get to appreciate all the work that's gone into it. And it's very skilful - especially the solo bikes."

The speedway's future at the Springs is uncertain. The restrictions on their activity enforced after legal action by residents mean the programme can't expand, which threatens the economic viability of the enterprise.

There's talk about making the park a test cricket venue and shunting the cars out to Mt Smart.

But I'd be sorry to see them go, even if test cricket's the only sport I really love. The motor maniacs have roots in the soil; they're part of the place. Too often for my liking smartening up the city means painting over the patina of the past.

- NZ Herald

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