We take you on a tour of New Zealand’s motor racing circuits
Here in New Zealand we are spoilt for choice when it comes to racing circuits. With four in each island you never have to drive too far to get in a few laps or catch some action. Our purpose-built tracks date back to the late 1950s, with the very first sealed circuit opening in Levin in 1956, though that has since closed. Fast forward to the present day, with the most recent circuit to be built — Highlands Park — opened on Easter weekend this year in Cromwell. Each of the eight New Zealand tracks has challenging corners, fast straights and plenty of racing heritage. In this feature we give you an overview of each circuit, and talk to expert driving instructor Mike Eady, who passes on a few pointers to help cut your lap times. Make sure to scan the QR codes with your smartphone too, each code contains in-car hot lap footage from the corresponding track.
New Zealand’s first
Before the first purpose-built facility, races were held on beaches, then on grass tracks until post WWII. The first official sealed road race wasn’t held until 1949, at Wigram Air Force base in Christchurch. Known as the Lady Wigram Trophy, the race is still run today although it’s now held at Ruapuna. In the North Island the New Zealand Grand Prix was first run in 1952 at Ohakea Air Base, moving to Ardmore Aerodrome in 1954, where up to 70,000 spectators would witness star-studded international driver line-ups.
The country’s first purpose-built motor racing circuit, located in Levin and opened in 1956, originally had a total length of 1.6km. Later that year it was resurfaced and extended to 1.9km. The circuit was built inside the local horse racing facility, as were many other tracks around New Zealand. Levin hosted some of the world’s best drivers and stayed open for nearly 21 years, but closed in 1975 due to declining spectator numbers. Sadly there is little or no evidence left of the circuit, as most of it was removed to enable use of the area as horse paddocks
Pukekohe Park Raceway
Location: Pukekohe, Auckland
Length: 2.91km single layout
Surface: Hot mix
FIA grade: 2
Pukekohe Park Raceway was built in 1962 after the New Zealand Grand Prix got the boot from Ardmore Aerodrome. The Franklin Racing Club allowed the circuit to be built around the existing horse racing circuit, a format that still works in harmony today. The track was constructed for $75,000 (around $500,000 today) in only six months, under a tight deadline to host the 1963 New Zealand Grand Prix.
It originally had a short and long circuit with an extension that turned left at the infamous sweeper, and followed out toward the road before a hairpin and a long straight which joined in at Castrol Corner. This section was removed in 1967 due to the congestion the sharp left-hander produced on race starts.
The change gave birth to the 2.85km track layout that stayed unchanged until this year, when the facility underwent a $6.8M upgrade that saw the inclusion of three new corners along the back straight, creating more passing opportunities and lowering the top speed reached. The track is now almost completely lined with concrete barriers to give it a street circuit feel. The new section has added around eight to 10 seconds per lap.
Hampton Downs Motorsport Park (National Circuit)
Location: Meremere, Waikato
Length: 2.8km single layout
Surface: Smooth asphalt
FIA grade: 2
Hampton Downs opened in 2008 in a partially finished state. The track was designed by Clive Bowen to mimic famous corners from around the world, including the big dipper at Bathurst, a blind crest similar to one on the Nürburgring, and turn one, which mimics a Brands Hatch bend. The track had a stage one cost of $120M, which saw the completion of the 2.8km medium circuit, consisting of eight corners and a 950m start/finish straight.
At the time of writing, back in 2013, the club circuit was mapped out in dirt and had yet to be finished. Now that it has been, it combines with the existing track for an overall length of 3.8km. This section starts from turn two and rejoins over the rise after turn three. The additional track has the drift section on it and can be run separately to the main circuit.
In 2010 the circuit opened its polished-concrete skidpan. Measuring 100x50m, it was the single biggest concrete pour in New Zealand history and has an integrated watering system.
