Opinion: How these loud and proud American V8s can save New Zealand motorsport
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Good bits of news in the country's current state are hard to come by, but yesterday's announcement that New Zealand's premier touring car series, the BNT V8s, is switching to a TA2 platform very much counts.
The news is a bit of a make-or-break decision for the category. It's been on struggle street for quite a while now for reasons that have been covered extensively. And, the politics of the 'war' between V8 factions from years ago is really an aside to the much larger problem that resulted.
In the midst of the frustrated finger pointing, sponsors once considered 'iron clad' to the local motorsport landscape packed their bags and left. And many stalwart drivers and teams did the same; fed up either with the fighting, or realising that with sponsors and cars dwindling the financial equation simply didn't make sense.
It's not to say that motorsport as a whole in New Zealand isn't dead completely. Most club-level racing and mid-tier categories like the South Island Endurance Series continue to kick goals with big grids of interesting cars. The Toyota Racing Series, too, is riding a high after a season of big growth and star discovery.
But, as fabulous as TRS is, it is more an international series than a Kiwi series these days. A strong touring car championship to pair alongside TRS is imperative for the sport to capture the interest of the hallowed, mythical, casual fan.
For years, the BNT V8s have simply not been that category, which is why last year's announcement that TCR (yet another three-letter alphanumerical starting with T) would be coming to New Zealand got people so excited.
Yet, it's now March, and there's still radio silence. The category's five-round summer series calendar was postponed (well before all this Coronavirus stuff). Hayden Paddon, the most high profile driver to enter for the series, has put his car up for sale.
The official reason for the postponement was that Kiwi teams had been struggling to source cars from Europe in time, which may well be true (the first of the rather handsome Kia C'eed TCRs confirmed in November for our shores only hit the track for the first time this month). But, it's also known that some have shied away from the series because of price.
A TCR car doesn't cost much less than a V8 SuperTourer used to cost. The latter would cost in excess of $200,000 new back in the day, while Paddon's second-hand Hyundai i30 N TCR is currently listed for sale online for $160,000. A little birdy tells us that you'd get a brand new, turn key TA2 for about a Suzuki Swift Sport less.
To be fair, you'd expect them to be cheaper. They're much less sophisticated than either a SuperTourer or TCR. They have a NASCAR-style body and a 4-speed box. But as a counterpoint, a swarm of them sounds like a literal thunder storm and, when dressed up in a nice wrap, they don't look half bad.
The cheaper initial outlay isn't really the kicker. The kicker is actually maintenance cost. The lack of real headlights and taillights (no less pricey carbon fibre front splitters and the like) makes fender benders far simpler to remedy. The engines are a easily sourced, bulletproof crate LS contraption. And tyres are uniform across all the TA2 classes globally.
A done-on-the-cheap SuperTourer used to cost around $20,000 to run for a race weekend back in the day, with the car's complexity necessitating bringing larger crews and meaning more spend per weekend. A TA2 race weekend, it's understood, costs a small fraction of the price.
Prior to the Coronavirus outbreak, the category claims it had 20 competitors registering interest in buying a car. It's fair to be cynical of a number like that from a category's own press release, but it's worth comparing that to the defunct 'Gen II' concept that the BNT V8s floated unsuccessfully in late 2018.
Even at its peak level of chatter, there were never more than two or three of those cars rumoured to have been ordered. Never an astronomical 20. And, while those cars were depicted only ever as renders of fantasy (going from being locally built by Mitchell Race Xtreme to being built by Pace Innovations in Australia along the way), a bunch of these TA2s are here already, in the flesh.
I'm yet to be sold on the TA2 in a few ways. Although they sound like nothing else, the lack of complexity that keeps them cheap also keeps them uniform and 'cookie cutter', to borrow a phrase. And, they don't ride kerbs or rub paint in the same unexplainably intoxicating way that a typical touring car does.
But, these things are the best hope New Zealand has right now when it comes to making tin-tops popular again. And if the level of interest is as vast as they say it is, we may be on for a renaissance.