The Pukekohe motor racing circuit has always held a special place in the heart of evergreen Kiwi racing great Ken Smith. So when the organisers of the New Zealand round of the Virgin Australia Supercars championship invited the NZ Formula 5000 Association to run the opening round of this season’s SAS Autoparts MSC NZ F5000 Tasman Cup Revival Series at this weekend’s ITM SuperSprint meeting the 75-year-old three-time New Zealand Grand Prix winner was the first to confirm his entry.
“Wild horses wouldn’t have been able to keep me away,” Smith, awarded an MBE in 1987 for ‘services to New Zealand motorsport’, said this week.
Though he did not contest the very first NZ Grand Prix at the track in January 1963 he was there supporting his father Morrie in 1964 and finished 12th in his New Zealand Grand Prix debut in 1965.
Since then he has – through dint of an unbroken career which this weekend sees the supercharged septuagenarian enter his 60th consecutive season of national level competition – without a doubt completed more laps of the iconic Pukekohe circuit than any other driver.
““I know it’s different now with all the concrete and the new section down the back (straight), but it’s still Pukekohe to me. There’s just something special about the place. There’s the history, obviously, but there’s something else as well, something that keeps you wanting to go back,” he said
Smith joined the MSC NZ F5000 Tasman Cup Revival Series in 2007 and has since won the MSC title four times. For the first five years he drove a Lola T430, but for the past five he has raced a Lola T332 which he co-owns with career-long crew members Barry Miller and Phil Richardson.
Though not the same car he used to win the 1976 New Zealand Grand Prix at Pukekohe (that car still exists and is in active use by Australian driver Andrew Robson) the ‘new’ car has been re-sprayed the same bright red and carries the same La Valise Travel, K-Road signage as the original did 41 years ago.
Though he says he won’t know how ‘quick’ the track will be this weekend until he puts some laps in on Friday, Smith believes that, with the changes to the track to accommodate the Aussie Supercars, the quickest possible time could be very similar to the one compatriot Graeme Lawrence set when the front and back straight chicanes were in use in 1976.
With its new right-left-right complex of corners on the back straight, and the tighter confines of the now concrete barrier-lined corner entering the start-finish straight the track will certain not be as quick as it was when the MSC NZ F5000 Tasman Cup Revival Series had a round there in 2008.
That year Auckland driver Roger Williams (Lola T332) gave an indication of just how fast a Formula 5000 single-seater could lap the fast, flowing circuit by easily bettering the track’s original category lap record (the 56.7 seconds set in the 1971 NZ Grand Prix meeting at Pukekohe by race runner-up, Australian Frank Matich) in qualifying with a best lap time of 55.35 seconds, then got very close to Ken Smith’s contemporary best in an F5000 car (55.20 set in a Matich A50 in 1993) in the first race, his quickest lap a 55.80.
He and McRae GM1 driver Chris Hyde then went quicker again the day after, Williams setting a best lap of 54.59, Hyde 54.73, both in the second race.
These times compare favourably with those of the V8 Supercars at the time with Ford driver Mark Winterbottom the last to claim pole position at the track (in 2007 before the ill-fated move to the Hamilton street circuit) with a time of 55.6704 and a typical race lap being in the mid 56s.
However, ultimate times, says Smith, are only part of the ageless appeal of the stock-blook 5-litre V8 single-seater F5000 category and the cars built for it.
‘There’s just something about them and you see it wherever we go. People like the speed, obviously, how fast they go. But I think they also like the fact that they’ve got V8s in them, and that unlike a lot of these modern cars the difference still comes down to the driver.”
Had the annual V8 Supercar round not returned to Pukekohe Smith agrees that the future of the venue would have been shaky at best. So he is pleased the necessary funding has been found to upgrade the track.
“Old tracks are like old buildings, ” he says, “we’ve lost so many, Bay Park, Wigram, Waimate, we don’t want to lose any more.”
This weekend Smith will be one of 17 drivers to line up for practice, qualifying and first three races of the 2017/18 SAS Autoparts MSC NZ F5000 Tasman Cup Revival Series at the ITM SuperSprint meeting.
Joining Smith and his Lola T332 on the grid will be a mix of quick series regulars like defending SAS Autoparts MSC series champion Brett Willis (Lola T330) from Rotorua, Glenn Richards (Lola T400), and Clark Proctor (March 73A1) from Auckland, Tony Roberts (McLaren M10A) from Napier, and more recent arrivals Grant Martin (Talon MR1) and Frank Karl (McLaren M10B) both from Auckland, Karl Zohs (Chevron B32) from Rotorua and David Arrowsmith (Lotus 70B) from Christchurch.
The round also sees the arrival of a second father-and-son pair in David and Codie Banks. It was the first family pairing of Peter (McRae GM1) and Aaron (Talon MR1A) Burson who introduced David Banks (the man behind series sponsor SAS Autoparts) to the series so it is particularly appropriate that with David debuting a new car (the ex Peter Sundberg Lola T332) this weekend, his son Codie steps up from the Historic Formual Ford class to the SAS Autoparts MSC F5000 one in his father’s original series car, a Talon MR1.
Returning, meanwhile, after a couple of years racing in other classic categories, is 2013/14 series title holder Andy Higgins, this time in a Lola T332. And set to make their local debut in the series are two young drivers, Ken Smith protégé Tom Alexander, and former karting colleague Michael Collins,
Alexander drove UK-based SAS Autoparts MSC series regular Greg Thornton’s Chevron B32 at Phillip Island in Australia 18 months ago and this weekend is deputising for car owner Ian Riley (who can’t make the meeting) in the Lola T332 maintained by Smith and Ken Smith Motorsport crew chief Barry Miller.
Collins will drive a McRae GM1 run by Christchurch preparation specialists Motorsport Solutions.
No F5000 event here in New Zealand would be complete, finally, without a New Zealand-built Begg, with the honour for running one of these justifiably famous Drummond (near Invercargill) built cars going to Kerry McIntosh and his FM2 model.
The SAS Autoparts MSC NZ F5000 Tasman Cup Revival Series single seaters will be on track from Friday with practice in the morning and a qualifying session in the afternoon. There are then three races scheduled, the first 12 lapper on Saturday at 1.20pm, a second 12 lap one on Sunday morning at 10.05am and a 14 lap final on Sunday afternoon at 2.25pm.