Damian O'Carroll samples a stage of this year's Targa New Zealand
Racing Ray Williams twitches in his seat when he catches sight of a brief flash of white car between hills on the road ahead.
“Is that Murph?” he asks, as I sit grinning in the passenger seat of the feral little Renault Megane RS 265 belting down a tightly winding back-country road south of Otorohanga, deep in the heart of the King Country.
Yes, I tell him, that was the HSV GTS being driven by Kiwi V8 star Greg Murphy that had left the stage start several minutes before us.
Instantly the pace increases. “Oh, I gotta catch him,” Williams cackles. “You don’t mind, do you?”
Why would I? It isn’t every day you get to be on New Zealand roads with no one coming the other way and no chance of getting ticketed by the constabulary.
And that is the beauty of Targa New Zealand.
It is called the ultimate road race and for 20 years the Targa has been just that. While there are always a number of smaller Targa events during the year, the week-long blast down the North Island (and occasionally, the South Island) is the year’s highlight for all involved.
The frantic atmosphere and sense of camaraderie that envelops the full-noise travelling circus of speed is addictive and keeps people coming back.
Take, for example, the man I am sitting next to. Williams has taken part in almost every Targa since its beginnings, first as a competitor, lately as an official driving various cars.
“I love meeting people, I love driving New Zealand roads with no one coming the other way,” he says.
“The biggest thing is we are allowed to go fast on the open roads, like we used to. When I was a kid growing up, New Zealand was empty, the roads were empty and there were no such things as radar guns.”
For a man about to turn 70, Williams has plenty of speed left in him. He has been racing for 50 years and shows no signs of giving up.
“I didn’t start young. I waited until I sold a house and had some money before I started racing,” he tells me at a service stop in Otorohanga.
“Right now I’m still racing in the 2K Cup — right back to the grass roots.”
For the Targa, however, Williams is in something a bit quicker than a 2K Cup car — the Renault hot hatch in which he takes special guests (and not-so-special journalists) through the closed stages, a similar role to Murphy in the HSV.
Now, while I am an unashamed fan of hot hatches in general, the mental Megane is one of my favourites. Not being in the driver’s seat is an interesting experience.
Fabulously fast and tenacious in its grip, it is easy to see why the little Renault is the fastest FWD production car around the Nurburgring. A fact that Williams is making the most of as he closes down on the big white HSV. We catch him, and Murphy breaks open the Big Book of Racing Driver Excuses, but it is obvious he is enjoying his first Targa experience.
Just as Williams is enjoying his 20th. And that is exactly what the Targa is all about, regardless of whether you are competing, or taking part in the untimed, non-competitive Targa Tour, an official or spectating.
The Targa is fun. Very fast, very noisy fun, but that is the best kind.