RACE TO THE SKY

FROM ALL CORNERS OF THE GLOBE THEY COME, WITH MYRIAD MACHINES FROM RALLY CARS TO MONSTERED HOMEBREW RACERS. THEIR GOAL? TO REACH FOR THE SKY IN THE WORLD’S LONGEST GRAVEL HILLCLIMB

WORDS BRUCE NEWTON PHOTOS CRISTIAN BRUNELLI, ALASTAIR RITCHIE

RILEY IS ONE OF THOSE KNOCKABOUT BLOKES WHO INHABIT AUSTRALIAN SPORT; LAUGH-A-MINUTE LADS WITH AN UNQUENCHABLE WILL TO WIN

HE’S JUST a dot way down in the valley with dust billowing out behind, but I can clearly hear that Steve Riley’s on the loud pedal and coming hard.

His ‘Commodore’ VE ute – really a spaceframe offroad racer draped in composite panels – is powered by a supercharged 7.0-litre small-block Chevrolet V8 that punches out 550kW at the wheels. And it sound like Steve is using them all as he rips along the fastest part of this crazy course among the towering peaks of New Zealand’s southern isle, growl and whine mixing and ricocheting up the barren hillside.

The green and blue two-door appears and disappears several times over the next few minutes as it climbs; bellowing, huffing, sideways and spitting gravel. A helicopter tracks Riley’s progress, giving me a fair idea of where he is at, but it’s still a shock when he rockets into view below the bank I’m standing on, the fourwheel- drive ute teetering sideways on the edge of a sheer drop before righting itself, skidding left into the rutted turn, straightening and digging furrows up the next straight.

I’ve been up here for a couple of hours now, watching crazy motorcyclists, demented quad riders, all sorts of lunatics in all sorts of weird and wonderful four-wheel machinery. But so far I’ve seen nothing quite so crazy, demented and lunatic as this 52-year-old Gippsland dairy farmer trying to tame 135 turns and 14.5km of gravel road in an oversized two-tonne ‘Holden’.

Welcome to the reborn Race to the Sky, New Zealand’s answer to Pikes Peak and, now that the legendary Colorado venue has been sealed, the longest competitive gravel-road hillclimb in the world. And I’m telling you, emphatically; stick this in your bucket list of must-do motor sport events.

“It’s probably the best rally road in the world. End of story. It’s got 135 turns, is 15 kays long and goes up a hill. What’s not to like about that?” says Riley breaking into laughter at the thought of it.

It’s a simple concept really; pretty much run what you brung, quickest up the hill wins the title ‘King of the Mountain’. It was always that way, right from when it started in 1998 until the 10th and – until now – final running in 2007.

Now it’s back, primarily through the backing of multimillionaire businessman Tony Quinn, a substantial investor in both Australian and NZ motor sport and owner of the extraordinary Highlands Motorsport Park facility not far down the road.

This is the Cadrona Valley, about 25 minutes from Queenstown, adventure capital of NZ’s incredibly

Paved Peak

RACE to the Sky’s claim as the world’s longest competitive gravel hill climb comes courtesy of the sealing of America’s legendary Pikes Peak ‘Race to the Clouds’ course in Colorado. Bitumen now covers the entire 20kmlong, 156-turn course that climbs 1440m and tops out at 4300m.

Despite being paved, Pikes Peak remains a monumental challenge, albeit a different one to years gone by when the legendary Bobby Unser won 13 times and Ari Vatanen became a viral video hero in Climb Dance.

Last year Sebastien Loeb set a new record at an astonishing 8min13sec in what was officially entered as a Peugeot 208, but in reality was a 643kW Frankenstein using several key bits from the 908 Le Mans race car. “You will never see that record fall again,” second-placed Rhys Millen predicted.

“IT’S A LOT OF POWER AND A BIG, HEAVY CAR AND IT’S PRETTY HARD TO CONTROL” - STEVE RILEY

beautiful South Island. The road itself is the only access to the Snow Farm, which doubles as a ski resort and a cold-weather vehicle research and development facility.

In winter, families frolick while vehicles disguised in zebra stripes amble by.

