ROD MILLEN – RALLY & HILL­CLIMB ACE

On a sunny Satur­day morn­ing, Clas­sic Driver sat on a pic­nic ta­ble out­side the Lead­foot gas sta­tion for a chat with mul­ti­ple rally cham­pion and Pikes Peak win­ner Rod Millen

Classic Driver - - FEATURES - By Tony Hay­cock

From Hunt­ing­don Beach CA to Ha­hei Beach, Coro­man­del… via Pikes Peak and the back roads of the Pa­cific Basin

Ha­hei Beach is not ex­actly on the beaten track. Yet this sleepy sea­side ham­let is the New Zealand home of Rod and Shelly Millen. Not the nor­mal place to find a not-re­ally re­tired in­ter­na­tional rally driver. How did they end up here?

“My great aunt and un­cle had one of the six baches on Ha­hei Beach, way be­fore it was de­vel­oped like it is now. We used to come down here dur­ing the school hol­i­days. We would row out and fish. There was no elec­tric­ity or any­thing like that so we had gas lanterns. It was the sim­plest of times but the great­est of mem­o­ries. When Shelly and I met nearly 20 years ago, I brought her to New Zealand. She asked where some­where spe­cial to me was and I said, well, there’s this lit­tle place called Ha­hei, I’ll take you down there and show you.”

“We came here two or three times and one time she sug­gested we stay here for a cou­ple of days. I said ‘Yeah, sure!’ so she booked us into a place on the top of the hill and she men­tions, ‘Oh, by the way, the place is for sale.’ In those days, 13 years ago the Kiwi dol­lar was at 40 cents against the US so it was VERY at­trac­tive so we pur­chased it.”

Since pur­chas­ing their New Zealand base, now known as “the Lead­foot Ranch” the Mil­lens are reg­u­lar com­muters be­tween Cal­i­for­nia and New Zealand.

“When I had the busi­ness (Mil­len­works, which you read about later) I would only be down here for three or four days at a time and that was once maybe ev­ery six weeks. Af­ter we sold the busi­ness we spent around 20% of our time here. I’ve still got some other busi­ness in­ter­ests in Cal­i­for­nia but it doesn’t re­quire any­where near the same amount of time it used to when I had to look af­ter staff etc.”

At the same time as scal­ing back his busi­ness com­mit­ments, Rod has also stepped back from com­pe­ti­tion driv­ing, but not com­pletely.

“I still com­pete at the likes of the Good­wood Fes­ti­val of Speed. I did Pikes Peak for Toy­ota last year in the elec­tric car, which we took to Good­wood for the Fes­ti­val as well. I think I will do some­thing else with them in the fu­ture, I’m just not sure what that will be but I am just more than happy to share my knowl­edge and ex­pe­ri­ence of things like that and for them to choose a younger driver, with me to help.”

So, does a driver and en­gi­neer who is still in­volved with a ma­jor man­u­fac­turer’s elec­tric car project think there is any fu­ture for plug-in elec­tric ve­hi­cles in mo­tor­sport?

“It is quite in­ter­est­ing. I have been in­volved with Toy­ota’s pro­gramme now for a cou­ple of years and it is very dif­fer­ent. Of course it is very high tech, cut­ting edge tech­nol­ogy and the cars are go­ing fast but… the sen­sa­tion of speed is not there be­cause the noises are not there.

“The noise is I think, a ma­jor prob­lem for the fu­ture of elec­tric cars in the sport, so there is an op­por­tu­nity there to do some­thing unique which we are con­sid­er­ing. It only suits a short du­ra­tion event. The amount of en­ergy you need to store, any­thing over ten min­utes, is go­ing to be a prob­lem. Pikes Peak is right on that edge, we can carry enough en­ergy but the race car is 40 to 50 per cent heav­ier than the tra­di­tional race cars I drove up there, so that’s a prob­lem. In terms of hav­ing elec­tric car rac­ing in a 50 lap race, I just don’t see that ever hap­pen­ing that could be suc­cess­ful. The time needed to charge and do things like that… there is a whole lot of en­ergy in a gal­lon of gas!”

