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In petrolhead heaven filming Checkered Flag (Photo: Supplied)
In petrolhead heaven filming Checkered Flag (Photo: Supplied)

SportsApril 18, 2024

Confessions of an unlikely petrolhead

In petrolhead heaven filming Checkered Flag (Photo: Supplied)
In petrolhead heaven filming Checkered Flag (Photo: Supplied)

Checkered Flag director Natalie Wilson on her lifelong love of motorsport, and the allure of Pukekohe Park Raceway.

One childhood summer when my world revolved around winning stuff off the radio, I bagged tickets to Western Springs Speedway and then to Waikaraka Park in what was a dream season for my redial thumb.  The thrill for me was the win – I had absolutely no idea what a speedway was. But I remember my dad being suspiciously wiling to celebrate my achievement on his weekends and I remember enjoying it a lot more than my sisters. 

Once the radio ticket well ran dry, I convinced someone to pay actual money to take me again. Giddy with dutch-angle-photojournalistic delusions I got trigger happy with my camera’s “foggy-corner” filter and captured possibly the worst photos ever taken of Western Springs. Objectively bad – I’ve taken better by accident from inside my bag – but also personally devastating because I genuinely believed I was siphoning some of the magic that was overloading all of my little senses onto film. The demented swarm of roaring engines, dirt bullets pelting my face, nostrils full of fumes, lips dry from salty chips and thin sauce. Maybe capturing something of the guilty tension between willing the metal to crunch and fear of witnessing something horrible, or the glory of seeing my car – the one I’d picked moments ago – taking a victory lap, checkered flag out the window. But no.

Three decades later, in a quiet corner at the loud end of a friend’s party it came out that the new colleague I was talking to was a speedway regular too. Buoyed by our surprising commonality, the lovely little chat we embarked on soon slammed full speed into the wall as I, without filter, uttered one of the Top 5 of most shamefully-bogan things I’ve ever said. Verbatim: “Every car, I feel like I’m right there in it. Sometimes, I am the car.” Pump the goddamn brakes. Chuck it into reverse. Too late. 

Facing the fact that I uttered these words comes with the admission that they’re true. And my visceral response is not reserved for big, dumb (jeez I love it) speedway or whatever racing I’m watching. It’s drip-fed when my car and I execute a flawless manoeuvre like the Torvill and Dean of parallel parking, when my friends get me on a racetrack for my birthday, or when I see my dream car in the flesh and pull alongside, window down… 

Of course I’m going to profess my love to the strangers in the black De Tomaso Pantera and of course they accommodate me with amused grins. Not until later do I think about how from their perspective, here’s an unlikely 40-year-old woman, in a filthy station wagon, leaning across her son yelling, “Is that a ‘71? How come I’ve never seen it before!? A recent import?” and whatever else I could squeeze in before the light turned green.

On the grid at Pukekohe Park (Photo: Supplied)

And while gender, age and parental status aren’t exclusionary factors, I don’t really know how I ended up here. I’ve never had a big-time-car-person friend (I’ve also ended friendships over reckless overtaking), I know firsthand what a horror crash feels like (and have been lucky to survive with just epilepsy), and since the Datsun I got when I was too young to sit my learner’s license I’ve never had a cool or modern car – I get older, they stay the same age (about 18). All that and of course, I’m now aware that petrol cars are killing us, which is a pretty valid reason for ignoring these urges. 

On occasion I get called a petrolhead but I feel deeply unqualified for this title. Maybe it’s semantics, but it seems that knowing how petrol works should be a requirement for starters. My mechanical knowledge is rudimentary at a stretch and it takes me 2.5 days at Pick-A-Part to do what F1 pit crews nail in 1.8 seconds. Car Enthusiast? That seems like it’s for people who are enthusiastic about modern auto technology and my 22-year-old Toyota Corolla covered in lichen cackles at the suggestion. 

Pukekohe Park Raceway (Photo: Checkered Flag)

So I’m settling on motorsport being a spectrum and if you’re on it, where you sit is irrelevant to your right to enjoy it. As far as inclusion goes, Pukekohe Park Raceway felt like coming home – for me over the final months of its life and for untold others over the previous 60 years. For every Shane Van Gisbergen are thousands more who know exactly how petrol works but would never attempt the speeds. There are those who pull onto the track with a hand raised bike that sounds like popcorn and doesn’t make it off the start line. Young teens who hit breakneck speeds but legally require Mum and Dad to drive them home down State Highway 1, and six-foot-four units who maintain their Mazda Demio is the perfect racecar for them – headroom for days! There are armies who are deep in motorsport but exclusively from the pits or the stands and those who come alone, year after year, and sit under their favourite tree on the hill, eating salty chips with thin sauce, quietly having their senses overwhelmed.

As a seriously under-qualified petrolhead and an overqualified opportunist, I completed far more laps of Pukekohe than were needed to make the documentary. My favourites were at sunset, making extra engine noises with my mouth as required, my son changing gears from the passenger seat, lichen edges ruffling as I nudged it just above road speed. Absolute glory.

Checkered Flag is available to watch on The Spinoff now. Made with support from NZ On Air.

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