With the sad news that Pukekohe Park Raceway would be shutting down came a strong desire to get back on track for one last outing there. So when my friend Everard (aka EeveeP) sent through a link for playday on track I called Dad and set the car prep wheels in motion for the first time since 2020.
Everard’s a good friend here in Christchurch who I’ve done a lot of sim racing stuff with. He not long ago bought an MX5 to race the MX5 one make series. That meant trailering the car from Christchurch all the way up to Auckland to drive at Puke. No such giant journey for me. I flew up to Auckland where the Red Dragon was waiting for me all ready to go after Dad, ever the legend, had taken it to the mechanic for a once over and had everything sorted ready to go.
Getting ready for the day was a familiar routine made somewhat less so by the expanse time since the Red Dragons last outing. We had done a track day at the end of 2020 as the prize day for the Virtual 2 Reality competition I had held, but prior to that our last event was pre covid. We weren’t expecting that to be our last event of course. We had booked and prepped for two race weekends, purchasing new tyres and all, when lockdown cancelled everything.
So it’s those new tyres we were eyeing up when the forecast said the rain was coming. After humming and harring we opted to put the new tyres on the front but leave the rears with the expectation (hope) that it would be dry in the morning sessions.
Arriving at the track was a funny moment. Knowing it would be closed soon I couldn’t help but reflect on all the great memories of this place. From watching the supercars to racing in the 2kcup, getting on the podium in the BMW series to my family and friends day taking passengers for laps in the E30. So much happiness looking back but then sadness knowing after today there would be no new memories created here.
Pulling into the infield it was awesome to see the huge group of MX5s. It was a club event with a special MX5s only group included in the track day. It’s this group that had originally caught Eevee’s attention when he’d signed up. But not only MX5s there was a huge turnout of cars ready for the other groups. Everything from NZ Supercars to Honda Civics, a new Mustang and Porsche, some big 4 wheel drive thing also there ready to do laps. And the best part, it was dry.
The 4 groups for the day were MX5s, fast group, medium group, and speed challenged group. Unlike previous track days we weren’t given a specific group to join and there were no cut off times to dictate groups we just had to pick what made sense. After seeing so many hands raised at drivers briefing when asked who had never driven Puke, and seeing some of heavily modified race cars, we opted to start our little MR2 in the medium group and see how things went.
Before getting going at speed everyone got to go out together for a few recce laps. That’s where we got this banging photo.
Dad and I would be sharing the car but it was me that went first. Having been so long since I’d driven the Red Dragon, and having recently driven something completely different in the form of the Rally Star crosscar in India, I was keen to ease back into it slowly.
Getting out on track I was very cautious for the first couple of laps, the out lap crash haunting my memories. But as each lap went by I felt more and more comfortable. Hitting the brakes later and later. Turning harder and harder. Getting on the gas more and more aggressively. By the end of the session I was pumping myself up for full commitment through the final turn. Foot flat to the floor, a quarter lift for half a second then back on the gas. Maximum commitment bouncing through the corner and up over the top car pushing wide out along the edge of the tarmac but not over. Then quickly into turn one full send bouncing though the turn right up next to the inside kerb. What an epic track.
I was buzzing when I came back into the pits. How do I always forget how much fun the Red Dragon is.
Not long after I was out of the car Eevee and the MX5 group were due to be out for their second session. With Everard’s MX5 kitted out with a full roll cage I was able to jump in the passenger seat and head out with him. Oh boy is it wild being a passenger at Pukekohe. I’m never nervous about crashing when I’m driving, I’m too busy focussed on driving, but in the passenger seat it was another story. First lap Everard is already full commitment. We get to the final turn and suddenly the walls feel 2 metres closer than they ever have before. The tyres squeal as he has to correct the steering just a touch midway through and I tense up even more. But the MX5 powers through and onto lap two to do it all again. I got more comfortable as the session went on but boy does an MX5 drive different to an MR2. Eevee was full send sliding and catching it through corners throwing that thing around but it would always stick. Do that in an MR2 and it will spin with zero chance of catching it which I can say speaking from experience.
Jumping out of the car I had time to fill Dad in about how awesome being a passenger with Eevee was and then I was getting myself ready for session 2. This time it was Eevees turn to the be the passenger. First lap out I went through the normal routine of warming up the brakes, warming up my race mindset. Then we had other cars to contend with.
With all the new drivers, many in faster cars, a theme of the day was being stuck behind cars through the corners then having them blast away down the straights. Of course it was a casual track day so we would take it easy, not pulling any aggressive moves, but still we would get past even if after a few laps for some. Being able to make my way past so many cars like this made me feel like a hero, the fastest driver in the land haha.
Part way through the session we found some space and really got moving. I was much more in my grove by now. Full flat through the final turn no half lift. And boy did it make me nervous a couple laps coming up over the hill pushing wide out only centimetres from the grass. Then bouncing through turn one and slamming on the brakes for turn two. Slamming on the brakes again over the back side of the circuit. It was great fun and we were smiling and laughing the whole time.
After the session Eevee commented on how much faster the MR2 is, on the limit of grip through the final turn whereas the MX5 could easily come out with a car width to spare, and how much more aggressive I could be on the brakes.
