The first event for 2003 and also the first sprint in the Autosport Sprint Series was again held on the popular zig-zag road above the Rakaia Gorge and proved a great day out for most of the crews competing. Leaving the grotty Christchurch weather behind and heading for the sun and warmth (some say too warm!) of the Canterbury foothills was very prosperous for Garry Cliff, who took the trophy home in an extraordinarily close-run contest with visiting driver Mike Turfus of Dunedin. “Turf” announced his arrival by setting the fastest time on the first run. This put the wind up the locals who came out firing in run 2 and upped the ante, with Deane Buist going fastest in the Martin EVO by a whisker from Merv Hatcher in his Lancer RS. With some big rocks appearing from the edges of the road and some even bigger holes appearing in the middle, the final run saw Garry Cliff come from behind to steal the show from Turfus by just 16 hundredths of a second! Deane Buist snuck into third ahead of Merv Hatcher by half a second.
With the lack of rain in the area over recent weeks the road was bone-dry. The usual corrugations soon disappeared and the dust begun to hang in the air down low on the course, but up the top a light NW’er was blowing and ensured the visibility was OK for the competitors.
Many experienced drivers turned out for the event which saw the 4WD class as the most popular. Brian Stokes made a too infrequent appearance in his fearsome and brutal sounding Escort Cosworth, getting back in to the swing of things prior to contesting Rally NZ in April in an Argyle Group A Evo-6, with further pre-RNZ conditioning being provided via a joint lead car run at this month’s Taihape rally. Emma Gilmour once again entered her Evo twice for road experience and put in some great times (and given the comments in this month’s Speedsport we now know why she didn’t show up at the prizegiving). Tracey Mann made the long and winding trip from the West Coast, Stu Weeber shared Leigh Marston’s Impreza and Rex Visible shared Jeff Judd’s.
In the other classes, new club member Marchal Head signaled his arrival in the region with the potent ex-Kerry Evans Corolla DX-4AGE, which sounded incredible as it screamed up the hill, taking third place in the 1600cc class in his first visit to the zig-zag. Wade Henshaw had a great day out on the gravel winning the big 2WD class in Fred Merkin’s weapon RX7 (although the car seemed to spend most of the day being pushed around the pits it seemed to do the business when it counted!). Bruce France’s new engine proved itself right out of the box with the small car class winner showing a clean pair of mudflaps to take the class by 2 seconds from last year’s class champ Grant Goile. Josh Marston took the rookie award for the day in his great drive of Dave Gallagher’s Starlet, the young driver acquitted himself well on the tricky surface, just beating Brent Tiney in the very nice Mk. 1 Escort. Luke Thelning was having a great day out in his newly acquired ex-Hayden Spatcher FX-GT, enjoying the front wheel drive and adapting well to it. As the event progressed the holes in the road caused a few issues, with Andrew Sim hitting the big one on the second corner and denting a rim. Not content with one dent, the Corolla driver hit the same hole on the last run and took another chunk out of the same rim!
Hard luck story of the day must go to Gavin Henson who was sharing his Starlet with Jo Giles. Jo took the first run in the car, and on the first left hand hairpin the car’s differential failed, seeing both drivers sit the event out (although we can thank Gavin for once again operating the timing computer). Also having trouble were Scott Reid with his Escort developing mysterious fuel pressure problems, and Leigh Marston who lost second gear and trailered the car before run 3. Jon Bradshaw’s engine was sputtering and inconsistent for the three runs, and Emma Gilmour popped a tyre off the rim in the last of her runs. Deane Buist dropped from second overall to third overall as a result of boost loss caused by fuel surge from too little in the gas-tank. Now the crew know how much fuel is required for steeper events! Others were quick to point out however that it is hard to corroborate this story given Deane did not carry a passenger on the affected run.
The day was a fun time for most crews in attendance, with not many reports of adverse occurrences either with cars or on the course so it would seem most were very well prepared for the zig-zag this year. The prize-giving was held at the South Rakaia Hotel who sponsor this event, and with jet-boaters and fishermen in town Rakaia was bursting at the seams. Organiser Merv Hatcher commented that the day went well, with competitors doing their best to line up to get the runs through quickly and good behaviour in the pits. This makes things a lot less stressful for organisers. Thanks went to the CRC crew for the radios, Aaron Scott for traffic management, Nicole France for documentation and David Fletcher for organisational logistics and towing the dunny. A fitting start to the year and the sprint series, where the next event is the Sunday bent sprint as part of the Hanmer Motorsport Weekend.
The final scorecard was as follows:
Garry Cliff (Mits EVO4) 1m36.55s – 1,
Mike Turfus (Mits EVO6.5) 1m36.71s – 2
Deane Buist (Mits EVO4) 1m37.15s – 3.
Merv Hatcher (Mits Lancer RS) 1m37.43s – 1,
Emma Gilmour (Mits EVO3) 1m37.92s – 2,
Dermot Martin (Mits EVO4) 1m39.06s – 3.
Wade Henshaw (Mazda RX7) 1m46.66s – 1,
Robert McCallum (Ford Escort) 1m46.87s – 2,
Richard Towse (Datsun Sunny) 1m50.88s – 3.
Blair Logan (Toyota Corolla) 1m44.24s – 1,
Andrew Sim (Toyota Corolla) 1m46.76 – 2,
Marchal Head (Toyota Corolla DX-4AGE) 1m49.57s – 3.
Bruce France (Toyota Starlet) 1m50.72s – 1,
Grant Goile (Toyota Corolla) 1m52.97s – 2,
Don Mathias (Toyota Starlet) 1m53.30s – 3.