Kings of the hill

The stars were out to play at Leadfoot this year.
Monday February 6, 2017

By Richard Bosselman

IN 1989 the race seemed in the bag, but with a lap to go he touched tyres with Emerson Fittipaldi and crashed out.

Three years on, the race was his, the first of two victories on the famous circuit, But it was oh-so-close – at 0.043 seconds, the margin of victory the closest in the great race’s history.

So, yeah, Little Al knows all about what it takes to win the Indianapolis 500. So too his dad, still one of three drivers to take four Indys, three on the trot.

But of course, racing and the world’s greatest oval race are synonymous with this family. Uncle Bobby also took the great prize. By 2002 six Unsers had competed in the Indy 500. With a combined nine victories, the family had walked away with over a quarter of all Indy first-place wins. So, clearly, speed is in the Unser blood.

But speed wasn’t a priority for Al Junior over the weekend.

This superstar was lightfooting at the wonderful February 14-15 Leadfoot Festival. That’s because the legend who retired in 2004 with 34 victories and significant sports car as well as open wheeler success to his name was giving due deference to another Indy hero from a much earlier age.

The Southward Car Museum Stutz is one of the greats of Indianopolis history; one of three that contested the 1915 race, just the sixth held at the Brickyard, then second in 1919.

It was then imported to New Zealand, winning the NZ Motor Cup three years in a row, then retired from racing to become a Taranaki farm hack, used for feeding out and the like. Rescued from under a hedge and restored by Sir Len Southward, it became one of the first exhibits of his now world-famous museum.

Al the second knew of the car. He has, in fact, seen its sister machine, now in the prestigious Petersen Museum in Los Angeles (the third is thought to be in the Indianopolis race museum). Some of the cars he raced have become pretty special, and he’s tried out a few old timers from before his era. But never anything as old as this.

The race organisers are probably chuffed to have someone of his fame at the event. But Unser Junior, was typically aw shucks modest about the adulation.

On this first visit to New Zealand, he’s been overwhelmed by the good-natured Kiwi welcome and a little surprised that so many people here know so much about his background. He also says it is an absolute honour to be driving the Southward car.

Sir Len used to delight in giving the Stutz a good old go in his day – he’d take up to a decent clip and drift through the corners – but the American guest is being far more mindful of the old timer’s geriatric age and huge value. First gear all the way up the hill and giving the delighted crowd a wave from a car that, day day’s end, will be voted Best in Show.

During his professional career, no Sunday drive was ever so relaxed. But this has been a good day out, he assures. “Oh wow,” he grins on return to the pits after a second Sunday morning drive. “It’s just great.”

“I’m having the time of my life and a great time in the Stutz. It’s been an absolute treat to drive.”

He loves the conviviality of Leadfoot. No pit lane pushiness here. The autograph and selfie seekers he’s happy satisfy are uniformly polite and, when he slips off the white race overalls it’s like an unwritten signal to let him become just become another petrolhead, wandering through the pits looking at all the exotic machinery, chewing the fat with all the other drivers.

Some are familiar faces. None more so than Rod Millen who, along with wife Shelly, has since 2011 been inviting speed freaks on anything with an engine – this year that means everything from quads to full-blown rally, drift, race cars, a desert racing utility, a full-size race truck and a dragster – to tear up his 1.6km driveway of his property at Hahei, on the Coromandel.

Created to celebrate Millen's 60th birthday in 2011 and made into a public event in 2012, Leadfoot’s reputation as a must-attend on the motoring calendar has grown and grown.

The weekend’s not just pulled big name participants but also some important brands.

It’s mainly, but not wholly, blue collar. Joining Hyundai, Subaru, Ford, Nissan and Mazda this year is Mercedes-AMG. In celebration of this being the 50th year since AMG began, they’re here in typical top-end style, though there’s a refreshing lack of elitism.

The Germans might have brought the biggest, and most expensive-looking, marquee on the paddock overlooking the bottom part of the hill course, but they’re also welcoming to any car nuts as any of the more mainstream brands.

Unfortunately, the newest big gun in the AMG armoury cannot be with us today – by a quirk of fate, the $330,000-plus GTS-R supercar was ‘launched’ to this part of the world at the Bathurst 12-hour GT3 race that clashes with Leadfoot – but there’s still some hot metal to gaze at.

We’ve come across in the new GLC 43, the $117,400 AMG-ised version of this medium crossover packing a 3.0-litre V6 creating 270kW/520Nm and get to cruise back to Auckland in the newly introduced $189,900 cabriolet version of the walloping C63. It’s a sun and eye-catching setting for that rip-snorting 375kW 4.0-litre biturbo V8.

Of course, with the AMG badge, good looks are just an added extra. The driving is always the key appeal. So is it as focused as the sedan and coupe? Sorry, not a question that could be answered when you’re travelling a congested traffic stream. It sounds all the more magificent, though, with the roof down.

Also on show, a 1995 C36; the first roadgoing model produced under an official Mercedes-AMG partnership.

It’d be easy to hang out all day in the Merc zone; there’s great coffee, the best shade and a freezer packed with Kapiti icecreams – but all the brands are especially welcoming to owners. As the keyholder to an Outback and a Forester, plus two MX5s (long story), it seemed only proper to pop a nose into their joints, too.

Mazda NZ’s supports one of the home grown stars of the day, world-renowned drifter ‘Mad Mike’ Whiddett, and the Drivers' Club marquee was also host to the millionth MX-5 ever made, on the last stop of a world tour before it returns to Japan. Visitors were invited to Sharpie their signatures. You’ll find mine monikered just under the right rear indicator.

Then it was over to Subaru of New Zealand. The brand is a stalwart supporter; it not only supplies the pace cars but also worked hard to get other distributors involved.

Managing director Wal Dumper says it’s worthy of industry support through being more than just an amazing motorsport event.

“We knew this event would grow into something special. This year’s event is proof of that dream coming to fruition.

“People need to understand this is not just a petrol-head event, it’s a family-orientated, fun day that happens to have a bit of world-class driving action going on in the background.”

This year being a celebration of 25 years of the WRX was perfect-timed. Not only did they deliver the best 25 examples in the country, selected in a competition that attracted 268 entries and 12,000 votes, but the type also won the day, with Alister McRae being crowned King of Millen's Mountain for 2017, through clocking a 49.43 second time in his Vantage Motorsport Subaru WRX STi.

Requirement to catch the 7pm home to Palmy meant I had leave the ranch before the final run-off, but we’re already hooked on this event. So too is Al Junior.

We’ve heard already that he’s set on a comeback … and hopes to bring along the most successful driver in the history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Apparently dad loves old race cars, too.