Leadfoot 2017: Rallying the crowd
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The Millen's want leadfoot 2017 to be better and bigger
For Rod Millen, official preparations for the now annual Leadfoot Festival began on Thurday, but for the event’s director Shelly Campbell Millen, there is already six months of work behind the acclaimed motorsport weekend.
Based on the famous Goodwood Festival of Speed in England, Leadfoot Festival is held at the Millen’s 48 heactare Hahei property with the event first held in 2011 to celebrate Rod’s 60th birthday and commemorate his international success in motorsport.
Rod was New Zealand’s rally champion from 1975-77 before his success at the North American race and rally championship winner from 1979-80. He was a multiple winner of the Pikes Peak Hill Climb and the first driver to win three straight US off-road sport truck driver's championships.
Rod competed in international endurance races, including the 16-day Transsyberia rally championship in 2007 in the Porsche Cayenne featured here.
Photo / Matthew Hansen
The 120 competitors try to get the best time up the one mile hill climb that features Rod’s favour motorsport corners.
Internationally acclaimed drivers already confirmed for the 4-5 February, 2017 festival include Indy 500 legend Al Unser Junior in a 1915 Stutz from the Southwards Museum, while Top Gear USA host and Toyota driver Rutledge Wood will also attend the Coromandel event.
Back after their debut this year will be Wood’s Top Gear co-host Tanner Foust in his 2016 Rockstar Energy VW Passat and rally champ Alister McRae in the 1998 Vantage Motorsport Subaru.
Rod retained the Leadfoot Festival title until this year when son, and rallycross champ, Rhys Millen broke the record with a 49.31 second sprint up the driveway, with McRae second, and Kiwi rally driver Sloan Cox third while the host had to settle for forth.
So, is Rod ready to take back the title next year?
Rod Millen at his personal petrol station on Leadfoot Ranch. Photo / Matthew Hansen
“I don’t know that that’s a priority for me,” told Driven at our exclusive day-long visit to the Leadfoot Ranch recently.
“To me success is seeing Leadfoot grow and growth is not just seeing more guests coming to the event but seeing our corporate partners value the event and want to be in attendance and show off their wares.
“So the racing side of it for me is more interesting watching all the other competitors than me competing. The chance of me winning? I think is small.”
But as Rhys may not be at event, there is a chance that the host may win again.
“But others will be here and I think that that will be just wonderful.
“I think the fact that people like Al Unser Junior want to come and enjoy event and have heard about the event, makes Shelly and I very proud and we want to make sure that he has a great time and can spread the word.”
Rod met Unser Junior at the Long Beach Toyota Celebrity Race where the American accepted an invitation to compete at Leadfoot.
Unser Junior told Driven that Rod had mentioned Leadfoot Festival while talking with fellow competitor Wood.
“We got talking and he mentioned to me that he does this once a year,” said Unser Junior.
“He said, ‘Al would you be interested?’ and I said ‘Sure!’”
Rod said events such as the Leadfoot Festival and Goodwood are attractive to famous drivers.
“For the older competitors the opportunity to go and race over the weekend is pretty nice. And the result? You career doesn’t depend on it, instead it’s a opportunity for you to turn up and have fun.”
Signing those drivers is part of Shelly’s role a event director, a job that involves early morning calls to the USA, 16 hour days and sourcing vehicles for the particpants, as well as co-ordinating with the media.
So, what are Shelly’s expectations for the 2017 event?
“On the guest levels I want guests I want at least 20,000 (over the weekend), last year was 14,000,” she said.
Shelly Campbell Millen. Photo / Matthew Hansen
“My expectation is that the guests come and get fulfilled with what they think they’re going to get. They’re getting the motorsport, they’re going to get the festival atmosphere, they are going to have good food, good wine, socialising and having contact with all the drivers and when they leave they want more.
“Probably for me (the most important aspect is) when they leave they want more.”
Like Goodwood, guests have access to competitors, the pits and race vehicles.
That unparrelled access is an important aspect for the Millens.
“What is amazing to me is that some of the young fans that come along with their books,” said Rod. “They know your history and they weren’t even born when you were at the peak of your success.
“But they have it all and they want to ask you a few questions and they remind of a few things that you sort of forgotten.”
Host Rod Millen on his way up the hill. Photo / Malcom McLeod
“Or you want to forget,” interjects Shelly, laughing.
“I think it’s a bit of giving back to your spectators,” says Rod.
While Shelly has spent the past six months heavily involved in Leadfoot Festival 2017, Rod has spent the New Zealand winter building picnic tables and picket fences from wood felled on their property, but Thursday saw the start of his mowing regime to prepare the grounds for the visitors, marques, vendors and VIP tents.
It takes 50 hours to mow the property at peak season plus the co-ordination of erecting marques is an exact science now for Rod.
“This year I put up an marque but it rained and the grass grew so much in the tent that I had to remow the area, and that meant taking out all the tables and chairs,” he said.
There’s also the three days it takes to lay the 700 bales of hay need to line the hill climb for the competitors.
But Rod and Shelly will have respite over Christmas when their families arrive from the USA.
For more information: go to leadfootfestival.com