Targa – ‘Like an episode of Top Gear turning up in your town!’

| Photographer Credit: ProShotz

For a while there – literally – everyone in my wider ‘motorsport’ circle was building a car ‘to do Targa;’ or at the very least, plotting to do the event at some future stage.

And do you know what? There is still – even after over 20 years – a palpable excitement about the annual multi-day Targa NZ marathon – a ‘buzz’ you simply don’t get with other, largely I suppose, circuit-based events

Whether it is the route, the cars, or the simple fact that you are actually away ‘on-event’ for at least seven days (five competing and one each side getting to and from) Targa NZ is unique.

Not just for those in it either.

Living as I do in Auckland you (or at least I do) get used to seeing exotic sports cars (Porsches, Lambos, Fazzas and now even McLarens) every day.

Out in the backblocks however I’ve seen grown men go slack-jawed, and even question their own eyesight (‘Was that one of those James Bond cars?”) as a conga line of typical Tour exotica snaked its way at speed along ‘their’ road in rural Hawke’s Bay.

I actually used that ‘awe’ to explain ‘what the event was about’ to a young reporter from the area a couple of years ago.

“Think of it as an episode of Top Gear turning up in your town,” I said and was quietly chuffed when she used it in her subsequent piece in the local paper.

My own, now dedicated drift, Skyline actually started out as a build ‘for Targa.’ Though like lots of typical ‘gunnas’ (you know, ‘gunna do this, gunna do that!’) I’d only ever watched the start and/or finish of one. And as it turned out, I was woefully ignorant of the logistics of even getting a car to the start line let alone actually completing one of these marquee motorsport events.

Actually, that’s not quite true. When good friend Sean Managh, the founding Editor of NZ Performance Car magazine, was doing his darndest to shake up the then incredibly staid local motoring corps, I was party to his outrageous plan to give a reader the chance to do one of the early Targa events with him in – I think – a mate of a mate’s Subaru Legacy.

Perhaps I’m wrong on the car but I still remember the incredible tales – as tall as Sean and most with at least a kernel of truth to them – of hits, near misses and general mayhem and daring-do that came out of what was a ‘good idea at the time’………..which just made me want to do one myself, even more.

I got my chance – albeit as a journo covering it rather than a competitor in it – when current event owner, director and general force of nature, Peter Martin, bought ‘the business’ from founder, Mike John, in 2008.

Like Peter, Mike John was an entrepreneurial type who had made a career in the motor trade and – having been impressed by how quickly the Targa Tasmania event had become part of the fabric of the Aussie motorsport scene, resolved to give New Zealand its own version.

Peter Martin’s own first direct contact with the New Zealand event was as a competitor, and when the opportunity came up to buy it he was like the bloke in the famous old Remington ad..(you know, the guy who said, ‘I liked the shaver so much I bought the company.’)

As luck would (or wouldn’t ) have it, that purchase came just as the Global Financial Crisis finally bit here. Both the make-up of the event and competitor profile had changed by this time as well.

For the first 10 or so years, for instance, Targa NZ was seen as an event for classic car enthusiasts; with the accent on doing whatever you could to get your car to the finish.

With Dunlop as naming rights sponsor, Mike spent big with Classic Car magazine and TV to promote it……though speaking strictly personally here, I could never understand a) why the write-ups in Classic Car were always so damned democratic (giving the bloke at the back of the field the same sort of space as the bloke who won) and b) why the TV coverage always seemed to focus on the crashes.

Because I was always extra busy at this time of year I never bothered pitching for the PR business, but when Peter – being Peter – conducted a comprehensive review of every – and I mean every – facet of the operation he had just bought, and reached a similar conclusion to mine regarding the way it was ‘sold’ to its various ‘publics’ via the media, it was inevitable I would become involved at some point.

There’s a real skill, you see, in driving quickly over a closed back country road you – in theory – have never seen before, and only have rudimentary navigational notes (left at T 2.5km, right at Y junction at 7.6km etc) for. I knew this from my own riding and driving, usually late at night and over long, long distances, and have often wondered why other journos covering the event have never picked up on.

It was this skill I wanted to highlight in my coverage of the event. That, and the unique and because of it, incredibly challenging network of fantastic roads we have here.

Targa Tasmania, for instance, is more a ‘road race’ than a ‘tarmac rally,’ with most of the stages the same each year and each and every competing team using pace notes.

Nothing wrong with that, in fact Tony Quinn, who has won both the Tasmanian and New Zealand events, reckons the time has come for some sort of pace-notes to be introduced here. Others, like Leigh Hopper, would prefer it remaining a true ‘blind’ event.

When I joined NZ Classic Car magazine’s then Deputy Editor Ashley Webb on the first event I covered, Targa Rotorua in 2011, one of the other things I couldn’t help but notice was the difference in the entrant demographic from ‘early day’ events.

