Motorsport: US contenders join Taupo 1000

By Eric Thompson

New Zealand's flagship off-road race - the longest and toughest in the Southern Hemisphere - goes international this weekend with two United States teams signed up for the Taupo 1000.

Ryan Millen, son of expatriate New Zealand motorsport legend Rod Millen, is driving the same Toyota FJ off-road race truck he used for the 39th Baja 1000 last November. He has raced here before, in the 2003-04 Formula Ford championship.

The second US entrants, Team Necessary of Long Beach, California, are driving the same style of truck as the Toyota USA-backed Millen team. The Toyota FJ is a retro-styled SUV based on the popular Prado, using the current Prado chassis and 4-litre V6 engine. Both trucks will race in class two for production four-wheel drives.

It is believed to be the first time an FJ has been seen in New Zealand.

This year's event has attracted 75 entries including Kiwi Tony McCall.

McCall, looking for a record third win, has his name on an enviable number of other trophies - including five Woodhill 100 wins and a bunch of national titles - and has no intention of resting on his laurels.

"It's a huge challenge, because it rewards the driver with the best strategy, and that is not necessarily the best driver or the best car - or even the fastest driver or car," said McCall.

"If you go out too hard on the first day you risk damaging your car to the point where it fails the next day. If you are too cautious and someone else has a sweet run through the first day you risk being left behind."

The Manukau driver has some stiff competition: four international teams, previous enduro winners and 19 other class-one entries.

One of McCall's key rivals is Nelson's Neville Basalaj, driving an American-built Jimco Chev. Basalaj has been working to improve the speed of the Jimco since buying it last year.

Race director Tony Saelman says the Taupo course is unlike any in the US, where most racing is held in dry desert areas. The race is held over two days, with up to 500km to be completed each day by the leaders in nine 57km laps. This year's event marks the first use of electronic transponders for lap scoring in an off-road race.

The course switches from 175km/h logging roads to 17km/h mud bogs and wash-outs, with frost likely in sheltered areas and scoria-based soils wearing out tyres faster.

Former Taupo winners Clim Lammers, Melvin Rouse and Alan Butler have also entered the event.

Butler, whose car is almost identical to McCall's Cougar, runs in class three and has a Toyota twin-cam engine instead of the big Porsche flat-four used by McCall.

Andrew Hawkeswood, better known for his fastest-Kiwi performances in a purpose-built Mitsubishi Evo race car at the iconic Silverstone Race to the Sky, is finding driving a two-wheel-drive challenging.

"This is the longest, hardest race in the Southern Hemisphere," said McCall. "It all happens over one weekend, and you can't hide away in an obscure class or a sub-national or regional race series and take the win. You have to front up to win."

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