GOOD BEN HUNT­ING

Ben Hunt in­ter­view

NZ Autocar - - Contents - Pho­tos Ge­off Rid­der

There’s a new Gold Star rally cham­pion, and Rob Scott, who’s been around, reck­ons there’s more to come for the ris­ing star that is Ben Hunt.

There’s a new Gold Star rally cham­pion, and Rob Scott, who’s been around, reck­ons there’s more to come for the ris­ing star that is Ben Hunt

New Zealand prefers its he­roes hum­ble and ral­ly­ing may just have dis­cov­ered the most self­ef­fac­ing of the lot. Ben Hunt is the cur­rent Gold Star rally cham­pion and the first new name on the tro­phy since 2010 where the do­mes­tic scene has been to­tally dom­i­nated by Richard Ma­son and Hay­den Pad­don over the last decade. Yet talk­ing to Hunt is like chat­ting with an earnest novice. De­spite be­ing the fastest gravel driver in the coun­try he is con­stantly ab­sorb­ing and as­sim­i­lat­ing in­for­ma­tion in his de­ter­mi­na­tion to be­come a more com­plete driver. Each event is treated as an op­por­tu­nity to learn, and each er­ror qui­etly filed away so as never to be re­peated.

Bizarrely, how­ever, this rare ta­lent could so eas­ily have been lost to another sport.

A dif­fer­ent rac­quet

Fa­ther Richard had dab­bled in ral­ly­ing as a young man, but gave away mo­tor­sport to con­cen­trate on farm­ing and rais­ing a fam­ily. His young­sters all be­came avid ten­nis play­ers, with Ben play­ing ev­ery day from the age of six through to his twen­ties. He dreamed of be­com­ing a pro­fes­sional, with a schol­ar­ship in the States beck­on­ing, but he also in­her­ited a lit­tle petrol in his blood.

“We al­ways had a pad­dock car on our Nel­son farm, and when I turned 15 we bought a Dat­sun 120Y to con­test lo­cal au­tocrosses. It wasn’t un­til I crewed for Ray Wil­son at Rally Otago that I re­ally got the bug. We stopped at Ash­bur­ton on the way back home to in­spect a Star­let I’d found on TradeMe. Dad was quite clear – ‘You’re not get­ting that’.”

A few months of plead­ing saw the Hunts re­turn­ing to pur­chase the Toy­ota, en­abling Ben to try his hand at re­gional hill­climbs be­fore en­ter­ing his first rally, the 2008 Rally Nel­son (and the fi­nal round of the na­tional cham­pi­onship). The twenty-year-old rev­elled in the ex­pe­ri­ence, es­pe­cially the com­bined at­mos­phere of com­pet­ing against the top driv­ers in the coun­try, whilst be­ing sur­rounded by his friends and fam­ily. Good bye ten­nis, hello ral­ly­ing.

Scholar

The next step trans­formed his life. A group of ral­ly­ing mates con­vinced him to en­ter the in­au­gu­ral Rally New Zealand Ris­ing Stars schol­ar­ship, with the car­rot of a sup­ported Fi­esta drive in the 2009 cham­pi­onship.

“My ini­tial re­ac­tion was that it was a waste of time. There would be other far more de­serv­ing driv­ers than me with vastly more ex­pe­ri­ence.” How­ever, the judges clearly liked what they saw on his ap­pli­ca­tion, and in­vited him to con­test the fi­nal se­lec­tion round as one of the top twelve. He fret­ted, “I wor­ried about the cost of get­ting to Auck­land,” but de­cided it would be a good learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

His heart sank fur­ther when he learnt just how lit­tle ex­pe­ri­ence he had com­pared to his peers. “I didn’t sleep at all that first night; I thought I was go­ing to get dicked.” But the years of ten­nis fit­ness saw him nail the in­fa­mous beep test, and he spent the rest of the time chat­ting and learn­ing from the at­ten­dant me­dia and ral­ly­ing il­lu­mi­nati, all with a big grin on his face.

He was floored when his name was read out amongst the fi­nal four, to drive the schol­ar­ship Fi­esta in a shootout in Mara­marua for­est.

I was lucky enough to co-drive for the con­tenders that day, and the young Hunt made a big im­pres­sion. For one thing, he was by far the slow­est – but ev­ery time he sat in the car, he made mas­sive strides (whereas his ri­vals quickly plateaued). The judges con­curred, and New Zealand had its first of­fi­cial Ris­ing Star.

First steps

The 2009 sea­son thus be­came a voy­age into the un­known. Though he ‘felt like a mouse in a cheese fac­tory’, he was quick to ad­mit he knew noth­ing about pace not­ing or set­ting up the un­fa­mil­iar Ford to his lik­ing. Ex­pe­ri­enced nav­i­ga­tor, Jeff Cress, was as­signed as part of the schol­ar­ship deal and the two swiftly formed an ef­fec­tive part­ner­ship. But their first event to­gether (Rally Hawkes Bay) proved a night­mare. “We broke an en­gine mount and it spat the belts off. I felt bad – was it some­thing I’d done?” Mean­while his cham­pi­onship ri­vals – in­clud­ing some ‘failed’ schol­ar­ship con­tenders – were gain­ing valu­able seat time in his ab­sence.

He re­joined on Day 2, re­solv­ing to show the Rally NZ Board they had made the right choice. He put his head down, build­ing con­fi­dence to fin­ish the day (and sub­se­quently the cham­pi­onship) sec­ond be­hind even­tual Fi­esta se­ries win­ner Pa­trick Mal­ley.

The class be­came known as a prov­ing ground for the na­tion’s best young ta­lent. Hunt was obliged to lift his skills all sea­son to match his peers, and still sings the praises of the lit­tle ST150. ‘It han­dles like a 4WD – just with two fewer wheels spin­ning and slightly less power. There’s not a bet­ter car to­day to teach a young guy how to drive fast.”

ABOVE - Ben’s first ever rally – Nel­son 2008. BE­LOW - The be­mused in­au­gu­ral Schol­ar­ship

win­ner and his new steed.

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