October is Targa month here in NZ

| Photographer Credit: ProShotz

Since the first, fledgling event, way back in 1995, October has always been ‘Targa month’ as far as I’m concerned.

I was a fan and avid follower of ‘The Ultimate Road Race’ way before I took over the publicity reigns in 2011, making a point of always turning up either on sign-up day on the Monday of Labour Weekend if the event was starting in or near Auckland, or tagging along with mates a la Rally NZ events of old to catch the odd piece of stage action.

So enthused did I get at one stage that I bought my Skyline and – initially anyway – built it up to what I considered was a kind of budget ‘club car/Targa’ spec.

The arrival of Drifting – and the cheap, run-what-ya-brung Grassroots practice days that sprung up at circuits all over the North Island – put paid to any ideas I might have harboured of giving Targa a go myself.

But that hasn’t stopped me immersing myself further in this frankly amazing event.

Doing the media for an event like Targa NZ does that.

First it was doing mad dashes from service park to service park, trying to make sense of what I quickly discovered has got to be one of the hardest motorsport events to cover (or rather, do justice to) that there is.

That led me to suggesting to event boss Peter Martin, that I needed to be ‘in’ the event.

Since that point I have – let’s see – been a (back seat) passenger in the event ‘recovery vehicle’, been a (very busy) co-driver in the last vehicle through before the roads are opened again, then in one of the Promo cars that ‘fill the gap’ between when the first siren-wailing Safety Cars enter the stage once the road is closed and the first actual event cars.

I’ve also acted as co-driver in the lead car on the Targa Tour, and – sat alongside, and when we had special guests in the front passenger seat, behind – Greg Murphy the memorable year the ‘four-time-Bathurst winner’ rocked up in his own (HSV NZ-supplied) Commodore R8 to join regular ‘Racing Ray’ Williams in the Promo Car ‘pack.’

The big problem, of course, when you are covering a rolling event like Targa is how frankly crap (in my case) Vodafone’s cell phone network coverage is away from a thin line in some cases no more than say 15-20km either side of State Highway #1.

Obviously, the event organisers use radio comms to make sure everyone ‘in the loop’ is in touch when the event ‘goes live.’

However, I would have thought that in this day and age a huge company like a Vodafone or a Spark offering a supposedly ‘nationwide’ cell service could do better.

City to City the coverage is – generally – acceptable. But, for instance, when Murph and I were on or near the admittedly wild, windswept and (to be fair) pretty much deserted, south-west Waikato Coast (from Oparau near Kawhia down to Awakino) an area this year’s event returns to, by the way, our cell phones were about as much use as, well, a thing that isn’t much use!

It’s been the same at subsequent events I have covered across large swathes of both the North and South Islands, making my job – not to mention that of the roving course commentators I have worked with over the years, like the inimitable Jamie McCarthy, immeasurably more difficult.

Yes, I know, if this is all I have to complain about I’m doing alright.

However the sheer unpredictability of the cell phone coverage away from the main centres also makes it nigh on impossible for a working stiff like me to meet reasonable evening media deadlines – say around 5.00pm for TV1 and TV3’s nightly 6.00pm news bulletins and – at a stretch – 8.00pm for the next morning’s newspaper.

In some cases I’ve tried the old ‘with just one/two/three stages to go today, so-in-so had an unsurmountable lead ands looks set to win this year’s Targa event’ only to have reality in the form of a last minute drama clamp its jaws around my butt and get ready to bite!

The late model Porsche GT3 RS of Dunedin pair Martin Dippie and Jona Grant.

In one of the first ‘main Targa’ events (2013) I covered, Aucklander Jason Gill and co-driver Mark Robinson only had to make it back to (Taupo?) for a well-deserved win, but blew an engine late on the last day, handing victory on a plate to Porsche 911 GT3 RS pair Martin Dippie and co-driver Jona Grant.

I was typically ‘outside cell phone coverage’ when this happened and had pretty much pre-written my ‘Targa veteran finally gets the victory he deserves’ story when (luckily as it turned out) I drove ‘back into some reception’ and was able to check on the real-time results, via my data package.

Realising ‘something big’ had happened, I was able to phone (and actually get through surprise, surprise) Jason – who at that point was enjoying the hospitality of a local farmer- find out what exactly had transpired, and ‘massage’ my report to that effect before pushing the send button.

Ironically Martin Dippie and co-driver Jona Grant were involved in a virtual carbon copy of what happened to Jason Gill, in last year’s three-day Targa Hawke’s Bay event.

