By Ray Whitham
The Wanganui Cemetery Circuit ran for the first time on the day after Boxing Day in 1951. The Organisers were the Summer Carnival Committee and the Sports Motorcycle Club. They had a vision of staging “Continental Round-the-Houses” style motorcycle racing on the city Streets of Wanganui. An influential mover and shaker in the planning group was Percy Coleman, a prominent Wanganui businessman with a track record of successful international motorcycle racing including, in 1930, being the first New Zealander selected to represent his country at the Isle of Man TT races.
Both groups worked closely with the City Council as the motorcycle races were just the one event in a range of summertime carnival attractions. Later the Sports Motorcycle Club became the event organiser in its own right when in 1959 the club changed its name to the Wanganui Motorcycle Club.
The two feature races on that inaugural day were won by Syd Jensen and Dene Hollier. Jensen won the Junior Handicap for machines up to 350cc on his AJS 7R and Hollier the Open Handicap on his 500cc Triumph GP. Both riders were from Palmerston North and it was Jensen’s only ever appearance at the circuit. Remarkably, both went on to become successful motor racing drivers in New Zealand.
The first decade was dominated by Wanganui’s Rod Coleman, New Zealand’s first Isle of Man TT winner in 1954 and a feature race winner in five of those first ten years. He did not ride in the first event in 1951 with his bikes still stowed on board a ship in Auckland harbour. Toddy Sollitt was another high profile Wanganui rider on both solo’s and sidecars.
A feature of the early years was the regular attendance of a number of competitive riders, a group which included John Farnsworth (Auckland), Bob Newbrook (Upper Hutt), Bill Holmes (Mangakino), Garth Spooner (Hastings) and Bill Wetzel (Lower Hutt).
Aucklander Peter Murphy, an Isle of Man regular and New Zealand team representative was a winner in 1955 and 1957. He won both Junior and Senior feature races on an AJS 7R in both years in his only appearances at the circuit.
The event in those days was more often than not referred to as “Round the Houses” and for the first decade the programme generally featured either five or six races. There was always a balance between Clubman’s and Racing Class events and there was at least one Sidecar race every year, except for the first year.
The races were usually of 12 or 15 laps, racing started at 1pm and the printed souvenir programme cost one shilling.
In 1957 Peter Pawson (Auckland), John Anderson (Wellington) and Noel McCutcheon (Dunedin) all competed in the Senior Racing Class and six months later they won both the Junior and Senior Teams Prize as the Official NZ Team at the Isle of Man.
In 1958 the racing was dominated by John Anderson and John Hempleman (Auckland), both on Manx Nortons. After fifteen laps of close dicing Anderson won the Junior Racing Class race just ahead of Hempleman, but in the Senior race the result was reversed in a 15-lap thriller in which the 60-second lap was achieved for the first time, firstly by Anderson and then equaled by Hempleman.
Two other riders of interest in that first decade were Forrest Cardon, a winner in 1960, and Paul Fahey a competitor in 1957 after riding at the Isle of Man the previous year. Both, like first-up winners Syd Jensen and Dene Hollier later became prominent race drivers, Cardon in the New Zealand-built aero-engined Lycoming Special and Fahey who went on to win nine NZ Saloon Championships, four in the spectacular PDL Ford Mustang.
The second decade beginning in 1961 was notable for the number of New Zealander’s competing overseas, and most on their return were in action at the Cemetery Circuit on Boxing Day.
Hugh Anderson was a winner in 1961 and 1962 and by the end of 1963 he was a successful Suzuki works rider, a multi-Grand Prix winner and already the winner of two of the four world titles he would ultimately claim. And he would later return to race at the Cemetery Circuit again.
It was also the decade when the very existence of the circuit was seriously threatened. The City Council Traffic Dept decided the circuit had to go as it was in the way of traffic detours off the newly-opened Cobham bridge. A new circuit, around Moutoa Gardens, just a few blocks away and considered by some organisers to be a better venue, was used for the first time in 1963. As it turned out it was also the last time. Despite the presence of double-world champions Hugh Anderson and Rhodesian Jim Redman, the Moutoa Gardens experiment was an abject failure.
