Me? I blame Brian Tressider.
You see, gravel road rallying is the only form of mainstream motorsport I haven’t tried, and it’s old mate Brian’s fault.
Brian, you see, was part of a loose-knit group of motorbike-mad young blokes who attended Gore High School. Because he lived on a farm a few kms out of town Brian was the first in our group to get a car of his own. A Datsun 1200. And, well, it pretty much all went downhill from there.
The fact that he had been driving on the farm since he could see over the steering wheel, then been riding – and racing – trail, enduro and motocross bikes since he was 12 or 13 meant that getting his licence was a forgone conclusion.
What wasn’t was how quickly he turned from being a typically tentative L-plater to a Mike Marshall or Rod Millen wannabe.
One minute we were cruising around simply enjoying the freedom that comes when a mate owns a car and phones up and asks if you ‘want to go for a drive somewhere.’ The next we were hurtling down a dusty gravel road, perpendicular to the direction we were supposed to be travelling in, towards what I was sure was going to be a certain and very painful death.
The fact that I am still here and able to write this suggests my trepidation/abject fear was misplaced. But the sheer speed we reached, combined with the way Brian was literally throwing the poor wee Datsun from one side of the road to the other, certainly had an effect on me.
To the point where – while I was happy to follow the International Rally over the next 20 or so years – I didn’t want a bar of anything to do with gravel and going fast myself.
Fast forward 20 or so years and two things are different. Learning how to drift has pretty much conquered my fear of going sideways, and doing the media for the Silver Fern Rally for the past two years has done the rest.
In short, you could say that I am now a bit of a fan. Who one day might, just might, lease a car and give a local event a go! But back to the Silver Fern.
It is what I would describe as a ‘boutique’ event, originally created to celebrate the anniversary of the original, Shell-sponsored Silver Fern stage rally in 1969.
In theory it is a marathon-style, multi-day event for Historic (read rear-wheel-drive) rally cars from what I suppose you could call the pre-Quattro 4WD era. In practice though it is an all-comers 2WD event with two categories, Historic (for pukka original spec cars like the Mk 2 Ford Escort RS1800s that are by far and away the most popular option worldwide) and Challenge (for modified older cars and contemporary 2WDs).
My involvement started when Targa NZ owner and event director Peter Martin bought the contemporary biennial ‘tribute’ event from its original founder Gary Smith. Peter being Peter he then just sort of assumed that the bloke he had shoulder-tapped to do the media for the Targa Rally (that would be me!) would also be keen on taking on the task for ‘the Silver Fern.’
I was, too, and – in typical fashion – I have gone from knowing ‘a bit about it’ to ‘a lot’ in the two years I have worked on the event.
To the point where I know that the key difference between the original tribute event and the one just finished is the number of competitors from overseas. While the entry for the original was largely made up of local crews with the odd ‘international guest,’ close to half the entry for this year’s seventh biennial one came from the UK, with others coming from Australia, South Africa, and even – in one celebrated case – Kenya.
As such the event is as much about what marketing types would refer to as ‘in-bound adventure tourism’ as it is a plain, simple old rally, a point absolutely not lost on Peter who saw for himself how big the retro 2WD rally scene is in the UK when he was there earlier this year.
“You know the Escort Meirion Evans built and drove in 2016,” he said as he briefed me on his return. “Imagine 60 pretty much identical to that, all race-prepped and ready but with only a handful of events – with a lot of the Irish ones on tarmac – for their owners to do.
The scene is huge over there but they just don’t have the room, or time, or space of whatever it is we obviously take for granted here, so you can imagine the interest when I rock up and start telling them about our event and some of our stages……you know, eight full days of driving, up to 230 kms a day – of special stages not specials AND transports – on roads that are all smooth, fast and flowing.
Indeed, the only problem having so many international teams competing raises, is when you compare their numbers to those of local squads. You’d think the opportunity to contest an event like the latest one just finished, one which incorporated such iconic stages as the final run through the infamous Motu north-west of Gisborne, would see literally hundreds of crews young and not so putting their hands up.
However, bar regulars like Brian Green and Dave Strong (and the like) the local field lacked the sort of depth you’d usually associate with an event of such magnitude, particularly one only occurring every second year, rather than every year.
Certainly our roads drew pretty much universal praise from those – largely internationals – who did make the effort to enter and compete; Like Frank Tundo, the Kenyan wheat farmer who has played a key role in the East African rally scene since the very first Safari rally in 1972. And who now oversees his son’s Carl ‘Flash’ Tundo’s equally successful four wheel rally career
Having driven a works Subaru here in the 1990s (“Possum’s years,’ he describes them) he already knew how good the roads here were. So when the opportunity (in the form of the Silver Fern Rally) presented itself he was back like a shot, this time with daughter Tash co-driving in a Mk 11 Ford Escort RS1800.
Now 69-years-of-age, Tundo Senior was never far from the front either (he and Tash finished 10th overall), saying that the roads feel even better second time around.
“Seriously,” he said. ‘You can’t beat them. They simply are the best in the world. Why you no longer have a round of the WRC here I just do not know. You just don’t find this sort of rallying anywhere else.”
Which sounds to me like an opportunity rather than a problem. Particularly if – like me – you are one of over 50,000 people who have viewed – in a state I can only describe as slack-jawed, close-to-drooling awe – The YouTube video of Hayden Paddon and co-driver Malcolm Read ripping through a stage of the Otago Classic Rally in 2014.
As hopes of a return of the WRC – in its current form at least – fading with every year the bloody Aussies host a half decent event on the New South Wales central coast, perhaps we might be better channelling out resources into a kind of hybrid AP4 modern/RWD Historic series where the emphasis was on getting numbers up rather than hanging onto the coattails of the WRC’s mega-buck categories and paths.
Blasting through the Dunedin hinterland in an old-skool RWD drive Escort obviously hasn’t done Hayden any harm. And imagine the spectacle if you were to put three or four other young fellas with stars in their eyes and the reflexes of Edward Scissorhands in similar cars……………….