By Geoff Vause
Cliffhanger motorcyclists say the event attracts them because of the danger on the tight ‘no mistakes’ hill climb.
The event was the subject of an inquest into two deaths recently after two riders, both aged 59, died after hitting a fence at almost exactly the same spot.
Kevin Waugh died in 2012 and Malcolm Foster in 2014. Both men were believed to be travelling in excess of 180kph on a road closed to the public for the two-day event which crash investigators said left “no room for error”.
During the inquest at Wellington District Court in August coroner Peter Ryan alluded to recommending shortening the course to remove the lethal ‘corner 13’ from the 27 corner, 6.1 km course. His findings were reserved.
The time-trial event is likely to run again in March next year as organiser Cliffhanger Promotions responds to expectations from riders of the high-powered café-racing machines.
Cliffhanger president Doug Fairbrother describes the Cliffhanger as “a little piece of the Isle of Man”, a legendary Irish road racing event where he has competed several times. And fallen off.
“I broke a collarbone and a couple of toes there in 2013,” the sixty-five-year-old said.
Fairbrother has ridden the Cliffhanger many times, and fallen off there as well.
“It happens,” he said. “I wasn’t sure why, but later thought it might have been the fault of the machine.”
With his brother Charlie he usually finishes around the top 10 with average speeds of about 140 kph, including one year where he rode almost exactly the same times at an average 143 kph on both a 2000 Aprillia 1000cc machine and a classic 1968 Triumph Bonneville.
Charlie beat him that year by .05sec on a 2004 Augusta MV 1000cc.
“It’s a short sprint compared to the Isle of Man, which is about the same as Greytown to Wellington across one lap,” Fairbrother said.
He said Cliffhanger entrant numbers had been declining slightly. Riders take off on the course at one-minute intervals to race against the clock.
Fairbrother said the initial runs gave marshals the chance to weed out anybody who obviously wouldn’t cope with the track.
“It’s likely we’ll have to cap entrants at about 40 to ensure everyone gets their rides and to maintain control.”
Cliffhanger regular Jay Lawrence chose Bridgestone slicks for his 2008 Kawasaki ZX-10R in 2013 to clock 2.04.596 at an average speed of 176.25km/h, eclipsing his own past record of 2.09.68. The record still stands.
Lawrence reached an astounding 295 kph on his winning run. He navigated corner eight at around 105 kph, the sharp Cliffhanger with its steep drop on the left-hand side giving the race its name.
Killer corner 13, described by crash inspectors as “moderate”, he entered at about 179 kph and exited at 182 kph, his near-perfect line keeping him on the road.
Lawrence said on social media at the time of the inquest “both chicanes and shortening would kill the event”.
“That’s the thing . . . riders know the risks and ride because of them.
“We can do it there and nowhere else,” Lawrence said.
“It’s a time trial. The only person you are racing is yourself and your own abilities. No-one else can be blamed if you get it wrong.
“Shorten the track and the danger spots will just move with people doing certain turns more frequently.”
Hamish Tarr was a close second to Jay Lawrence this year, and believes changing anything to slow it down would ruin the event.
“It’s popular because of the thrill and danger combined,” Tarr said.
“It should be treasured as the only true raw form of road racing this country has to rival Isle of Man TT . . . which most of us couldn’t afford to compete.”
Regular competitor Darren Knight takes issue with crash investigators claiming there was no room for error.
“I’ve done 50 or so runs and made mistakes, as any sportsman does,” Knight said.
“Nobody wants to see anyone hurt. It comes down to personal choice in the same way a rugby player or a surfer or mountain climber takes a risk.”
Previous race organiser Dina Albrett of Carterton said the event was unique in Australasia and unusual in the world of motorcycle racing. High speed closed road events were virtually unheard of across Europe, and while entrant numbers would have to be capped, the potential was strong.
“In the early years we had bands on the Saturday evening. People camped at the site, local marae fed everyone and made some money,” she said.
“Technology for broadcasting the hill climb has changed dramatically in the past few years.
“It was too costly when I was involved, but now live-streaming could attract an audience across the world because of its uniqueness.
“Some racers also put cameras on their bikes. As well as the live stream, a selection of the best could also be available and linked online.
“Live-stream and post event video could involve Wairarapa’s school and media students. It has so much potential.”