When I think of Rod Millen, I have a 1000hp four wheel drive Toy­ota Cel­ica hill­climb car in mind but he had to start some­where and that “some­where” is some­thing from an era which still seems to hold an at­trac­tion to him to­day.

“My first car was a 1929 Ply­mouth truck which my brother and I shared. We paid £5.00 for it, right be­fore the change to dec­i­mal cur­rency. We found it on the side of the road and I think still of the fond mem­o­ries of that and I still love all that stuff. In some ways I don’t think you will ever see me driv­ing any­thing real mod­ern be­cause I re­ally love all this old stuff.”

And as we look around, we see Rod’s ’39 Chev. truck, a Ford T or two, his ’58 Chev. Im­pala con­vert­ible and many other signs of a pas­sion for cars, trucks, re­ally any sort of old ma­chine from days gone by. “I’m quite happy, es­pe­cially the way we have the property now, just chug­ging around on that. Once I get on the farm I use the old Chevy (the to­tally orig­i­nal 1939 pick-up) truck there as my driver. It just runs great.”

The first Millen com­pe­ti­tion car was as un­likely a choice of car as the shared Ply­mouth. “I started in hill­climbs in my Hill­man Cob (Husky) which started out fairly stock and then got mod­i­fied with We­ber car­bu­ret­tors. It was quite good from the fun fac­tor side of things. Then I built a dune buggy with the tra­di­tional VW 1600cc mo­tor in it but then went very quickly to a Ford Capri V6 and that im­proved it im­mensely! I set a whole lot of hill­climb records in the North­ern part of the North Is­land.

“It was noth­ing to go to two dif­fer­ent events in a weekend; I think the best I did was three events in the one weekend, all in the same ve­hi­cle. Funny enough, it is ac­tu­ally be­ing re­stored right now. I sold it in 1974 to get a Mazda RX3 and a good friend of mine, un­be­known to me, found it and bought it af­ter it had ten own­ers. He bought it around 20 years ago and put it in a barn, then he showed up here with it one day and it is be­ing re­stored back to how it was. It is a lit­tle beat-up now but it will be back, just as I used to have it. My brother-in-law is do­ing it up in Auck­land.

“Other than a cou­ple of cars, I have man­aged to keep most of my sig­nif­i­cantly im­por­tant cars from my ca­reer. For­tu­nately Shelly has got the same sort of dis­ease I have got, so it isn’t a prob­lem. She doesn’t hold me back. See that Model T?”

We are look­ing at the brass ra­di­a­tor barn-fresh T in the front of the Lead­foot replica Mo­bil ser­vice sta­tion.

“We went to the auc­tion house to­gether, we were sit­ting around on a Fri­day night a few months ago watch­ing TV and she said, ‘Wow, there’s an auc­tion on, to­mor­row in Ana­heim.’ It’s only half an hour away so we ran up there and we’d only been there for 45 min­utes and we owned those two cars (a 30s Ford hotrod was sit­ting along­side the T), we had not gone to ac­tu­ally buy any­thing, we just went to look! Then we waited for a few more hours and this one came up (the 1958 Chev. Im­pala).

“The Model T is go­ing into the liv­ing room of our new house which we are build­ing. The way it is, it’s just so clean and orig­i­nal. Ap­par­ently it is drive­able but it only showed up here yes­ter­day from the ship­per. We ended up buy­ing it at the auc­tion and send­ing it straight to the port so it wasn’t un­til last night that I knew what ran and what didn’t. So with the Model T, I didn’t even try to get it started. But I jumped into the hotrod and it fired up straight away, just like the Im­pala.”

Rod made his name in ral­ly­ing ini­tially with Mazda’s RX3 ro­tary and it hap­pened al­most ac­ci­den­tally.

“A good friend of mine had just bought a new RX3 for his wife and un­be­known to her, we put a roll cage in it and en­tered for the 1973 Heat­way Rally, which was eight days through­out the South Is­land. And we rolled! We ended up win­ning the Pro­duc­tion class and were fifth over­all so Mazda New Zealand got be­hind us and helped us over the next few years of ral­ly­ing so it worked out ok – at the time it wasn’t so great! Mazda fixed the whole car for us and she got her new car back and it all ended well.