The main motorcycle event in the region in 1964, in the absence of a replacement road circuit, was an off-road double header, a motocross on day one followed by a NZ Miniature TT Championship event the next. In 1965 the club returned to running a road race meeting on the defunct Matarawa country road circuit south of the city. Although the meeting was spoiled by wet weather Ginger Molloy debuted a works Spanish Bultaco, and Hugh Anderson demonstrated a 125cc works Suzuki.
In 1966 the City Council, the Traffic Department and the Wanganui Motorcycle Club had a major re-think. It was agreed the city had lost a lot through there not being an annual motorcycle event on the city’s streets, that alternative traffic detours had become available and the Boxing Day races on the Cemetery Circuit needed to resume.
Fast moving developments in all aspects of international motorcycling spilled over from the late fifties into the sixties. The advances in machine technology were consolidated in the three years (1963-1965) the Cemetery Circuit didn’t run. The British motorcycle industry, long in its death throes, was finally turned on its head and AJS and Matchless had virtually disappeared overnight. Italian and Japanese multi’s, two-stroke and four, headed by Gilera and MV Agusta, Suzuki and Honda dominated world championships.
And all that was happening on the race-tracks of the world was replicated right here in New Zealand. In 1966 in front of a record crowd, John Hempleman, New Zealand Isle of Man Team Captain and a works rider for the East German MZ factory became the first rider to win on the Cemetery Circuit on a Japanese machine when he won four of the six solo races on his 305cc twin-cylinder Honda. And continuing the trend of non-British machine success, Aucklander Bob Haldane won the 250cc Lightweight race on his 250cc Spanish Bultaco.
In 1968, Ginger Molloy on his return home from a busy international season as a Bultaco works rider in three World Championship classes won on his water-cooled 350cc Bultaco.
And the winning was not confined to our top riders returning home. A four-race winner in 1969 was the tall American-based Englishman, Ron Grant. Claiming he was more used to the wide open spaces of American circuits he was nevertheless too good for our top riders on his very quick TR500 Suzuki to become the first overseas solo rider to win at Wanganui.
By the end of the decade the programme price had decimalized at 20 cents, the “Shell Race of the Year” was a regular feature and some meetings counted towards National Championship points. Local riders were also becoming competitive in increasing numbers. Laurie Love, Don Cosford, Steve Palmer, Rex Ponting, Des Eades, Anton Eyre and Joe Lett were all prominent in the results.
And on the race track half the fields were Japanese bikes dominated by 250cc and 350cc air-cooled Yamaha two-stroke twins with six-speed gearboxes, the forerunners of some of the most successful race bikes ever to be developed. There were however early frustrations with the Japanese machines, for riders and spectators, when plugs oiled up at the completion of warm-up laps, and the bikes wouldn’t fire up for the push starts.
Prominent New Zealand riders included Keith Turner (Hawkes Bay), Trevor Discombe (Cambridge), John Boote and Dale Wylie (Christchurch), Geoff Perry (Auckland), Bryan Scobie (Hamilton) and Cliff Kingston (Tauranga).
In 1970 Ginger Molloy was runner-up in the 500cc World Championship to Italian Giacomo Agostini, and as in 1968, he was back competing on Boxing Day.
The 1971-1980 decade remains the most momentous in the history of the sport in this country. The Cemetery Circuit was the thrilling centre-stage for all the international glitz and spectacle that was the International Marlboro Series.
The decade began with Keith Turner finishing runner-up to Agostini in the 1971 500cc world championship, and like Ginger Molloy before him, he also returned on Boxing Day. The Marlboro Series began in the summer of 1973/74 and ran for five years and the first Marlboro Series round was at the Cemetery Circuit on Boxing Day 1973. The prize money grew from $10,000 in that first year to $35,000 by the time the series ended in January 1978.
