The Marlboro Series
13 July 2022
Often spoken of with reverence in racing circles, the Marlboro Series began forty-nine years ago, and lasted from 1973/74 to 1977/1978. Those who experienced some of the sensational classic racing that went on will never forget it.
AN INTERNATIONAL SERIES
One of the most significant aspects of motorcycle racing at the end of the 1960s was the appearance of ‘over the counter’ 250cc and 350cc racing machines, modelled on World Championship race bikes. They could be bought from a local motorcycle dealer, and were mostly Yamaha, Suzuki, and Kawasaki, all two-strokes. Until the Marlboro Series, the most that local race fans could hope for was the annual return to New Zealand by riders who had been successful overseas. This often meant an exhibition event with a horde of home-based riders trying to keep up with often unequal machinery. The Marlboro Series changed all that, with starting grids made up of international as well as local riders, mostly on competitive machinery.
Italian Marco Luccinelli, who went on to become 500cc World Champion in 1981, rode in the final round. A young American, Pat Hennen, also tipped to become a 500cc World Champion, until a crash in the Isle of Man in 1984 ended his racing career, won the Marlboro Series three times. Another American, Randy Mamola rode here as a teenager. Yet another American, the legendary Cal Rayborn, sadly died following an accident in the second round at Pukekohe in 1973. Hideo Kanaya from Japan rode in the final series, from Britain came Isle of Man TT winner Chas Mortimer, and from Australia an impressive group that included Warren Willing, Greg Hansford, Jeff and Murray Sale, Kenny Blake, and Ron Boulden. They were met by a contingent of local riders that included Graeme Crosby, Dennis Ireland, Stu Avant, Trevor Discombe, John Woodley, Rodger Freeth, and Paul McLauchlan. International racing had come to New Zealand. Nothing quite like it had been seen before, and I think it’s fair to say nothing like it has been seen since.
A MONTH OF HELL FOR THE HARDEST TITLE
As was the case with car racing, New Zealand was too far away to bring a batch of international riders for one meeting, so a series had to be organised throughout the country. The first Marlboro Series in 1973-74 began in Wanganui, then moved to Pukekohe, Gracefield, and Ruapuna. The second in 1974-75 dropped Pukekohe and included Bay Park and Timaru. Then a patt ern emerged and the last three Marlboro Series were held at Pukekohe, Wanganui, Gracefield, Timaru and Ruapuna. All the circuits were short. The longest was Pukekohe at 2.81km and the shortest Ruapuna at 1.56km. The machinery used in the final series had been developed for Grand Prix or Formula 750 racing, on circuits twice the length of those used in the Marlboro Series. Much of the racing was shoulder-to-shoulder, and those who saw Pat Hennen, Gregg Hansford, and Murray Sayle dicing through the streets of Wanganui in 1975-76 will never forget it. Pat Hennen was quoted as saying, “I’ve worked harder for this title than I’ve ever worked before. It’s been a month of absolute hell” The 1970s were boom years for motorcycles. There seemed to be more motorcycles on New Zealand roads than at any time before or since. The 70s saw the end of European dominance. Most of the legendary British marques had disappeared, and the Japanese industry had matured. Having dominated the small bike market in the 1960s, the big four, Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki, and Kawasaki finally stepped up and captured the big bike market in the 1970s, and this was apparent in the Marlboro Series. For five short years Australians looked to New Zealand for top road racing fixtures in the southern hemisphere. The Japanese factories were sending bikes to this country that would be tested in the Marlboro Series and then raced in Europe during the northern hemisphere summer.
DEMISE OF THE SERIES
So, if it was so successful, why did it stop? Several theories emerged. Motorcycle journalist Don Cox said at the time, “The loss of the Marlboro Series is indeed sad, and will put the cause back more years than most of us would like to consider”. Among other things blamed were, “amateur organisers biting off more than they could chew”. Some blamed lack of sponsorship. The total prize money for the 1976 series was for example $30,000. The money demanded today to bring riders of the calibre of Luccinelli, Hennen, and Mamola to this country would bankrupt promoters. Bearing in mind, of course, that riders of such calibre are today typically tied into contracts that restrict them to one class of racing, often in the northern hemisphere. The Marlboro Series was great while it lasted.
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