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Special feature

Bidding farewell to a Kiwi motorsport kingdom

Greg Murphy was lauded as the 'King of Pukekohe' for his impressive Supercars performances at the venue. Now the legendary New Zealand track has closed, he reveals why it was so special

Greg Murphy, KMart Racing

September 2022. Fabled New Zealand race track Pukekohe was hosting Australia’s Supercars series not only for the first time since 2019, due to COVID-19, but also for the last time ever, thanks to the impending, and somewhat unexpected, closure of the circuit.

Less than eight weeks earlier, venue owner Auckland Thoroughbred Racing had announced an expansion of the horse training and racing facilities at Pukekohe Park. The flip side was that it would come at the expense of the motor racing track. This month, a rich, six-decade chapter of motorsport history officially came to an end.

For that entire final Supercars weekend there was magic in the air. The sell-out crowd was bouncing. Merchandise trucks were basically out of stock by Friday evening. And Shane van Gisbergen put in one of the all-time great Supercars drives to win Sunday afternoon’s finale. The hometown hero, who grew up just around the corner, charged from eighth on the grid to steal the win in the closing laps after a thrilling battle with Cam Waters.

The roar from the crowd was incredible as he executed the winning pass, as it was when he lifted the Jason Richards Trophy, a nod to the late, great ‘JR’, who passed away due to illness in 2011. It’s one of the most treasured prizes in Supercars, thanks to how universally popular JR was with everyone in the paddock, including his rival drivers. Orchestrating the emotional victory was van Gisbergen’s new engineer Andrew Edwards, a great friend of Richards from their time together at Brad Jones Racing.

It was the most fitting of ends to an era.

Murphy describes van Gisbergen's win in final Pukekohe Supercars race as

Murphy describes van Gisbergen's win in final Pukekohe Supercars race as "crazy"

Photo by: Edge Photographics

Watching in amazement as it all unfolded was two-time series runner-up Greg Murphy, the undisputed King of Pukekohe (even if he struggles to admit it himself). Supercars TV pit reporter Chad Neylon would later post footage on social media of a deeply invested Murphy reacting to the race-winning pass.

“I suppose it was one of those things that you can dream of happening. But the chance of it happening? Nah, just ridiculous,” says four-time Bathurst 1000 winner Murphy of that final race in 2022. “Then again, I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have had a few of those storylines there in the past myself. So I probably shouldn’t be surprised. But, seriously, that was just a crazy, crazy situation. I’m not a believer in the universe stuff, but it was like… JR was up there pulling strings, man.

“I’d been told all these things about what you needed to look out for, and that it’s dangerous here and you need a lot of commitment there and have to show respect here and so on” Greg Murphy

“I spoke to Andrew Edwards later on, when they were packing up in the dark on Sunday night, and he couldn’t believe it. He was so emotional about the whole thing. It was amazing, it was incredible to see someone who had so many touch points to the journey, to have it culminate in that afternoon. His story is even more remarkable and wonderful than anybody else’s.

“There was something spooky going on. It sends a shiver down the spine just talking about it. I’m not a believer in all that stuff, but man, sometimes things are just supposed to be.”

It was the final moment of magic at Pukekohe, but it was far from the first. The racing gods have long smiled down on the place, and the greatest beneficiary of that was Murphy.

The likes of Amon (l) and Rindt starred at Pukekohe in the 1960s

The likes of Amon (l) and Rindt starred at Pukekohe in the 1960s

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Of course, the circuit’s history is so much more than Supercars. After opening in 1963, it became a staple of the Tasman Series, which meant hosting some of the best single-seater drivers in the world. It was also a regular host of the New Zealand Grand Prix, with John Surtees, Bruce McLaren, Graham Hill, Jackie Stewart, Chris Amon and Keke Rosberg among those to have won NZGP crowns at the venue.

But there can only be one king, and that is Murphy. One of, if not the, most popular Kiwi drivers of all time, Murphy was an unstoppable force in the early days of championship Supercars racing at Pukekohe. In 2001, he won the first ever points paying round there with a clean sweep of all three races. A year later, he won the round again. And again in 2003. It wasn’t until 2004 that he was finally beaten to a round win on NZ soil, when Jason Bright triumphed. He then bounced back in 2005 with another clean sweep to reclaim his crown.

The remarkable run of success meant people pinned ‘Murph’ as a Pukekohe specialist who must clearly have grown up at the place. The reality, however, is that he’d only raced on the fast, daunting layout a handful of times before 2001.

“I think the first time I raced there was as a support to the 1990 Nissan Mobil series, which was mindblowing,” Murphy recalls. “I was in Formula Ford; I won the Shell Ultra Scholarship, which got me into cars. We did Wellington and then Pukekohe was added to the schedule late. It wasn’t in the original budget.

“I was terrified the first time. The warnings I had from people – ‘You’ll have to be bloody careful, it’s a bloody serious race track’ – so I turned up there and I was shitting myself. I’d been told all these things about what you needed to look out for, and that it’s dangerous here and you need a lot of commitment there and have to show respect here and so on. I was ill-prepared, really, given it was my second race in a car and I’d never been there before.