With so much traffic, the road is no goat track.

It’s wide and relatively smooth, just right for high horsepower hijinks. And New Zealand – where petrolheads are everywhere and everything is “sweet as, bro” – is just the place to take advantage of that.

The paddock is just that, a flat space down by the highway where cows normally wander. Spectators gather on a bank to watch the vehicles squiggle through a rallycross stage before launching up the north side of the hill. There’s one big screen capturing the action, but once they disappear around the first corner progress is best marked by the dust trails that appear going left and right and always upward. A fast car will munch through the 1000 metres of elevation in less than nine minutes, finishing above the snowline.

This year, 108 competitors – on two, three (a trike) or four wheels – have shown up, including our man Riley.

He’s in with the big boys in the International Open class, although his competition career started literally across the street with his cousin, neighbour and dual Australian hill climb champion Brett Hayward and a chain-driven, home-built open-wheeler powered by a supercharged Suzuki Hayabusa motorcycle engine.

But the headline act here is undoubtedly eight-time RTTS winner Nobuhiro ‘Monster’ Tajima, determined to break his own 8min01sec hill record in a car that looks like it belongs in the World Endurance Championship but is badged as a Toyota 86.

Not to be left behind is the event’s resurrection hero, Quinn himself, in a $400,000 Skyline-powered one-off commissioned specifically for the event.

A glance along the form line also shows former world rally ace Alister McRae in a factory Subaru Impreza WRC 98 run by Possum Bourne Motorsport. To say McRae is the local favourite under-sells it significantly.

Bourne remains a legend of NZ motor sport. He won this race in 2001 in this very car, but was killed in 2003 doing a recce on this road.

Against that lot and some pretty talented local rally drivers, Riley doubts he’ll have the pace to win. But that’s no deterrent. “We’ll put on a show,” he says.

“I don’t think we can beat Tajima, or that thing of Quinny’s. My car is built for off-road racing so it’s two tonnes, and that’s the problem.”

Moon-faced and built big like his race car, Riley is one of those seemingly knockabout blokes who inhabit Australian sport. On the surface laugh-a-minute lads with a quick wit and a ‘hey, whatever’ attitude to life.

But scratch the surface and he bleeds competitiveness, an unquenchable will to win.

Catch him unawares and a fiery light in those eyes suggests that in any sort of fight he’d be the sort of bloke you want on your side. A home-made hand throttle attached to the steering column gives a hint of the battles he’s fought. It’s there to provide relief when the pain from his right ankle, which was fused last year, becomes too much.

Riley has contested every Australasian Safari since it started in 1985. He was a factory Honda motorcycle racer – yep, one of those mad bastards – and finished second six times to team-mate Steve Chapman (and

they are still great mates). Sanity reasserted itself – marriage, kids, etc – in 2000 when he swapped to four wheels, winning the auto division three times before the Safari’s demise last year.

In a shed on the farm at Nareen near Leongatha, where he was born, Riley and a small group of helpers build his off-road racers. Strip the panels off the Commodore and you can see its essence: a heavy web of steel, endowed with massive A-arms and super-sized shocks and dampers on each corner, a durable Mitsubishi four-wheel-drive system and a Chevy V8. But Riley is the heart, soul and will of the thing.

There isn’t big money in off-road racing. Riley’s primary sponsor is Trevor Hanks, who owns WA-based companies SMS and Perth Power Lines. It’s a family affair. They’re cousins and went to school together in Leongatha, along with Steve’s wife, Lisa.

When Riley heard the Race to the Sky was returning, he had to be there. He’d finished second outright in 2002 in a Hayabusa-engined special, then went back with an even crazier twin-engine version to finish third.

This time Riley decided his new VE ute off-road racer would be the go, albeit with a ‘tweak’ – replacing the atmo 6.0-litre Chev with a bored, stroked and supercharged version of near 7.0 litres. “It makes 550kW at the wheels. Is that enough?” And he laughs again.

