Paeroa, NZ—Battle of the Streets


Some towns are lucky if they’re known for one thing. Paeroa, pop. 3,900, on New Zealand’s North Island, is known for two things: a soft drink called L&P “World Famous in New Zealand”, (which boasts a hilarious ad campaign voiced-over by Flight Of The Conchord’s Jemaine Clement), and the Battle of the Streets, a day-long series of motorcycle races run through the streets of the town centre.

I bought my first motorcycle at 16 and it has been the beginning of an on, on, on, but never an off-again relationship. It might be genetic; my father was passionate about motorcycles and introduced me to motorcycle racing when I was nine. New Zealand’s approach to motorcycle racing is street racing. And street racing in the very real sense of the term; closing down the town and having a day at the races right through the town centre.

Sadly, some of the old circuits like Porirua and Gracefield are no more. The sport has shifted and now most motorcycle races are run on purpose-built tracks. Gone are the chances to watch the heroes of the 70s and 80s wrestle a bike across the railway crossing or through the shops. Back then there was a chance to see and meet Wes Cooley from the US riding for Yoshimura, Greg Hansford from Australia for team Kawasaki, or Graeme Crosby from NZ riding a tricked out Kawasaki Z1R. These bikes were machines you could recognize and buy, rather than something put together by a team from NASA for a science project.

But all is not lost. Street racing lives on in the Cemetery Circuit in Wanganui, so called because the course runs through the cemetery, and Paeroa. Well-organized, professionally run and accessible to all. The races are open to all-comers: sidecars powered by old Triumphs to aerodynamic chariots, production bikes of all makes in all engine size classes, and classic bikes ranging from Bultacos to Manx Nortons, BSAs, and all manner of Italian exotica.

The Battle of the Streets draws a crowd from all over the country. A multigenerational following of new fans and old fans. For those who grew up in the Japanese motorcycle invasion of the 1960s and 70s during the decline of the British motorcycle industry and the explosion of Italian motorcycles like Ducati, this is almost a pilgrimage. This really is “fun for the whole family”, and not a meaningless phrase loved by promoters.

On the day, you can stand on the straights (the town’s main drag) while bikes speed past as close as a metre away, or watch from a picnic blanket spread on Paeroa’s grassy banks in the hot February summer sun, sipping an L&P or, possibly, an adult beverage. Keen enthusiasts crowd on roof tops to watch or crane out of coveted second storey windows in a mostly one storey town. There are no stands, just find a place to watch and enjoy. Between races, you can wander in the pits and watch professional teams work on their machines side by side with amateur guys and girls prepping their rides for a run on the track.

I hope the pictures do the races justice. Sadly, if you want the smell of two-stroke oil and the sounds of a big V-twin, you have to go. And, if you do then “race what you brung”.