Murphy enjoyed impressive Supercars record at Pukekohe, despite limited previous experience

Murphy enjoyed impressive Supercars record at Pukekohe, despite limited previous experience

Photo by: Motorsport Images

“We went back there once or twice after that, during the season, and I got quite used to it. I think I had a couple of good results there in 1991. And then we rolled into the 1991/1992 season and I was in a Formula Atlantic car. Man, it was mega in an Atlantic car. Absolutely mega. And then, at the end of 1992, I was back there in the Sierra. I think when I got there in the Sierra I’d only driven there four or five times. Five max.”

The Sierra Murphy is talking about is the Whittakers Peanut Slab Group A Ford that he and Kayne Scott shared for the Nissan Mobil 500 series in December 1992. The pair finished fourth in Wellington and fourth at Pukekohe. They were important results for Murphy that helped him break into the Australian Touring Car Championship scene.

“Three years into Pukekohe it was like, ‘Can he be beaten?’ And then Jason went and did it in 2004 it was almost like a bit of a relief, in a way. And I was still on the podium so it was OK, it was still amazing” Greg Murphy

Fast-forward to late 1996, by which time Murphy had won the 1994 NZGP, run in that era for Formula Brabham (Holden) cars, at Pukekohe. He had just taken a sensational Bathurst 1000 win with Craig Lowndes for the Holden Racing Team. He was then added to HRT’s squad for the revived Mobil New Zealand series, a pair of non-championship sprint events at Pukekohe and Wellington. Murphy won the series thanks to a clean sweep at Pukekohe in front of a huge crowd.

“When we came over in 1996, the crowd was huge, because people were starved of [Aussie touring cars] and just loved it,” says Murphy. “So over we came and the crowd was phenomenal. But I was just… bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. I was a deer in the headlights. Bathurst had happened and I was making a name for myself, but it was all a blur.”

Murphy's wins started when Pukekohe first joined the schedule in 2001

Murphy's wins started when Pukekohe first joined the schedule in 2001

Photo by: Motorsport Images

The next time the ATCC/Supercars raced in New Zealand was that first proper championship round in 2001 – the start of Murphy’s four-from-five winning streak. For much of that period, Murphy was with the highly competitive K-Mart Racing Team, his Pukekohe results all part of top-four championship campaigns. His 2005 win, however, was a little less expected given he’d moved to the less-consistent Paul Weel Racing. Either way, given the general competitive nature of the series, Murphy is at a loss to explain how and why he was so hard to beat at the circuit each year.

“I was always turned up there for the first five years – because it did end eventually – but for those years I was in good machinery that I was comfortable would work there,” says Murphy. “We couldn’t make it work everywhere but it would work there and that gave me confidence. And hey, a few things went our way through those five years, for sure, where others had misfortune and that put me in a good position, because I wasn’t always the fastest. But again, why? Why did those things happen to allow me to have that success? It’s bizarre. I was surprised it kept happening over those years.”

As great as the highs were for Murphy, the success came at a price. With each win, the pressure multiplied the following year. In the lead-up to Pukekohe there would be a barrage of questions about whether he could be beaten. As Murphy explains, it was a similar grind to his long-standing Bathurst lap record from 2003.

“Yeah, absolutely,” he says when asked if he felt the pressure to perform on home soil. “Probably not so much the first time as much as the second time, and third time, and fourth time. Year after year. It’s a bit like when I was hounded by people saying, ‘Is your Lap of the Gods [Bathurst] going to be beaten this year?’ Eventually it’s like, ‘For God’s sake, please someone just beat it’. Three years into Pukekohe it was like, ‘Can he be beaten?’ And then Jason went and did it in 2004 and it was almost like a bit of a relief, in a way. And I was still on the podium so it was OK, it was still amazing. As long as you’re part of something where there’s some success and you’re still being seen, rather than being 23rd, you’re pretty happy.”

The wins for Murphy continued in 2005

The wins for Murphy continued in 2005

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Understandably, Murphy is reluctant to personally overplay his place, and that of his winning streak, in Pukekohe history. But even at his most modest, he can’t hide what being the King of Pukekohe means to him.

“I think it was already an iconic circuit,” he says. “You think about the generations of fans, and passing the baton from people who were there in the 1960s and through that era. You look at the crowds of people who turned up to watch those incredible men and their machines, and the Kiwi names at the time that were starting out. And then the Brabhams and Hills and the Clarks, all these people. The Kenny Smiths of the world.

“That started it. There are other tracks like Levin, which isn’t around anymore, or South Island tracks like Wigram and Teretonga. They had a bit of that magic too. But Pukekohe just stands out. And it’s continued to create stories.

“So yes, I guess I’ve been part of that by generating moments that people remember. Moments that sit with them forever. I totally recognise that and how fortunate I’ve been to be part of that. And now Shane is part of that. And Andre [Heimgartner] is part of that. And [three-time Supercars champion] Scott McLaughlin too.

“We’re not just talking about those things to make chat. They are cemented within us, and so many other people out there as well. That’s an honour.”

Murphy modestly acknowledges the impact of his Pukekohe success

Murphy modestly acknowledges the impact of his Pukekohe success

Photo by: Motorsport Images

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