The trouble for Riley is that big power just isn’t enough. Not when his rivals kill him on power-to-weight ratio; the McRae Impreza is boosted up to 600kW and Quinn’s thing – supposedly meant to be a Ford Focus – has about the same. Monster’s claiming 500kW and, while old mate Haywood has only 300kW from the supercharged Suzuki engine in his purpose-built openwheeler, it’s maximised by the car’s lithe 460kg weight.

Not that Riley lets annoying facts get in the way.

Watching him wrestle the green monster is entertaining and sometimes awe-inspiring.

“It’s a wild bit of road,” he said after his first practice run on Saturday. “It’s a lot of power and a big, heavy car and it’s pretty hard to control. It’s very predictable but you wouldn’t want this thing to get out of shape because you wouldn’t pull it back too easy.”

Model Engine Max power Max torque Transmission Kerb weight 0-100km/h Economy Price On sale Holden Commodore VE ute off-road racer 7000cc V8 (90°), ohv, 16v, supercharger 550kW @ 6000rpm Massive 6-speed sequential 2150kg Quick “Shit” (8.0L per minute under full throttle) $250,000 Available by order

The green machine

“I JUST wanted to build something Aussie,” says Steve Riley of his unique Commodorebodied off-road racer. “You turn up with a Nissan Navara, or Patrol or a Cruiser or a Pajero, and people go ‘okay’, but you turn up in a Holden ute with a V8 and their ears prick up – it’s got a real resonance to it.”

The Aussie connection goes beyond the ute-styled cladding – there is some real VE Commodore under there, including the firewall from a wrecked ute. The engine uses a Harrop HTV2300 blower, the sequential gearbox is a Hollinger RD6 and engine management is via the Motec M800 system, all world-class equipment produced in Melbourne.

But there’s also plenty of imported technology, and bits shaped by Riley’s experience that includes two finishes in the Dakar. “In off-road racing it either works or it doesn’t,” he says. “I try to keep it simple and just try and make it reliable.”

And the Kermit green paintwork? “I just always wanted a green VE Commodore,” Riley laughs.

Just how high the stakes are is rammed home when Monster has a massive accident in final qualifying on Sunday morning. On the fastest straight, at 230km/h, the bodywork flies off, taking the rear wing with it.

The car slews off the road through a fence, taking out a post, then down a bank, washing off enough speed to finally settle in a ditch.

Monster is unhurt, “but my heart is broken,” he says.

“I will return next year.”

Riley has had his own dramas. His Saturday running was spoiled by a misfire that was traced to bad fuel.

Then on Sunday morning in qualifying the oil light came on and he had to make a “$30,000 decision”.

Fortunately it was a faulty sensor, not a faulty Chev.

You sense he’s a bit over the niggles as he lines up for the top 20 shoot-out on a squiggly little course at the bottom of the hill devised to sort out the final starting order for the race run. Determined, maybe just a little crazy, he wants to blow off some steam.

Initially, it looks like he’s trying too hard; all that power is relatively useless as the ute understeers in and

THE ROAD IS NO GOAT TRACK. IT’S WIDE AND RELATIVELY SMOOTH, JUST RIGHT FOR HIGH HORSEPOWER HIJINKS

The cast

Nobuhiro ‘Monster’ Tajima

THE eight-time Race to the Sky winner may be 64 years of age, but he still has speed to burn.

A brutally fast 500kW hillclimb special branded as a Toyota ‘Super 86’ helps the Japanese legend with that.

Alister McRae

ALWAYS referred to as “Colin’s little brother” but a successful world rally driver in his own right, and he drives like it. Now based in Perth (Australia), the Scot flowed Possum Bourne’s old Impreza up the hill like gravitydefying syrup.

Tony Quinn

ANOTHER Scot, but this time based on the Gold Coast, makes millions selling dog food and chocolate (but not mixed together); spends it on motor sport, including this race and his twinturbo ‘Ford Focus’.

Steve Riley

ONE of Australia’s leading off-road racers, the 52-year-old is obsessed with this event after finishing second here in 2002 in a Suzuki-engined special. Returns with a 7.0-litre supercharged V8 spaceframe ‘Holden Commodore’ ute.

