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The Leadfoot Festival 2016

The Leadfoot Festival 2016

Waitangi Weekend 2016 was the date of the fourth Leadfoot Festival. Inspired by the Goodwood Festival of Speed, Kiwi racing legend Rod Millen turned his driveway into a race track then created a hill climb event around it. Drivers are invited from all over New Zealand and the world to bring cars and race the tricky and narrow 1.2km up the hill to Rod’s front door.

This year there were a host of famous names: Scott Dixon; Alister McRae; Mike Pero; Greg Murphy; Andrew Hawkeswood; Tanner Foust; Mad Mike Whiddett; Jodie Verhulst; Shane Allen; Cole Armstrong; Fanga Dan Woolhouse, to name just a few. Not to mention Rod Millen’s two sons Rhys and Ryan. I think the ladies might have been a bit disappointed that Patrick Dempsey pulled out at the last minute (I’m sure there’s a dirty joke in that sentence somewhere).

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As for the vehicles, well there was something for everyone. Classic race and road cars, V8 super cars, drift cars, custom built race and off-road vehicles, production cars, even a few motorbikes. Some of the machinery there was unique, or priceless, or both. And all of them were driven up the hill in anger, with the spectacular sights and sounds you’d expect.

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There was something to love about every vehicle there but the ones that stood out for me were Robert McNair’s Riley 9 special (with a Tiger Moth engine), Mad Mike’s quad rotor RX7, Peter Jordan’s Citroen 15 V8, Warren Snalam’s 1972 KE25 Corolla, and of course Joe McAndrew’s Audi quattro S1 Group B car.

The full list of cars and drivers is here.

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I attended Leadfoot 2015 and it was one of the best motoring events I’ve been to, so I was excited to do it all again. You can read my thoughts on last year’s LeadFoot Festival here.

After I enthused about the event so much last year, John and Mark decided to join me, and we all piled into a shiny new diesel Toyota RAV4 and headed up from Wellington. Maybe the RAV wasn’t entirely in keeping with the race event, but Ryan Millen rallies one in the US so there was a tenuous connection at least! It was a great car for our trip, carrying three adults plus cameras and camping gear in comfort.

We arrived at Leadfoot Ranch near Hahei in the Coromandel Peninsula on the Friday evening. It was too late for us to go in for a look around, but at first glance it looked a lot busier than last year. Race cars were still arriving at the open pits and everyone was busy unpacking and prepping cars. Last year the event lasted three days with the Friday as a practice day, but this year it was shortened to two. There were a lot more campervans on site, plus the new Leadfoot glamping tents. At $1400 for the weekend they were a little out of our budget, but apparently they all sold out.

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The next morning we were up bright and early, arriving at the gates for the 7am opening. After a mixup with our press passes and a lengthy wait standing in the drizzling rain, we headed to the Mobil Gas station. This is the centre of operations for Leadfoot, and was where we finally collected the passes. Once it was all sorted we had a wander around the pit area. The pits at Leadfoot are completely open. Anyone is free to wander around, chat to the drivers, car owners and mechanics and look around the cars. It’s a really relaxed environment and everyone seems to be enjoying themselves. I found myself wandering around the pit area, looking at the amazing variety of cars, listening to the sounds of revving engines, power tools, smelling fuel and oil, and I had a huge grin on my face. I was in my happy place.

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As we arrived at the pits, the heavens opened and everyone was treated to a thorough soaking. This didn’t slow things down, cars were already lining up for the first run up the hill. Competitors are split into four groups, and each group gets several chances throughout the weekend to set their best time. The top ten fastest go into a final shootout, and the shootout times determine the overall winner.

The cars lined up at the start line, and one by one launched off the line. Powering down a straight section, over the small stone bridge (not something you want to hit!), through some tight turns, under the foot bridge, power through a straighter section, into the tight curves and start to climb the hill. Take the hairpin bends and switchbacks, head up into the forest then floor it over a hump, through the trees and out into a final open section before crossing the line. All in around 49 seconds for the fastest cars. There’s some on board footage available on the Leadfoot Facebook page and it’s exhilarating to watch.

As a spectator, you can go pretty much anywhere on the site, getting very close to the track when safety allows. There are hay bales to mark out the edges and provide some protection from incidents. Rod and his team make most of the hay bales on site, harvesting the grass from Leadfoot Ranch a few weeks before the event. The hill above the flatter section of the track forms a natural amphitheatre and many of the spectators spend the weekend sitting there, taking in the sounds, sights and smells of the action.

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The whole atmosphere of the event is very chilled. Everyone is there to have a great time – drivers and spectators. It’s not a serious race event but we’re talking about racing drivers here, so they all want to win and there’s plenty of friendly rivalry.

Opposite the banking on the other side of the driveway there’s a large field which is used for two things. The first is a “VIP” parking area reserved for classic cars, or cars the people on the gate think are interesting. The second, closer to the track is vendor stands, for both car products, sponsors and of course food and drinks vendors. This year Porsche had a big presence, along with Subaru and Giltrap Prestige (who brought an impressive selection of Lambos and McLarens). The food vendors were excellent, definitely still at the same high standard as last year. This isn’t the usual sausage on a stick with chips that you find at a lot of events. The standout for me was Serial Griller, a Coromandel based burger van with some awesome burger creations. There was wood-fired pizza, gourmet hot dogs, Indian food, jacket potatoes, Pita Pit, ice cream, and Good George beer at the new-for-this-year Leadfoot Saloon bar.

