This event is an absolute MUST for anyone with any interest in racing their MR2. Find any excuse you can, but run in it if you can! The circuit is a bit daunting, and although quite different now from the original circuit, is every bit as challenging and just plain scary. The event was run for many years, but abandoned in the early 1960’s when Johnny Mansell wrapped his F1 car around a lamp-post, and tragically died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. I can still vividly remember as a young kid watching a black Maserati Sports Racer screw up turning in and going straight through the brick side wall of a warehouse building. It was almost cartoon perfect (the sort of car shaped hole in the wall, and just the rear of the car visible inside the building with a bunch of bricks on its rear after the dust cleared), but only if you were a spectator. Actually doing that is a slightly different dimension. Fortunately, that guy was not hurt. I have run a flag marshal post at the top of Cemetery Hill for the past 4 or 5 years (where Mansell was killed), and watched a number of cars seriously lose it and instantly convert themselves into trailer cases. Add to that the comments I had from a number of people who have driven there before, and basically said you need a combination of balls and blinkers - the blinkers so that you can pretend that the walls, posts, buildings, trees, etc, are not there at all !!
By Saturday night, I was feeling very apprehensive (freaked out would probably be a more accurate description) about the whole thing, and seriously beginning to wonder whether the Creeping Piacka that seems to assail me was not now galloping to a point where committal to an Institution for the terminally insane would be the kindest option. The circuit itself is interesting. The start/finish line is half way up a shortish straight on the Southern end of the main Street that runs through the heart of Dunedin. The first corner is a right elbow, followed instantly by a 90 degree left and 90 degree right. Then a gentle sweeper (straight really, because it is about 4 lanes wide), into a 90 degree right onto the Southern motorway. Again, this is really a sweeper, because the road is so wide. Then, it is down the motorway, sweeping to the left, followed by a tighter sweeper to the right, and onto a one car wide "off-ramp" downhill to a right hand U-turn. Then (and the road surface changes from hotmix to chipseal here) up the hill round a left hander, over the top of the hill round a tighter left hander, downhill to a tight right hander followed by a left sweeper just where you need to start thinking about braking for the 90 degree right and tighter than 90 degree left "chicane" which leads to the start of the Start / finish straight. The real scary bits are; (a) the tighter right hand sweeper leading to the offramp (I was doing 170 kph round there, with about 150 metres to get down to about 10 or 20 kph for the U turn) because it is blind ! There is a bloody great bank that obscures vision. Even though you know which way the road goes, you don’t know whether someone has lost it, and is parked sideways in the middle of the track. (b) the left hander over the top of Cemetary hill. The camber is all wrong, and the chipseal is slippery. (c) the fact that despite my pleadings to be allowed to run my lightly modified road car against the X19 Abarths and the like, I was ignored, and had to run in the Sports Car club class against purpose built race cars (sorry if I whinge on a bit about this, but I believe the Mk1 MR2 (in particular) is a true classic, and also that like cars ought to compete against like) running with power to weight ratios of up to more than 3 times mine. The scary bit here is that the race guys are hard drivers and VERY competitive! I seriously doubted that the car would survive unscathed. In fact, of the 28 cars in my class, only about 3 survived without panel damage of one sort or another - some quite expensive. I am pleased to report that the MR2 was a survivor. OK, that's the track.
The first time I met it was practice on Sunday morning. Although I was very tentative, I actually quite liked it first time out. That helped. Of 28 cars, I qualified 20th, and started the first race in that position. I was quite pleased - it would not have surprised me to have been 28th. I was starting to feel better. Then, in race one (we were the last of six groups in each round), a guy in a Fiat 128S Coupe wrapped it around a lamp post on Cemetary Hill, and was taken to Hospital unconscious. In race two, a guy in a Lotus 7 replica lost it at the elbow at the end of the start / finish straight, leaving it resembling a banana. In race three, a guy driving a beautifully and seriously prepared TVR 3000 lost it at the U turn after the blind right hand fast sweeper on the motorway section, and shortened it by about a metre! I don’t remember too much about races four and five, as I was on the dummy grids, other than that they were way to short !! All of a sudden, it was race six. The lights turned green, and off we went. Well - what a fiasco! The MR2 just dug in and went, and dragged 4 cars off the line. But, then we hit the elbow, and there were 28 cars wanting to be in much the same place at much the same time. Much body damage ensued. Fortunately, I was on the outside, and kept well clear, and all of a sudden, we were through and on the straighter part. I was on the tail of a 4-AGE powered Chevette, which in turn was on the tail of a 2 litre Escort. We got through the first lap, and down the start / finish straight I lined the Chevette up for the Elbow. Got him too …. And was up the exhaust pipe of the Escort, when it blew. The smoke cloud was blinding. I knew I had the 90 degree left / 90 degree right coming up real fast, and couldn’t see a thing. I had a blown car right in front of me … and by this stage, the Chevette was back beside me again, and God only knows what up my rear. "Oil on track" filtered through my slow brain at the same time. I basically stopped. The smoke cleared a little, and it was hard on the gas again. Fortunately, no oil on the track, but the Escort was out of the race. The Chevette was in front of me again, but I got him down the motorway section. There were 5 HQ’s in the field, and one of them was way way quicker then the rest. He qualified 12th! I slowly reeled him in, and in a state of what can only be described as adrenalin head rush, actually passed him on the outside of the same corners where the Escort blew.