Location: Feilding, Manawatu
Length: 1.5km, 3km and 4.5km
Surface: Special hot-mix bitumen
FIA grade: 3
It was the dedication of Manawatu Car Club members that saw the building of the track in Feilding. The circuit is an FIA Grade 3 and one of few New Zealand tracks to have hosted international events, including the World Superbike finals, twice, and an F1 demonstration lap. The track has three possible layouts with the 3km common race configuration, including one of the best drifting sections in New Zealand, which is run through the centre of the circuit. The track includes banked corners, something not common here in New Zealand. Turn six, for example, carries seven degrees of camber. With three long straights on the circuit there are plenty of passing opportunities.
Bruce McLaren Motorsport Park (Taupo)
Length: 1.3km, 2.2km, 3.3km and 3.5km
FIA grade: 2
First opened in 1959 by the Taupo Car Club, Taupo Motorsport Park started as a short 1.6km dirt track that was later sealed. This track and its adjoining facilities still exist today, known as track three. In 2005 work began on the $6M project to lengthen the circuit to a 3.5km FIA grade two facility allowing for four different configurations and the inclusion of the NHRA-spec drag strip. The upgrade also included new pit and control tower facilities. Because of this the circuit can now run two events on separate tracks simultaneously. Taupo is traditionally run in an anticlockwise direction for grip racing, although for drifting it runs a clockwise direction with a drift section through the centre.
Mike Pero Motorsport Park (Ruapuna)
Location: Christchurch, Canterbury
Length: 1.1km, 1.19km, 1.60km, 2.18km, 2.28km, 3.28km, 3.38km
FIA grade: 3
The Canterbury Car Club, which still owns and runs the 100-acre facility, opened Ruapuna Park in 1963. With seven possible track configurations, this is New Zealand’s most versatile facility. The main straight also plays double duty as the Pegasus Bay Hot Rod Club’s NZDRA drag strip, and there is a Speedway on the grounds. Ruapuna is set to celebrate its 50th anniversary this year, making it one of the oldest circuits in New Zealand. The track is very fast and known for its unforgiving ripple strips. Ruapuna also hosts both D1NZ and Drift South, with the longest drift section in the country.
FIA grade: 3
Teretonga is New Zealand’s longest-serving racing facility. It was the country’s second track to be built, with its first race meeting held in 1957 followed by an international event in 1958. In 1966 the track was extended to its current 2.62km length. It is also the world’s most southern FIA-graded track, with a very famous high-speed sweeping loop that has been replicated at the newly built Highlands Park. The 2.62km track features an 850m-long straight and a series of sweeping corners. This track has earned a reputation as the second-fastest track in Australasia next to Sydney’s Motorsport Park.
Timaru International Raceway (Levels)
Length: 1.6 km, 2.4 km
Surface: Asphaltic concrete paving
FIA grade: 3
First constructed in 1967 by the South Canterbury Car Club as the shorter 1.6km club circuit, the track was extended in 1988 to the 2.4km GP circuit to bring it up to FIA grade 3. Levels is built just outside Timaru, and in recent years the encroaching housing has surrounded the facility, meaning the 95-decibel noise limit is strictly enforced and track days are somewhat limited. The wild South Island weather makes this track notorious for its tricky wet-weather driving, as water often pools on the trackside.
Highlands Motorsport Park
Track: Highlands Park
FIA grade: Built to level 2
The newest edition to New Zealand is Highlands Park, just outside Cromwell. It is also our longest track at 4.5km. The circuit is comprised of three separate tracks that can join and make five different configurations. A local group privately funded the track until businessman and racer Tony Quinn purchased a majority shareholding to finish construction, which only took nine months, and it opened at Easter 2013. The track will mostly be used as a private facility for members. Its design includes many unique features to New Zealand including the carousel, the bridge and the southern loop, which runs through the forest. It is a very demanding circuit with very limited passing opportunities.
This article originally appeared in NZ Performance Car issue No. 200 — you can get your grubby mitts on a copy by clicking on the cover below: