PYROMANIA: 25th Annual Paeroa Battle of the Streets

Burning down main street in New Zealand.

Don Canet race action from New Zealand
Canet aboard the naked GSX-S1000 feels the heat of liter-class superbikes in hot pursuit.Andy McGeehan

Tipped in at full lean, skirting a manhole cover and a thick white paint line flanking the gutter at the apex, I found it hard not to think about the many ways it could all go wrong in this true downtown street race. But I found solace in grip as the chassis loaded against generous positive camber…then lost that fleeting feeling when the crowned road dropped sharply away once the bike crested the centerline and skated across the far lane on the drive out.

This tight, first-gear right-hander leading onto the merchant-lined main drag through Paeroa (pronounced py-roah), a rural farm community located 75 miles south of Auckland, New Zealand, had all the ingredients for a classic high-side crash!

It also provided an incredible thrill each lap as my race-prepped Suzuki GSX-S1000 torqued up an unavoidable power wheelie through its bottom two gears hammering out of the exit. After which the front wheel touched down into a persistent bar wiggle that carried well up the street. There wasn't a moment to relax before peeling left through a flat-out dogleg, sailing past a fish 'n' chips joint, and buzzing a barbershop at a buck thirty.

Suzuki GSX-S1000 cornering race action
The race prepped GSX-S1000 provided sure-footed handing and ample cornering clearance.Craig Dawson

Braking for turn one was made all the more difficult thanks to a downhill incline covered in plentiful painted road markings. Get it wrong and you'd end up sliding to the McDonald’s located a half block beyond. No thanks, mate, I have no appetite to Super Size that!

Celebrating its 25th running, the annual Paeroa Battle of the Streets held this past February in the midst of the southern-hemisphere summer may not have put the town on the international race radar, but it presents a notable blip in the scope of Kiwi roadracing. It’s also an amazing opportunity. Of the half dozen or so street races conducted on the North and South Islands each year, Paeroa plays second fiddle to the famed Cemetery Circuit race held on the streets of Wanganui on Boxing Day, a December 26 tradition dating back to 1951.

spectators crossing the street
Track crossing between races allows spectator movement around the 1-mile street circuit.Andy McGeehan

Paeroa’s Hacksaw Circuit, so named for its saw-shaped silhouette, measures a mile in length and is comprised of five right-hand corners and a pair of lefts. Pavement bumps, cross-street humps, wicked camber changes, and knee-snagging square-edge curbs add to the challenge and character of the spectator-lined course. The main straight is in fact “Main Street” and also Highway 2. Clogging this major traffic artery for a motorcycle race has enthusiastic community support, albeit with a strict stipulation that the road reopen no later than 6 p.m. on race day. Hundreds of men and women, young and old, provide the volunteer labor to make such a happening logistically possible.

racebikes at the F-1 class startline
Start of the final F-1 class main.Andy McGeehan

Suzuki New Zealand General Manager Simon Meade made things happen on my behalf, providing a bike and arranging a shakedown test at a local short circuit, not to mention trackside crew for the race. When Mr. Meade offered up a choice of any current GSX-R or -S model, the new for 2016 naked 1000 presented an interesting proposition. Upon learning that no Kiwi had yet to compete aboard the GSX-S, I put in a call to Yoshimura R&D stateside for setup suggestions, but that came up empty as well.

modern and vintage bikes race action
Several classes for modern and vintage bikes provided Paeroa spectators with up-close-and-personal action.Andy McGeehan

So we were on our own. Covering basics, the bike was equipped with a Nitron NTR R2 shock and had its fork recalibrated for my weight with Race Tech components by chassis guru Robert Taylor of Kiwi Suspension Solutions. Ray Clee of RCM Performance installed a Yoshimura Signature Alpha slip-on muffler and Bazzaz Performance Z-Fi TC with Quick Shift. The stock brake pads were replaced with a Brembo race compound along with the removal of an electrical fuse to deactivate the ABS. Meade hand-cut the DC initials gracing the number plates, a Kiwi custom signifying a foreign rider. Soft-compound Pirelli Super Corsa slicks provided the final ingredient needed to put the bike on competitive footing.

sidecar motorcycle action from Paeroa
SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE: Sidecars add to the variety of on-track racing entertainment.Andy McGeehan

Suzuki-sponsored Battle of the Streets veteran Scotty Moir lent assistance for our private test at the Bruce McLaren Motorsport Park in Taupo, centrally located on the North Island. I only managed a handful of laps before rain set in, hardly enough quality seat time to explore the bike’s performance capability. As anticipated, the stock engine ran well, and I was relieved to learn the brakes provided ample power and consistent feel. But cornering clearance limits remained a question unanswered and a concern.

bikers taking a selfie photo
Kiwi bikers taking in a day of sun, fun and fast paced entertainment.Andy McGeehan

Race day began early with final course construction commencing at 4 a.m. as crews feverishly set out protective barriers and straw bales right up to the 8 a.m. practice start. The first session was reserved for all newcomers, offering guys like me a feel for the track before being mixed in with experienced madmen. But my orientation was short circuited when the engine suddenly quit running prior to completing a full lap. I also missed out on the first of two six-minute sessions for my class as Clee traced the problem to the bumpy street surface having disturbed a wiretap connection within the Z-Fi install, and applied a lasting fix. Sympathetic race organizers allowed me to join a couple vintage bike sessions to get my bearings prior to lining up for my first race.

The excitement of racing in close proximity to curbside spectators is unlike anything experienced on a traditional closed-circuit course.

Naked and alone (in spirit!), I rolled the GSX-S into my assigned third-row start position on the premier-class Formula 1 grid. The field was populated with liter superbikes; mine was the single high-bar bike in the mix! I wondered if I’d gotten in too deep, but a solid launch capitalizing on the GSX’s midrange grunt shuffled me forward a few positions entering the first turn. The excitement of racing in close proximity to curbside spectators is unlike anything experienced on a traditional closed-circuit course. Decades of street testing and roadracing experience helped me find the rhythm through dips and gutters and over paint and around all the other in-town obstacles to a fast lap on the street. I picked off a couple more riders, completing the 10-lap sprint in fifth place. Not only was I stoked with the result, but it gave me a second-row start for Race Two.

Don Canet's racebike crosses the double yellow lines
Bending into Turn 1 requires trust in the front tire to hold crossing the double yellow.Andy McGeehan

Having informed Clee of my bike’s flighty front-end feel at race pace, he cleverly instructed the crew to increase my fuel load by nearly 2 gallons to help weight the front since fork spring preload was already set at its minimum. Holding position at the start of the final race I settled in behind GSX-R1000-mounted Clee on the opening lap and rode my own race as he and the lead pack vanished from view a few laps in. Having distanced myself from those arrear, the intensity experienced circulating a couple seconds per lap off the lead pace provided plenty of personal satisfaction.

The field was populated with liter superbikes; mine was the single high-bar bike in the mix!

Honda CBR1000RR-mounted Tony Rees, winner of the first Formula 1 leg and King of the Streets feature race, established a new lap record prior to succumbing to hand cramps and midrace retirement. This improved my position to fourth behind Clee and secured a fourth in class on the day. Moir took the Formula 1 overall along with a hard-fought Supermoto class win.

Tony Rees taking the victory
With top-class Battle of the Streets victories spanning more than two decades, the King of the Streets feature race win marks a record ninth for 48-year-old Tony Rees.Andy McGeehan

The GSX-S’s performance in its maiden battle exceeded expectations as conveyed in an email I received a few days following my return home. “You have certainly opened a lot of people’s eyes as to how good the bike is,” wrote Suzuki NZ Sales Executive Graham Wilson. “Moto City has had one sale already of a GSX-S based on the guy seeing you running around Paeroa. The perfect example of race on Sunday, sell on Monday!”

As trivial as it may seem, such feedback is a gratifying first for me. If there was a commission to be had, it popped up in a subsequent email from Mr. Meade, who extended me an open invitation to ride the Suzuki GSX-S1000 (with a steering damper and full Yoshimura exhaust system) at the Cemetery Circuit on Boxing Day!