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Dave Argabright - Down Under Diary

DOWN UNDER DIARY December 31, 2003 CHALET MOTEL, Tauranga, New Zealand - Wednesday, Dec. 31, 9:10 a.m. - Somebody stole Monday, ran away with it like a fleet-footed chicken thief takes your prized laying hen. Sherry and I boarded our Qantas flight at 11:55 p.m. (actually, we left about 45 minutes late) on Sunday night, December 28. When we arrived at Auckland some 12 hours later, it was 9:30 a.m. local time, Tuesday, December 30. That happens when you cross the International dateline, which happens to be located a few hundred miles east of New Zealand. That’s the proper explanation, anyway; but Sherry and I were so drained and tired, we really didn’t care what day it was. The flight wasn’t particularly difficult; it was smooth and the Qantas service and attitude was warm and wonderful. But 12 hours in a pressurized cylinder can only be described as a less-than-ideal way to spend half of a day.

It was my first experience in a 747, and I knew going in that it was one monster airplane. But when you see it in human terms, it is startling; the massive gathering of people as we queued up to board numbered well over 500 by my estimate, and that’s a lot of people on one airplane. They fed us a hot meal almost immediately, and then we both tried to sleep. They provided a pillow, blanket, and an eye mask. Sleep came fitfully, even after purchasing “the best airline pillow made in the world” (made in Texas, I can say with American pride). I managed a couple of brief naps, then one stretch of four hours of uninterrupted sleep.

Even though we were both tired, Sherry and I were excited as we approached Auckland. The country was green and beautiful from the air, with breathtaking hillsides that contained tiny white dots, scattered peacefully around. It was the placid sight of grazing sheep. We got through customs, and the agent mentioned casually, “Don’t forget the exit tax. It’s $25 per person.” (I’ve often wondered about those kinds of taxes. What do they do if you don’t have the $25?) In the lobby of the airport we bumped into our contact, Pat Johnson, a cheerful former midget racer. He would take us south to Todd and Pollock Speedway, near Mount Maunganui, some three hours away. We piled our luggage into his Toyota, and I instinctively walked to the right side of the car to get in. I found myself standing right next to Pat, who had his hand on the door handle. I stared blankly at him for a moment, and he laughed gently, “You’re on the wrong side.” Oh, yeah. Forgot about that. They drive on the wrong side here. But be careful; despite the Kiwi’s good nature, they tend to bristle when you point that fact out to them.

We drove through the busy Auckland streets, teeming with life and people and traffic and commerce. It slowly gave way to a more rural setting as we rolled on, with Pat graciously answering our countless questions. We saw deer on farms, raised like cattle; spectacular, soaring hills with tiny, winding roads that clutched tightly to ridges just above sharp drop-offs into a boiling stream, followed within five minutes by flat, smooth terrain; brilliant, colorful flowers and massive, ancient trees that cast an imposing stature toward the sky.

Around noontime we stopped at the Pink Pig café, which was very much like a small American truck stop from the 1960’s. We discovered that by ordering salad with our sandwich, they simply piled lettuce, tomatoes, beets, and carrots with the meat in between the buns. On the side? Forget it. Sherry ordered a chicken burger, and there was no mention of the fact that it came covered with an apricot sauce. Still, after mustering up the courage to try it, Sherry admitted that she was pleasantly surprised by the flavor.

We rolled through a couple of small towns, and I realized that what I had heard previously about this region was correct: it is very much like the America we knew thirty years ago. There were no “chain” stores on the outskirts to suck the life from the downtown area, which consequently was thriving. It was a good feeling, knowing that these towns were still a place where one had an identity, from the shopkeeper to the policeman to the customers themselves. Mom & Pop stores are still a way of life here; not a Wal-Mart in sight. God love ‘em. We were rolling along in the countryside when a Porsche ripped past us on the right. Pat glanced at his dash, and announced, “We’re going 110 (kph, about 63 mph; the speed limit is 100 kph), and I wonder how fast that fellow is going. He’s going to get a blister, I tell you.” Pat described a typical “speed trap” here. A police van-unmarked, of course-rolls innocently along at the speed limit, with a camera and radar gun positioned on a tripod in the back. As faster cars approach from the rear, the speeder is simply photographed right along with the readout on the radar gun. They just mail you the ticket, and you pay. “If you protest,” Pat laughed, “they’ll mail you your picture. And you still pay. And I saw several of those vans on the way up this morning.”

We told Pat that we hoped to see a kiwi bird in the wild sometime during our trip. “Well, if you do, you’ll be lucky, I’ll tell you that,” he said. “You’ll only see them in zoos. I’ve been here 67 years, and I’ve never seen one in the wild. They’re endangered; they can’t fly, and the bloody predators have just about cleaned them out. “Quite sad, really.”

When you talk with people who have traveled here, some will tell you that driving on the left side of the road is no big deal. I think they’re wrong. It’s a very, very big deal. It goes against everything your brain is taught; five minutes on the road here, and you realize how instinctively the process of driving an automobile becomes. I sat in the front seat on the left as Pat drove; on at least two occasions I reached mindlessly for a steering wheel that wasn’t there. Each time, Pat laughed. “Well, have you started working the pedals, too, mate? That’ll be next, you know.”

We soon arrived in Tauranga, where Pat’s home is located. “A bit of heaven, if I do say so myself,” he said quietly. It was indeed beautiful, with immaculate lawns and landscaping and clean, uncluttered streets. It was as if the town had just brushed on a fresh coat of “nice” just in time for our arrival. He took us to the Chalet Motel, where we caught up with our friend of many years, Willie Kay, and his mate Glennis. Willie is one of those who has implored for years that I simply must come visit New Zealand; as we both emerged from our cars and shook hands warmly, I felt a soaring sense of accomplishment. “Welcome to New Zealand,” he said simply, as we allowed the handshake to linger. “I’m glad you finally made it here.”