“There was a Mazda Dealer Team formed and we were suc­cess­ful in win­ning the New Zealand Rally Cham­pi­onship three times. Once we had done that, where do you go from there? I’d taken the car to Aus­tralia a cou­ple of times to do the South­ern Cross Rally and I needed to move on. I con­sid­ered Europe, which was the main place for rallysport at that time but Mazda weren’t there. They were launch­ing the new RX7 in the U.S. so they thought that could be a good op­por­tu­nity so I went to the States. There was a step in be­tween there as I got the Mazda or­gan­i­sa­tion to back us and they sup­ported us for a good ten years or so. We did the Asia-Pa­cific Cham­pi­onship, some desert rac­ing as well and of course, Pikes Peak.

“Pikes Peak was ini­tially in the 2WD car, in fact we were in­stru­men­tal in get­ting the rally cars back into the event. They had asked me in 1981 to come out and do a demon­stra­tion run of a rally car on the moun­tain so we did that on our way back from an­other event with the RX7. We did a run half-way up the moun­tain early one morn­ing and the time was in the top six of the stock­car class. They said, “Wow, these cars are pretty good, let’s in­vite you guys to run here.

“I would go there as a fun event ev­ery year as part of my rally pro­gramme just be­cause I en­joyed it so much. There are just a lot of mem­o­ries of the sim­ple ways of do­ing hill­climbs in New Zealand. As a kid

Pikes Peak... was the ul­ti­mate hill­climb. We built the 4WD cars but then we did spe­cial cars with three-ro­tor en­gines, tur­bocharg­ers and the like.

Is this the ul­ti­mate hill­climb car? The Pikes Peak and Cardrona Race to the Sky Toy­ota Cel­ica

I’d al­ways read about Pikes Peak; it was the ul­ti­mate hill­climb, 12½ miles to 14,000 feet.”

“So as we con­tin­ued our in­volve­ment with the event, we built the 4WD cars, pri­mar­ily for ral­ly­ing but then we did spe­cial cars for Pikes Peak, with three­ro­tor en­gines, tur­bocharg­ers and the like”.

“We then did it for a cou­ple of years with Hyundai. In the early 90s I started driv­ing for Toy­ota in the off-road se­ries and it was dur­ing that time (we’d been with them for three years) and won the off-road se­ries 3 times when they said, ‘You know, we’ve got a whole lot of en­gines avail­able?’”

“They had pulled out of Dan Gur­ney’s IMSA and Day­tona 24hrs oper­a­tion. They had all these lit­tle 4 cyl, 1000 hp en­gines sit­ting around… lots of them!”

“They thought they would be pretty good for the al­ti­tude of Pikes Peak so we struck a deal with Toy­ota and de­signed and built the Cel­ica with our 4wd sys­tem, their mo­tor and then we got some aero­dy­nam­i­cists in­volved to make sure the thing had a lot of down­force. We set about do­ing that and the first year we went to Pikes Peak with that car, I’d been go­ing there for a dozen years and we low­ered the record by 39 sec­onds and it stood for 13 years af­ter.”

Ur­ban leg­end has it that Rod had some in­volve­ment in de­vel­op­ing the Quat­tro 4wd sys­tem for Audi so I put this to him.

The re­ply? “No, no in­volve­ment at all. The only thing we did do, we won the US rally cham­pi­onship in 1981; Audi were run­ning their front-wheel drive car then. We won most of the ral­lies that year, it was very suc­cess­ful for us in the RX7. Then they came out in 1982, just kicked the shit out of us with that Quat­tro, a fac­tory ef­fort.

“In the first event I nearly beat them, only be­cause their driver John Buf­fum was still get­ting used to the car, but once he got ac­cus­tomed to it, they were on a dif­fer­ent planet com­pletely. We thought about it all year long, then showed up at the first event next year with our own 4wd RX7 and we won the sec­ond rally of the year. It wasn’t un­til 1985 though, that we ac­tu­ally won the cham­pi­onship again. I still have that car in my barn, there are three of them here now. I built four, one got de­stroyed… no, we built more than that be­cause we had a Pikes Peak one as well.

