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Race hangs on death spot

By Geoff Vause
[email protected]
Wairarapa’s unique high speed Cliffhanger motorcycle event may be shorter but not necessarily safer when a coroner’s inquest concludes in Wellington this week.
Two riders perished on ‘corner 13’ at the event two years apart, and coroner Peter Ryan scrutinised the safety of the race against the clock at Te Wharau Road.
The 6.1 kilometre race pits individual riders against their own times, rising 300 metres through 27 corners. The event began in 2001 and is one of only two in New Zealand with the Bert Munro Challenge at Bluff.
This country is one of the few in the world to allow street riders to go as fast as they dare on narrow country roads closed to the public.
Malcolm Foster, 59, of Tawa died on March 11 2012 and Kevin Waugh, also 59, of Newlands died on March 9 2014.
Coroner Peter Ryan said he combined the inquests because the circumstances were so similar.
Both men were experienced street riders. Mr Foster was on a 1000cc Ducati in the annual event on the day he failed to exit corner 13 correctly and hit a strainer post, while Mr Waugh was riding a 700cc Triumph Daytona when he left the corner in similar fashion two years later to hit the fence in almost the same spot.
Mr Ryan asked several witnesses their view of the corner in question, and asked Cliffhanger Promotions chairman at the time of the 2012 fatality, design engineer Peter Thompson of Greytown, if he thought shortening the race to preclude corner 13 would help save lives.
“The hill climb would lose some of its allure,” Mr Thompson said.
He was involved in the event both as a committee member and as a rider in the Cliffhanger which had begun in 2001. He told Mr Ryan corner eight or the “Cliffhanger Corner” that gave the event its name had been more of a concern.
“Corner eight is very tight and slower speed with a drop off one side. I thought about that corner specifically when I was riding, but not corner 13 which is a high speed corner,” he said.
“Would it be practical if I recommended shortening the course to remove corner 13?” Mr Ryan asked again. “Would it reduce the chance of injury by removing that corner, and would such a recommendation ruin the race?”
“”We’ll take what we can get,” Mr Thompson said.
“Safety depends on the mind-set of the racers. There is nowhere on the track you can relax,” he said.
Mr Thompson said there were three main contributing factors to Mr Foster’s death. He had taken an incorrect cornering line, he had braked hard and slid, and he had hit a solid object. He said the crash could not be survived.
Constable Glen Marshall of the Wellington Crash Unit had investigated both deaths.
He said Foster was riding near the limit of his ability and was travelling at about 178kph when he failed to exit the moderate corner safely. He was on his last run of the two-day event.
Constable Marshall said Mr Foster signed a waiver for the event.
Kevin Waugh was on his first run of the day when he crashed on the same corner.
He said Mr Waugh may have been travelling at between 188kph and 218kph.
Mr Waugh was going too fast for the corner and on the wrong line. Constable Marshall said the road was not suited to the speed.
“The course is dangerous and there is no room for error,” he said.
He said the strainer post which sat out from the fence at right angle that both men had hit had been removed but this did not improve the safety of the corner much where high speeds were in play.
Cliffhanger competitor Peter Butler crashed on the same corner in 2013 travelling at what he thought was about 180kph.
He said pre-race safety briefings now included the corner specifically and road cones were in place to remind riders there had been deaths there.

4 COMMENTS

  1. There is cones and a meeting at the corner so new riders informed of the right line for the bend. Was very sad days but it was just a case of very good riders picking the wrong line . Could happen to any riders who ride on a road at speed the people who run the hill climb do a fantastic job keeping riders informed of how to run the track and to take it ezy until you feel confident. All these guys know the risks and that’s why they are there . No need for trying to point blame at people who run the hill climb.

  2. Isle of Man has claimed 260 lives since it started.
    This hillclimb is no different and retained and im sure the organisers brief will cover those corners and maybe a ride through following a experianced riders lines will encourage particapants to take more car. We dont close an event because of those deaths. I chose not to do it even though i compete at other events over 300kph.
    RESPECT is what i have for those that ride it. Regards John ( Acting president of Landspeed NZ Ass.)

  3. Having competed in the event over a period of four years I can see both sides. Nobody wants to see anyone hurt. It does however come down to personal choice. The same way a rugby player takes a risk or a surfer or mountain climber.
    I did find constable Marshall’s comment of no room for error comment interesting though and have to say I disagree. Having done roughly fifty or so runs I have made mistakes as any rider or sportsman in general does.
    I just strongly feel that society is becoming far too insulated and for that freedom of choice will suffer.

  4. As they said experienced street riders, not experienced track riders. There is a difference. When you ride this hill climb you must leave something in reserve. You must not go all out at 100% on this one. Peter is right it will ruin it if it is shortened.

    Tony Sampson

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