I drafted this a few months ago but then other things got in the way. Now seems a good time to get caught up finally, before the year disappears, and for another reason I’ll explain at the end. So, let us rewind….
In April, the city of Hamilton hosted the New Zealand round of the Australian V8 Supercar series. Arguably the country’s premier motorsport event, it is the one sporting occasion that I try to attend in person each year. In a working capacity, as a flagmarshal.
Flagmarshals fulfill an important safety role at race events, their main function being to use a set of flags to signal certain messages to drivers. They are organised into small teams, each with a post chief, and put at specific positions around the course. Usually a day at the track is pretty long and tiring and sometimes it can be very full on. You expect an exciting, busy weekend with the Aussie V8s!
I was disappointed to give it a miss last year due to work. This year things were no less busy but there was no critical implementation dates, so I lodged my application. A few weeks later my place was confirmed.
A couple of weeks before race weekend I attended a briefing in Palmerston North, a small city a couple of hours north of Wellington. As well as getting some useful information, we also received the coveted entry pass and the standard issue white overalls. While not designed to look good (or even vaguely fit well), at least we would look all the same and, hence, somewhat professional.
We also found out where we would be assigned for the weekend – a keenly sought after piece of intel. Every flaggie wants to get on a prime corner spot with lots of action. Of course there are few of those places and 300 marshals so some people are obviously going to miss out.
Such as me! Still, it was a thrill to just be involved.
The days ticked over and finally it was Thursday, marking the start of my long weekend. I hit the road for the drive north, very happy to be driving my car instead of my desk.
Morrinsville is a small town in the Waikato and I find it to be a good base when going to the V8s being not far from both Hamilton and my grandmother. It has a couple of good motels, a good supermarket, and that’s about all I need. It also has tractors.
Friday is the start of the race weekend and the first of three long days for those involved in making it happen. After navigating the dark city streets to the assigned carpark (always a bit hit and miss on the first day), marshals are typically all signed in by 6.30am and waiting at Turn One by 7am for a ride around to the flag points. I and the other point chiefs detoured to pick up the communication radios.
Standing en masse in our white overalls, it if wasn’t for the context of the racetrack we could easily be mistaken for a gang of house painters. At most other race events in NZ marshals are in orange gear which is a little more unique.
Of the 23 flag points around the street circuit I was around the back on point 15. As forewarned by the circuit diagram I could see that we would be sufficiently far away from a corner to be assured of a quietish weekend. Sigh. I met the other three flagmarshals, the fireman assigned to our point, and the guy who was manning the nearby emergency escape hatch. We set up the equipment and I got plugged into the communications set. Essentially a hard wired telephone system, I had a leash of around six feet which kept me from straying off point.
Eventually, after various course vehicles had completed various laps around the track to check for various things, the sessions got underway. It was great to be back on the front line, even on our humble flag point!
Marshals have to behave in a professional manner and this extends to not taking photographs while on duty. Hence there aren’t photos of any actual action. Being professional doesn’t rule out having fun: I was with a good bunch and we had a lot of laughs over the weekend.
We also had a resident rabbit. Clearly a bit of an urban bunny he (she?) was quite happy being near people and within a few metres of fast noisy V8s. It also only had three legs which made me less worried that it would amble under or bound over the barriers onto the track.
The weather forecast was not brilliant and Saturday was w-e-t. We were next to a traffic overbridge which provided some shelter when nothing was happening – that is unless you were tethered to the point like I was. The support classes rotated through their stints on track and provided some good entertainment and a little bit of flag action for us. Luckily it wasn’t tooo wet and race one of the Aussie V8s went ahead as scheduled in the afternoon. This was what we all came for!
Without the benefit of any commentary or a big screen it is tricky to keep up with what’s happening on track, especially once the pit stop strategies come into play. And especially when spray at times stopped us from seeing beyond more than a few metres. The conditions caused dramas elsewhere around the circuit, which did create a little bit of excitement for us when the track came under full-course yellow.
It is usually a relief to get to the end of the day after standing on concrete for the best part of 10 hours. I gave the ZZ Top concert a miss as I was meeting my mother for dinner back in Morrinsville. Hard to believe it is 24 years since I saw them play at Western Springs back in their heyday.
Sunday saw the weather gods in a better mood as there was only patchy rain. I think most of us had been able to dry out our wet articles from the day before. By this stage of the weekend my back and legs were regularly needing a bit of relief from standing and my ear regions were feeling very tender from the tight head-set.
Another feature of our remote outpost was the absence of other humans, aside from the ones hurtling past us on the track. There were no spectator areas nearby so apart from the rabbit, we were visited only occasionally by race officials and police officers on foot patrol.
The build-up to the second 59-lap race for the Aussie V8s included the drivers parade. Marshals will typically applaud all drivers at the end of every race and it is nice to get the occasional wave back in return. Just about all of them acknowledged us, though some did seem a bit preoccupied talking to the obligatory decorative female sitting beside them.
Race two got underway and we soaked up the final opportunity of the weekend to see these cars in the flesh. It was an exciting race and resulted in a brilliant first V8 Supercars win for one of the NZ drivers.
Afterward we did the usual equipment pack-up. I walked back around the track to HQ which provided a good perspective of the various corners, especially where there were obvious signs of cars having connected with walls. I didn’t linger at the track on account of paying my grandmother and mother a final visit.
The next day I was busy with the 500km return drive home, a couple of weather related stops helping to break it up.
And now back in the present, the end of 2011, it was recently announced that the V8 Supercars have been pulled from Hamilton after the April 2012 event. In short it has been a financial disaster. Quite possibly this also spells the end of New Zealand round altogether. There is one promising alternative venue at the Hampton Downs racetrack south of Auckland and hopefully they can pull it off.
But 2012 could well be the last time the V8 Supercars are in NZ. And unfortunately they’ll be doing it without me. I’m travelling to the UK in May and my resources are going toward that.
My memories and photos from the 9 or 10 Supercar events I did marshal at will have to sustain me!