Whatever motorsport discipline you care to name, each and every one of them has a location indelibly linked to their very existence -a ‘spiritual home’ being probably the ideal term that springs to mind.
After all, what would international sportscar racing be without the gruelling folklore associated with the 24 Hours of Le Mans at Circuit de La Sarthe, the Australian V8 Supercar series sans the steep climb and terrifying descent of Mount Panorama, or even Formula One stripped of the glitz, glamour and fanfare of the Monaco street circuit? Each of these treasured locations are furnished with nostalgia and emotion, cementing their rightful place in the fabric of motorsport custom.
Transposing this rhetoric to the New Zealand drifting scene, although young compared to virtually every other motorsport pursuit within our islands, there is already a location so revered by both participants and fans alike.
A combination of three corners – the first billed as one of the fastest in drifting worldwide with fair-weather initiation speeds of 200km/h (136mph) – make up the judged section of Pukekohe Park Raceway, located conveniently south of the sprawling Auckland City metropolis. With the 2014-2015 D1NZ season having just wrapped up here last weekend, instead of traditional event coverage I’m going to explain by paraphrasing some words from long standing members of the drift community, the organisers of the series, drivers and of course myself, why the occasion was so special for the sport.
I guess the best way to describe the significance of Pukekohe to a non-local is to liken it to the manner in which Irwindale Speedway is held in such high esteem as the ‘House of Drift’ – the cherished and somewhat sacred home of Formula D. Way down in this part of the world the feeling is mutually directed towards Pukekohe as the birthplace of competitive drifting in New Zealand, way back in 2003.
During my comparatively short tenure as a photographer among the D1NZ series, the family aspect within the New Zealand drifting faithful has always struck me as something unique – especially within a top-level motorsport atmosphere. In the pursuit to learn more about why Pukekohe is so special within the New Zealand drift community I spoke with Warren Sare, the ‘voice’ of D1NZ and a personality who’s been around the traps longer than most.
As alluded to earlier, Warren explained the track holds a special mystique. This is a place where the younger guys in today’s field of competitors caught the bug, sitting in the stands or on the outside of the sweeper watching the old hands such as ‘Fanga’ Dan Woolhouse, Gaz Whiter and Justin Rood slide past at upwards of 180km/h before switching into the chicane. In those days things were somewhat simpler – a selection of more traditional drift platforms encompassing C33 Laurels, A31 Cefiros and a smattering of S13 and S14 Silvias. This was also the time when the piercing twang of a straight-piped, naturally aspirated 4A-GE could still be heard among competitive drifting. A welded diff, modest power increase, a moderate suspension upgrade and whatever tyres a driver could lay their hands on were the basic requirements to drift at the top level.
Regardless of the comparative lack of speed and grip versus the machines of today, the section still demanded respect from a driver. Pukekohe is a track that commands a certain level of commitment, an instinct of survival if a competitor was to make it through that first sweeper intact. Metaphorically speaking, liken it to sprinting through quicksand – you absolutely have to keep it pinned and keep focus. One hesitation and the walls which loom so close from within the passenger window will ensure you sink without a trace.
For as long as drifting has been prevalent in New Zealand, the constant attraction for those entering the sport – be it from other disciplines within motorsport or as fresh-faced motorsport beginners – has been the adrenaline rush. The challenge and inherent danger of tackling Pukekohe’s sweeper sideways offers arguably the most substantial ‘fix’ available on a circuit anywhere in the country, with high speeds and proximity to the walls meaning the risk of serious damage and injury is very real. Are the drivers scared? It’s almost undoubtable, but among the pits (and media releases) is a sea of bravado, masking the fear and forcing others to act alike and push on to succeed.
It’s also the people on the sidelines spectating that enhance the electric atmosphere among the bends of Pukekohe. With a natural amphitheatre environment, the cheers of elation or angst resonate among the surroundings, enabling the MC to whisk the crowd away on a journey as the battles are called. A boiling cauldron of human enthusiasm and emotion, interspersed with the scream of tortured rubber and cacophony of mechanical mayhem taking place before them. Four years ago however, the Pukekohe Park Raceway round of the championship was abruptly cut out…The Path To Comeback
For D1NZ series CEO and organiser Brendon White, the Pukekohe homecoming marks more than the culmination of a lengthy 2014-2015 season. In the years since the disappearance of the event from the drifting calendar the drivers and fans have been calling for the return of the unforgiving course to the line-up of events.
So why was Pukekohe suddenly dropped from the D1NZ schedule? As a motorsport fanatic I appreciate it is essentially impossible for me to explain this without bias, but with greater political correctness, decreasing tolerance and increasingly draconian regulations surrounding running motorsport events in this country, it effectively came down to a single voice killing the event.
While hardly located in a heavy residential area, following the 2011 event complaints rolled in regarding the crossing of smoke from the Castrol Corner boundary, onto a neighbouring property. A containment notice was served by the council and at that stage it seemed like drifting may have been a permanent omission from the Pukekohe calendar of events.
Much like the on-track battles, the fight to save Pukekohe from becoming a distant drifting memory began. Speaking to Brendon about the process gave a clear insight into the passion held for the sport by the man heading the organisation charged with promoting and running these events.
Rescuing New Zealand’s ‘House of Drift’ proved no mean feat for D1NZ. Due to the nature of the complaint it was not simply a task of appeasing the offended individual – the correct judicial steps had to be followed and the right advice obtained. As you might expect then, bringing competitive Kiwi drifting back to where it began came with considerable legal costs.
