SEVEN years ago, international rally star Rod Millen celebrated his 60th birthday in the best way possible. He got a bunch of his go-fast mates to come to his oceanfront property in New Zealand and race up his hillside driveway in their coolest cars. And so, the Leadfoot Festival was born.
The annual event has been dubbed the ‘Goodwood Festival of the South’ due to the vast array of powerful cars and illustrious drivers who turn up to pedal them – fast – up Millen’s narrow, winding driveway. It is a genuine feast for all senses, thanks in no small part to the stunning location of the expansive farm, dubbed Leadfoot Ranch.
The beachside town of Hahei, on NZ’s beautiful Coromandel Peninsula, is a two-hour drive east of Auckland, and the 150-acre Leadfoot Ranch is but a hop, skip and jump from there. Though it’s a small tourist town most of the year, Hahei is packed for Leadfoot, as it occurs on NZ’s Waitangi Day long weekend, which means punters and cars are spread out across the Coromandel’s humble villages and epic driving roads.
Leadfoot kicks off properly on Saturday, as organisers split the parking between ‘regular’ and ‘awesome’, making one side of the front paddock an impromptu car show. While NZ is a small nation population-wise, they have a huge number of sweet rides. This was reflected in the car park’s diversity. Sitting next to heavily modified Japanese late-model turbo cars were traditional gassers, hot and street rods, and some truly rare muscle cars and classics.
Along with a cool ’60 Impala sport coupe, one of my favourites was a genuine Cale Yarborough-edition 1969 Mercury Cyclone Spoiler II – a rare aero-era NASCAR homologation special packing a 428 Cobra Jet big-block!
The cars racing at Leadfoot this year included old Grand Prix and customised pre-1950s sports cars (known as Specials), plenty of rally and hillclimb cars, classic touring cars, off-road trucks, bikes, sidecars, side-by-side ATVs, and even a litre-bike-powered quad! While some were happy to cruise, most beat on their irreplaceable pieces of history like they owed them money.
The racing vehicles were split into three classes: Pre-1960, 1960-1975, and Unlimited. The top 10 from each class then had one shot on Sunday afternoon to do their best time possible, running from slowest to fastest in each group.
In the end, a turbo all-paw 1998 Subaru Impreza – specially built for hilllclimbs by the late, great Possum Bourne – took the win. Driven by former World Rally Championship driver (and 2017 Leadfoot winner) Alister McRae, nobody could get near the insanely quick coupe, which was built off the wreck of a full-tilt WRC-spec machine.
At $200 per head for the weekend, tickets to Leadfoot aren’t cheap, but it is a brilliant, non-stop weekend of action. It runs from 8am to 5pm on Saturday and ’til after 6pm on Sunday, and you won’t struggle to find stuff to do. Yamaha had a bunch of side-by-side ATVs taking punters for rides, and there were brilliant spectator vantage points alongside pretty much the whole 1.6km track, er, driveway.
There were also a bunch of car companies on hand to show off their wares, including Ford, which had one of its new halfmillion-dollar GT hypercars on display – the first in the Southern Hemisphere and the new toy for a certain Mr Rod Millen, Esquire.
A dozen food trucks ensured nobody went hungry or thirsty, and there was plenty of killer beer and wine on sale for punters wanting a cold frothy on one of the two hills overlooking the valley. Plus, Rod had arranged for a trio of WWII-era planes to put on a stunt show during the downtime for lunch, racing just above tree-height, almost clipping their wingtips!
It was an amazingly good weekend, and so close to home. I’ll definitely be back, and I suggest street machiners mark it down on their calendars!