GOOD BEN HUNTING
Ben Hunt interview
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.
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.
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.