Without delving into tedious detail, applications for resource consent were lodged with the local authorities, while Brendon enlisted the assistance of top-level industrial consent specialists to provide the correct direction throughout the process. Thorough study of the Resource Management Act was required, while surrounding residents and businesses were all consulted and signed-off to get on board with the return of D1NZ to the track. Local traffic authorities and indigenous Maori groups were consulted to ensure all bases were covered. Finally, tenacity bore reward as the consent was granted. However, in a cruel and ironic twist, the original complainant then shifted from his home.
Given the sheer effort involved in orchestrating a victorious return to the track from a legal perspective, you could well be forgiven for thinking that the road from here would be plain sailing, right? Not quite. As a precursor to the running of the 2015 event, during the summer season of motorsport a small group of D1NZ competitors staged a lunchtime demonstration for the crowds at a circuit racing event. Reports back proved one further hurdle would need to be overcome before a D1NZ homecoming could be effected.
The track’s surface wasn’t in ideal shape. Years of use, abuse and long overdue maintenance meant the sweeper had developed a series of particularly dicey bumps and corrugations – hardly a super-comfortable situation when attempting to guide a 200km/h missile laterally between a pair of merciless concrete barriers.
In a final display of just how important the D1NZ organisation regarded the return to Pukekohe, the team made the commitment to tear up the troublesome sections of the existing track and reseal smooth new asphalt to appease the drivers. For the first time in four years, drifters officially hit the tarmac of Pukekohe for a test and tune session for the Friday preceding the main event, and among seven chosen media representatives to experience a taste of the circuit was yours truly.The Pukekohe Experience
Opening the email from D1NZ media liason Kenny Ruddell created something of a mixed emotion once I digested the contents. Languishing at the bottom of the list of seven outlets was my name, assigned to current championship leader Darren Kelly for a shotgun run of the newly refreshed circuit. Why mixed you ask? Well, for as long as I have been exposed to the sport, this was my first legitimate ride in a drift car, on a circuit. Add to that, that I’m not a wonderful passenger and you start to form an idea of the trepidation that built almost immediately.
With an overriding theme for the season of the V8s taking on the turbos, Darren’s ER34 Skyline represents the turbo side of the fence. I’m a bit of nostalgia geek when it comes to motorsport in general, so the thought of being strapped into a Japanese turbo-powered machine appeals to the traditionalist within.
I picked Darren’s brains for thoughts on the course before we head out for a run. Interestingly, around 70 per cent of the total Pro and Pro-Am entrants for the round have never competed at the circuit and Darren is one of these. That said, echoing the words of those spoken to prior, it’s clear the respect for Pukekohe’s corners runs deep. As Darren explained, while there are plenty of fast circuits on D1NZ’s calendar, none quite compare to what I was going to experience.
From a driver’s perspective, the whole run hinges on that first sweeper. With judge’s requirements not permitting a feint to weight shift, correct initiation into the corner relies on precision car placement combined with a well-timed flick in conjunction with a dab on the handbrake to settle things. With the first clipping point not visible on initiation, there is extremely limited time to realise the car is potentially offline and make the necessary corrections to get back on line, or worse still, make a call entirely wrong and end up in the wall on either side.
Nonethless, I was soon dressed in the requisite safety equipment and trundling somewhat sedately through pit lane listening to the dulcet tones of the grumpy 527kW (706hp) RB30DET loping along at low revs. Exiting pit lane, it all became very real as Darren buried the loud pedal and we rocketed towards the sweeper.
Approaching speeds of around 200km/h, the wall at the end of the main straight gets very close, very quickly. Then Darren initiated, and this is still the bit I just have trouble getting my head around. I’m used to driving cars in the traditional manner around a circuit. Brake, downshift, turn in and power out. No expectation could have prepared me for the sensation afforded by a well-driven drift car. Darren flicked the R34 into the sweeper fairly casually – the wall previously coming at me via the windscreen now heading towards me courtesy of the passenger window. And it was all happening at a pace I wasn’t totally comfortable with.
Heading in deep, it’s easy to understand why this corner is so daunting. Scrubbing off speed while the throttle is still pinned, Darren pointed the car towards the inside clip of the corner, constantly altering throttle inputs to maintain balance. This corner is long… In fact, it feels like an eternity heading sideways as the left hander looms. A left-footed dab of the brake to weight-shift the Skyline to the left and the throttle is buried with boost levels streaking to the 20psi maximum. This time the sensation is graceful as opposed to terrifying, and Darren’s smooth inputs guide the car towards the final outer clip and towards yet another concrete barrier as the cabin fills with tyre smoke.
Rinse and repeat another four or five times, but each and every time that first corner loomed relaxing was just not an option. The appeal is vivid though – Pukekohe delivered one hell of a rush.
As it transpired Darren took the Skyline through to the final battle of the weekend following an event fraught with weather challenges. Claiming the event also meant he claimed the season, heading off Curt Whittaker’s silky-sounding 410ci Ford V8 powered R34 Skyline coupe and Gaz Whiter’s aggressively-driven, LS7-motivated S14 Silvia.
A victory for the turbocharged set, a victory over some incredibly foul weather and above all, a triumph for D1NZ with the successful return to Pukekohe, without a doubt cementing drifting’s commitment to the future of New Zealand’s motorsport fabric.