“In the mid-80s I met a guy called David Bruns who started Swift cars. He also was lo­cated in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, very close, only ten min­utes from my shop. He de­signed my third evo­lu­tion 4wd RX7. I quickly learned then that when you get a re­ally good de­signer work­ing with you, you can build a much bet­ter ma­chine. Not only was our rac­ing pro­gramme more suc­cess­ful, we were build­ing a rep­u­ta­tion for our busi­ness in­volv­ing do­ing dif­fer­ent ve­hi­cles. By the early 90s we were do­ing stuff for the Ma­rine Corps, the army and lots of other dif­fer­ent mil­i­tary agencies as well.

“We had re­ally good en­gi­neers to de­sign our race ve­hi­cles, es­pe­cially our off-road cars with long-travel sus­pen­sion, this and that, you need to have all your ge­om­e­try cor­rect, the weight; those were fully en­gi­neered ve­hi­cles with full anal­y­sis of all the com­po­nen­try.”

“Ev­ery­thing was made from scratch and we weren’t just do­ing our own race pro­gramme, we were do­ing a lot of other de­fence pro­grammes at the same time so we had not only the me­chan­i­cal and elec­tri­cal en­gi­neers do­ing their side of it, we had a full sup­port shop with CNC ma­chines to do all the build­ing and fab­ri­ca­tion of com­po­nents, test­ing and so. That be­came our core part of our busi­ness so if ever a race pro­gramme came along we had all the talent in-house; it was fab­u­lous. When a race pro­gramme came along, we could build bet­ter ma­chines than the other guy; that was what gave us our ad­van­tage for a long time.”

Rod was at his peak in ral­ly­ing when the fear­some, fire-breath­ing mon­sters of Group B were out­lawed in favour of the slower, safer more pro­duc­tion­based Group A cars. The RX7 was swapped for a Mazda 323 What did he think of that?

“I didn’t like that much. You know, of all my collection, I have no Group A cars, and I had a lot of them. The year we won the Asia Pa­cific Rally Cham­pi­onship, 1989 and we won the U.S. cham­pi­onship as well, I had four dif­fer­ent cars to be able to do that and I sold them all. They were pro­duc­tion-based cars which we just bolted sus­pen­sions on and mod­i­fied the mo­tor and trans­mis­sion, all the drive train but you know it just wasn’t ex­cit­ing. So I don’t have one of them. Some­times I think it would have been fun to have kept one but, there just is no de­sire at this stage.”

When I sug­gested per­haps he would pre­fer an­other Model T, his face lit up im­me­di­ately.

“Yeah I re­ally would! It was good times, a won­der­ful ex­pe­ri­ence do­ing all that and we did it for four years but I much more en­joyed work­ing with the en­gi­neers to build some­thing unique and spe­cial. Per­haps that was what I en­joyed about a lot of the dif­fer­ent U.S. rally se­ries, be it the off-road se­ries or Pikes Peak, there were not a lot of rules and so that gave us the free­dom to be cre­ative in build­ing a ma­chine. That’s what I found so at­trac­tive. Then to be able to go out and de­velop that ma­chine into a win­ning ma­chine against your com­pe­ti­tion, not com­pet­ing against a f***ing rule book. I re­ally en­joyed that, I think that’s why we were suc­cess­ful at Pikes Peak and off-road.”

“That trans­lated into our com­pany be­ing so suc­cess­ful and grow­ing the way it did. Dif­fer­ent de­fence de­part­ments would come to us and say, “We need a ve­hi­cle, we need to trans­port this he­li­copter and the mis­sions re­quire us to carry this much stuff” and we could sit around the ta­ble and try to an­a­lyse that, what that ma­chine might be, what it’s ca­pa­bil­i­ties might be and come back to them with a pro­posal of how to do it as a joint ef­fort. I re­ally en­joyed it, we would work with all the ma­jor de­fence con­trac­tors and one thing would lead to an­other. We would never do pro­duc­tion, we built demon­stra­tors which they would put in the hands of the user groups and col­lect feed­back and that would help write the re­quire­ment for the next gen­er­a­tion of ve­hi­cle. We were the pro­to­type house but our part­ners who we teamed with would take up the pro­duc­tion so we would be work­ing along­side them. They wanted our skills, knowl­edge and know-how and we knew al­ways that they would be the pro­duc­tion-house. Ev­ery­one was happy with that and it worked out great.”

