I’d never been handed a media pack as cool as the one I received at the gates of the Leadfoot Festival. Sealed in a pale yellow paper envelope and secured with a metal clip, on opening, the contents exuded a tangible, old-world sort of a charm as they spilled onto my car’s passenger seat.
It was entirely fitting though; no less than two weeks after soaking up the exhaust fumes of the NZ Festival of Motor Racing, was I thrust into the picturesque Coromandel region on the trail of yet another multi-day event celebrating this country’s love affair with cars and motorcycles.
Hosted by Rod Millen, one of New Zealand’s most driven, innovative and ultimately successful motorsport exports, the Leadfoot Festival is the culmination of a dream to which an eternally grateful public are able to share and become immersed within. As the architects of the experience, Rod and his wife Shelly have created something truly special, and very cool.
That dream comprises of 1.6km worth (or 1 mile in the old money) of jet black tarmac posing as Rod’s private driveway. It starts at road level, winding its way through a variety of challenging curves, a steep hill climb, a dense forest, before the finish line climax beneath a stone bridge.
Boiled down, this is celebration of petrolheadism (is that even a word?) in its least processed form. Sure, there’s a competitive element to the weekend’s event and an exacting record of the elapsed times is noted down carefully by passionate volunteers, but this is, quite simply, a celebration of hooning.
Any Australians reading might recoil in shock at the use of that term, but I consider it a positive; an accolade if you will when aimed at describing the atmosphere of such an event. Think about it – is there a term that so accurately, informally and concisely describes the absolute joy of just getting behind the wheel and taking a cherished vehicle for a strop up your favourite piece of tar-seal? I don’t think so. And speaking to drivers at the Leadfoot Festival, the sentiment is universal.
Central to this emotive response to the event is the sheer variation of machinery on offer. Turbo four-cylinder, grumbling V8 or screaming rotary (with Mr. Millen’s background, Mazda’s finest were always going to be present!), absolutely every facet of automotive culture has been represented on the Leadfoot Ranch driveway – even drag racing, although not this year.
Equal to the diversity of hardware is the kaleidoscopic backgrounds from which the drivers hail. Each year the international line-up increases; clearly the allure of the Leadfoot experience is beginning to reach far and wide. For 2016, Pikes Peak stalwart and overall crazy-man Paul Dallenbach joined the festivities, bringing with him his twin-turbo, small-block Chev-powered Dallenbach Special. A past Goodwood Festival of Speed winner, the Special pumps out a casual 900hp, simulating the soundtrack to the apocalypse as it thunders by under acceleration.
Aiming squarely at taking down Rod and standing on the first place dias for the event, eldest son Rhys Millen brought his Red Bull Global Rallycross Hyundai Veloster Turbo across for a crack at the family driveway. While unable to better Rod’s times in previous years, with a smidgeon under 600hp, all-wheel drive and sticky Advan slicks at his disposal, the crackling and popping Hyundai represented – on paper at least – his best shot yet at overall honours.
Maximum public adoration however, was reserved for American Tanner Foust, who trekked to the Southern Hemisphere complete with his Volkswagen Passat Formula Drift machine. An apt professional in every sense of the word, the crowds flocked to Tanner whenever he wasn’t behind the wheel – a byproduct I would think more of his role as Top Gear USA‘s host rather than his sideways antics.
A particular current IndyCar champ was on hand too. Scott Dixon, now a four-time winner of the championship, lent his driving expertise to another open-wheeler, although in this case a Grand Prix car rather than the Indy machines he’s accustomed to. The kicker? This was a GP car from the turn of last century, taking the form of a 1906 Darracq.
From 100 years past to the current day, the Leadfoot spectacle proves far reaching. If you can’t find a motor vehicle ascending the hill that ignites passion within, I regret to say you’re probably not really a petrolhead.
