NZ Performance Car - - Meeting Leadfoot -

What­ever else makes it fa­mous, the Coro­man­del Penin­sula has never been known for mo­tor­sport. But, thanks to Rod Millen — one of the most iconic fig­ures in New Zealand mo­tor­sport — that is be­gin­ning to change. The rea­son is his Lead­foot Fes­ti­val, which is one hell of a drive­way party held an­nu­ally in Fe­bru­ary at his Ha­hei ranch. For the rest of the year, the ranch is much like Willy Wonka’s choco­late fac­tory, as the large wooden gates are rarely opened to the pub­lic. Housed on the prop­erty is a car col­lec­tion that serves as a chron­i­cle of Millen’s ca­reer, from run­ning ral­lies in New Zealand when he was scrap­ing to­gether pen­nies and sac­ri­fic­ing ev­ery­thing to re­al­ize his mo­tor­sport dreams to run­ning ral­lies in Europe, Asia, and Amer­ica, along­side in­volve­ment in other forms of rac­ing from hill climbs to sta­dium trucks, off-road, Indy, and the 24 Hours of Day­tona. Rod spent the ma­jor­ity of his life liv­ing in Amer­ica, where he built up a very suc­cess­ful busi­ness as well as adding his ini­tials to many mo­tor­sport record books. But, once he re­tired, he and his wife Shel­ley set­tled in Ha­hei and brought their huge car col­lec­tion with them, and this month Rod of­fered his time to walk us through it all.

The over­sized ranch gates swung open as the man who needs no in­tro­duc­tion to any­one with even the most fleet­ing in­ter­est in New Zealand mo­tor­sport his­tory pulled up along­side. Pho­tog­ra­pher Richard Opie and my­self did feel like we were Char­lie and his grand­dad wait­ing at Wil­lie Wonka’s gate (Richard can be the grandad), but, in­stead of a choco­late fac­tory, we were about to en­ter the holy grail of garages, lo­cated smack-bang at the cen­tre of the ranch. As we fol­lowed Millen to the barn along his drive­way-cum-race-track, the count­less in-car videos we’ve watched be­gan to kick in, and it all be­came fa­mil­iar: that’s the start line, that’s where the Rat Trap ended up in the drink, there’s where ‘Mad Mike’ Whid­dett tagged the brick wall go­ing over the bridge, and then the long black marks from Shane Allen and the Rat­tla Fal­con lead us right to a set of barn doors.

The first barn we found our­selves in is ac­tu­ally the work­shop where the famed Pikes Peak Celica and Rod’s Mazda RX-3 rally trib­ute car were await­ing some main­te­nance. Over the back was the farm shed hous­ing a few yet-to-be re­stored pro­ject cars that I had no idea even ex­isted, and then we were off to the main barn, where most of his com­pe­ti­tion ma­chines (the ones that sur­vived) are housed. Apart from the yet-to-be-re­stored ma­chines, ev­ery­thing else is ready to run, and, as in the past, a hand­ful of them will be driven in anger at next year’s Lead­foot fes­ti­val.

When you chat to Rod, he in­stantly comes across as a downto-earth Kiwi petrol­head. You nearly for­get this man built an em­pire while also en­gi­neer­ing a ridicu­lous num­ber of race ma­chines, each more in­no­va­tive than the last. His com­pany, Mil­lenWorks, built mil­i­tary and con­cept ma­chines and de­vel­oped in­dus­try-lead­ing tech­nol­ogy. Rod told me, “When I sold the com­pany, I had 70 re­ally good me­chan­i­cal and elec­tri­cal en­gi­neers and de­sign­ers and a full ma­chine shop and fab­ri­ca­tion shop with all the CNCs and that. We put a lot of ef­fort into de­sign. We had some re­ally good guys work­ing on un­manned ve­hi­cles and hy­brid-elec­tric stuff for the mil­i­tary. Our first hy­brid elec­tric was in ’93 that we had run­ning around, with lead-acid bat­ter­ies. So, the bat­tery tech­nol­ogy was not there, but we had all the rest of the sys­tem there, and we knew that the bat­tery sys­tems would even­tu­ally come around, as they did. In dif­fer­ent [mo­tor­sport] pro­grammes we got in­volved with, we could grab dif­fer­ent tal­ents for pe­ri­ods of time to work on some­thing unique and spe­cial.”

But enough of the small talk, we were here to look at his cars. Let the geek fest be­gin!

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