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.

NZ4WD - - RACER TEST - Story and Pho­tos by Mark Baker.

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.

Air­ing up

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.

To­tally in­volv­ing

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.

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