In the next 2 laps, I managed to catch one of the incredibly quick (as a combination) 4-AGE powered Starlets, and get by him, to finish 13th. Feeling Good !!!!!!!! In the second race, I was advanced to 16th on the grid. Again, the traction off the line was brilliant, and I took 3 cars. The Elbow was again a fiasco, but not quite so bad. The race settled down a bit, and I didn’t get by any more cars. There were a bunch of us who were pretty much even, and for me, this was the best race of the day. Again, finished 13th. The last race was a reverse grid handicap event. I was 13th - alongside a dedicated race Sprinter (AE86?) Coupe. I don’t know the guy, but he was real pissed that I had beaten him in the previous race (one of the three the MR2 took from the start line, and although he was right there behind me, couldn’t get by). His pit was almost next to mine, and I had heard his mates ribbing him about being beaten by a road MR2. I don’t know who decides the handicaps, but after the two cars in front of us were sent off, I think the starter had a cup of tea!!!! When the flag dropped, the MR2 again dragged him off, but he had the bit between his teeth. He out-braked me by a mile into the Elbow and muscled through. I slotted in behind him, and stayed there until a clown in a faster car caught me, and muscled his way through on the inside at the U turn - almost totally losing it in the process. If I had the same mentality as these two guys, they would not have got by, and if they did would probably not have finished the race (I took serious evasive action to avoid punting them off the track as they regained composure). For me, motorsport is about having fun. It is a hobby, and I prefer to race again next meet without having to rebuild the car. After those two incidents, I kinda relaxed back, and cruised home. Strangely enough, I set the fastest times I achieved in that race.
Reactions were interesting, to say the least. Dougal Stevenson
was the main Commentator. He apparently said with some surprise that it
was unusual to
see an MR2 racing. He is right. He was apparently quite impressed with
how it went. Certainly some people were. I had a constant stream of
people through the pit area - who either owned, or had owned one, their
Mother / Daughter / Son / Father / friend .. etc, etc …….. and what had
I done to it to make it so competitive? Most could not believe that the
car is essentially standard, and still had seats, carpets, electric
windows and a stereo! All were amazed that it did not even have a
roll cage! The race meeting showed up a lot of faults in the car. It
was sometimes picking up its inside rear wheel on cornering, for
example, and its brakes (standard / worn - with metal king pads) are
pretty feeble. Also, as the track became more slippery, I had trouble
turning in. It under-steered quite bad. I suspect that indicates wrong
spring rates? Too soft in the front? It showed up even more
faults in my driving. The car, even as it is, is
capable of going a lot faster than I drove it. I went quicker as the
day progressed, and will continue that trend as my confidence in the
car (and me) grows. The car is now in store for some serious suspension
and brake work. I don’t have many lap times - the race meet is not
about that - but I finished up doing 1 min 31’s. The Abarth X19’s were
doing 1 min 29’s. The only other reasonably close time I got was for
the 1982 Nissan 240RS which won a number of European titles back then -
1 min 36’s. There are 4 Triumph TR2 / 3 s which are raced hard in this
part of the country - they were doing 1 Min 52’s. I am told that the NZ
Classic Car mag YearBook voted the Mk1 MR2 the best car of the ‘80s,
and commented that you have to drive one to really understand just how
good they are. If that is true, they are dead damn right! For an
essentially stock road car to finish 13th in a field of 28 race cars on
a street track (driven by a 45 year old who was away from it for
over 10 years) it has to be good.