The fields were star-studded, the racing was show-piece, and we turned up for it in our record breaking thousands. By two years into the Marlboro Series the Cemetery Circuit had achieved international fame, and a little notoriety as well. One widely read international publication described it as …. “a controversial, primitive, one-mile long street circuit of eight corners, two railway crossings, an overbridge and blind esses flanked on either side by headstones, where over 10,000
spectators cram every nook and cranny as bikes race by almost within touching distance.” The article also claimed that the overseas riders couldn’t believe it while spectators loved it.
Some highlight moments of those Marlboro years include Italian Marco Luchinelli’s huge “end-o” on the overhead bridge, Australian Greg Hansford winning a Marlboro leg on the KR250 Kawasaki, the speed and the skill of the Peter Campbell/Doug Chivas Aussie sidecar team, the nerve-tingling dicing between Pat Hennen and Greg Hansford, Rick Perry’s nose-dive in the flower garden, 16-year old American Randy Mamola’s spectacular high-side on Taupo Quay, Graeme Crosby heading off the international stars and thrilling the world on his Yoshimura Kawasaki, and the sheer artistry of the young Californian, Pat Hennen on the RG500 Suzuki.
In 1976 he became the first American to win a world 500cc Grand Prix and he rode that same Grand Prix winning machine at the Cemetery Circuit on his way to winning the Marlboro Series for the third time and setting a new lap record that would last for six years.
His domination of the circuit, his Marlboro Series victories, and the lap record he put well beyond the reach of any of his rivals, have ensured his name will remain forever etched in the history of the Cemetery Circuit.
New Zealand winners during this halcyon period included Trevor Discombe, John Boote, Mike Vinsen, Des Barry, John Woodley, Rodger Freeth, Brent Wylie and his older brother Dale as the inaugural Marlboro Series winner. And the list of prominent international stars should stir memories; Australians Kenny Blake, Warren Willing, brothers Jeff and Murray Sayle, and Vaughan Coburn; from England Chas Mortimer, leading Americans Randy Cleek, Mike Ninci, Phil McDonald and Wes Cooley; from Belgium Jean-Phillipe Orban, Japanese Yamaha works rider Hideo Kanaya and champion Aussie sidecar exponents Peter Campbell and Storky Holmes.
And with the riders came the latest bikes; Team Kawasaki Australia’s KR250 in-line twins and the KR750 liquid-cooled two-stroke triples, the TZ750 liquid-cooled four-cylinder two-stroke Yamaha’s, at first the TR500 and TR750’s and then later the successful RG500 liquid-cooled, square-four two-stroke Suzuki’s. There were few machines more exotic than Kanaya’s YZR750 Yamaha. The Cemetery Circuit was the ultimate test for them all.
In the latter years of the Marlboro Series and through to the turn of the fourth decade there was another phenomenon unfolding – close-action racing brought about by the increasingly popular big-bore Japanese multi’s, and again the Cemetery Circuit was the perfect stage for the country’s top production racers. Bill Biber, Peter Stark, Peter Fleming, Glen Williams, Vince Sharpe, Eric Bone, Alan de Latour, Robbie Dean and the Wellington Motorcycle trio of Neville Hiscock, his younger brother David and teenage star Robert Holden thrilled the large crowds with their hard-at-it, knee-to-knee racing.
During those same years, sidecar racing also gained a huge boost in popularity with a lot of Australian influence especially through Storky Holmes, Peter Campbell and Stan Bayliss. The list of names of Howard Gregory, Shorty Reay, Phil Sowersby, Alan Francis, Charlie Dolph, Paul Corbett, Dick Leppard, Gordon Skilton and Lew Murray read like an honours board of New Zealand sidecar racing.
The post-Marlboro Series decade saw numerous attempts to recreate the Marlboro Series concept – a variety of sponsors became involved – Brut 33, Countrywide Bank, Europa, Taubmans, and for a period of six years the Cemetery Circuit went live to New Zealand sport’s fans through the camera’s of Television NZ’s “Sport on One”.
Viewers were treated to some outstanding race action. Two very memorable events were the three-way Mike Pero/Paul Pavletich/Glen Williams Formula 2 classic in 1982 and the unforgettable Bob Toomey/Robert Holden match-up in 1987.
