Fast Cars and Fast Family: Spending Saturday Evening at the Gisborne Speedway

Gisborne, New Zealand

Gisborne Speedway

Gisborne Speedway

There’s nothing to do in Gisborne on a Saturday night. No, that’s being too generous. There’s not really anything to do in Gisborne ever. Famous for being the first city in the world to see the sunrise each day (as well as Captain Cook’s first New Zealand landing point in 1769), Gisborne (or Gizzy to abbreviation junkies) is handsome, clean, and seaside. Sandy beaches line Poverty Bay and boats fill a small marina. During the summer, vacationers flock to Gisborne to sunbathe, swim, surf, and sail. Gizzy is also home to Rhythm & Vines, a two-day music festival starting on New Years Eve, and a popular destination for people cruising the Pacific Coast Highway.

But even though it’s sunny, attractive, and relaxing, be forewarned: should you grow weary of the beach, Gisborne doesn’t offer much by way of entertainment. Sure, there are a few modest museums and even more modest botanical gardens, along with the requisite lookout point and monumental statues to explorers and government officials. But other than that, you’re stuck hanging out at the petrol station.  And  if you want to eat, drink, or be merry in the company of strangers after 10pm, good luck.

Thanks to bad timing on my part, I found myself in Gisborne over the weekend. Friday night was spent in the hostel watching all two hours of country music night on American Idol with a few other travelers. Fortunately, Norbert, a German knight in a shining rental car spared me from a Saturday night of Whale Rider on VHS and a six-pack of Canadian Club & Cola.

Apparently, there is one place where Gisborne picks up the pace and rebels against its otherwise puritanical demeanor: the speedway. Car racing is to Gisborne what dancing was to Kevin Bacon in Footloose. While driving past town, Norbert had spotted a sign advertising a Saturday night filled with stock cars, motorcycles, and sidecars and was lured into Gisborne by the idea of watching giant Matchbox cars drive in circles around a closed dirt track. Overwhelmed by curiosity and boredom, I agreed to be his date.

The whole town had turned out to see the races, which happened to be the season championships. Poor Andy was operating under the misguided belief that car racing in Gisborne would resemble car racing in Europe. In reality, between the oversized corndogs and the oversized people eating them and the teenagers making out under the bleachers, the Gisborne Motorway had more in common with the Michigan International Speedway than Formula 1. Except for one major difference: there was absolutely no alcohol allowed at the Gisborne Motorway.

Without a doubt, the highlight of the races was when cars crashed (no drivers were harmed, of course). The announcers weren’t shy about expressing their disappointment when a racer collided with a wall but remained upright. “Aw, man. I really thought he was going to flip over that time.” The only downside was that every time a car went belly up (which was at least once a race), all of the other drivers had to stop until it was confirmed that only the vehicle had been dented. Consequently, with its frequent pauses, watching the races was a lot like watching American football. In other words, boring, not to mention repetitive. And unlike American Idol, the races were due to last four hours.

After a couple of rounds, Norbert and I were both cold and ready to head home. But we were playing our own game of chicken – neither one wanted to give in first. I was on the verge of saying uncle when the woman sitting in front of us struck up a conversation. A grandmother by biology and nature, she quickly handed us each a feijoa (a fruit native to New Zealand that looks like an avocado and tastes like a star fruit and can be eaten by rubbing it in your hands, biting off the top, and sucking down the flesh) before sharing with us a corner of the blanket covering her five-year old granddaughter. Then she offered us her actual granddaughter.

An interesting and inspiring woman, she was clearly close to her family (all of whom were attending the races), but had spent six months traveling alone through Europe and Northern Africa. It seems that her husband, an award-winning sidecar driver, is afraid to fly. Somewhere between Marrakesh and Praque, her outgoing, indiscriminate, and trusting granddaughter found her way onto our laps. And her older sister and brother were not far behind. “We’ve got the whole family here,” Norbert said to me with a broad smile, delighting in the instant kinship. At that moment, he was the cool but distant older cousin and university student on one of his infrequent weekend trips home. I was his reluctant new girlfriend, secretly more enamored of his relatives than him, but careful not to get too attached to his family lest we break up before his next visit.

It was strange how easily we all adopted each other for the evening (and how willing and able I was to play with children). After a few hours of comparing travel stories with grandma, playing hide and seek with the kids, and hearing about pets and school, pregnancies and divorces, Norbert and I said good-bye and walked away. There were no tears and there was no talk of seeing each again soon because everyone understood that we were not actually family, and never would be.

I guess that night I was trying to fill a void that I didn’t even know existed. I was craving family. However, the sense of familiarity, while comforting and distracting, had also been surreal and the slightest bit disconcerting – I felt like I was cheating on my own family. And more importantly, for once, I actually didn’t want to be a part of someone else’s family. The Kiwis may have been delightful, but I didn’t want to be drinking tea with milk and two sugars at the Gisborne speedway, I wanted to be drinking beer at the Tiger’s opening game at Comerica Park. The whole experience was as unsatisfying as eating I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter spray, and it left the same bad artificial taste in my mouth.

People always ask me about the things that I miss while traveling – the products, flavors, brands, and styles. The answer is not much – I can normally find a suitable (and often better) replacement or alternative for just about everything. But, I just have to face it: there is no substitute for your own family.

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