Brett Hayward

RILEY’S cousin and neighbour, the Leongatha engineer eschews massive power for light weight with his Suzukiengined single-seater.

Two-time Australian hillclimb champion, and that skill shows in Race to the Sky.

Tony Quinn

IN A matter of seconds, a conversation with Tony Quinn can swing wildly from chess to penis size. It’s very much a case of buckle up and hang on for the ride.

Quinn is Scottish by birth, domiciled on the Gold Coast and spends a lot of time in New Zealand. He loves the place. And he loves motor sport, which goes a long way to explaining why the multi-millionaire put his money where his mouth is and backed the return of the Race to the Sky.

“The Kiwis are awesome,” he says. “They’ll take a car and change it just because it can be. Look around, there are 50 to 60 cars and they’re all different. And the punters love that ‘let’s have a crack, let’s have go’ kind of attitude; this is just an exotic example of that.”

Quinn was happy enough with this year’s RTTS to guarantee his backing for the future and predicts big things for the event. “It wouldn’t surprise me if next year we get a whole lot of international guys. That’s the word out there.”

Sebastien Loeb in a Red Bull-backed Peugeot or Citroen? Ken Block in a fire-breathing Ford?

With Quinn involved, don’t bet against it.

exits sideways, Riley dancing on the throttle, trying to find balance. But once they get to the back straight, man and machine shrug the annoying hairpins aside and wind up for the jump a few hundred metres ahead.

Air-time doesn’t worry Riley or this car. It’s all part and parcel of off-road racing. While others had meekly braked and kept wheels on the ground, Riley is still firmly on the gas as he takes off and flies high… and higher as the road drops away. The ute seems to hang for an age before crashing back to earth, front-left first, then the rear end landing and rebounding scarily high as photographers scatter, the course commentator yelling “tie me Kangaroo down, sport!” as the crowd roars its approval.

It cracks the windscreen, and the right-rear rim. And the trim over the driver’s door has fallen down on his head, but Riley’s happy. “It’s great fun; I’m pumped after that jump,” he chuckles. “I think she hit the ground a bit hard. But it’s an off-roader, it’s built for that stuff.”

While Riley takes the honours for sheer brute force, each of the leading contenders has their own style that suits what they’re driving. Hayward was neat as a pin, the piercing high-pitched wail of the multi-valve four marking his progress; Monster looked staccato in slower corners but the 86 clearly had massive grunt and grip to connect the turns; Quinn was hesitant and by his own admission struggled to extract the full potential from his brand new car.

When it came to the main show, McRae proved to be the superstar, harnessing the massive power and traction of the Impreza, moulding the car and each corner into a loving embrace, rather than chopping squarely at them as so many others did. The car would arc from the apex, spraying a beautifully formed stream of dust and gravel as the Scot searched for the next challenge. He was smooth and clearly the fastest in the final run.

“If I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have come back down the hill because the boys did a hell of a lot of work,” smiled the new King of the Mountain. “I know what Possum means to the motor sport community here and to do it in his car is really special.”

Hayward claimed second place, satisfied with a consistently fast weekend, while local crazy Ian Ffitch was third on his 1080cc four-stroke ‘super quad’.

Watching this bloke flick left-right-left, hanging out in the breeze on the way up the mountain, was an awesome sight.

Riley finished ninth, posting his fastest time of the weekend at 9min02sec despite a cracked rear rim causing a slow tyre leak that started to be felt around the 9km mark. But he finished happy.

“This place doesn’t let you down in any way, shape or form,” he says afterwards, a grin plastered onto his face. “It’s a real piece of gear, that hill. It doesn’t fail to deliver.”

Nor do you, Steve.

Now for 2016, some weight loss for that Commodore of yours and a crack at eight minutes.

RILEY ROCKETS INTO VIEW, THE FOUR-WHEEL-DRIVE UTE TEETERING SIDEWAYS ON THE EDGE OF A SHEER DROP BEFORE RIGHTING ITSELF

RILEY IN ACTION

Use the free viewa app and scan this page to see Riley’s 1000hp ute hit the mountain