While ral­lies and hill­climbs were the ma­jor fo­cus of Rod’s ca­reer, there was some time spent on a race cir­cuit as well.

“I did a lit­tle bit in New Zealand, I even did Bathurst one year – 1983 in an RX7 for BF Goodrich. I ran it on street tyres while ev­ery­one else was on slicks! What was all that about? We ended up 11th over­all. Be­cause of my con­nec­tions with Mazda, they would get me to come in and help pick up one of the roles for driv­ing at the Day­tona 24 Hours so I drove for their team and they would put me out at night-time. I would come in to get out of the car and there’d be no driver wait­ing so they would just fill me up and send me back out again. I did that twice but I did some other road rac­ing events, long dis­tance stuff as well. But that was only on the side, road rac­ing was not my thing. I en­joyed it but not as much as ral­lies or off-road rac­ing.”

Sta­dium truck rac­ing is a sport un­heard of out­side the USA. There it was A BIG THING and Rod Millen was one of the stars.

“Mazda had a team in the se­ries and af­ter a cou­ple of sea­sons they asked me to test for them. I got a ride, just driv­ing for the team and I did that for a cou­ple of sea­sons. It wasn’t a full­time deal. Then while I was do­ing the Asia-Pa­cific cham­pi­onship, Toy­ota ap­proached me and asked if I could drive for them. I said, “Well, I’m do­ing Asia-Pa­cific for Mazda” and they said, “Yeah, but it’s a dif­fer­ent mar­ket”. I told them Asia-Pa­cific would have to take pri­or­ity and I did two years driv­ing for Toy­ota and Mazda, plus Hyundai at Pikes Peak and ev­ery­body agreed to let me do it!

“The Toy­otas I re­ally en­joyed as they had me do­ing all the de­vel­op­ment of the car. They had their main driver, Ivan Ste­wart who was their “name” driver, my role was, not ini­tially but this is how it de­vel­oped, over­look­ing the en­gi­neers do­ing all the de­vel­op­ment. We would go out and test and test and test and I ended up win­ning the cham­pi­onship three years in a row. That was when Toy­ota said, “Well, how about Pikes Peak?”

I was up against the Porsche team run­ning twin-turbo 911s and I had them on the pave­ment, but on the gravel they were all over me. They re­ally made me work hard but I ended up beat­ing them in the end. I said to Rhys, “That was great driv­ing your car but I don’t know if I want to do it again.”

“Audi and Peu­geot had been go­ing there and set­ting records. Vata­nen had the record and I hadn’t been for a few years. They said, “We’ve got the mo­tor, what else do we need?” So we struck a deal and went there and low­ered that record by 39 sec­onds. It was all gravel in those days and that record wasn’t bro­ken un­til the road was 2/3 paved. It was a good car. I hon­estly think that if we took that car back, I don’t know about to­day as Loeb did such a ter­rific job last year, but prior to that it would have eas­ily have got the record back again, the same car that would have been 20 years old.”

So, has Rod fi­nally fin­ished with Pikes Peak?

“Well… I went there last year with the elec­tric car and that was fun but you know, to go for the over­all win, I think there are too many risks that I’m just no longer pre­pared to take any more. I’ve done that, I went and drove for Rhys (Rod’s son) three years ago in his Hyundai drift car and we ended up win­ning the class in that, it was fun. That was 2/3 pave­ment and 1/3 gravel in a 2wd drift car… on slicks! Rhys builds a car that makes LOTS of horse­power and that thing had 850hp or so. Put that on gravel on slicks… jeez it was slip­pery!

I was up against the Porsche team run­ning twin-turbo 911s and I had them on the pave­ment, but on the gravel they were all over me. They were 2wd as well but be­ing rear-en­gined, they re­ally made me work hard but I ended up beat­ing them in the end. I said to Rhys, “That was great driv­ing your car but I don’t know if I want to do it again.”

The fol­low­ing year he went back with the same car and he set the over­all record in it. It was a fast car, a drift car. He would change the sus­pen­sion-not much, but a lot of horse­power. The year that they held the over­all record was the first year it was all paved.”

