The Leadfoot Festival has been on my car event bucket list since I read about it a couple of years ago. When the question was asked about who should get the Auto Clique media pass I put my hand up like a shot! This was less than two weeks before the festival, so it was all a little bit last minute for me. I like to have everything organised well in advance.
BMW lent us a five door MINI to road test on the drive to the event, see our Road Tested review HERE.
I booked a flight to Auckland and a tent site a few km from the Leadfoot Ranch, packed my camping gear and waited impatiently, counting down the sleeps to the event.
After an amazing day thoroughly testing the MINI on the drive from Auckland to Hahei via the Coromandel Peninsula, I arrived at Leadfoot Ranch. I pulled up to the gate and asked where to go to pick up my pass. Judging by the reaction from the woman who greeted me I must have looked like an excited little boy. I certainly felt that way! While I was cruising along looking for a car park, all around me people were unloading race cars from trailers, getting tool boxes out of vans, test firing engines. I heard the unmistakable sound of a tuned rotary, glanced in my mirror and realised Mad Mike Whiddett was trying to get past me to the pits in his MADBUL RX7, his young son in the passenger seat with a similar grin on his face to mine!
I picked up my pass and started to wander around the pit areas. Everyone was busy but really friendly and everything was out in the open. I took a few photos then headed off to find food and set up my tent for the night.
The Leadfoot Festival was first run in 2011 as a private celebration for Rod Millen’s 60th birthday. Rod has a long and successful career in motorsports and has attended and won hill climb events such as the Pikes Peak Hillclimb, Race to the Sky and Goodwood Festival of Speed. It was Goodwood that gave the inspiration for him to build Leadfoot Ranch, converting the driveway into a beautifully finished one mile (1.6km) hill climb circuit. The first Leadfoot Festival was such a success that the local businesses and NZ motorsport clubs asked Rod to make it an annual public event.
The course starts off fairly flat. Drivers have a choice of smooth tarmac or hilly grass for a short section. This lets the offroad vehicles do jumps if they want to give the crowd a bit more of a show. The course then goes over a bridge, through a tight turn, under the footbridge and towards the hill. It takes a tight left by the barn, followed by a series of hairpins as the track climbs the steep hill into the forest. It passes over some big humps as it twists and turns through the trees, emerging onto a final uphill straight, then dropping through the finish and down towards Rod’s house. It’s a tight and tricky course without much room for error. There are walls, trees and hay bales to hit if a driver gets it wrong. All-out power won’t get you the best time, you also need handling and skill.
I arrived at the site at the opening time of 7:30am with much boyish enthusiasm. I was turned back at the gate because I had a bottle of water on me. They have a strict policy that you can’t take food and drinks in. Slightly disappointed by this I headed to the nearest coffee cart and ordered a coffee, to find out that none of the vendors took cash. They have a “bank” set up where you buy an AWOP card. Basically an event-only EFTPOS card. Charge up the card with money using cash or EFTPOS then use that to pay for food and drinks. They charged $5 for the card and you got $3 back at the end of the event. I didn’t cash mine in as the queue was massive. I wonder if my $1 remaining balance will be good next year! The merchandise stand accepted EFTPOS for T-shirts etc.
So, coffee in hand, I headed up the hill to the little grandstand to find somewhere to sit that wasn’t wet with dew. There were commentators stationed in strategic locations around the site who gave a constant stream of information about the cars, drivers and events. The commentary was also broadcast on radio. They did have to vacate one of the commentary boxes every now and again so the family of swallows nesting there could be fed!
After the Subaru safety car, the first driver up the hill was Shane Allen in his drift car, putting in a dramatic performance and laying down some rubber on the pristine surface. An eclectic selection of race cars, bikes, trucks and even go-karts followed. About halfway through group one the heavens opened and we all got a good soaking. I was actually shivering! Then as quickly as it had come, the cloud cover blew away, and fortunately didn’t return for the rest of the weekend.
As the day warmed up, the grass and the track dried out and the racers got faster and faster. The drift cars were the most spectacular: Mad Mike Whiddett, Shane Allen, Cole Armstong, Jodie Verhulst, Curt Whittaker, Gaz Whiter. They were nowhere near the lap record as they climbed the hill sideways but the drama, noise and tyre smoke more than made up for it. Mad Mike hit a hay bale and had to wheel the car into Rod’s workshop. It took several hours but he was back on track later in the day, fresh welds on the car and cable ties holding the carbon fibre front wing together! Jodie Verhulst removed her rear bumper on a hay bale and that too was cable-tied together later in the day.