Motorsport fans for years were still talking of Boxing Days past, slumped in front of the TV taking in the live Cemetery Circuit action.
The popularity and uniqueness of the Cemetery Circuit meant that every international series included a round at Wanganui. The circuit played host to top Australians like Michael Dowson, Paul Feeney, Geoff McNaughton, Robbie Phillis, Craig Trinder, Lenny Willing and the very likeable and talented Kevin Magee on the 600 Ducati. And the Australian sidecar star Doug Chivas with Kiwi passenger Margaret Halliday came to Wanganui to take on the American champions Bruce Lind and Jack Hart.
Even without the international stars some of the feature Bryan Scobie Memorial races were classic encounters. One result sheet shows David Hiscock winning from Dennis Ireland ahead of Rodger Freeth, Glen Williams and Robert Holden. Racing didn’t get much hotter than that.
In 1986 Richard Scott won on the RS500 Grand Prix Honda to be the first local rider in 30 years to win a feature race. He also became the first rider to lap the track in under 50 seconds. Some kerbing realignment after Scott’s record lap added maybe a second or two to lap times but for all that his time of 49.91 seconds remained unbeaten for an incredible 20 years.
In the smaller capacity classes we remember the super talents of Brent Wylie, Jock Woodley, Mike Webb, Brent Jones and especially Mike Pero, later of mortgage fame.
And in the latter years of the decade two younger riders, on their days, stamped their own class on the unforgiving track. Aaron Slight and Simon Crafar each won on the Cemetery Circuit first before taking on the world.
The decade of the nineties also saw the elevation of sidecars to centre-stage recognizing the fact there can be few circuits in the world better suited to the cut and thrust of the three-wheelers – or for that matter, one better liked by competitors.
In 1997 the Aussies came here for a Trans-Tasman Challenge – they loved what they saw – nothing in their country compares. And the excitement of the sidecar action wasn’t confined to the Cemetery Circuit as we saw the evolution of a series which included street circuits in Gisborne and Paeroa, and for one year in Wellington. Popular with riders the “Battle of the Streets” series became one of the biggest spectator drawcards in the New Zealand sporting summer.
Many of the riders who won “Battle of the Streets” honours won at the Cemetery Circuit first. Loren Poole, Robert Holden, Russell Josiah, Jason McEwen, Chris Haldane, Terry Fitzgerald, Sean Harris and Tony Rees were all winners on the streets.
The New Zealand built Britten in the hands of Jason McEwen was a winner in 1994 and 1996.
In the early years of the nineties decade one rider dominated like none other before. The experienced Robert Holden always returned from his international duties to compete on Boxing Day. Robert raced at the Cemetery Circuit for 19 consecutive years and at his last appearance in 1995 he started in twelve races in five different classes for nine wins and three second places. The Cemetery Circuit was his favourite circuit and he was a favourite rider.
Sadly the following year Robert lost his life in a practice crash at the Isle of Man. On Boxing Day in 1996 in a moving ceremony his ashes were laid to rest at the flower-garden corner. The flower garden has since become a traffic island, and the corner is now the Robert Holden Corner, in a permanent tribute to the memory of the circuit’s most successful rider. A bronze plague marks the spot.
In a huge shift in sentiment the following year sidecar champion Andy Scrivener exchanged marriage vows in a track-side service conducted by His Worship the Mayor, Mr Chas Poynter.
In 1998 we honoured the Lap of Honour ridden by the late Len Perry, the elder statesman of the sport in New Zealand. Len Perry won more New Zealand titles than anyone else and in more classes than anyone else which included speedway, miniature TT, beach racing, hill climbs, and NZ Tourist Trophy and Grand Prix titles in road racing. He was a New Zealand Isle of Man representative in 1939 and again in 1951, returning home to race in the inaugural Cemetery Circuit meeting where he finished runner-up to Dene Hollier in the Senior feature race. He retired in the Junior race with a steering problem on his 1929 KTT Velocette, the same machine he rode on his Lap of Honour in 1998.
