While the pandemic continues, most countries have since opened up. This means that many previously cancelled or postponed events in Europe – including the Le Mans Classic – are now on. The enthusiasm Roger Townshend and his co-driver Gary Wilkinson had for this event pre-pandemic has not diminished and they are again ready for take off.
The key to Roger’s car being accepted was its history. He bought the ex-works 1972 Ford ‘Cologne’ Capri RS2600 out of Australia after purchasing the Fahey Capri in the mid1980s (a car that he is still working on). With the works Capri, he has competed at many classic meetings on South Island tracks. Such has been the publicity that surrounded his restoration job that the car always attracts a large audience when pitted.
The car – powered by a 2.9-litre ‘Cologne’ V6 – has significant history and in July will return to the famous French Circuit de la Sarthe where it was first driven by Dieter Glemser and Àlex Soler-Roig to 11th place at the 1972 24 Hours of Le Mans. Later that year, the Capri went on to win the Spa 24 Hours with Jochen Mass and Hans Stuck at the wheel.
“Life is about passion, adventure and people. I expect this trip will be crammed full of those three things,” said Roger. “There will be 800 competitors, 8000 cars on display and 200,000 spectators. I am a very small player in New Zealand motorsport and this is a big adventure for us, but we like to have challenges in front of us.
“Gary and I have had many a spirited race over the years and he has been extremely generous in letting me drive his incredible Zakspeed Escort on many occasions, a privilege I will forever be grateful [for]. Gary is extremely passionate about that era of saloon car racing and I wanted someone who was going to appreciate the experience and someone who could put the overalls on and get stuck in with me and fix it if we had too.”
First held in 2002, the Le Mans Classic was also the first time since the inaugural 24 Hours race first ran in 1923 that the full circuit had been used for any other race meeting. In spite of the history of Roger’s car, he was not in the first group of acceptances. This list contained many replicas, some of which were, in Roger’s words, “bad” examples.
It transpired that such vehicles were owned and raced by people who enter cars in other events organised by the same people. A reminder of the car’s history accompanied Roger’s request and he was relieved to read his name in the final entry list. His choice of Gary Wilkinson as co-driver stems from the day Roger’s car had its first outing at Ruapuna.
“I had put my heart and soul into the rebuild and I recall Gary coming into my pit to have a look at it. I didn’t really know him at that stage, but he kept coming back to look and ask questions. He was one person who really understood how special it was. We have been friends from that point really,” he explains.
For Roger it all started back in late 1978 – not on the racetrack, but on the stop banks of the Waimakariri River where he navigated for Don Grindley in a Canterbury rally. Grindley, who subsequently went onto race Sports Sedans and Tranzams at a national level, had decided that rallying was for him and had duly fitted out his wife’s Mazda RX-3 coupé as a rally car.
I recall this day well as it was also my first rallying adventure as the navigator for my friend Terry Moyse in ‘Emma’, his delightful little Mazda 808. We were seeded one behind Don and Roger and spotting them off the road at the first decent corner on the first special stage remains a distinct memory.
Rallying together as a team did not last long for Don and Roger, and a couple of ‘offs’ that day convinced Roger that navigating in a rally car was not for him – he preferred more control of his own destiny. Don Grindley eventually felt the same way, to the point that he retired from the sport following a spectacular exit at a later Marlborough rally. On that occasion, he could only be recovered by helicopter.
As a result, armed with a Datsun 1200 SSS, Roger set about his own rally career the following year. It was a bumpy start though; he went off the road on the first stage of the annual West Coast Rally. Undeterred, he soldiered on and in 1980 won the 0-1300cc lass of the 1980 Mainland Rally series before his season came to an abrupt end 60m down a bank in a distant Nelson forest (no helicopters were required in this instance!). Roger returned to rallying in 1987 and quickly demonstrated that his winning efforts in the little Datsun had been no fluke. He acquired the noted Owen brothers’ Escort RS1800 and with a string of consistent placings emerged as a clear winner of the Mainland series. “It was a season of excellent memories,” he recalls.
Roger then took a break from any form of motorsport until he entered a Wellington street race in the early 1990s with the Escort in the Sports and GT class. His performances are still talked about in motorsport circles, such was the impact that his rally-driving style had. “I had naturally always followed car racing and events like Bathurst. It is funny that I did Wellington in a rally car and now people still remember me more for the two races at this meeting. I absolutely loved it, of course, lifting the inside wheel at every corner on the way to winning.
When we arrived, nobody really looked at the car or spoke to me but after qualifying a lot of people huddled around the car. After I won people wanted to talk to me all of a sudden. It was very satisfying.” Another ambition was achieved when, following the excitement of Wellington, Roger tackled the Bathurst 12 Hours with a Nissan Primera ‘Super Tourer’.
“I was pretty naïve about it all really. I thought that if the tyres were round and black then you were good to go as long as every car was the same. Of course it was not like that at all!” Roger would return to Bathurst in 2002 and 2003 for the 24-hour endurance race utilising the talents of Klark Quinn, Wayne Moore and Tony Black as co-drivers in his BMW 323i – a car that had taken part in an Australian production car championship. Roger finished second in class and 24th overall in 2002. European experiences have also come his way with drives at Brands Hatch, Silverstone and Phillip Island. “
Apart from my rallying days I have never really done championships, just special events. Hence the Le Mans Classic is now top of the agenda. With what it is costing to go to Europe I could have done quite a few championships,” he adds. “Wilkie is in for a shock though. He rang me a few days ago and said I am still walking around the park. I said, you need to be running as you are going to have to be fit to drive this old girl, it is very physical.”
Roger never really forgot his rallying past and last year he entered the Escort in the Canterbury Rally. Unfortunately a bad accident resulted in a serious back injury for his co-driver James Hewlett, and left the car in an unfortunate state. Roger’s eldest son, Michael, has always been the Escort’s biggest fan and he has taken over its care.
For those unaware of Gary Wilkinson’s motorsport career, he has been a long-time campaigner at local racing venues with success at National (1999) and South Island Mini 7 championships. His technical ability has been well documented and was noted in NZ Classic Driver (issue #82, January/ February 2019) in my account of the locally built Lotus 23B replicas. Gary is also well known for his racing exploits at the wheel of his fabulous Zakspeed Escort, a car that once graced the cover of NZ Classic Driver (issue #62, September/October 2015).
Two years of waiting, while giving Roger time to double check his car’s condition, has also seen costs escalate. The freight cost to and from New Zealand has tripled to $15,000. And as Roger’s Capri will be initially shipped to the UK, the situation has been compounded by Britain’s departure from the European Union.
Also included are the costs to employ two German-speaking people while in Europe, something that Roger has thought through – bearing in mind that simply getting from the pit to the dummy grid can be a minefield with the number of cars, the number of people and, of course, the language barrier.
Another cost is the hiring of ex-pat Kiwi racer Roger Wills to transport the car from England to Europe. Simply towing the car to Dover, onto the ferry and then the trek to Le Mans is not as simple as a casual weekend excursion.
While in Europe Roger is keen to make the most of any opportunity and hopes to also be able to run at Goodwood. Here he knows that any entry would be dependent on a named racing driver being at the wheel. But at Le Mans with the car’s track record, there is little doubt the pair will add their own unique Kiwi-style of motor racing to such a wonderful occasion.
We wish Roger and Gary all the best for their upcoming adventure.
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