But enough waxing lyrical about the appeal of the Leadfoot Festival, the Leadfoot Ranch dream, the striking scenery and the decadent smorgasbord of high performance cuisine, of which I could happily ramble on about forever. Let’s focus on the standout drivers and the machines who contributed to the spectacle, screaming the sounds of our people among trees of Leadfoot and resonating throughout the hills beyond.Smashing The Gas
Earlier I mentioned I hadn’t quite finished detailing the international guests who attended Leadfoot, and like Rhys Millen, one other prominent motorsport personality travelled halfway across the world with an aim to imprint his name in the Leadfoot record books. Following father Jimmy’s appearance in 2015 driving a Mk1 Ford Escort, this year Alister McRae made the trip. The younger brother of the late, great Colin McRae, strapped himself behind the wheel of another late rally great’s car, the ex-Possum Bourne WRC Impreza. If seeing the McRae name along with the St Andrews Cross emblazoned on an Impreza again wasn’t exciting enough, the manner in which Alister threw the Subaru over the hill certainly was – in this case, flinging the car through the tightest corner of the course at full throttle, all four wheels furiously searching for grip.
For the second year running, selected drifters were invited to take part and demonstrate to a wider audience just what their motorsport discipline is all about. Because if there was ever a motorsport that embodied the core spirit of just jumping in a car and going for a thrash, it absolutely has to be drifting, right?
Spearheading the drifters, the inimitable Mad Mike Whiddett. With driving commitments having been centered around his Formula Drift campaign in the States for much of the recent past, public appearances on home soil in any one of his trio of rotary-powered Mazdas have been limited for Mike. Not one to miss out on the Leadfoot Festival’s atmosphere, he brought the MADBUL quad-rotor RX-7 out to play, although his showing at Leadfoot was sadly cut short by a catastrophic diff failure. Nonetheless, it was a welcome appearance and great to see and hear the FD out being given heaps between the hay bales.
Long time, and still current competitor of the D1NZ drifting championship, ‘Fanga’ Dan Woolhouse brought along his rehashed VE Holden Commodore drift weapon for the weekend. For the 2015-16 seasons, the Commodore has seen a massive increase in power, with a big centrifugal supercharger strapped to the side of the LS2. Now boasting a conservative 800hp with prodigous torque from idle, Fanga hurled the sedan among the trees with ease, creating monster smoke clouds in the process.
New Zealand’s most successful D1NZ driver, Gaz Whiter, also jumped at the opportunity to try his hand at the Leadfoot driveway.
While not competing in this season’s championship, Whiter proved he’s lost none of his trademark smooth style, sending his stroked 7.2-litre LS7-powered S14 Silvia up the hill in true-to-form, exacting style and speed. Check out the POV video above…
If there was an award for bashing the limiter, Cole Armstrong’s antics behind the wheel of his V35 Skyline would have swept the floor with the opposition. This thing’s packing a pretty ruthless sounding RB30DET engine package – even more so when it’s on the limiter for three quarters of its run up the hill.
Who could neglect the leading female drifting and a consummate car handler in her own right, Jodie Verhulst? Jodie gave her unique JZA80 Supra/GT86 hybrid a thorough hiding throughout the 1.6km of tarmac, and as one of only a few D1NZ cars running anti-lag, the 2JZ-GTE of the Supra popped and crackled on each overrun.
The pick of the local drifters however was Curt Whittaker. R34 Skylines aren’t the most common drift platform around, but Curt’s example packs something a little different under the bonnet when compared to the usual RB or LS V8 options. Yes, it’s a V8 (sorry purists), but it absolutely needs to be heard to be appreciated. With 700hp on tap from a 410ci Ford sprint car engine, the R34 sounds silky smooth compared to a cackling LS. Coupled with pinpoint driving accuracy, fluid switches and speed that some of the grip drivers struggled to match, it was little wonder Curt ended up taking out a showmanship award at the event’s end.
But the number one showman by popular public demand? That man Foust. The Passat is a deceptively large car to throw around such a tight course, but Tanner showed why his driving talents span a vast assortment of disciplines, as well as in-demand stunt driver duties and of course that small matter of fronting a little show about car culture. The LS7-based engine, huffing nitrous and pumping out something like 900hp didn’t disappoint either; the very un-LS exhaust note due to the exquisite 8-into-1 header endearing itself to the assembled throngs as much as the star’s attitude.