Our con­ver­sa­tion moved to the collection of cars, trucks and equip­ment which sur­rounded us and I was in­ter­ested if Rod went out look­ing for any­thing spe­cific, or did he just keep his eyes open for any­thing which might take his eye? “We went to that auc­tion and got these three cars, when we weren’t look­ing for any­thing. But when I built the ser­vice sta­tion I needed a fuel truck and a tow truck, so those things were all “gotta haves”. I’ll be quite hon­est I re­ally don’t en­joy do­ing it like that, I re­ally en­joy just find­ing things. It’s get­ting harder to find good stuff now. I guess I’ve al­ways liked stuff a bit dif­fer­ent to what most people are af­ter.

“What’s fun about here (the Lead­foot Ranch and Ha­hei) with these old cars like the T is I can drive them around here, where as in Cal­i­for­nia what was hap­pen­ing, you would take them out and you are a pest on the road to ev­ery­one. I just want to start out slow and next thing cars are pulling out around you to get by. I want to make a left turn in a three-lane stretch of road and I can’t, I’m too slow to get across so I end up do­ing a right and a right and a right to avoid my left turn.

I would bring the Model T home from work which is 20 min­utes away and I would have to go and pick it up early Satur­day morn­ing and get it back to work on Sun­day night when there was no traf­fic, just so I could drive it around home at the weekend. It got to when I didn’t even want to drive it at home, it was just no fun.

“It was not my in­ten­tion to bring ev­ery­thing down here but it has turned out the property is such that I ac­tu­ally en­joy it a lot more. I’ve still got a Model A in L.A. and some more of the old race cars, but most of them are now here. I will keep a few up there, I’ve got a work­shop that I just pot­ter around in and just en­joy things. Other­wise I’d go a lit­tle crazy!”

The Lead­foot Fes­ti­val was rapidly be­com­ing one of the “must-do” his­toric mo­tor­sport events in New Zealand. A hill­climb up Rod and Shelly’s drive­way for a range of cars you won’t see any­where this side of Good­wood, it didn’t hap­pen this year and there were ru­mours it wasn’t go­ing to hap­pen again.

“We are plan­ning on it for Fe­bru­ary of next year. I think we will run it over Wai­tangi weekend. All of the North Is­land clas­sic meet­ings are over and it is six weeks be­fore Beach Hop. There are a lot of guys who go to Beach Hop who like what we do here as well. We want to look at how we can make our event that lit­tle bit dif­fer­ent as we are on pri­vate property. So we are look­ing at some evening en­ter­tain­ment as well, there aren’t a lot of things for people to do here at night. It’s all go­ing to be around cars and mu­sic. Mov­ing it ear­lier in the year the weather should be bet­ter, cer­tainly the evenings will be warmer. Shelly is the or­gan­iser, it’s a huge amount of work and we are try­ing to dis­tract her so she doesn’t make it a full time job. We sold the busi­ness be­cause we wanted to do dif­fer­ent things with­out wor­ry­ing about work…”

So, keep Wai­tangi weekend free, the Mil­lens are won­der­ful hosts and Lead­foot is an amaz­ing event, the set­ting at Ha­hei is stun­ning, and the drive there is al­most as much fun as the event. And Rod will have many of his toys out for all to see. Com­pet­ing, en­gi­neer­ing or or­gan­is­ing, the Millen touch makes sure that ev­ery­thing is done in a fault­less man­ner. And when the Cel­ica rolls up to the start line, be pre­pared to see what got the Millen name to the top of Pikes Peak in record time.

Look­ing fo­cussed and ready for ac­tion. Bay­park 1977 and Rod con­grat­u­lates Steve af­ter beat­ing Keke Ros­berg in the For­mula Pa­cific Chevron B39

Rod Millen in a Mazda RX3 on a New Zealand rally stage. His per­for­mances here set him up for his move to the big time in North Amer­ica

A real change of pace, but Rod is as happy in one of his Model Ts as he is be­hind the wheel of any­thing else

Could this be the fu­ture of mo­tor­sport? Toy­ota’s elec­tric hill­climb car at the Good­wood Fes­ti­val of Speed

The Millen-de­vel­oped Toy­ota Tun­dra desert-rac­ing truck, seen here last year at the Lead­foot Fes­ti­val

The Mil­len­Works/Team Toy­ota Baja 1000 race truck

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