Michael Burgess

Michael Burgess is the football and rugby league writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Speedway: Chequered flag for venue

But dust flies from motorsport traditionalists upset over the likely move from Western Springs to Mt Smart

Restricted mean only 12 speedway events can be held at Western Springs each year. Photo / NZ Herald
Restricted mean only 12 speedway events can be held at Western Springs each year. Photo / NZ Herald

The clock is ticking on Western Springs as a speedway venue, with the popular sport "almost certain" to move from the historic Central Auckland venue.

A speedway shift was first mooted several years ago as part of a controversial sporting venues swap in the Queen City involving the Warriors, Auckland Cricket and speedway.

At the time, the speedway move was only a proposal but it seems to now be a fait accompli.

"It is almost certain that we are going to move out of here sooner rather than later," veteran speedway promoter Bill Buckley told the Herald on Sunday. "There are too many cards stacked against us; too many forces that want change. I have to consider another venue seriously, when it becomes available, and that is most likely Mt Smart."

Speedway was granted a three-year extension on its lease last year. That will expire at the end of the 2017 season and it is believed there is little chance of a renewal beyond that. Speedway has been raced in various forms at Western Springs since 1929.

It still draws tens of thousands of fans every summer (mainly thanks to speedway's popularity, Western Springs is understood to be the only Auckland council stadium that posts an annual profit) but operational restrictions imposed in the past decade have placed severe limitations on the sport.

Speedway is allowed only 12 meetings a year, all of which must be completed by 10.30pm. The promoters even have to set their rain dates in advance (an understandable challenge, given Auckland's climate) and usually cannot have more than two events a month.

"All of the restrictions have put so much pressure on us," says Buckley. "It gets a bit ridiculous.

"As an example, we can't have speedway on Auckland Anniversary day. What is Auckland Anniversary for if you can't celebrate Auckland events? That is crazy - it should be my biggest speedway day and I am not allowed to run it.

"When we bring drivers from overseas, they're unable to have a test run on the track," adds Buckley. "There is no other sport where you come here and get on the track dry [without practising]."

For most fans, Western Springs is synonymous with speedway. The natural amphitheatre created by the surrounding hills create a special atmosphere and the venue is recognised as one of the best in the world.

The duels in the 1980s between local heroes such as Barry Butterworth and Ted Tracey against Americans such as Sleepy Tripp and Stan Fox are the stuff of legend and the Auckland meetings continue to attract top overseas drivers, mostly due to the appeal of the stadium.

"It would be tragic if speedway leaves Western Springs - you can expect a lot of resistance," says three-time New Zealand midget car champion Graham Standring.

"It has supplied enjoyment to hundreds of thousands of Aucklanders for decades and a move would be crazy.

"It's not what the people want; speedway people don't want it and league people don't want to move [from Mt Smart] but some councillor, who will only be in the job four or five years, wants to disrupt almost 100 years of history."

Standring took the chequered flag 101 times at Western Springs in feature races, more than any other driver. He also represented New Zealand (against the United States and Australia) across 17 years, captaining the team on nine occasions.

Standring has raced across the globe (on more than 40 tracks in the US and a dozen in Australia) but says he has never encountered a better venue than Western Springs.

"It's the best facility in the world - bar none," says Standring. "Aucklanders tend to take it for granted but trust me - there is nothing else like it around the world. That's partly why the Speedway Grand Prix came here; they don't give out these events to anyone."

Buckley is trying to be positive about the likely move to Mt Smart. There will be capacity for up to 20 meetings per year and also room for practice nights and special corporate and public events, currently not feasible at Western Springs. The track would also get a lot more use and Mt Smart would offer more space for pit lanes, garages and corporate hosting facilities.

"The facilities at Western Springs are a struggle for us - we have outgrown them," says Buckley.

"We have more than 100 drivers this season and might have over 120 next season. It's too small for us; we don't have the pit area that we need and we don't have the space we need to run Midget car racing.

"The pits need enlarging and the only way to do that is to extend back into the lake area," says Buckley.

"If we could work with council and get their support, it might be possible but councillors are not brought up in a motorsport world; they are oriented more towards the football codes and cricket."

Standring fails to see any positives on a shift to South Auckland.

"You can't just carry that history to another venue. It would stop dead in its tracks; that would be the end of it."

- Herald on Sunday

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