There I was, writing up how – with just a single stage to go – the winner of the 2013 main event looked set to add victory in the new Targa Hawke’s Bay event to his tally….when Dippie and Grant ‘fell off’ in the final stage, handing victory to Steven Kirk-Burnnand and co-driver Mike Hay in Steven’s diminutive but seriously quick and effective BMW 318ti.

The BMW E30 M3 of Wellington son & father combination, Mark and Chris Kirk-Burnnand

So ‘comms’ is a real problem for someone like me trying to keep up with the results in real-time, while still trying to keep a ‘handle’ on the 101-other stories a marathon event like the five-day Targa NZ naturally seems to produce.

Some are of rare and special achievement, often against the odds, while others run the usual gamut of daring-do, luck good and not so, crashes, bashes, cars bouncing off the scenery, and ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

It’s also, obviously, an issue with friends, family, loved ones, and plain simple old fans, wanting to stay in touch with those either competing or working in or on the event.

Which is one of the reasons I work as hard as I do to try and get my daily event wraps out in a timely manner.

That said, ‘timely’ is a fluid kind of concept because despite my best endeavours to get a ‘7-8 paragraph/4-5 pic wrap’ out to the media no later than 8.00pm each evening, I know for a fact that for the first South Island Targa event in 2014 I was still banging away on my lap top past 10.00pm some nights.

Which brings me to something else I have learned about ‘the Targa.’ It is a true endurance event, one which as journo, crew member, codriver and driver alike you must treat like a marathon, rather than a series of 100m or even 10K sprints.

Over the years several people (from Peter Martin himself downwards) had explained to me that Targa NZ was rarely (if ever) won on the first, the second, or even the third day.

It’s also very rare for a newcomer to a marathon, multi-day tarmac event to ‘win on debut.’

There, apparently, is a special rhythm to Targa NZ and you literally have to do one or two to ‘get it.’

This is a lesson four-time consecutive and five-time event winner Tony Quinn obviously learned and learned well and passed on to now five-gunning-for-six-time consecutive event winners Glenn Inkster and Spencer Winn.

Winners are grinners. Glenn Inkster and Spencer Winn after claiming their fifth Targa NZ win in Queenstown last year

When he first arrived on the tarmac ‘scene’ after initially plying his trade on gravel, Inkster was like a bull at a gate – impulsive, and wickedly quick with it but hard on his car and tyres.

Quinn could easily have ignored Inkster and his co-driving boss Winn and let them learn – slowly – by their own mistakes.

Instead he offered the benefit of the knowledge that had been passed on to him by the driver who had been doing the winning when Quinn himself had been starting out, expat Kiwi Jim Richards.

And a circle of sorts was completed when in 2014 in the South Island, Inkster and Winn claimed their first overall event win.

With another four wins since then there is absolutely no reason not to consider the Patumahoe/Howick pair in Inkster’s purpose-built ‘Targa-spec’ Mitsubishi Evo 8 favourites to make it six wins in a row, when they line up in Taupo on Tuesday October 29 for this year’s 25th annual event.

In saying that the pair again face some formidable foes. Like former winners Martin Dippie and co-driver Jona Grant (Porsche 911 GT3 RS) from Dunedin, and the winner of this year’s Targa Hawke’s Bay event, Haydn Mackenzie from Auckland and his Hamilton-based co-driver Matt Sayers (Mitsubishi Evo 10).

Targa Hawke’s Bay winners Haydn Mackenzie and Matt Sayers

Others in with a chance include former Targa Rotorua event winner Leigh Hopper and co-driver Michael Goudie (Subaru WRX), fellow Aucklanders David Rogers and co-driver Aidan Kelly (Mitsubishi Evo 10), and the afore-mentioned Jason Gill and co-driver Mark Robinson in Gill’s recently acquired tarmac-spec, WRC-style VW Polo R.

This year’s event is again a multi-faceted one with three separate starting groups; Competition, the Targa Tour and now a Time Trial organised in conjunction with the Vintage Car Club of New Zealand.

A separately scored but concurrently-run two-day ‘Mini-Targa’ – complete with its own 8-strong Targa Tour group – is also being run over the final two days of the main event.

The Targa Tour remains a popular part of the annual Targa NZ event.

After its start, next Tuesday in Taupo this year’s event heads west for a two-night stay in New Plymouth, south for a single overnighter in Whanganui, and east again for a final night in Palmerston North.

Along the way competitors and Tour/Time Trial entrants will cover 760km of closed special stages and close to 1200kms of touring stages, from as far north (and west) as Operau (near Kawhia) in the western Waikato to as far south and east as Pongaroa in southern Hawke’s Bay.

There is also growing interest interest in the new Targa Time Trial organised and run in conjunction with the Vintage Car Club of New Zealand.

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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