Big crowds also turned up for the latest two-day event, with around 2,000 paying spectators swarming up the hill to catch a view from one of the many excellent advantage points. Others chose to remain on the start/finish line and cruise around the pit area.
There have been bigger entries in years gone by as circumstances have ebbed and flowed around the event’s status and availability. The latest hiccup, of course, being the two-year forced cancellation triggered by Covid-19. Many years before the pandemic slowed things down, back in the mid-1990s when the forest changed hands after the New Zealand Forest Service ceased to exist, it was believed that would be the end of event. However, after a four-year absence the rallysprint returned to Ashley Forest.
In other years, the event had to allow for forestry work and tree felling nearby, while in more recent times the creep of the lifestyle block holders has threatened the rallysprint’s future. The Rally of New Zealand also cost the event a few entries, with some drivers not in a position to either run their competition car or indeed a back-up, as many of them have in past years. However, the fact that the event has survived is a testimony to the Christchurchbased promoters – the Rallies and Trials Enthusiasts Club. Since its 1979 inception, the club – the smallest of the three Christchurch-based car clubs – never gave up hope of a return even when the future looked grim.
The 1979 event featured a downhill run ending at the current start/finish line. It was a relatively low-key affair although the entry of eventual winner Steve Millen, driving a General Motors NZ-backed 2.3-litre Vauxhall Chevette, created considerable interest. In the following year, the tempo was upped and a there was a change in direction to the unique around the 1.7-kilometre hill configuration that remains today. The event’s early club-type feeling changed quickly when live national TV came onboard to cover the rallysprint.
While Steve Millen was the key attraction in 1979, his entry probably sparked increased interest in the event – and that would include his brother, Rod, taking part and stamping his mark on the victory podium. I distinctly remember a media-type day prior to the 1979 event where I had the privilege of riding and directing Steve to the relevant place in the forest. Little did I know what the small Rallies and Trials Enthusiasts Club would go onto achieve in the years that followed.
John Woolf in a Mazda RX-3 coupé was the first winner on the new circuit in 1980, beating home his brother-in-law Paul Adams. This was Woolf’s final act of competition in New Zealand before he and navigator Grant Whittaker embarked on a rally programme in the United States. Sadly, they both lost their lives in a rally accident not long after arriving Stateside.
Television coverage transformed the status of the rallysprint into a truly national affair and in the years following, the winner’s circle would hold many national rally champions and those from the international scene – including Neil Allport (MkII Escort BDA); Reg Cook (Shellsport Datsun Sunny); Trevor Crowe (OSCA Starlet V8); Rod Millen (Mazda RX-7); Possum Bourne (Subaru Legacy); Alistair McRae (brother of 1995 world champion, the late Colin McRae); Tony Teesdale (Group B Austin Metro) and Hayden Paddon (Cordia V8, Hyundai i120 and his pioneering electric-powered Hyundai).
Teesdale’s 1987 victory was run in appalling conditions, with rain and fog descending upon the hill as the final pairing prepared to run. There was an expectation that Teesdale would win, given he was in a semi-works car, but in the prevailing conditions this was no certainty. There was also an expectation that he would get near, or possibly break, the one-minute barrier. At the time I was writing about motorsport for the Christchurch Star, then a daily paper. I recall Teesdale being very relieved to have won and not having to go up the hill again. “I almost went and got into the car again, that’s how hyped up I was getting,” he said to me at the time.
The late Kim Austin has won the event on three occasions as has national championship contender Matt Summerfield, and Hayden Paddon made a new piece of history this year driving his own designed and prepared electric Hyundai.
In the early years, winning times invariably were in the one minute and five second to 10 second bracket. When the four-wheel drive cars became popular, talk quickly centred on who would be the first to go under the one-minute barrier. That was to come in 1988 when Rod Millen in a 4WD Mazda RX-7 posted a 59.88s lap. In the final against Kim Austin, he eclipsed even that time with 59.14s.
