Rotary in motion
Daniel Powell’s Tatum Mazda is a pukka race winner. After driving it, NZ4WD mag contributor Mark Baker reckons he knows why.
It’s an off-road racing rocket ship. The best of America, with a locally developed suspension package and a turbocharged Mazda rotary engine. And – as this is written – Cantabrian Daniel Powell currently leads the national championship after three southern rounds including an outright win in the final one.
Sleek and silver, hunkered down, the Tatum Mazda throws out its own challenge: “Are you ready for this?” Answer: not sure.
This is after all Daniel Powell’s pride and joy, and it has no price tag. He created this specification himself, going against all conventional opinion about engine type. Only a handful of people have ever run rotaries in off-road racing, and none have run late model turbo engines. He is racing in the national championship assisted by mate Ken Barlow.
Sliding in through the top hatch, I sink further into the car than I expect. The front wheels drop out of sight. I find the seat itself a solid fit without being uncomfortable. And after Daniel and Ken have helped belt up the five point harness, it’s all feeling quite familiar in a spacious way.
Daniel points out the data dash and gauges and then says “best to ignore them and focus on what the car’s doing”. There are ‘ idiot lights’ to let me know if things are going awry. In the cab, everything falls to hand, the shifter for the transmission is reassuringly chunky as is the tiny but grippy steering wheel. It’s a competition clutch and a sequential gearbox with a 100 km/ h first gear. Not going to be doing too much shifting out there today then.
Fly by wire
One trick to keep in mind – if I let it ‘ lug’ under the 4,000- 8,000 rpm power band too long it’ll put a reverse pulse through the throttle sensor and decouple the electronic throttle, meaning a halt to play. An electronic throttle. As far as I know there are only two vehicles in the sport using this level of tech and the other one’s in bits in the North Island.
Switch on, press the starter and the thing fires up first time. Rolled backward, I find first gear and sort out engagement revs to avoid the embarrassment of stalling.
Down through the dummy grid and out onto the track and the car’s surprisingly firm in its low speed feel. The front straight at West Melton has a spectacular tabletop
jump that has tripped up unlimited class cars including Dennis Andreassend’s Cougar and Mal Langley’s Bakersfield Mitsubishi in the past. And I’m launching up the incline in first gear not knowing what the Tatum will do. Daniel says there’s a process to getting the car to fly level and it involves where you are on the gas and off the gas on this slope.
Not much air first time out though and away down to the long right hander. Even though the front wheels are out of sight the car’s quite stiff and gives good feedback. It likes being steered on the throttle, though you need to be on the throttle early to make that a smooth affair.
Into the dual lane, the stutter jumps around the back of the course remind me to keep my foot braced to make the throttle stay where it should be, and my head’s getting a bit of a thrashing. Quicker seems to be the key to getting less beat- up here.
Then onto the brakes into the right hander and – curse – the berm is soft and I hook a front wheel into it. Not the fast line.
Out and down to the medium left and the car can be set up as it swings around its centre, the momentary ease- off giving the tail a nice ‘set’ – but this is slow stuff.
An ‘oh-crap’ moment
Lap t wo, tackling the jump in second and the nose dips toward the landing area. Too late on the up- ramp translates to an ‘oh- crap’ moment in the air and I’m off the throttle when we land.
That means I get to experience the ‘ lug’ and the pulse-back that switches off the throttle. The car meanders down the straight while I work out what to do – switch right off, let it reset and fire it up.
Just as Daniel has run all the way down the straight to help. Oops.
Off again and up to second out of the right hander, second in the stutters is a bit more composed and gets us to the dual lane right faster; a tap on the ( cold) brakes and back on the throttle to avoid the berm and any understeer. Now it starts to make sense.
Lap three and the tabletop jump is better again. Landing, the straight afterward is very short. The car likes more accelerator, even in the corner. It never feels as if it ’s going to step out too far. And there are now a couple of booms from the back as the car breathes fuel into the exhaust.
The car is totally involving, it demands and challenges like nothing I’ve driven before.
Lap four, a lit tle messy, a tank- slapper in the infield left- hander reminds me the car’s not mine.
And then a cool- down lap to finish. I’m breathing hard and I have the adrenalin shakes kicking in – hands tingling and fingers t witching. Back to the pits and let it idle down.
Verdict? The day’s racing had chopped up the track a tad, making it hard to focus solely on the Tatum. But this is emphatically a race car for the dirt, purposeful and demanding. At race speed, it would be a very busy office space for sure. Big thanks to Daniel and Ken, to Canterbury club for the chance to try the car on their track, and to Bryan Chang for the loan of the race gear to make it happen.
Mark Baker gets ready for his test.
Daniel Powell making it look easy.