HAND-PICKED RACERS, CLASSIC CARS AND VINTAGE MOTORCYCLES
The silhouette resembles a 1990s Toyota Celica but in spite of its age this yellow speedster remains competitive, especially with motorsport legend Rod Millen behind the wheel.
This is the car that helped Millen establish his international motorsport career, dominating the famous Pikes Peak Hill Climb in the United States through much of the 1990s. It is the car that still holds the all-gravel speed record up Pikes Peak, set by Millen two decades ago, and is the car he will drive during the Leadfoot Festival in Hahei on the Coromandel early next month.
The resemblance to the road-going Celica is skin-deep, with the entire car constructed to grip gravel roads and to be as aerodynamically efficient as it can be.
Millen won many New Zealand rally championships and other titles before being drawn to compete internationally, especially in the Pikes Peak Hill Climb in Colorado.
“I started winning competitions in hill climbs and rallys in New Zealand and I was intrigued by the Pikes Peak event — it was 14,000-feet (4267m) above sea level in just 12.5 miles (20km), with big drop-offs, and was a very challenging and testing event,” he said.
One of the Unser brothers, legends in United States motorsport, suggested Millen’s driving style would suit Pikes Peak. “We did a demonstration run up the hill and were so quick we showed that rally cars would be suitable for the event against stock cars,” he said.
That was in the early 1980s, and the competition became so intense there was pressure to develop newer and faster cars.
During this time Millen developed an engineering business that gained a reputation for improving the handling and capability of vehicles, initially for motorsport but later evolving into autonomous and other specialist vehicles.
Millen initially competed in Mazda rotary cars but switched to Toyota when he decided to design and construct a four-wheel-drive car for Pikes Peak.
“We had good engineers but we also brought in aerodynamicists to design the Celica,” he said.
“The focus for this car was not only to have a powerful turbocharged engine and four-wheel-drive system, but also to maximise the aerodynamics on a gravel road.”
The Celica required careful driving to make the most of the grip and downforce of the car at speed, and it helped Millen to win in 1994, 1996 and 1997.
Millen still holds the record for the fastest all-gravel run up Pikes Peak, although part of the hill climb course has since been sealed, with new classes of records being established for the event.
The Celica was “retired” to New Zealand in February 1998, but Millen has since successfully driven it in various events, including the Goodwood Festival of Speed in Britain.
The car has helped Millen retain the record speed up his Leadfoot Ranch driveway, during the four annual Leadfoot Festivals held so far.
However, he believes the record will be under serious threat from his eldest son, Rhys, who for February’s event will be driving his Red Bull global rally cross Hyundai Veloster turbo.
While Millen has a large collection of vintage and classic cars, most of them stored at the Leadfoot Ranch, the Toyota is among his favourites.
“I think that perhaps because even though I am not actively involved in motorsports these days it is still competitive,” he says.
The 2016 Leadfoot Festival brings together a mix of classic cars, vintage motorcycles and motorsport legends, at the 48ha farm.
Millen hand-picks championship racers from around the world to take part in the festival, and in February those appearing will include Le Mans 24-Hour class winner and Hollywood star Patrick Dempsey, Top Gear USA host and drifting champion Tanner Foust plus IndyCar champion Scott Dixon.
Scott Dixon will be driving Rod Millen’s 110-year-old Darracq Grand Prix car. Pictures / Matthew Hansen
He will be driving a 110-year-old 14-litre Darracq Grand Prix car with the historic vehicle providing plenty of power and capable of reaching 160km/h, but it also has limited braking capacity.
There is only a handbrake, working on the two rear wheels.
The car was built to run in the first Grand Prix at Le Mans, and was bought earlier this year by Millen. The car was driven during previous Leadfoot festivals by its last owner, Anne Thomson.
“It is a car you have to have a lot of respect for,” said Millen.
It has a 14-litre push rod overhead valve Darracq engine, which was brought to New Zealand from Ireland after World War II. It was originally intended to use the engine to power a speedboat, but instead it was used to power a stand-by generating plant at the Christchurch Press for 35 years.
The car has been described as the “world’s oldest surviving” Grand Prix car.
Millen said he was thrilled to be able to help celebrate Dixon’s success during the festival on February 6 and 7.
“But it wouldn’t have been right to put Scott into any old race car, so we have put him into something where there are no expectations.”