But my number one, smash the gas, chuck it sideways moment goes to the man of the weekend himself, Rod Millen. Pitching the tribute build to his successful NZ Rally Championship Mazda RX-3 of the mid-1970s (that’s three times on the trot from ’75 to ’77) into the stone wall corner, applying a judicious serving of the right foot and lighting up the rears courtesy of the injected 13B peripheral-port rotary, then finally exiting with a deft touch of opposite lock, was something I’ll not forget for a while. The flamboyance of 1970s rallying brought into the now.What Goes Up…
Leadfoot’s not all smoke, spinning tyres and rev limiters though. Others head up the hill at a slightly more subdued pace, or keep all four wheels pointed in the right direction, maintaining adhesion in pursuit of lower times. Although never in contention for overall honours, Scott Dixon gradually dropped his times up the hill as he came to grips with the somewhat more ‘manual’ nature of motoring in the mid 1900s.
A quintessentially Kiwi open wheeler being belted up a quintessentially Kiwi event; this McLaren M10B is the zenith of an 11-year project by owner Frank Karl. I reckon Bruce McLaren probably would have jumped at the chance to drive one of his own creations up the Leadfoot driveway.
Although not a Kiwi marque, you could almost label Andrew Hawkewood’s Mazda2 a New Zealand creation. Brand spanking new, the diminutive Mazda is bristling with firepower beneath the agressively flared skin. Built to new AP4 Asia-Pacific rally regulations, the Mazda now runs a turbocharged 1.8-litre engine, coupled to an all-wheel drive system via a 6-speed Sadev sequential transmission. The package proved potent, with the hatchback posting a time well inside the Top 10 on its debut outing.
Sticking with the rally theme, if there was a ‘Speedhunters’ Choice’ trophy for the event I would have gladly presented it to Paul Jones by virtue of his incredible 1973 TE27 Toyota Corolla Levin. One of only three TE27s ever brought into the country officially by Toyota as part of a rally effort for the 1973 Heatway Rally, Paul’s car retains its original livery and 2T-G twin cam engine on side-draft carbs.
Another unusual entrant caught my eye, but this time of a two-wheel nature rather than four. Motorcycles aren’t really the Speedhunters MO, but the presence of one of these warranted a mention. You’ll note that cluster proudly mentions ’32 valves’ inscribed somewhere near the 15,000rpm redline of the large central tacho, itself set in its factory carbon fibre binnacle. So, is this a V8?
It kind of is, but kind of isn’t at the same time. Created in 1992, the NR750 was Honda’s way of gloating to the world, ‘Nah nah, look what we can do!’ A technological tour de force, the NR sports a V4 engine layout – only with four oval pistons measuring 100mmx50mm employing two connecting rods each. Add to this two throttle bodies per cylinder and it was by any other definition, a V8.
As Sunday afternoon began to enter its closing stages, so too did the Festival – not that spirits were at all dampened with this change in proceedings. It couldn’t have been any more to the contrary, as the atmosphere electrified with the announcement of the Top 10 Shootouts. Run across three categories – pre-1960, pre-1975 and outright – these 30 drivers were playing for keeps, as the attitude of Paul McCarthy’s Mk1 Escort Zakspeed replica attests to, leaping across the kerbs through the forest on his way to 2nd fastest pre-1975.
There’s no denying that Rod’s 1994 Pikes Peak Celica – outright record holder at Pikes Peak for 13 years – is still an impressive feat of automotive engineering some 22 years later. Heading into Leadfoot 2016 it was also the undefeated champion of the tarmac. This year however, the McRae and the Impreza proved the equal of Millen and the Celica, with both drivers tied on a 48.96-second run heading into the Shootout. The anticipation among the crowd was palpable – a close-fought battle was on hand.
As it transpired, neither of the top two pacesetters took out the top spot late on Sunday afternoon. The master of the mile? Still a Millen, with Rhys managing to best both McRae and his father taking the overall honours with his Hyundai, and ensuring some father-son banter during trophy presentation to finish off the weekend on a jovial note.
The smiles say it all – Leadfoot is all about celebrating what drew us all to cars in the first place. The romance of motoring, the rush of an impromptu hoon, and crucially, the camaraderie and common ground shared by those whose idea of absolute nirvana is strapping themselves in behind the wheel. Keep the cool coming please, Mr. Millen. This is as good as it gets.