That record stood until 1993 when Austin, driving a 4WD Nissan Pulsar GTi, recorded 58.27s. Two years later Austin, this time driving a 4WD Mitsubishi Starion V8 Special, posted a time of 56.57s, a record that would remain standing until 2017 when Rotorua’s Sloan Cox driving his angry Evo 8 Special recorded 55.13s. In 2019 Paddon with his Hyundai i20 AP4 slashed this time to 52.77s, a record that is likely to stand for quite some time.
Initially, TV coverage costs had been covered by the TV production company but when this arrangement ceased, the club had to pay the sizable fee to cover the event – a reversal of the original arrangement. Dunlop sponsorship assisted their cause for a few years but when they cut ties, TV coverage simply became unaffordable. The event carried on, but it became very much a clubflavoured outing as the North Island stars in particular stayed away.
(The original events director, Tony Booth, and Graeme Sharp lead the club’s negotiations team for the original television coverage. Many believed they would never be able pull such an assignment off, but after a couple of trips to TVNZ in Wellington, they eventually succeeded, much to the delight and surprise of many in the motorsport community. The pair also negotiated the later sponsorship deal with Dunlop).
Circumstances eventually improved and the last decade has seen a smattering of New Zealand’s front-running rally and hillclimb exponents cross Cook Strait for the rallysprint. The 2022 run in September was without the increasingly more popular live streaming, but the club was able to contract a highlights package courtesy of TV3. The 2022 field was essentially a combination of entrants from clubman, national, classic and international classes.
Paddon’s win was significant for electric vehicles and motorsport on gravel when he headed off the 2017 winner, Cox in his multi-coloured Evo 8 Special, in an epic final. Paddon posted a time of 55.54s to eclipse Cox by .38 seconds. Hopes that Paddon would break his own record were never really expected with the uphill section in particular being very soft following a wet winter.
The bulk of the field consisted of many older and now classic rally cars combined with a handful of purpose-built hillclimb/ rallysprint specials as well as four spaceframed cross-cars. This mixture of vehicles appears to be the recipe for the future, especially with similar events up and down the country creating a window to cater for all kinds of rally and off-road vehicles.
Seven Toyota Starlets from the 1980s lined up in the 0 to 1300cc class, five trusty MkII Ford Escorts of varying engine sizes, eight Subaru Imprezas, seven Mitsubishi Evos and even two VR4 Mitsubishis, one entered by North Island driver Gareth McLachlan from Hastings. McLachlan’s trip was rewarded with a last-minute call up to the last four in the ‘sudden death’ run-offs, after Job Quantock had to withdraw his Skoda AP4.
National rally championship entrant Ari Pettigrew brought out his mid-1990s BMW 318Ti especially for the occasion and grabbed the runner-up spot in the 2WD class. Mosgiel’s Chris Hey, with his immaculate rear-engined Toyota MR2 Turbo, won his class for the twelfth time although prevailing conditions meant he was not able to threaten his class record of 60.90s, a time set in 2019.
Trevor Crowe, now in his late 70s, was again on the starting grid and drove his midengined 2.5-litre Subaru Justy. However, his day sadly was to end following a CV breakage. Crowe is best remembered for his win in 1985 at the wheel of his famous V8-powered OSCA Starlet – his winning time of 1.04.69 enough for him to head off Neil Allport in the final. Due to his 1985 victory, Crowe was widely heralded as being the first South Islander to win the rallysprint.
The 2022 Ashley Forest Rallysprint weekend also recognised the late Barry Robinson from Alexandra (featured in NZ Classic Driver #101), whose 2.3-litre Vauxhall Chevette rally car was on display. Barry had been a notable competitor during the 1980s and early 1990s, first with his rally car and then in a purposebuilt Chevette that sprouted wings and with the navigator’s seat in the rear.
Every year I leave Ashley Forest asking, “will we be back?” - if not, thanks for the wonderful memories. Roll on 2023 and hopefully we can do it all over again!
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