The New Zealand Grand Prix has a long and storied history with many of the best drivers the world has ever seen winning the annual race.

At its peak during the Tasman Series in the 1960s and 1970s, legends of the sport such as Sir Jack Brabham, Sir Jackie Stewart, Stirling Moss, Jim Clark, Graham Hill and Keke Rosberg wowed the crowds.

Much has changed since.

The big names stopped coming and public interest dropped. Yet two constants remained: the famous trophy is still up for grabs each summer and legendary Kiwi racer Kenny Smith is still competing.

Advertisement

Smith, who began motor racing as a 16-year-old in 1958, raced against the best the world has ever seen and picked up three Grand Prix wins over the years – his first in 1976.

He walked among the legends and went toe to toe with the best we've ever produced – Bruce McLaren, Chris Amon and Denny Hulme.

This weekend, as the 76-year-old lines up for a staggering 47th crack at the country's premier motor race in what is his 60th consecutive summer of racing, he reflects on his first Grand Prix back in 1964 when he lined up at Pukekohe in a 1500cc Lotus 22.

"It was a thrill to do it because it was amongst some of the greatest drivers of all time," Smith told The Herald. "It was quite a thrill to drive even though we only had small cars (Formula Junior as opposed to Formula 1 cars) compared to them. It was an honour to be among those guys.

"You could talk to Graham Hill just like anybody. Same with Jim Clark or Stirling Moss. All those guys were just ordinary people. They weren't full of their own shit – they were ordinary people."

Smith was good friends with McLaren, who died six years later in a practice crash at Goodwood in England. Others like Clark would also perish in competition.

Back home Smith continued to race and got his first Grand Prix win in 1976 in a Lola T332 Chevrolet Formula 5000 car at Pukekohe.

"The 76 one was the greatest memory of all-time," he said. "It is something you could never forget. It is just so good to be on a trophy with all those great names."

He would go on to win five Gold Star Drivers Award in the 1975–1976, 1983–1984, 1984–1985, 1986–1987 and 1989–1990 seasons and two more Grands Prix in 1990 and 2004.

The best compliment I can pay him is this. It isn't his pure speed, his race craft or even his longevity that sets Kenny Smith apart. The one thing I've noticed more than anything is how respected he is and how much he's loved by all. He is literally old enough to be many of his rival's grandfathers yet he can relate to those kids and interact with them as well as anyone.

He almost certainly won't add a fourth New Zealand Grand Prix to his trophy cabinet this weekend but there is no doubt that Kenny Smith is an absolute champion.

To get the day's top sports stories in your inbox, sign up to our newsletter here