Back into the pits but I wasn’t in a rush this time as Dad was up next in the Red Dragon. All his usual pre race comments came out like “I don’t know about this I’ll just take it easy”, “I’ll just be slow out there”, “maybe I only need to do one session”. But naturally once the helmets on it doesn’t take long to get in the swing of things and want to keep pushing harder. And that’s exactly what happened. Dad coming back into the pits with a big smile happy with the suggestion he go again in the next one.
After lunch break it was time again for Eevees MX5s session and I was excited to be offered the passenger seat again. This time I was ready for the hectic cornering. I also kept an eye on the speedo. 160km/h+ at the end of the straights. He was right that’s a bit less than the off the clock 180km/h+ the MR2 was doing. Not that it makes much difference when you’re still turning it in on the limit of grip sometimes sliding around and maybe even going over the limit and onto the grass on one occasion 😅
Now it was time for Dads second session. The umbrellas were out now, the track was definitely wet. I walked over to watch from atop the pits and Dad was looking cautious but getting faster and faster as the session went on and the rain reduced and cleared. Then after the 15 minutes was up he came back into the pits. But as he pulled in it was a thumbs down I got not the usually big thumbs up. Confused I went up to the door and asked.
Dad had hit the wall. And you’ll be pleased to know we had the camera running.
It wasn’t a serious crash, Dad was fine. But there was large concern for the car. He pointed round to the back and we went to check it out. It looked… basically fine? The bumper was pushed in and maybe the lights were a tiny bit pushed in too. Then I noticed the spoiler had split off on one side. Not ideal but not too bad. Dad was almost confused that he’d got away with so little damage. He was reporting a heavy hit sliding backwards into the wall. The boot might have been a tiny bit out of line too. But then we opened it up.
Okay that’s a bit more serious. Bent chassis like that means it’s done its job to reduce the impact but it usually also means a big repair bill, and even questions about if it’s repairable. Certainly an unfortunate position to be in when we had been discussing selling the car. Dad had earlier said we should take it easy on this last track day because we don’t want to blow it up or bend it if we are to sell it like what he did with the E30 (blew the engine on the last track day before we sold it).
And then I was back in the passenger seat with Eevee. The track started a bit wet but quickly it was drying out. Careful not to over do it at the start of the session it was clear as it dried that he was really dialled in, taking the corners smoother carrying more speed through the exit. Again it was a lot of fun.
Given that Dad had carried on after the crash and was reporting the car was driving fine we figured we were all go to carry on driving the days later sessions. I was up next and with the track wet again with the rain back (although only lightly) I was nervous for my first wet session in years (since 2019?).
Taking it cautiously at first I could feel there was enough grip to carry some speed with the track mostly dry at this point. With slow traffic once again, and understandably in the conditions, I was taking it easy through the corners tucked in behind. Then mid way through the session with the rain back I arrive at the back chicane tucked up behind another car. Midway through the right hander he backs right off and pulls right to reveal a spun car. I have to immediately react to avoid the spun car and also back off to avoid the car in front. Comfortably past the incident we carry on as the rain continues to increase.
Next lap around I get passed that car that was ahead of me (once again quicker in the corners but slower on the straights) and head back to the back chicane. This time with my wipers going I’m wondering how hard can I push the brakes in the wet. I head into the corner with what I thought was moderate aggression and immediately spin. I’m spinning on the track safely towards the grass so my immediate reaction is to laugh that I’ve spun it at the same spot as the last guy. Then I see the cars coming behind and I’m nervous who will be next. Getting out of there as quickly as I can I head to the hairpin. As slow as that corner is the car still get’s loose and I’m half way to having another spin before I catch it. Now I’m thinking what the heckers is up with this car. I carried on so slowly through the final turn and onto another lap. Down through the first sector the car feels alright so I’m carrying on getting back up to speed or whatever you call the reduced wet weather speed we could actually manage. Now back into the back chicane. I thought I was backing off but the car again was instantly sliding. As I’m two wheels on the grass wrestling the car to keep it from spinning I hear the camera beep as it runs out of battery missing me have that second moment at the very same corner.
After that I was spooked and came straight back to the pits early. It really felt like something was wrong given I had so much grip through the first sector but had zero heading into the back chicane. I was thinking was it damage. Or maybe was it those rear tyres we hadn’t swapped for the new ones.
Looking at the tyres the outside edge of the left rear tyre was the most worn, the loaded edge heading into that back chicane. Maybe that was it. Or maybe something was off with the car after the crash. Or maybe my driving was that rusty. Seems strange that Dad and I would both spin there given we used to be excited on wet days where the MR2 was more competitive than it was vs the rest of the 2kcup in the dry. With rain continuing and getting worse and worse I was still keen to get the car back out for the final session and try get a feel for if something was wrong. huddling under the gazebo we set about changing the rear tyres in the hopes that might have been the issue. As the rain thundered down the track announcement came out that it was too wet and the remaining sessions would be cancelled. Annoying but also a relief.
Talking to Eevee who had been in the last group on track in the heaviest rain it sure sounded like a wild ride. Rivers forming across the track and aquaplaning every lap. Credit to the MX5 drivers that no one ended in the fence and the right call to cancel the remaining sessions.
The racing was done but the laughs and banter continued. Eevees friend, joking about taking his kill switch out all day, accidentally drove off with it and had to come back to return it.
And in the end we got all the trailers loaded up and headed home from Pukekohe Park Raceway for the last time.