Rod Millen’s sitting in a deck chair, contemplating his driveway. The grass edging is looking a bit secondhand and there are tyre marks on the otherwise perfect bitumen. Seven drift cars come flying past on the lock stops at over 100km/h, the tyre smoke growing ever thicker until the final car is just an ear-piercing buzzsaw of a triple-rotor on the limiter. The old boy waits for the smoke to clear and continues his story.
“So I said to my wife, Shelly, ‘We could turn the driveway into a Goodwood South.’ I already had a lot of my old cars here and I’d built the barns and now I had to pave the road because it was a gravel road in the early days. She set out about eight years ago, because it was my 60th birthday, to race up the driveway with a few friends. We had a lot of enthusiasm from local fans who said let’s make it an annual event. So here we are,” he says.
Calling New Zealand’s Leadfoot Festival the Antipodean version of the world’s most famous garden party is a handy shorthand, and there are parallels. Both are summery events that encompass a sprint up the driveway of automotive royalty, but beyond that there are massive divergences.
Goodwood is now a huge commercial event, with visitor numbers capped at 150,000 a day, drawing on a 15 million population who live within a two-hour drive. Millen’s Leadfoot Ranch is secreted away in a sleepy nook of the north island’s Coromandel Peninsula, proximate to very little.
Millen knows that Leadfoot’s scope is, by comparison, modest. “This event is still in its infancy, but I don’t think it’ll ever get much bigger. We’ll endeavour to attract unique cars and the cool drivers, and our goal is to grow the event in the future, but we’ll never come close to Goodwood. If we can be 20 percent of what Goodwood is, we’ll call that a success, and we’re getting close.”
Whereas Goodwood is a fairly unexceptional track with only one corner, Molecomb, worthy of the name, the 1.6km course at Leadfoot Ranch is a whole lot gnarlier. “Some 25 to 30 years of racing at Pikes Peak influenced how we set up the property,” Millen explains. “Fortunately there’s a very steep part and I said, ‘Wow! That’s where my switchbacks are going.’ So we got out the bulldozer and basically cut through the bush and I had a couple of friends who said, ‘Rod, you know you could make that a lot straighter. You don’t have to do that’ and I said, ‘Yes I do!’”
That’s reflected in the average speeds: Goodwood’s record is 160.5km/h; Leadfoot’s is a mere 120km/h. “We created those switchbacks and what I like about the driveway is that it’s interesting. It’s not high speed. There are some short straights and the spectators can get up close and see the drivers and the cars in action as they’re wrestling the cars around the switchbacks. It’s not just about the amount of power you have, it rewards driver skill, linking corner to corner,” Millen adds.
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Drift star ‘Mad’ Mike Whiddett’s here in his Red Bull-sponsored ‘Radbul’ MX-5 and he agrees with his host.
“The key to this course is focus. It’s really tricky for drifting because it’s so narrow. The faster and more committed you are, the easier it flows. It’s cool. When we go as tandem, if you’re the second car, it’s really hard to see. We went up with seven cars and if you’re in that last car, you’re literally blind,” he laughs.
The best section for spectating is up in the forested switchbacks, where the cars tackle a chain of hairpins and are almost close enough to touch. The tyre smoke hangs in the air and you wait for the next car to appear out of the mist, visible vortices spiralling off their wings and flics. Fastest of all is Alister McRae, who’s now won three events in a row in an ex-Possum Bourne WRC Impreza.
“It’s such a short piece of road; very, very technical, so it’s easy to make a mistake. If you miss a gear, you’re well down,” explains McRae, highlighting exactly the fault that dropped Millen’s own Pikes Peak Celica from the podium. “For me, the trick is to take a deep breath at the bottom and then breathe again at the top. I can’t hold my breath for that long, so you’ve just got to get there! You’ve got to carry the corner speed and use as much of the road as possible.”
He’s pleased with his run in Sunday’s Top Ten Shootout. “I don’t think there was anywhere I could have really improved, apart from in the trees where it was really dusty. I understeered through there, but apart from that I’d say it was quite perfect. Three on the bounce and five wins with this car now, so that’s not bad. It’s 20 years old so it’s getting better with age. A bit like me,” he joshes.
As impressive as the really quick guys are, it’s perhaps even more fascinating to see the waifs and strays of New Zealand’s garagista culture tackling Rod’s plantation. Citroën Traction Avant with a Windsor V8? How about a Mk2 Escort with a rotary? Or a March mid-engined Nissan Micra? Or if Nissan engine swaps are your thing, an R35 GT-R drift car with the RB26 DETT straight-six lump from an old R32?
Unlike Goodwood, where the drivers now hustle to roped-off hospitality areas, at Leadfoot, they hang around and chat.
Wander the paddocks and you’ll end up with a sore neck, as it’s hard to figure out what to look at. Rod’s son Rhys, a double Pikes Peak winner himself, is there with the production-class-winning Pikes Peak Bentley Bentayga SUV. “We ran Goodwood in the Bentayga and we entered into the Supercar Shootout and we finished fourth, with only the Aston Vulcan AMR, the Ford GT and the BAC Mono beating us, because there are so many long straights and this thing is a torque monster,” Rhys says.
“Here is much more of a challenge than the Goodwood course but the appeal is very equal. Every other car here will be on a race tyre so you have to know that, as a competitive person, you can overdrive the support of the suspension and the tyre. You need to find that fine balance, and then rinse and repeat. Even on the first run this morning, we’ve seen three or four cars go off. It’s only a minute, but that doesn’t matter. You need to be respectful of the road.”
Later on that evening I take a drive through the ranch, ending up on some sea cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean, enjoying a drink next to the wine-cellar mineshaft that runs beneath the house Millen’s building up on the bluffs. Shelly Millen teases Rod about the Ford GT he bought last year, which has only covered 16 miles, due to the fact that Millen only worked out how to refuel it last week; Ford pointing him to a convoluted fuel nozzle hidden in the boot.
It’d be a great facility to explore at your leisure, if only to locate Millen’s rumoured barn full of forgotten Mazda prototypes. Or just to drool over his Pikes Peak-winning Toyota Celica. It’s hard to know where to start. Rod’s clear where it ends, though.
“In my professional-racing career, you always had people to answer to on Monday morning, because they were the ones paying the bills and they had expectations on results. Here, there’s nobody to call on Monday morning, so it doesn’t matter. You’re going back to why you got into the sport. For a few it became a profession, but now it’s back to being a hobby,” he smiles.
An RX-7 powers through the first of the corners into the switchbacks, taking great liberties with track limits and Rod’s edging, the driver flapping at the wheel like a pigeon in a box.
Rod’s chuckling. “My Dad once said a long time ago ‘Boy, there’s lots of action going on there; you look fast but your times are not.’ If it looks like you’re going fast, chances are you’re not.”
It’s an apt metaphor for the event as a whole. Leadfoot has learned to appreciate the value of a slow hand at the tiller.