Local Folk: Dennis Marwood, retired racing driver

Local Folk: Dennis Marwood, retired racing driver

Hear Dennis recount a story from his early days of racing at Levin in this video.

 
Watching the premier motor racing events of today, it’s hard to imagine drivers competing in t-shirts and jandals without safety belts, let alone helmets or rollbars. But that is how the pioneers of the sport such as Dennis Marwood remember it.  Now a sprightly 82-year-old, Dennis has lived in the Mahurangi area for the past 15 years and opened the Nikau Haven B&B on Goat Island Road six years ago. Although his days of racing for the chequered flag are long gone, a V6 Alfa Romeo parked in the carport suggests the love of speed hasn’t disappeared completely. He spoke to our journalist Jannette Thompson ….
 
I guess I got into racing because I liked cars a lot more than I liked cows. I grew-up on a dairy farm, just south of Morrinsville. I was still a teenager when I joined the Hamilton car club scene, which was based around Ivan Segedin’s Esso gas station, The Motordrome, on the Te Rapa straight. It was ‘the’ place to be on weekends if you were a petrol-head. My first wheels were a Matchless 350, a motorbike developed by the British Army during World War II. A friend talked me in to fitting the bike with a high-compression piston and knobbly tyres, and we took on dirt rack racing at places like Motomaho, near Raglan. This was the forerunner of the motocross era. After the bike, I moved on to an Austin 7 and then a MG TD.
 
I tried to concentrate on farming, but opportunities on the track kept presenting themselves. In 1958 I went up to a Northern Sports Car Club meet at Ardmore. I was only there as a spectator, but a mate threw me a helmet, got me into a handicap race with a favourable start and I won. I was hooked. I started driving to Auckland every day after milking to work with Ray Stone, who was operating an engine tuning and modifying shop in South Auckland. Ray was at the sharp end of performance enhancing and race engine preparation, looking after Johnny Mansel’s Maserati 250F among others. He had an engine dynamometer in his workshop, which wasn’t common in the 1950s.
I’d spend the day modifying cylinder heads for him, simply because I loved making engines go faster, and then I’d drive back in time for evening milking.
 
But I soon had the responsibilities of a wife and two small children, and decided to give the racing away and be a diary farmer. It didn’t last long though. One day, in 1965, I got a call from BMW importer Ross Jensen, inviting me to a test day at Pukekohe. I ended up with a contract with the Rothmans Sports Foundation for two seasons, racing in the Tasman Series against motor racing legends like Jackie Stewart, Graham Hill, Jimmy Palmer and Jimmy Clark. At the 1966 NZ Grand Prix at Pukekohe, Hill came in first, Stewart was second, Palmer third and I was fourth in a Grand Prix Cooper T66. Those early drivers, including Denny Hulme, Bruce McLaren and Australia’s Jack Brabham, Frank Gardner and Spencer Martin, were great guys who just loved the sport and weren’t worried about being celebrities. The English drivers treated their trips to NZ like holidays. We all had some great times. But even back then, there were differences between those who had the money to finance their teams and get the better equipment, and those who didn’t. Unfortunately, I fell into the second group. We were always short of money, always trying to make ends meet – I never raced on a new set of types my whole career!
 
I remember on my first trip to Monaco, I got into the pits using someone else’s ticket. My mate Peter Kerr collected me at Nice Airport and on the way to Monaco, opened the glovebox and gave me a pass, which his boss Jackie Oliver had intended for a friend. That friend, who had cancelled at the last minute, was the actor Gene Hackman. So I carried the tag with Hackman’s photo on it around my neck all weekend without so much as a query from any official. Many of us from that era still keep in regular contact. In the day, we were racing rivals but that built a lot of camaraderie. I have many very good friends from my racing days, on both sides of the Tasman.
 
I finished racing on the tracks in 1973 to concentrate on the business, Performance Development Services, that Ray and I set-up together, in Takinini, but not before completing a few of seasons of saloon car racing in a highly modified orange Camaro, which was my favourite car. There were very few vehicle import licences in NZ then; most cars arrived in crates and had to be assembled. In one three year period, our workshop put together 930 engines all with modified differentials, cam shafts, carburettors and manifolds. They became the SSS engine. It was about this time I started doing the long distance races. By the 1980s I’d started classic racing with a 1967 Alfa GTV which was fun. I eventually retired from the sport, finally, in 2004.
 
As much as I loved the racing, it took its toll. It dominated my life and probably cost me my first marriage. I think the violence I experienced at the hands of my father also had a malignant and long-lasting effect on my life. He was both verbally and physically violent over many years – it was nothing for me to wake up on the floor seeing stars after one of his outbursts – and I had to learn how to shoulder a lot of abuse. I think I am a peacemaker by nature, but I’ve often been called rude. Perhaps some of that stems from the fact that I never learned the limits in terms of behaviour and what is and isn’t acceptable. Also, subconsciously, although I wasn’t violent, I think maybe I thought that everyone should be able to handle gruff and abrupt behaviour. Women are very special people, whom I admire greatly, and it’s one of my life’s regrets that I didn’t – or perhaps wasn’t able to – give the women in my life the attention they needed. I gave them love and worked tirelessly to support them, but I can see now that that is not enough.
 
The level of family violence in NZ is appalling. I don’t know if I could give anyone who is suffering abuse any better advice than to seek help. Reach out to people, if not within your sphere of family and friends, then go to trained professionals like the people who work for the Waitemata District Board’s mental health unit. I know from experience that they are brilliant.

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