It seems that any red-blooded male growing up in Palmerston North in the ’60s could be found at some stage in his life at ‘the stock cars’ and Neil Lovejoy is no different. One thing that speedway seems to have over most other motorsports is its ability to attract the whole family rather than just fathers and sons. It was through his parents that Neil developed his passion for watching cars going around in circles as quickly as possible, seemingly just on the correct side of out of control — although most drivers would say that everything was OK as they hurtled sideways into a corner on three wheels whilst shoehorning themselves into a gap that, just a nanosecond before, didn’t even exist.
Not only were the stock cars at Palmy steeped in history, but the Levin car races were also a pretty huge spectacle. This was in the days before Manfeild, and when Taupo was still just a place to catch some fish and watch scalding hot water shoot out of the ground, so the races at Levin were a pretty big deal.
It was there that Neil first got his taste for motorsport — fresh out of the pram. His parents would load the family into the back of the old ’46 Chev truck and make their way south to Levin to watch some wheel-to-wheel action. This was no ordinary truck, though, as the Lovejoys had grafted a grandstand onto the back of it. Everyone would perch on this very grandstand when the family stopped off at the speedway in Palmy on their way back from the family outing to Levin. From then on, Neil was hooked.
The shed you see on these pages holds a fair amount of local history for both Neil and the people of Palmerston North. The home in which Neil resides was originally built in the ’30s by his grandparents. It passed into the hands of Neil’s parents, and is now owned by Neil. Back in the day, Neil’s grandfather was a local wood and coal merchant. As the business steadily grew, a suitable building to accommodate the loading and unloading of wood and coal was needed. Neil’s grandad heard that a chimney was to be demolished at the local brickworks on Featherston Street. Thinking that the bricks would be perfect for his shed, he put the feelers out. In what seemed like no time at all, the chimney had been felled — by Neil’s grandad — and the resulting pile of rubble had been shipped to the property to be glued back together and start earning its keep as storage shed and unloading point for the wood and coal. Neil has fond memories of trucks driving in and out of the dirt-floored shed, and of helping with the loading and unloading of countless trucks of over the years.
Fast forward a few years and a couple of generations: with only the memories of the shed’s past life remaining, Neil set about transforming it into what you see today. The old brick building now finds itself as an entertainment hub, with Neil never needing much of an excuse to fire up the BBQ on a summer night. He and his guests practically live out there when the weather is fine. Neil regularly hosts gatherings, and, let’s face it, what a perfect way to start the evening: have a few cold ones, grab yourself a feed, then head off to Robertson Holden International Speedway for a bit of sideways action on the dirt. Once the night’s entertainment at the track has concluded, you can head back and carry on where you left off late into the night or the early hours of the morning if you so wish.
Neil is a member of the Auckland Vintage Speedway Club and the Taranaki Historic Speedway Association. Lining the walls of the shed are photos, posters, and all things sprint car collected over the years from Neil’s many trips to tracks overseas, as well as posters and mementos from local tracks.
A large display case, taking up almost the entire back wall, bulges with scale-model die-casts of some of Neil’s favourite cars. The display case itself is a talking point. The popular Lido Aquatic Centre, next to Palmerston North’s picturesque Esplanade, was undergoing a makeover and one of Neil’s mates spied the old tog and towel storage shelves waiting to be chucked out. Rather than going to waste, they ended up receiving a lick of paint and being screwed to the wall of Neil’s shed, making for a perfect way to display his ever-increasing collection of scaled-down race cars.
Full sized cars, as well as the smaller ones, have also had their time in the shed over the years. In 2005, Neil got wind of an Edmunds coil car of 1982 vintage up for sale and felt he just had to have it. He ended up purchasing the former Brett Horrobin Sunday News car as a roller, sourced an original Autocraft Volkswagen engine, and set about rebuilding it over the next few years.
Neil recently sold that car and bought the ’63 Buick Wildcat convertible that’s parked on one half of the checkerboard floor. He’d owned a few Camaros in his time, but felt the need to get something a bit older and a little more sensible. The 401ci Nailhead-powered ragtop has pretty much stayed the same as it was when it was imported in 2008. That being said, Neil has treated the old girl to a new roof and is in the process of installing new carpets.
As is regularly the case, events have their own agenda — they may transpire against you, or, in this case, for you — and you end up owning something you never really had any intention of buying. One day, when Neil was buying some methanol from local horsepower seller Mark Gapp, Mark made an off-the-cuff comment that he had “a sprint car out the back that you might be interested in”. The car had come into the country as a parts car and had never turned a wheel in anger on New Zealand soil. Long story short, Neil and long-time good friend Peter Hook went halves in it. Neil says he had a vacant space in the shed so they thought, What the hell!
With the chassis dragged back, Peter and Neil started tearing things down. Then, they uncovered some chassis markings that looked familiar to them and got their pulses beating faster. After some extensive research, it was found that the overlooked and unwanted parts car was a genuine Steve Kinser sprint car. For those unfamiliar with the Kinser name, he is considered the granddaddy of sprint car racers; Neil and Peter couldn’t have been happier.
Over many late nights over the next three years, they rebuilt the car, bringing it back to the way it looked when it first made its way onto American dirt in 1990. A dry-sumped 410 cube Gaerte engine was sourced locally from Ian Easton and handed to Phil Blumont, one half of the ‘Blus Brothers’ drag racers, to rebuild. The lightweight Brodix block and heads, along with the almost obligatory Kinsler fuel injection, were quickly bolted back into the chromoly frame, with the boys eager to see what 750 horses in a 600kg car felt like!
Neil and Peter take turns at the helm, with the car regularly making an appearance at various North Island tracks. While there isn’t a specific class for them to run in, the clubs Neil belongs to will often gather together to run ‘spirited demonstrations’, where drivers must only pass on the outside — remember, Neil’s not a young chap now, and this is gentlemen’s racing, with no ‘heart in your mouth’ diving for an inside pass allowed.
Once you’ve had your fill of dirt in the shed, you make your way through a half door into a side room that is a showcase for one of Neil’s other passions. It houses an unbelievable HO gauge model train layout. Over “far too many years for me to remember”, Neil has painstakingly created an incredible fictitious world. More than 400 feet of track meander around the walls of the room — buildings, scenery, bridges, and mountains as far as the eye can see, in perfect miniature. Neil’s goal was to recreate his interpretation of ‘real’ American railroad towns, deserts, and rail yards, and he has pretty much nailed it. He used to own a scale model shop and has been an avid modeller for years. The layout, like the rest of the shed, is an ongoing project — with a smile on his face and a glint in his eye, Neil enthusiastically talks of his plans to build a freeway off-ramp to join up with that road over there, pointing to somewhere deep in the bowels of the room.
Whether you are a speedway nut or not, it is impossible to miss the passion and enthusiasm Neil has for speedway, and what he has created in his own backyard is pretty damn impressive.
Thanks for the invite, thanks for the history lesson, and thanks for the memories — let us know when your next BBQ is, Neil; we wouldn’t mind taking a train ride through America before we head down to the track to gulp in lungs full of freshly kicked-up dirt!
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This article was originally published in NZV8 Issue No. 126. You can pick up a print copy or a digital copy of the magazine below: