Ta Kauwhata, Waikato, NEW ZEALAND – At the age of 79, Ken Smith will start the NZ Grand Prix for an astounding 50th time on Jan. 24, at Hampton Downs. That comes during his 63rd year in motorsport.
The New Zealand Grand Prix — New Zealand’s premier motor race since 1950 — has crowned winners that include legends Bruce McLaren, Chris Amon, Jack Brabham, Stirling Moss — and three-time victor Ken Smith.
Since 1965, when he started his first NZGP, in a Lotus 22, Smith has barely missed a race. His first win came in 1976 during the glamorous, dangerous Formula 5000 era. He claimed victory again in 1990 and in 2004, and also won the NZ Gold Star championship five times.
Next week, Smith will line up in his 50th NZ Grand Prix. He’s probably not going to win it. Up against the latest batch of young Kiwi racers in Tatuus TRS spec cars, with a handful of former champions brought back to compensate for the Covid-restricted international entry, Smith acknowledges he’s not as sharp as he once was once (and yes, there was a triple-bypass a few years back), but he’s still here.
“Everyone on the grid, they’re all real drivers, all there for the same reason — to do their best in what is a very challenging and competitive sport,” he says. “The excitement of it never goes away.”
Over recent years, Smith has raced his beautifully-restored, original 600hp, fire-breathing Lola F5000 in New Zealand’s world-respected F5000 Tasman Revival Series. He’s won it five times, most recently in 2019.
“Kenny is a driver who is still driven — driven to compete and to win, and driven to defy anything that gets in his way — ill health, age, other drivers, cars that don’t perform,” said Graeme Lawrence, a former Tasman Series champion and lifelong friend of Smith. “He’s a fine example of how to take hold of life, get in the driver’s seat and live life to the full.”
Australian Warwick Brown, another Tasman champion and Smith rival from the 70s, said, “It’s incomprehensible that someone can maintain the motivation, fitness, and skill for this long. He’s small in stature, but a giant in NZ and Australian motorsport.”