Leadfoot Festival is probably the best motorsports event in New Zealand. Originally staged as a 60th birthday party for Rod Millen, he decided to open it up to the public, and it has grown from there. Modelled on the famous Goodwood hillclimb event, this is the closest you’ll get in New Zealand to Lord March’s British celebration of all things car-related.
Rod Millen has a long career in several disciplines of motorsports, as well as being a successful businessman. And he chooses to spend his money wisely – on cars of course! One day he had a flash of brilliance when we realised the long, twisty, sometimes steep driveway on Leadfoot Ranch in Hahei would make a great hillclimb track. Designs were drawn up, earth was moved, tarmac was laid, and Millen’s Mile was born.
It’s a tight and technical climb, starting with a flattish section with a series of turns, dips and humps, as well as a narrow stone bridge. A series of hairpins and switchbacks take you up a very steep climb into the trees, where the track then winds and dips a few more times before you rocket out into the sunshine on a final section before the finish line under a bridge. In the quickest machinery, this whole track is dealt with in around 49 seconds. One mistake and you’ll be either in a hay bale, or making close friends with a tree.
The vehicles take a timed run at the hill one after the other in batches of around 10-15, with them all cruising down in convoy at the end of each batch. This way each driver gets three or four runs at the hill before the fastest are split into three top-ten shootouts, divided by build year. The fastest in the shootout wins, regardless of earlier times.
What’s it like to be there?
We drove up from Wellington the day before the main event, in the rather excellent Volvo S90 R-Design PHEV, arriving just after the 4pm deadline for picking up our press credentials. The pits were a chaotic bustle of cars being unloaded and equipment being unpacked, with trucks and trailers moving around everywhere. We parked in the first available space, only to have Rod Millen himself roar up to us in his Pikes Peak Celica, getting worryingly close to the Volvo as he lined up to reverse into his pit space. Watching him as he leapt out of the Celica’s window, Dukes of Hazzard style, I realised that he and I had exactly the same massive grin on our faces. We were in petrolhead heaven!
After collecting our passes, we hung around for a while, soaking up the atmosphere of the place, before heading to our accommodation for the night.
After a bit of light off-roading as we parked the Volvo in a field, we walked into the event. They are very careful about what’s allowed in – no food or drink. Bags are checked and even the boot of your car is visually checked. Free water is available from a tap in the middle of one of the spectator areas.
Our first priority was breakfast. Leadfoot has always had a great selection of food trucks, and this year was no exception, with a wide array of foods including fresh pizza, burgers, gourmet hotdogs, ribs, burgers, noodles, ice cream, donuts. Everything I ate throughout the weekend was very good, and prices weren’t too bad despite the captive audience. It was good that they’d put up a large marquee near the food trucks, with wooden benches inside. In previous years there hasn’t been much shade around the lower site, and it’s great to have somewhere to sit and have lunch out of the sun, or rain.
By the time we’d had breakfast, the racing was about to start, with the first batch waiting at the start line. From that moment on, the day was an almost constant assault on the senses, with the roar of engines, screech of tortured tyres, smell of tyre smoke, and stunning sights of cars going full-pelt up the hill. Or fully sideways in some cases.
There were a lot of people there, with ticket sales up 30% on last year, but the site is so huge that it was a long way from feeling crowded. There’s plenty of space to wander around, and plenty of freedom to go almost anywhere you like.
Rod has been busy improving the site each year, with new buildings and viewing areas. This year’s addition was a new building near the hairpins, with roof access for a great view, and a large VIP area outside. Tickets for this section are a lot more expensive, but food is included and you get access to proper toilets rather than portaloos and long-drops. Not that the portaloos were a problem, they were kept clean all weekend, as were the bins around the site, with rubbish being collected regularly. There’s a second VIP area in a large marquee at the top of the hill, with a great view of the main section of the track.
Spectators are protected by lines of large hay bales, and a tape fence to stop you getting too close. A couple of times I wasn’t convinced this was enough, especially when one of the Trophy Trucks landed awkwardly after a jump and bounced over the bales, with spectators running to get out of the way. Fortunately no-one was hurt, but it looked close! One of the great things about Leadfoot is how close you are to the action, but it’s good to have your wits about you.
The atmosphere at Leadfoot is the best of any motoring event I’ve been to. Everyone just seems totally relaxed, and is there to enjoy themselves. Everyone you meet seems to be having a great time, I had so many conversations with people along the lines of “Been here before? It’s awesome isn’t it?”. No-one had a bad thing to say.
I spent the day wandering around the various parts of the track, around the pits, up the very steep track to the top section, just taking photos, enjoying the sights and sounds, and chatting to random people. It’s great to be amongst so many car fanatics, just taking it all in.
