Once upon a time the Henderson Miniature Motor Racing Club (HMMRC) could boast more than a hundred members and two world champions. Meetings were held five nights a week and people of all ages and genders joined in. The current clubrooms were built by volunteer labour in 1962 on a small strip of land next to the Sunnyvale railway station. A new lease with the land owners means the club has a guaranteed home for at least another ten years.
But since its peak in the early 1970’s the club has scaled back to operating on only two nights a week and with just a few dedicated members left. Club president Stephen Murchison is fighting back. Murch, as he likes to be known, is on a mission to rekindle an interest in slot cars among younger people and to pass on the love he has for building and racing miniature motorcars. It all starts with Wednesday club nights where members want to share the need for speed.
'Drivers, ready. Here we go.'
It's a hard job trying to catch someone's attention when a race is in progress. Five men are gathered around the track as I enter. Two are racing against each other; the rest watching intently. Their eyes flick up briefly towards me, then lock back on the track. Club president Stephen Murchison fills me in on what's happening.
'Each night we try to do a theme. Tonight is NASCAR. The format of racing is basically six by three; six three minute runs. At the end, the overall laps are added up. But the track is also divided into segments so when the racing gets close there could only be a few segments between cars. The computer records the rest of it - your fastest average lap time, your best lap time, split averages, medians, and all sorts of stuff.'
Monday night is for drag racing enthusiasts and Wednesday for circuit racing.Tonight long term members Rob Jackson and John Carruthers are racing against each other. The word around the track is that John usually wins these match-ups but they think Rob might just have the edge tonight.
I'm assured that the low turn out this evening is due to the weather. All of the members here this evening are male, most of them over fifty years of age and generally have been involved with the club for a long time. Murch has been coming here for most of his life.
I was around about nine and my sister bought me a scalextric set. I thought that was just marvellous.
His siblings soon got tired of constantly being badgered to race against him so his mum enrolled him in the club. That was in in 1973. He's been here ever since.
When Murch first got involved, the Henderson Miniature Model Racing Club was just one of several clubs across Auckland. Now they are the only club left in the city and numbers are low but holding steady at eighteen. Friday nights used to be set aside for junior members but now there is only one teenager in the club. Murch says the age when kids made models and joined clubs is long gone.
We're now in the computer age. Our entertainment is in our pocket and people are after instant gratification. I believe we've become an anti-social society. It's more to do with fantasy than reality.
Is Murch correct? Or is it simply the case that some hobbies fall out of favour and some simply die off?
Sport New Zealand commissioned the Active New Zealand Survey in 2013 to find out how, when and where adults are engaging in sport and recreation. They found that in any given week three-quarters of all adults take part in a sport or recreational activity. This figure is actually one percent up on the last survey made in 2007. Records going back to the sixties when the HMMRC began have not been kept, so comparisons between then and now are difficult to make. However, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that sports clubs and hobby groups have either closed or merged due to falling numbers and that these are largely tied to demographic factors like age. So are Murch and his fellow club members fighting a losing battle? Has participation shifted elsewhere to hobbies with more relevant skills? He says no. What his club can give to young people, he argues, should never go out of style.
What we offer here is a lifetime of learning skills.
'The racing itself is to do with hand to eye coordination. There's a lot to it. It's as close to running a real race car as you'll ever get.You (also) learn social skills. Across the country we have doctors doing it, we have dentists, lawyers, engineers, self-employed - a bit of everybody. '
The club has embarked upon a campaign to increase the number of younger people attending. They want to see parents coming along with their children, youngsters with an interest in model making and really, anybody who thinks they might like to give it a go. Because while the future of building they occupy is secure, ushering in the next generation of enthusiasts is the real key to the club's survival.
The jury is still out on whether Murch and the other club members will succeed or not. But you can be sure that for this group of slot car fans at least the racing will go on as long as they continue to draw breath.
And just for the record, after more than two hundred laps, John Carruthers beat Rob Jackson by a mere two segments or about 600mm.