The go-karts were incredibly fast and before day one was over the previous year’s lap record had been beaten by Daniel Bray in his 125cc race kart. This thing has 46bhp at the wheels but only weighs 175kg including the driver. 0-100kph in 2.8 seconds, a six speed sequential gearbox and aluminium ceramic disc brakes all round. He didn’t seem to be using the brakes much – the low centre of gravity meant he was able to take the bends at an impressive pace.
There were classics from as far back as 1906. The Darracq Grand Prix car was a particular highlight – built for the first Grand Prix at Le Mans. It was later owned by Malcolm Campbell and was the first car he named “Bluebird”. After WW1, the engine was brought from Ireland to NZ with the intention of using it in a speedboat. Instead the engine ran as a stand-by generating plant in the Christchurch Press newspaper for 35 years. The car was eventually restored and reunited with its 14.2 litre engine. It was driven flat-out up the hill by the owner Anne Thomson and down again by some teenagers who I assume must have been her grandkids.
There weren’t just cars there. A selection of bikes made the run including a 1200cc turbocharged Harley.
Other highlights for me included the Ferrari F40 replica which looked pretty convincing and had a similar V8 twin turbo setup to the real thing; Paul McCarthy’s 1974 RS1600 Escort which was the loudest thing there apart from the dragster; Robert McNair’s 1932 Riley Nine Special with a Tiger Moth engine – such a beautifully built car; Carter Strang’s Nissan Safari with its one metre long coilovers. I could go on!
The atmosphere was very friendly and relaxed. You could basically go anywhere on the site that wasn’t dangerous (i.e. the track). There were tapes around the track to mark out the boundaries, and volunteer marshals around to make sure no-one did anything silly. The facilities were good. Plenty of portaloos and a few old style long drop toilets! There was one place where fresh drinking water was available plus the various food and drink outlets which all did decent food. Jacket spuds, gourmet sausages, burritos, stuffed naans, fresh juice, burgers, ice creams, donuts. I spent an enjoyable day wandering around the site, checking out the pits, drinking coffee, watching noisy race cars and taking photos.
The racing came to a close at 6pm and rather than going to see the concert that night I decided to head just up the road to Hahei and check out Cathedral Cove. It’s pretty cool, but I did miss them firing up the Rat Trap dragster in the dark. Apparently it was quite the pyrotechnic display.
On day two I decided to have a leisurely breakfast and explore the local area a bit, then turn up after the grass had dried out in the sun. I found out that there’s not much around there really! Certainly not many places for brekkie. So I headed back to Leadfoot Ranch, arriving at about 9am ready for another day of chilling out whilst watching and listening to race cars. Which is basically what I did all day. There are two car parks – a dusty field for the general public and an inner field for car clubs to gather and display their vehicles. I had a wander around the second car park, which was full of some amazing machinery and kept me entertained for some time.
I wandered around the pits checking out details on some of the classics and race cars. I had a chat with a few of the drivers with, most of whom owned the cars they were racing and restored or built them themselves. Mad Mike was entertaining and talked about the upcoming 1400bhp quad rotor twin turbo MX5 drift monster that he and his team are building. Tony Christiansen’s car was fascinating. Tony lost his legs in a train accident in his childhood, so the car is set up with hand controls. It still has pedals but they have levers welded to them. He must have fast hands to do all that with levers! He told me sometimes even he wonders what he’s doing when going flat-out in a race car!
At lunchtime we were treated to an air show and a parade of classics up and down the track. It was a slow parade but of course one car had to do a burnout!
By the end of day two the lap record had been thoroughly defeated The drivers were getting used to the track and getting more confident and faster on each run. Maybe the huge amount of rubber on the track was helping grip as well!
Day three opened with one last run up the hill for each driver to attempt their best time. The drifters all decided to have a go at setting fast times rather than taking the hill sideways. They were pretty quick but not quick enough to get into the top ten. This was followed by a parade of cars picked by Rod Millen from the car park and another air show.
Finally there were two top-ten shootout runs for the fastest drivers of the weekend. One for pre-1975 cars and a fastest all-round top ten.
Richard Mason beat the 50.9 second 2013 record in his 2008 Subaru WRX STi with a time of 49.67. The only one faster than him was Daniel Bray in his GP Kart, making 49.03 seconds. It was looking like Rod Millen would no longer be the record holder on his own driveway as he lined up for the final run of the weekend. He roared past me in the woods in his 1995 Pikes Peak Celica and silence descended in the crowd as we all listened to the commentary for his time… 48.65 seconds! Clearly Rod will not be beaten! Maybe next year, but for now he’s still the champion of Millen’s Mile.
The Leadfoot Festival is a great event for motorsport and car enthusiasts. The sights and sounds are amazing. The atmosphere is relaxed. The competition between racers is friendly but serious. Would I go again? Like a shot! Though I would probably skip the practice day and attend just the two competition days.