Farewell Pukekohe

Mar 24, 2023

The final farewell event at the iconic Pukekohe circuit this week will herald the end of an era, indeed, many great eras in Kiwi motorsport.

Often jokingly described as having just two corners, Pukekohe has been a fundamental circuit in Kiwi driver’s careers and can take a lot of credit in developing and often challenging the skills of the best drivers in the world. So, with the chequered flag dropping for the final time we take pause to remember and salute Pukekohe Motorsport Park.

The story of how Pukekohe came to be is as interesting as some of the iconic moments it created.

In a time less mired by red tape, Pukekohe was born from a news story in July 1961, where accomplished racer and founder member of the New Zealand Grand Prix Association, Ross Jensen suggested a Grand Prix circuit could be built in Pukekohe as an alternative to Ardmore.

Remarkably construction of Pukekohe Park Raceway began just a year later. Even more remarkably, W.A. Stevenson & Sons finished the track in 41 days. So, from the initial idea to a complete Grand Prix circuit in just over 400 days, and that was despite some delays in gaining approval from the Franklin Racing Club, and unusually wet spring weather.

The ground was perfect for growing potatoes, not perfect for building a race circuit. The issue was the significant peat in some areas of the track which challenged Stevenson’s build process and the £50,000 build budget. But with the 1963 New Zealand Grand Prix looming, it was done. Even though New Zealand Grand Prix was short of £15,000, Stevenson allowed the debt to be paid back over the years.

That first era in Pukekohe’s storied history of early Grand Prix and Tasman Series cemented the circuit as a heart in the mouth thrill ride for drivers. It was a golden age of motorsport in New Zealand where, every January through to early March, the Kiwi and Australian Summer would attract many of the world’s Formula One drivers like Jackie Stewart, Stirling Moss, Jack Brabham, Graham Hill, Jim Clark and of course Kiwis, Chris Amon, Denny Hulme and Bruce McLaren. The drivers could hone their race craft during the F1 off-season and enjoy the kiwi lifestyle on the water in between the race schedule, more often with the group’s founder and lifelong motorsport enthusiast Colin Giltrap.

Around that same time, there was also a strong saloon racing scene and races like the Pukekohe 500 and New Zealand’s more relaxed approach to regulations, compared with saloon categories in Europe, would give rise to another popular era. Saloon racing through the seventies was a cornucopia of popular road cars and any given Sunday you could watch anything from Mustangs to Mini’s dicing it up.

Despite finishing last in his first race, and subsequently crashing after the race had finished, Jim Richards would emerge from a pool of talented drivers of the day, like Robbie Francevic, Rod Coppins and Paul Fahey. For South Auckland-born 'Gentleman' Jim, Pukekohe was his home circuit and he quickly became known as a driver capable of extracting more from a car than most thought possible.

From here, we saw tin tops evolve from the Ford Escorts and Valiant Chargers of the 70’s to the Holden Commodores, Ford Falcons and BMW 635’s of the 80’s. Pukekohe was now a drawcard for many Australian drivers including Frank Gardner, Peter Brock and Allan Moffat and the Australian / New Zealand Group A era was developing into a saloon series unlike anything anywhere else.

Pukekohe was a regular destination for the cars like the Group A “Walkinshaw” Commodore, BMW M3, Ford Sierra RS500 and Nissan GT-R and in 2001, the circuit was included officially as a points round of the Australian Touring Car Championship.

Greg Murphy, would go on to dominate the Supercars field at Pukekohe. In 2001 he took pole position and won all three races in a K-Mart Commodore, adding four more wins from six starts to back that up with round wins in 2002 and 2003.

While Murphy had to settle for a pair of seconds in 2004, he took another clean sweep in ’05. By the end of Murph’s reign of the early 2000’s he had won four of the first five Supercars events at Pukekohe. He was victorious in nine of those 15 races, finished second four times and fourth in the other two. The crowds were ecstatic.

“To have a round at home and have that success was very special.” Says Murph of that time.

“As far as the Pukekohe wins go, they for me rate right up there as the best things that ever happened in my Supercar career.”

While Shane van Gisbergen’s unbelievably drive and equally legendary burnout at 2022’s final Supercars round at Pukekohe was in a similar vein to Murphy’s golden age at the circuit, for most Supercar fans Murph will forever be “The King of Pukekohe”.

Of course in between everything, week in and week out, Pukekohe was the home for countless club and grass roots events and top tier national events on four and two wheels. As a town, Pukekohe was proud of the heritage of the circuit and the legends it helped forge. Yes there was politics, but the choir of highly strung engines thundering down that back straight is a soundtrack that will be missed by many proud locals.

From John Surtees winning the 1963 New Zealand Grand Prix to Scott Dixon sitting on a couch cushion rolling a Nissan Sentra, Pukekohe created far too many memories to list.  

Amon, Hulme, Mclaren, Smith, Millen, Richards, Radisich, Evans, Baird, Dixon, Murphy, McLaughlin, van Gisbergen. From grassroots to F1 greats, Pukekohe has served them all. It’s been a joy to race, watch and drive there on so many occasions over the years. To all the organisers, drivers, sponsors, marshals and fans involved through the decades. Pukekohe, thank you and farewell.