Speedway racing is taking off among young people in the south of New Zealand, with teenagers new to the sport joining those following in the laps of their grandads.
When the youth saloon class was introduced at Beachlands Speedway in Dunedin four years ago, five children raced. Now there are 20 Dunedin drivers, says Youth Saloon Rep, Leanne Simon.
Some of the 12 to 16-year-olds have parents and grandparents who stir up the dirt on the oval track, while others hear about the sport by word-of-mouth.
“When they come into it, they become part of the speedway whānau,” Leanne says.
“They look out for each other.”
While speedway is known for exciting competition as cars hurtle through their laps, engines revving and spectators cheering, other words used to describe this southern youth class include ‘fun’, ‘encouragement’ and ‘helping each other out.’
Leo Bennett (14) began racing this year. He drives a Toyota Corolla, which was written-off and his Dad did up for him. Asked what he likes about the sport, Leo’s answer is straightforward.
“Just having fun.”
His father, uncle, and grandad, Steve Bennett, all race and Leo’s been going to the speedway since he was three or four. This family connection is important to him.
Grandad did it, so I want to do what he does.”
Savannah Simon (15) has been racing since 2016 and drives a Honda Civic EG Hatch. For her, part of the attraction is the friendships formed.
“All the people you meet and the friends you make. The friends you make become like family.”
She’s a third-generation speedway driver whose parents met at the race circuit.
“So, I’ve pretty much grown up at speedway,” she says.
Once she’s too old for youth saloons, she plans to drive production cars for a season or two, then progress to stock cars or saloons.
And what does Savannah feel when she’s racing?
“Some people get nervous sitting on the dummy grid. For the first race I get nervous, after that it’s pretty good. When you’re out there, you just get into race mode.”
Pitching in and helping each other
Leanne says youth saloon participants may race any type of car but its engine size cannot be larger than 1600 cc. Vehicles are either bought or found abandoned on the street, perhaps with the warrant of fitness having expired.
“They kick the windows out and put a roll cage in…and racing seat.”
Families pitch in to ensure cars meet Speedway New Zealand rules and are race-ready, which costs between $800 and $2000. Some youngsters work to earn this, others’ families contribute.
Welding is the main ability required: “Usually they want to have somebody in the family that welds.”
The emerging racers learn skills, such as putting vehicles on and off trailers and how to drive, including using a stick-shift. Most are too young to be behind the wheel on normal roads.
They can’t drive on the road but they can get out there on the track and race as fast as they can.”
They are encouraged to support and praise one another and no social media abuse is allowed, Leanne says. The children go to different schools and didn’t previously know each other, yet a lot now hang out outside of speedway, as do their parents.
Pre-race, the youngsters help each other and if one has a problem, another kid or parent comes to the rescue.
Invaluable sponsorship by Mulford Holdings has enabled prizes to be awarded each racing night. A team player award goes to someone who, for example, has guided a new driver.
“It’s to encourage that team spirit, not just the individual side of racing.”
Leanne says youth saloons have raced in Invercargill for years and she “just felt like there was a call” to start the grade in Dunedin.
Participants travel from Gore, Clydevale and Milton to compete at Invercargill and Dunedin. However, other speedways in the country don’t offer this event. Leanne and her ‘right hand man’, Gareth Kelk, would like this to change.
“We’re hoping it will grow throughout New Zealand,” she says.
Once the southern teenagers turn 17, they often race in adult street stock, stock car or production car classes.
“It gets in the blood and once they get a taste of it…!”
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