Son and stars out to shine
Rod Millen speeds up preparations for next year's Leadfoot Festival
It is early summer in Hahei and motorsport legend Rod Millen is showing visitors through the replica American Mid-Western service station he has built on his Leadfoot Ranch in the Coromandel.
Slightly distracted by two large tractors with hay cutters and balers on the back motoring past his gate, Millen reaches for his phone, and makes a call.
"It's Rod Millen here -- I just saw you passing my gate and not turning into my driveway," he says.
He is hoping the haymaking can begin today, and reassurances that his grass will be cut and baled the following week are met with resignation rather than glee.
Millen wants the hay cut and baled while good weather holds, in plenty of time for February's Leadfoot Festival, when about 15,000 people turn up for one of the most special events of the New Zealand motorsport calendar.
Classic cars and trucks, race and rally cars, vintage utes and motorcycles will tear up the winding one-mile-long driveway in what Millen says is a Kiwi version of the famous Goodwood Festival of Speed in Britain.
Rod Millen at his petrol station. Photo / Matthew Hansen
Drivers and riders have to be invited to compete, and February's event has already attracted motorsport stars such as IndyCar champion Scott Dixon, Bathurst champ Greg Murphy and Grey's Anatomy star and Le Mans 24-Hour category winner Patrick Dempsey.
It is the fourth year the event has been organised, and each year it attracts a larger crowd to the Coromandel property.
Though Millen has retired from active motorsport, he has been the fastest driver up the one-mile hill climb course every year the festival has been held.
Next year his record will again be under threat, with his son, Rhys, bringing his Red Bull Global Rallycross Hyundai Veloster to the ranch to compete. The four-wheel-drive Veloster in current spec puts out 585hp and Millen snr knows the standing is at risk.
That competitive spirit has served the amiable Millen well -- he was New Zealand Rally Champion from 1975-77, North American Race and Rally Championship winner from 1979-80, multiple winner of the Pikes Peak Hill Climb in the US, and the first driver to win three straight US off-road sport truck driver's championships.
There was also success in desert racing in the US, and he has competed successfully in international endurance races, such as the Transsyberia Rally championship in 2007 and the New Zealand Race to the Sky hill climb event.
During his motorsport career, Millen built up a successful business in California developing manned and autonomous specialist vehicles that can handle the roughest terrain.
In his decades in the US he collected a stunning range of classic vehicles, many of which are housed in barns at the Leadfoot Ranch.
Almost all the vehicles are in operating but original condition, and most will feature at the Leadfoot Festival.
Among the fleet are four classic American pickup trucks, all of which will be pressed into service during the hay-making sessions beforehand, and during the festival at Waitangi Weekend.
Among the four is a 1938 Chevy pickup, which sits in his replica Mid-Western US service station, near the Leadfoot Festival start line.
"The tractors load them up with hay and we drive them to the barn to be stored and to me it is a fabulous sight watching these trucks driving over the property -- they move slowly but to me it is just a great sight," he says.
A classic Speedwagon, one of several older pieces of machinery adorning Millen's property. Photo / Matthew Hansen
A Kiwi mechanic, who worked with Millen in the US, has settled in the Coromandel and maintains the ranch fleet.
"Everything runs and that is important -- typically brakes are our biggest problem, they corrode after sitting around for a long time, so they need constant maintenance," says Millen.
"But more importantly they need to be driven, you don't let them sit around too long."
His US fleet also includes a 1928 Model A Ford, a 1911 MACK truck and a 1932 Ford pickup, all in original condition.
The Chevy retains its original paint job, although remarkably there is no rust on the bodywork. It does show signs of having spent years in the harsh Californian sunlight but it remains in full working order.
"I bought it off a guy who said it had sat for 40 years under a walnut tree," he says.
"There were walnuts everywhere, under the seats, everywhere, but we cleared them out and rebuilt the wooden tray deck, and it has been operating ever since.
"The great thing about a Californian truck like this is it doesn't rust."
The ranch has all the other equipment needed to prepare for the February festival, including graders, rollers and excavators.
Millen has spent years preparing the property for the festival, with 25,000sq m of hard seal, including a holding area for up to 30 vehicles near the start line.
The hill climb start is marked by a line of rocks gathered from the top of the famous Pikes Peak Hill Climb, in Colorado, the scene of just some of Millen's international motorsport triumphs.
During winter there have been minor changes made to the 16-bend driveway, sealed to accommodate older classic vehicles.
Swampy ground has been cleared and electricity put underground across the Leadfoot Festival site, and a windmill helps provide water.
Millen's background as a surveyor and civil engineer has helped him develop the site, and he is still involved in mowing and other chores to maintain and improve the surroundings.
Volunteer helpers camp on an adjoining site during the festival, while a neighbouring property provides plenty of space for carparking.
Millen says his wife and event director, Shelly Campbell, has helped him develop the property over the past 15 years.
"Shelly has been here every step of the way -- she got behind the wheel of a digger and helped clear some of the thick forest," he says.
One of the features of the festival is the range of vehicles taking part, from classic cars through to drift cars and off-roaders, and motorcycles.
Rod Millen and partner Shelly Campbell at Leadfoot Ranch. Picture / Matthew Hansen
Near the start of the driveway are three "jumps" for off-roaders to gain air before they rejoin the sealed tarmac on the climb to the top of the track.
There is a small grandstand (modelled on one Rod saw in Thames) and there are plenty of vantage points on the hillside where people can sit in the shade and see about two-thirds of the entire hill climb course, including many of the 16 tight corners.
Millen says the range of motorsport categories taking part was deliberate, to provide visitors with a spectacle.
"You often go to a race meeting and see two or three classes and that is about it whereas here we have it all," he says.
There will be drifting cars, quad bikes, rally cars, off-roaders, classic cars and motorbikes.
"During the festival weekend almost every minute there is a different car either racing up the track or motoring down, and that variety is what makes it special."
Millen says visitors to the festival are able to mix and mingle with the drivers and their vehicles, in a relaxed atmosphere.
• 2016 Leadfoot Festival, February 6-7. Tickets at www.leadfootfestival.com