Saturday, 17 November 2018

WHITIANGA WEATHER

Long may speedway continue in Mercury Bay

By Stephan Bosman and Jordan Gower

This month, the Mercury Bay Speedway Club is celebrating 30 years since the original Mercury Bay Raceway Club was formed in September 1988. It’s a bittersweet milestone.

The lease (in essence, a gentlemen’s agreement) of the club’s club’s dirt track at the Whitianga Airport will be coming to an end in the first half of next year and a location for a new track hasn’t as yet been secured.

The Mercury Bay Raceway members raced for two years in nothing more than paddocks close to Matarangi and on the 309 Road before Owen Whiting, then president of the Mercury Bay Aero Club, asked them in 1990 to join forces with the aero club. “The Mercury Bay Aero Club had an abundance of land, but were very short on members,” says Rob Davis, current president of the Mercury Bay Speedway Club. “It was a win-win for both organisations. Mercury Bay Raceway would get their own dirt track and the aero club would gain a significant number of new members.

“Mercury Bay Raceway was always a family-focused organisation, which is what the Mercury Bay Speedway Club still is today, and once the deal with the aero club was done, all the raceway members - husbands, wives and children - got stuck into building a dirt track. Keith Finch, who used to own Whitianga Hardware, still remembers drilling the first post hole. Other club members who helped included Ray Parker, who measured out the track, and Phil Towgood, who pushed dirt.”

Only a few years later and the Mercury Bay Speedway Track’s reputation as the place to be over Easter was well-established. “The Mercury Bay Raceway members were always aware that there was no significant speedway racing in the North Island during many of the long weekends, including Easter, and stepped into the gap,” says Rob. “The result was nothing short of enormous Easter Weekend meetings. We’re talking 130 plus vehicles racing in every class imaginable and spectators standing shoulder-to shoulder on the banks next to the track. The evening get-togethers in the old Mercury Bay Aero Club clubhouse, now the Flight Club Ballroom, were legendary. Entry and gate fees and bar takings over an Easter Weekend easily contributed $26,000 or more to the aero club’s coffers.”

Lisa Abrahamson, a well-known Whitianga local and former Mercury Bay Raceway member, remembers the Easter Weekend meetings well. “They were just massive,” she says. “We had so much fun.”

Journalist Barry Brown wrote in the May 1999 issue of “New Zealand Dirt Track Racing” about the Easter Weekend speedway meeting in Whitianga a month earlier. It was his first time at the Mercury Bay Speedway Track and he and his family stayed for two days. “Huge pit area, tons of cars, tent city out the back where all the free camping was being had [we actually paid for a site in town after being warned that not much sleep is to be had at the track], good looking clay track surface, helpful staff everywhere - I was looking forward to the racing,” he wrote early on in the piece. After commenting on the results in the various classes and the fact that results were less important than fun, he concluded with the following, “[Whitianga] is an isolated little place, up the Coromandel Peninsula there - I didn’t think it was that isolated, though - but I’ll be back, nothing surer, and I think I’ll have to make it a four-day trip next time.”

From about 2010, Mercury Bay Raceway started to suffer a decline in membership as people moved on to other things. "The decline in membership led to the Mercury Bay Aero Club deciding it was better for the raceway members to form their own speedway club. So, in 2015 we formed the Mercury Bay Speedway Club and entered into a gentlemen’s agreement with the aero club with regard to leasing our track," says Rob.

“Everything ended up working out very well as the Mercury Bay Speedway Club 's first president, Peter Candy, arranged for us to join the New Zealand Circle Track Racing Association [NZCTRA] - an association of smaller dirt tracks around New Zealand - and we started hosting regional and national titles race meetings.

“A few sponsors, most importantly Dive Zone Whitianga, came on board and it wasn’t long before speedway enthusiasts of all ages started joining the Mercury Bay Speedway Club. It’s highly encouraging that many families have joined over past few years. Speedway in Mercury Bay has always been a family affair and we would like to keep it that way.

“We have a very good track and NZCTRA titles meetings have been held at our track every year from 2016 and two more meetings are scheduled to be raced in January and March next year.”

Throughout the years, many of the Mercury Bay Raceway and Mercury Bay Speedway Club members went on to compete in other venues around New Zealand, among them Phil Towgood, Bryan Skelton, Bodie Abrahamson, Regan Marceau, Tammy Greig, Darren Hartley, Craig Richards, Jordan Richards, Brandon Cooper-Barnett, Aaron McClennan and Jarrod Scarrot.

Knowing that the "gentleman's" lease of their dirt track at the Whitianga Airport had an expiry date, the Mercury Bay Speedway Club entered more than a year ago into negotiations with Thames-Coromandel District Council about building a new track on TCDC land in close proximity to the Whitianga Airport, but no decision has been made as yet. “Things are uncertain for us at the moment, but we hope for a speedy and good outcome in our negotiations with TCDC,” says Rob. “In a perfect world, we hope a deal can be done that will allow not only for a new speedway track, but also a go-kart track, a burnout pad, a track for the racing of remote controlled model vehicles and maybe even an off-road motorcycle track.

“We would like to think that speedway has a rich history in Mercury Bay and that we are part of what makes our area special. Long may that continue.”

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The Mercury Bay Informer is a highly popular community newspaper, based in Whitianga. The paper is distributed throughout the Coromandel Peninsula, coast to coast from Thames to north of Colville.