Gone, or going, were the ‘battlers’ and the ‘bucket-listers,’ their places taken by the likes of those who had decided to specialise in the various Targa tarmac events Peter was now organising like Tony Quinn, Jason Gill, Clark Proctor and members of the extended Kirk-Burnnand clan. The allied but un-timed Targa Tour had also become ‘a thing’ in its own right.

2018 Targa NZ Targa Tour
2018 Targa NZ Targa Tour

Since then I have covered all eight ‘main Targas’ and every smaller one, two and/or three-day Rotorua, North Island, Hawke’s Bay etc etc event Peter and his close-knit crew of staff, volunteers, ring-ins and general good buggers have put together.

In that time I have either covered them by being actually ‘in them’ – as co-driver of one of the promo cars – or by chase car or camper van, or remotely. Each way has its advantages and disadvantages. The main issue for me, as the guy responsible for getting the word out, is always comms.

For instance, for a country with such a thriving tech sector I really can’t believe how crap our mobile phone reception and internet availability is once you are outside the main centres, or leave State Highway 1.

The flip side of that, however, is that when I first started covering the event from a vehicle travelling in it, I couldn’t believe how many tiny little back roads in – literally – the middle of nowhere (particularly in the likes of the far-western Waikato and far-eastern parts of Taranaki) were sealed.

One of the reasons is pressure, apparently, from the great rural economic God, Fonterra, so that their tankers can get through. The other – and this has been confirmed by a number of local body Mayors and administrators who have accepted rides in the Promo cars with Racing Ray Williams or Devon Miller (and myself) over the years – is simple economics.

It might cost more, up front, to seal a piece of road, but once it is sealed, the costs of maintaining it drop significantly, compared to leaving it unsealed.

Which, I suppose, is progress…..it’s just a pity the buggers in charge of providing mobile phone and internet services to these same remote areas could not work to the same formula!

The big story as far as this year’s southern South Island event (which has just finished) was all about whether tarmac specialists Glenn Inkster and co-driver Spencer Winn could make it consecutive win number five? Tony Quinn has also won five Targa NZ events, but only four – those between 2009 and 2012 with co-driver Naomi Tillett in a Nissan GT-R35 – were done in consecutive years.

Glenn Inkster from Pukekohe and Spencer Winn from Auckland won the 20th anniversary Targa South Island event in 2014 in their Ecolight Mitsubishi Evo. They also won the Instra.com Allcomers 4WD class
Glenn Inkster from Pukekohe and Spencer Winn from Auckland won the 20th anniversary Targa South Island event in 2014 in their Ecolight Mitsubishi Evo. They also won the Instra.com Allcomers 4WD class

The fact that Inkster and Winn did, er, win and set a new consecutive record has a nice synchronicity to it, too. There has never been any doubting Inkster’s raw speed, or – if it’s the right word – bravery, on blind (i.e. non pace-noted) roads. It just took him a while to work out how 1) to actually finish and 2) to win a multi-day marathon Targa event

Tony Quinn, by all accounts, was the same when he started competing here, because, as he told me when I asked, there are definitely ways to win, in much the same way as there are ways to lose, a Targa NZ event. And, according to Tony, he had veteran all-round circuit and ‘road’ racer ‘Gentleman’ Jim Richards to thank for helping him work out the differences between the two.

I’ve long taped over the record of that conversation so can’t quote Tony directly. But paraphrased Jim’s message went something like this; ‘It’s a long event, don’t be all ‘bull at a gate’ about it on the first and second days, let it come to you. Be there or thereabouts until the third or fourth day and just when your foe is starting to feel the pressure, up the ante – and the pace, and make sure it is he, not you, who cracks!

This was obviously a lesson not lost on Glenn Inkster and Spencer Winn when it was Quinn himself who crashed his then new Lamborghini Huracan early on the 20th anniversary Targa NZ event (and first to be held on the South Island) in 2014. Not only were they there to pick up the pieces they then took over the ‘pair to beat’ mantle from Quinn and co-driver Naomi Tillett; and as history now records, have won the event outright for a record-breaking fifth consecutive time.

Whether they can make it six, seven or even eight consecutive event wins on the trot might not be up to them though.

In the traditions of the event, on the first day of this year’s Invercargill-Dunedin-Queenstown odyssey they were beaten fair and square by main Targa rookies’ Haydn Mackenzie and co-driver Matty Sayers in a Production-spec Mitsubishi Evo 10.

Inevitably, as is ‘the Targa way’ Mackenzie and Sayers crashed out of a stage on the second day. Bloody but definitely unbowed, however, Mackenzie was back in the event the next day after an all-nighter at a local workshop, and back winning stages – including the iconic Crown Range one on the final day – before the end of the event.

To which all I can say is bring on the 25th annual event in October next year. It is already promising to be a doozie!

Ross MacKay

Ross MacKay is an award-winning journalist, author and publicist with first-hand experience of motorsport from a lifetime competing on two and four wheels. He currently combines a day job editing NZ4WD magazine with contract media work, weekend Mountain Bike missions and towing his 1989 Nissan Skyline drifter to grassroots meetings around the North Island.

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