Apart from a couple of VIP areas, everything is open, including the pits. You’re free to go right up to the cars, chat to the engineers and drivers, learn about cars from the people who actually built them. When the cars line up for their run up the hill, the drivers hang around by the cars, talking to fans, and signing autographs if requested. I wandered over and had a chat with Greg Murphy when he was about to drive his rally Barina, which he described as “A weapon”. He seemed to be enjoying the weekend just as much as me, and for mostly the same reasons. I commented that the new VXR Commodore was impressively fast up the hill and Greg said he thought the same, and was surprised that a standard road car could complete the course in under a minute. The turbo V6 and 4wd obviously help. It’s a very capable machine.
Holden had quite a big presence this year, and certainly had the most impressive stand. They brought a two storey building complete with concrete foundation pad, balcony and bar. Porsche were a close second with their marquee with upstairs viewing area but it was invite-only. Honda, Subaru and Ford had big marquees too, with lots of cars on display, fridges full of free water etc. Giltrap brought a selection of supercars for people to look around, Ford had Rod Millen’s new Ford GT on display, and Transport World museum had a truck with a couple of old touring cars, all the way from Invercargill.
There was a lot to see around the site apart from the racing itself, and I think that’s part of why the event is so much fun.
There are two car parks at Leadfoot – the normal one, and a closer VIP car park for for car clubs and classics. The gate security decide what cars can go into the VIP park, and on the second day they liked our Volvo, giving us a VIP pass. We parked up alongside the classics and supercars, and enjoyed our much shorter walk into the event.
There had been heavy rain the night before and showers continued throughout most of the day. This made for some interesting racing, and times were a couple of seconds down on the previous day. There were a couple of incidents during the day, with cars going into the bales or trees, and one motorcyclist coming off and ending up with a broken ankle. Fortunately that was the most serious injury of the day.
Each lunchtime there’s an air show, and a parade run up the hill, mostly of the various supercars brought by sponsors of the event. Rod Millen drove his new Ford GT up the hill each time. It’s the only one in the Southern Hemisphere and had been delivered to him a couple of days before, so this was the first time he’d driven it. That didn’t slow him down though! He set off last and left a very large gap so he could fang it up the hill. The second day he was late getting to the parade and we saw him get dropped at the Ford stand, drive the GT briskly across the grass, and line up at the start with seconds to go. Who’d have thought? You can off-road a Ford GT!
We got the impression that Rod kept getting distracted enjoying himself so much that he almost forgot he was supposed to be driving. A couple of times we saw him screech to a halt in a buggy, hop out, leap into a race car and roar off to join the pack at the very last second. This is a 67 year-old but he’s certainly not slowing down yet!
Before we knew it, it was time for the final top-ten shootouts, divided into three groups for pre-1960, pre-1975 and the overall fastest. We decided to camp out in the forest section for the final runs, and it was amazing to hear and see them all going full-tilt through the tight bends, inches from the hay bales. Each section was faster than the last, with times getting closer and closer together. Rod Millen won the pre-1975 top ten in his Mazda RX3, beating the next fastest by over a second.
But could he knock last year’s winner Alister McRae off the top spot in the Pikes Peak Celica? Apparently he had done some work on it and said it was “Fast enough to scare the sh$% out of him”. In the end though, he wasn’t in the top three, and Alister McRae, running last, posted a spectacular time in his Vantage Subaru WRX, winning the event a second time. A great end to a fantastic weekend.
Leadfoot Festival is an event which should be on every petrolhead’s bucket list. It’s growing every year with bigger and better facilities on site, and so far it has retained the same atmosphere year-on-year. Book it in your calendar for next year. You know you want to!
Here are the results in full:
Top Ten Shootout
1st – Alister McRae – Vantage Subaru WRX – 49.15 seconds
2nd Sloan Cox – 2004 Mitsubishi Evo Hill Climb Special Evo 8 – 50.71 seconds.
3rd Dean McCarroll – 2013 Juno CN race car – 51.10 seconds
1st – Rod Millen – 1974 Mazda RX3 – 53.67 seconds
2nd – Rick Bone – 1972 Datsun 1200 Coupe – 55.00 seconds
3rd – Paul McCarthy – 1974 Ford Escort RS 1600 – 55.22 seconds
1st – Ray Ferner – 1931 Ralph Watson Special BSA FW32 – 64.13 seconds
2nd – Cam Neil – 1939 Chevrolet 39 Coupe – 65.74 seconds
3rd – Peter Jordan – 1951 Citroen Light 15 V8 – 66.43 seconds
The following are a selection of some of my favourite photos.
The full sets can be found here.