Pukekohe's Last Lap

Motorsport legend Kenny Smith has been either racing on or standing beside the Pukekohe circuit since the day the gates first opened. With the iconic track closing for good, there was only one driver option to lead the ceremonial last lap.

Aug 17, 2023

Sixty years ago, Bruce McLaren was on pole for Pukekohe's first big race, the 1963 New Zealand Grand Prix. It wasn't quite the fairy tale beginning for our country's most famous motorsport name, though; McLaren's Cooper Climax broke down, handing victory to John Surtees.

Words Shaun Summerfield  Photos Jesse Leet

A year later, McLaren did win, heading home Denny Hulme in a Kiwi 1-2. Watching with wide eyes was a 22-year-old Ken Smith, who a year later was on the grid with his hero.

Smith went on to log thousands of laps around the Pukekohe circuit, building an intricate knowledge of the three different layouts used over six decades. So, when it came time to lead the field at the Flying Farewell, there was only one option for both driver and car: Smith and McLaren.

For Smith, who has been either on or beside the track since the day the gates first opened, the chance to lap one last time in a McLaren 570S was truly bittersweet.

"It's sad that this track is disappearing because I love the place, it's quite a rough circuit, but it wasn't scary, it was a fast track, and that's how I like it. The tight stop-start tracks, to me, are crap. I like something where you're getting fourth and fifth-gear corners; that's exciting."

That was Pukekohe's old-school charm, you had to be completely committed to deliver a fast lap. But for those who did, it was motorsport nirvana.

Just ask Smith about his first Grand Prix win there in 1976, the first of three NZGP victories, and 47 years on, still the best race of his life.

Smith remembers not just the thrill of beating top overseas drivers in front of a sold-out crowd, but the mad thrill of wringing the neck of a Lola Formula 5000.

"Those cars were doing not much off 200mph [320km/h] down the straight, and the F5000 could make it around turn one without lifting off. They were special cars to drive,” he recalls.

At 81, Smith would still have preferred to be racing than leading a ceremonial lap; still, he was leading the field, something he did plenty of over the past six decades at Pukekohe. While he accepts that the likes of Hampton Downs and Highlands are better all-round facilities, the challenge and charm of the circuit were what made it his favourite place to race.

"I'm probably living in the old times a bit, but I just look at some of the old circuits like Levin and Baypark; they were old dust pits, but there was something special about them. I thought Pukekohe would be there forever, but there we go; I've outlasted them all."

The track was packed for the Flying Farewell, not bursting at the seams like it was in the days of the Tasman Series or to watch the Supercars, but still the biggest crowd at a race circuit this year, all there to say goodbye to a track that put a town on the map.

It was the perfect goodbye, not that Smith is ready to say goodbye just yet.

"We've lost something you'll never get back again. It was the heart of this town having the track there."