The first decade of the new millennium was a busy decade. To start with the “Battle of the Streets” had become a popular high profile championship. Since 1997 the winners trophy has honoured the memory of the late Robert Holden and has become the most prestigious prize in New Zealand motorcycling even more so now that it is a one-off invitation race and the feature event at the Cemetery Circuit.
A controversial change in the race format for the Robert Holden Memorial in 2003 worked for Wellington’s Johan Bruns who won the three quick-fire 5-lap races in damp conditions.
The magic 49-second lap time was finally broached by Craig Shirriffs in 2005, and Australian Chris Seaton and Andrew Stroud joined him in 2006 with Stroud finally setting the fastest time of 49.061 seconds.
In 2010 Australian Daniel Stauffer, in his first visit to the circuit, raised the eyebrows of thousands of New Zealand fans and some very quick rivals when he became the first non-Kiwi to win the coveted trophy. Those eyebrows remained raised when he won it again in 2011.
In 2006 the organizing committee created an off-road section for Super Motards. The concept was not a success but unbelievably they did it again in 2007. They were replaced the following year by a new management team, the off-road section was ditched and two years later Italian stars Davide Gozzini and Ivan Lazzarini thrilled a 12,000 plus crowd with high speed, breath-taking skills and the best Super Motard racing ever seen anywhere in New Zealand.
Australian sidecar star Stacey Sellar blitzed the Kiwi opposition in mid-decade and set new lap records for the class.
Wanganui’s Brian Bernard, a former New Zealand champion and a winner on the circuit, excelled at putting race teams together and young Australian riders Chris Seaton, in 2006 and Gareth Jones in 2009 were star attractions under his guidance and mentorship. Jones in particular was a special talent, a serious threat to the dominance of Kiwi riders on the circuit. As an aside in February 2010 on the streets of Paeroa he matched the cut and thrust of circuit supremo Craig Shirriffs to score an outstanding win and set a new lap record. His performances were just the inspiration Team Bernard Racing’s Daniel Stauffer needed in 2010.
When Stauffer returned in 2011 he kicked the new decade off in style with three emphatic wins and a fastest lap just a micro-second short of Andrew Stroud’s lap record. Stroud and Nick Cole chased him home
In 2012 a warm welcome was extended to all race fans to join in the celebrations of the 60 years that motorcycle racing had been held on the same streets that every Boxing Day have recreated into a motorcycle racing circuit of international fame, known and respected throughout the motorsport world as the Cemetery Circuit. Pat Hennen was an honoured guest and his Suzuki race bikes from the Marlboro Series days and the Britten from more recent years were star attractions on public display.
The race-day weather in 2012 had a distinct “monsoon” feel to it with warm changeable winds and occasional warm short sharp showers. Unfortunately a heavy shower late in the day caused blocked drains and with it a cancellation of the Robert Holden Memorial race, depriving a disappointed Nick Cole, the day’s top rider, of a chance at winning the coveted trophy. The record books will show for the first time the Robert Holden Memorial Trophy race was not run.
In 2008 the three-round Suzuki Series was introduced as a lure to overseas riders, providing two rounds of racing ahead of the final Cemetery Circuit round on Boxing Day. By 2013 international rider numbers were almost on a par with those of the Marlboro Series days and the Tri-Series concept had really come of age. Ironically in 2013 the star attraction was the personable Englishman Guy Martin who came to New Zealand just for the Cemetery Circuit. His quirky personality made him an instant hit off the track while on-track his results were modest in the Superbike class but very competitive in Classic racing on a Manx Norton.
Nick Cole on his Kawasaki was finally the big class winner and in the absence of Dennis Charlett and Sloan Frost, who both crashed out during the day, he was a comfortable winner of the Robert Holden Memorial trophy.
This decade has also seen major improvements to spectator access around the circuit, and new hospitality grandstands and big screens to enhance the entire race-day experience for the paying public, while air-fences have brought about a quantum leap in circuit safety for riders.