There’s a special place in the hearts of all those who witnessed any of the Waimate 50 race meetings, from the first one on January 31, 1959, to the final on February 5, 1966.

In many ways the Waimate 50 was a special event, and the first Waimate meeting was also a milestone in the career of Bruce Leslie McLaren.

The year before had seen a season-long tussle between McLaren and Ross Jensen, with Jensen taking the Gold Star title (with 57 points to McLaren’s 25), but with McLaren winning the Driver to Europe award.

This season they were back – both with new cars – McLaren in a works 2.0-litre Cooper-Climax, Jensen in an updated Maserati 250F.

1959 – Syd Jensen’s Cooper and Len Gilbert’s Cooper-Bristol tangle up and head directly for the lychgate

McLaren had placed strongly at the early events and won overall at Teretonga the week before. And so they came to Waimate. The international drivers had left and this would be a showdown between McLaren and Jensen.

Practice showed this should be a circuit that favoured the smaller Coopers with McLaren, Merv Neil and Syd Jensen filling out the three top places ahead of Pat Hoare’s Ferrari, Jensen’s Maserati and Johnny Mansel in Jensen’s Maserati from the previous year.

But at flagfall, the darkening skies opened, dumping torrential rain on Waimate, turning the circuit into a lake. McLaren spun on the first lap and Jensen splashed through the deep puddles into the lead. By lap 25 of the 50 lap race, the rain had stopped, the sun came out and the puddles evaporated. McLaren quickly caught and passed Jensen to win the race by 48 seconds and clinched his first New Zealand Gold Star Championship with 50 points against Jensen’s 39.

Only 10 cars had started the main race and three retired, but nobody complained of a boring race; the rain, the position changes and the nature of the circuit guaranteed entertainment.

The writer’s first visit was 1960 where John Mansel won an exciting race, showing skill and courage to win in the Maserati 250F. His distinctive ‘leaning’ driving style is evident (Photo Euan Sarginson/Terry Marshall Archives)

I wasn’t there on that day, but my best mate ‘Winksy’ and my younger brother Colin were and they returned on the Saturday evening barely able to stop talking about the most exciting motor racing they had ever seen. Even though they had got soaked.


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