Oh deer, I’m out!

| Photographer Credit: Mark Baker

Cervidae Dama Dama might sound like something your doctor could fix with a big shot of penicillin, but it’s rather more dangerous to a race driver.

Dama dama are Fallow deer, roaming mobs of which infest the forest, looking like something from a Disney movie. They are easily spooked, but tend to stick together in mobs.

Fortunately it’s not often that someone falls afoul of C.Dama Dama, but when it happens, it happens fast and it can be catastrophic.

Just ask Tony McCall. Imagine hammering off into Woodhill Forest on a cold Sunday morning, battling with Jardyne Lammers for the lead of the 240 km Woodhill 100 and getting into the clear.

Offroad racing is the last speed sport still allowed in Woodhill Forest, and the Woodhill 100 is the sport’s flagship enduro. The top cars these days are built or bought for $100k or more. They have Chev V8, Nissan V6 turbo or turbo four cylinder engines making upwards of 500 old-money bhp, and will complete the race on one tank of fuel in a total time of less than three hours.

Tony McCall slides his BSL Chev into turn one

Context: for every Coast Road section where the big boys will top 225 km/h there are two gnarly under-tree logging tracks chopped up by motorbikes where most drivers are stroking along at 50-65 km/h. The race starts at 11.00, and with a McCall out front it might even run to a finish as early as 1:35 pm. 

After two 20 km laps, with a four minute lead, Lammers has disappeared after suffering two flat tyres. Karl Fenton’s moved up to second place in his big US-built Jimco Chev. With a decent time buffer and pit comms every time you’re in sight of the start-finish area, you might relax your pressure on the go-pedal and start driving strategically, all the while looking ahead for the first puff of smoke that hints at a back-marker to lap.

Instead, in the corner of your eye, a whole mob of Dama Dama gallop out of the bush and run in front of your car. At 150 km/h there’s barely time to react and then you’re a passenger. The car’s front suspension and steering is smashed and you can only look for where you’ll end up stopping.

Maybe 50 km of the race is done and you’re out. Not much point fixing the car and restarting; there is a bunch of 20 or more unlimited-class cars still in the event along with the 1.6-litre class three cars and of course 20-odd UTVs. All forcing the pace along, keeping lap times at 14 minutes or so.

Among this throng, unseen, coming off a P60 grid position, Hamilton drive Paul Smith is having the time of his life. Picking off slower cars every time there’s a hint of a straight, he is flying under the radar while everyone is watching the leading bunch with one eye on the stormy squalls racing ashore from the nearby sea.

Weather waffle: course prep for this race was interrupted last year by a cyclone; water spouts are often seen over the course of a stormy Queen’s Birthday Weekend; and it’s no fun doing 200 km/h or more on Lake Road while being shot in the chest by superchilled rain or even hailstones.

Those rain squalls have the occasional flick of forked lightning in their dark interiors too.

The race, like many of the big enduro events in the USA (the Baja 500 and 1000, the Mint 400) is run to distance with competitors waved away in pairs on 30 second intervals.

That means by the time Karl Fenton roars across the line, we’re all aware of Paul Smith’s charge and watching to see the white Jimco leap out of the bush and onto the start-finish straight.

Two minutes tick by, and some are thinking Karl might have his maiden win. Then there’s a swirl of wet sand a kilometre away and the Smith car roars down through the finish line. Even Paul’s not sure when I speak to him afterward. All he knows is he’s ‘bloody cold and bloody sore’. The last few laps were on tracks that chopped up severely, giving the big Hamiltonian much the same tenderising that McCall gave the Fallow deer.

Karl Fenton takes the chequered flag, then faces an anxious wait while Paul Smith comes to the finish. Fenton was deposed to second overall on countback

Word filters up from the timing motor home: the win goes to Paul Smith with a margin of more than two minutes. A new page has been written in the history of New Zealand’s toughest endurance race.

Mark Baker

Mark Baker has been working in automotive PR and communications for more than two decades. For much longer than that he has been a motorsport journalist, photographer and competitor, witness to most of the most exciting and significant motorsport trends and events of the mid-late 20th Century. His earliest memories of motorsport were trips to races at Ohakea in the early 1960s, and later of annual summer pilgrimages to watch Shellsport racers and Mini 7s at Bay Park and winter sorties into forests around Kawerau and Rotorua to see the likes of Russell Brookes, Ari Vatanen and Mike Marshall ply their trade in group 4 Escorts. Together with Murray Taylor and TV producer/director Dave Hedge he has been responsible for helping to build New Zealand’s unique Toyota Racing Series into a globally recognized event brand under category managers Barrie and Louise Thomlinson. Now working for a variety of automotive and mainstream commercial clients, Mark has a unique perspective on recent motor racing history and the future career paths of our best and brightest young racers.

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