Spins and supercars: inside the inaugural Scott McLaughlin Grand Prix
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More than 100kg of aged European-Filipino beef hurtled along mere centimetres from the ground, folded into a professional-grade kart with a footprint barely bigger than that of a vending machine. The finish line approached and I committed to crossing it with my foot planted through the floor.
Honourable, but foolish.
Still committed, I approached the turnaround and the surrounding audience, realising along the way that I should've braked some time ago. The reaction, of course, was to slam the brake pedal — another questionable decision given the amount of right-hand-down applied. Naturally, this sent me into a spin.
It was high speed, but unfolded in slow motion. Colours and shapes whirled around me, the sound of my rear tyres screaming in agony rang out, and I even saw a woman in the crowd lift her hand to her mouth to arrest her gasp — like in the movies.
The world of motoring scribbling is a perfect storm for crafting ego, what with all the track miles one clocks over time. All of that takes a beating when hopping into something truly nuanced and challenging like a Rotax kart, and it's incredibly humbling and impressive to watch kids of the single-digit variety climb into these and look like naturals on track.
This was the inaugural Scott McLaughlin Grand Prix — a one-day event at Hampton Downs that pitted some of New Zealand's biggest sporting stars against one another on track to raise funds and awareness for KartSport New Zealand and the future of Kiwi motorsport.
In particular, KartSport is working on the creation of a driver development academy. And funds from the day (and the auction that followed) were set to go towards sourcing mentors throughout the country and improving accessibility to this most inaccessible of sports.
Nine teams took on the variety of challenges around the circuit — each team was led by a celebrity captain from other sporting spheres.
Emirates Team New Zealand skipper Peter Burling and cyclor Simon van Velthoven, former All Black Olo Brown, Grant “Hairy Jav” Elliot, Black Sticks ace Rosie Keddell, dirt-track veterans Michael Pickens and Ben Townley, league great Awen Guttenbeil and former pro golf caddy and speedwayist Steve Williams were all there.
So, of course, was current Supercars Championship leader Scott McLaughlin — one of the many Kiwi race drivers to have grown their talents through KartSport NZ, and is the organisation’s patron.
“I remember in 2002, Greg Murphy came and opened the track up for us at Hamilton,” he told Driven.
“I’ll never forget having Murph there and, I guess now, for me to be an idol or a role-model to some of those kids is very cool.
“One young kid is from Taranaki. He drove five hours to be here and he’s going back to race in the Top Half Series this weekend. Dad has a fair bit of driving to do, but it’s cool to put a few smiles on a few kids’ faces.”
The challenges were spread across the versatile Hampton Downs facility. On the National Circuit, each combatant got guided hot-laps in a selection of supercars from McLaren, Audi, Lamborghini, Porsche, and Aston Martin.
The skid-pan required pushing a Jaguar F-Type against the clock on a slick-wet surface, while across the infield the British marque had set up its “Smart Cone Challenge”. Over on the new Club Circuit, an impromptu drag strip had been set up to test quick reaction times, and further around the circuit two slalom courses were laid out; one for a Seat Leon Cupra, the other for the aforementioned ego-crushing but entertaining Rotax karts.
It all funneled into a grand final showdown at the Hampton Downs karting track, as a representative from each squad faced off on the bitumen — McLaughlin starting from the grid’s back row as a wildcard entry.
Not that it matters who won in the end (spoiler alert, it wasn’t the rag-tag media team). This was best evidenced by the amount of smiles and stories being swapped deep into the evening over dinner.
From the get-go, my eyes had been set on getting behind the wheel of the Lamborghini Huracan during the track laps.
Like every other '80s or '90s kid even loosely into cars, the walls of my room were plastered with posters of various supercars. One was a Ferrari Testarossa, another was the Porsche 959. But the prize possession was always the dramatic Lamborghini Diablo.
The Huracan is no Diablo, of course. And it shares much of its blood with the Audi R8 (there was also one of those present — a sought-after rear-wheel drive model). But neither of those things took the shine off clambering into it for the first time and flipping up the panel that protects the start button.
Time on track was understandably brief (it also included a wonderful jaunt in a McLaren 570S), but the crew at Downforce Training NZ did well to try and match the confidence of the driver to the pace they were allowed to access. In the case of the Lambo, flat-footed driving was enjoyed on the back straight — the 5.2-litre V10 singing with glee.
Jaguar's Smart Cone Challenge produced similar thrills; though at a fraction of the speed. This is one of the regular modules that forms part of the manufacturer's 'Art of Performance' tour — not only across New Zealand, but worldwide.
Drivers need to be precise and quick-thinking, as random gates in the enclosure light up one by one to drive through. Think BATAK testing, but played with a Jaguar E-Pace on a grand scale. Our wild wheel-work sent the poor Jag into plenty of three-wheeling, tyre-squealing silliness.
The inaugural event was the scene of firsts for so many, whether it was a first time on a race track, a first time wielding a Lamborghini, a first time touching 200km/h, or a first time experiencing the terror and ecstasy of a fully blown kart.
There’s talk that the event could become a regular fixture on the New Zealand racing calendar. Fingers crossed — I’m sure many would love the chance to turn those firsts into seconds.