In addition to the vendors at the bottom of the hill, this year there was a second set of food and drink vendors at the top near the forest, which was a welcome addition as it’s a great spot to sit and take in the action. Last year it was a long walk from there to the the food and drink, and it’s a steep and slightly treacherous climb up and down the gravel and mud path.

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My memory of the first day is a blur of fast moving cars, random conversations with strangers (about cars, of course), several soakings in rain showers, soggy shoes, lots of walking and taking photos, and lots and lots of grinning. By the time the action stopped at around 6pm I was ready for a decent meal and a good night’s sleep. Leadfoot puts on a concert on the Saturday night, with the Waratahs playing this year, but with the ongoing rain showers and the aforementioned soggy feet, we all decided to call it a day and head back to camp.

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After an interesting night with strong winds breaking one of the tent supports, people partying until 2am and some drunken idiot running through the camp shouting “Murder!!” sometime after that, we dragged ourselves out of our sleeping bags and got ready for another day in motor racing heaven.

Upon arriving back at Leadfoot ranch, the glorious sound of race cars was all it took to thoroughly wake me up. Though the cup of coffee and huge breakfast burger certainly helped!

After a couple of rain showers in the morning, the weather brightened up, drying out the track and the spectators and enabling the drivers to put in some much faster times. With the sunny weather, the turnout was even bigger than the first day with several thousand people lining the track or staking their claim to bits of the hillside for a decent view.

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We were treated to a short air show at lunchtime, while the last of the drivers attempted to qualify for the final Top Ten Shootout. The fastest times were broken down by manufacture year, with three top ten shootouts for pre 1960, pre 1975 and then the overall fastest. In the end, Rod Millen’s run of wins was ended by his son Rhys with a time of 49.31 seconds in his Global Rallycross Hyundai Veloster Turbo.

Full results can be found here.

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There’s something special about the atmosphere of Leadfoot. Like last year I found myself wandering around, taking it all in, checking out the cars up close in the pits, marvelling at the engineering on the race cars, chatting to the mechanics, engineers and drivers, grabbing food and drinks and chatting to random people.

I was a little bit worried that I might be disappointed by my second Leadfoot after spending a year telling people how great it was, but that wasn’t the case, far from it. It’s getting bigger and better attended each year, and the Leadfoot Ranch infrastructure is improving each time as well. I definitely plan to be there for the next one.

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Mark G – this was to be my first trip to Leadfoot and is something that had been on my motoring bucket list. After a couple of false starts in previous years I was excited to be finally making the trip, and what’s more I was privileged to share the experience with two other motoring enthusiasts, Rob and John. You can read about our trip up north in Rob’s RAV4 article, suffice to say though that my 9 hour stint there and back again was pleasant enough and even comfy in the back.

Having been a one time regular at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in the UK, attending one of the very first where I seem to remember that I sat on the straw bales watching the cars, I was keen to see if the Leadfoot filled the void that was left when the popularity of the event made it less appealing to me. Perhaps sitting on stawe bales was a bad idea…

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Some of the cars that I was looking forward to getting up close to was Paul McCarthy’s RS1600 Escort in Castrol colours. Not sure if it is a genuine Zakspeed car but it certainly reignited my childhood love of the cars and the poster I had on my wall.

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As a lotus owner I was looking forward to seeing Andy Booth in action and seeing if he could go one better from last years epic run, and catching up with Russell in his 211 again, but it was not to be with both cars absent from the weekend.  Speed up the hill was certainly evident from Tanner though.

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The drifters really seemed a hit with the crowd and the really resonated with the atmosphere putting on some spectacular runs, topped off with Tanner Foust in his V8 Powered 2015 Formula Drift Passat.

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A special mention though has to go to Johnny Moore, with a big grin beaming from the open helmet as he blasted towards the Fire station complex, with just the right amount of drift (from my vantage point – your view may differ Johnny haha!) arms flailing through my lens set up made my day and what the event was about… fun.drive-life-nz-leadfoot-festival-2016140At the end of the two days John, Rob and I lay in the sun on the grass bank overlooking the event, data cards full but our own tanks on empty and I had time to reflect.

The Leadfoot is my favourite motoring event that I have been to in years, and not just in NZ either. It will no doubt grow and be widely promoted as “even greater” each year in both attractions, appeal and celebrity appearances as word gets out, and here is the dichotomy – as a motoring fan I want everyone to know how great it is, and encourage you to attend wherever you are in the world, but in doing so it may become too popular and be spoilt.  To me, Leadfoot has the perfect balance of a number of components that make it “just so….”  The people, everyone I spoke with I just resonated with, be it in a (short) line for coffee, relaxing in the sun on the grass bank, in the pits, the car owners, they were like me, knowledgeable, informed, and loving it….

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Then you have the approach. The line up had a just-so balance in variety of vehicles, the fine food, the setting, the sound and good support from the manufacturers with trade stands. All of these things create a cornucopia of motoring delight, that are a challenge to put into words and to capture in order to share with you. And so we are back to the start, and my internal challenge. As a compromise i will have to “whisper” this and leave it Rod Millen to manage the event as he has done such a fine job to date……drive-life-nz-leadfoot-festival-2016143

if you are reading this and are into motoring (you must be if you have got this far) you need to lock this into your calendar and do whatever it takes to get from where you are now, to be in the Coromandel for the 2017 Leadfoot. Then, come and say G’day as I will be there, just don’t tell too many people – deal…?”

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