He introduced us to Bruce Nicholson, the innkeeper at the Chalet. Bruce was everything you’d expect from this place: warm, friendly, accommodating, genuine. He showed us our room, and everyone helped us with our bags. For many years Willie was the promoter at Western Springs Speedway near Auckland, one of New Zealand’s most prominent tracks. But two years ago he left the Springs, and took the promotional job at Todd & Pollock Speedway at Baypark, Mount Maunganui. Tonight was the South Pacific Sprint Car Championship, part of the Kele World Challenge, a series of prominent international races that culminate each August with a championship event at the Knoxville Nationals in Iowa.

Racing was to begin at 7 p.m., and Sherry and I promised that we would get right over to the track after a brief nap. It was 3:15 p.m. We asked Bruce for a wake-up call at 5 p.m. “No worries, mate,” he smiled. I don’t even remember lying down; we were so tired, it just went black all at once. I vaguely remember the phone ringing, and hearing Bruce’s voice. But I must have laid back down. There was soon a pecking knock on the front door of the room, which was actually a sliding door in a glass wall. I pulled open the drapes, and there stood Bruce. He stared, then he smiled. “You’ve gone back to sleep, mate,” he said through the glass. He pointed at his watch. “It’s a quarter-to-seven.” Try to get that kind of service at the Holiday Inn. Just try.

Willie and Glennis were kind enough to provide us with his Nissan pickup for a few days. As we headed to the track, I quickly realized that driving here was certainly going to be a learning experience. I had to think almost constantly at what I was doing. Look to the right at every intersection, not just the left. Pay attention to the lane usage. The most significant difference was the vehicle itself. Ever shift a six-speed with your left hand? Give it a try; it’s a very different feeling. Every time I approached a turn, I inadvertently turned on the windshield wipers; the wipers and turn signal levers are reversed from those on American cars. It’s true, I’m not a patient man; there was swearing and gnashing of teeth. “You’re doing fine, dear,” Sherry said quietly from the passenger seat. But she certainly seemed to have a death grip on her door handle, I must say.

Todd and Pollock Speedway is a very impressive facility. It is more of a stadium than a typical race track, as it is ringed with seats that total nearly 18,000. The infrastructure is impeccable: concrete walks, bright lights, a completely paved pit area, paved parking. It was built just a couple of years ago by Bob Clarkson, a cherubic, happy-faced bloke who made a “good bit” of money by importing automotive driveline components beginning some 30 years ago. Clarkson told a fascinating story of the early, wide-open days when importers were not allowed to bring in a complete American car. They are an ingenious lot, these Kiwis. Some importers soon employed a fascinating process of buying an American car, in a common case a Ford Mustang. They would remove the windshield, and literally cut the car in two at the windshield pillar. The front half of the cars were shipped in a group of ten or so, a month or so before the lot of the rear half. When the two halves were at the same place in a New Zealand shop, they were again joined with some simple welds and a classic American musclecar was turned loose on these winding roads under the hands of a delighted Kiwi.

Never forget this: when people want something badly enough, they’ll figure out how. Government regulations be damned. Clarkson spent nearly NZ$15 million to build this wonderful place, and he beams with pride at his accomplishment. He says he hopes Americans realize that New Zealand has some very nice racing facilities; the fact is, you could put this track in any American location and it would immediately become one of the finest short tracks in North America. The track looks to be a fairly tight, flat quarter-mile.

Tonight there were two Americans racing sprint cars, P.J. Chesson and Billy Alley. Both were impressive; they finished one-two in the feature event, with Alley very nearly getting past Chesson right at the end. I later asked P.J. how he and Alley could come here and win right away. Everybody has pretty good stuff, and the local racers surely know more about the track. “We just race more,” he said. “The guys here, they’re still having to think for a split second about where they’re putting their right front wheel, and for us it’s instinctive. In that split second, we’ve already beaten them to the spot.”

The crowd didn’t seem to mind that the Americans had beaten the locals. They clapped and cheered for both, as well as local racer Joe Farram, who finished third. When Chesson came to victory lane, he throttled his car toward the infield and executed a number of wild donuts before finally parking at the finish line. “That’s exactly the kind of thing we need,” said Willie Kay later. “A long time ago, an American named Bob Tattersall came down here and won races in a way that we had never seen before, by being a bit wild and exciting. The people here need to see this, to help them get more excited about racing.”

The race cars here are noticeably quiet. There is a 95db limit, and it is strictly enforced. I must say it isn’t a bad thing; even while the cars were racing, you could carry on a conversation without someone screaming into your ear. There was also a 10 p.m. curfew. What a wonderful thing! The program moved very briskly, and when it finished-almost right at 10 p.m.-many of the fans and racers moved into a large banquet hall under the main grandstand, where drinks were served along with a small buffet. It was a delightful social gathering filled with happy chatter and fellowship. When you finish racing at 10, it’s surprising how many people like to hang around and socialize.

We drove back home through the darkness, under a clear sky and twinkling stars. It was a fine evening, the ending of a memorable and thoroughly enjoyable day. We still struggled with the driving issue; there was very little traffic, and each set of approaching headlights triggered alarms in my brain. “Wrong side! Wrong side!” Then as it approached, there was a small tremor of discomfort as it swept past, along the right.

Different, mate, different. But that’s why we’re here, isn’t it?

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