Since 2013, Highlands Motorsport Park in Cromwell has hosted the cars and stars of the Australian GT Championship at the Highlands 101. It has become one of the highlights of the New Zealand motorsport calendar and Highlands' marquee event celebrates its fifth birthday this year with a new-look format, the aptly named Highlands 501 from November 11-12.
The event at Highlands has earned a reputation as New Zealand's best endurance event and the formula has been replicated successfully at Hampton Downs International Motorsport Park, Highlands sister track in the North Island.
From 2018, Hampton Downs will have exclusive rights to the Australian GTs in New Zealand with Highlands making the decision to host a new event to celebrate Kiwi cars and drivers. So, this year's Highlands 501 is your last chance to see the Australian GTs in the South Island.
"It's been a hell of a journey over the last five years," says Tony Quinn, the owner of Highlands Motorsport Park. "I couldn't count the number of times people told us you can't bring a world class motorsport event to the South Island. I think we've proven over the last five years that it can be done and I'd like to think we've changed the landscape of motorsport in New Zealand along the way."
"We brought back the Le Mans start when people told us it was a crazy idea. We made motorsport accessible again by inviting spectators to do a grid walk and get up close and personal to the cars and drivers just before the start of the race, and we opened up the pits to everyone, not just the corporate guests. It's fair to say we've had some real highlights over the last five years."
The first Highlands 101 was screened in over 80 countries and some of the biggest names in Australasian motorsport have raced in the event including Craig Lowndes, Shane van Gisbergen, Fabian Coulthard, Garth Tander, Craig Baird, Jack Perkins, Greg Murphy, 'Mad Mike' Whiddett and John Bowe. They've delivered some memorable moments on the track with nail biting finishes, fires in the pits, cars flying off the track and into the forest or running out of fuel on the last lap. Highlands has hosted the high-speed Shotover Jet jet boats on the lake and raised the bar when it comes to delivering motorsport entertainment.
"We haven't done it by ourselves," says Quinn. "The competitors, the fans, our partners, our volunteers - we've all been committed to putting on a bigger and better event every year - and the plan for 2018 is for more of the same, except this time with a focus on our homegrown talent."
"Supercars recently announced that having two rounds in New Zealand wasn't out of the question - so who knows - we might celebrate an Australian headline act again at some stage in the future, but 2018 is all about the Kiwis. We want the very best drivers in New Zealand to be given the recognition they deserve and to be part of the Highlands experience."
The details for the November 2018 event will be announced after this year's Highlands 501 which doubles as the finale of the Australian GT's Endurance Championship. The starting grid will feature some of the finest GT production cars in the world including Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Aston Martins, BMWs, and McLarens. With over $22 million worth of cars on the circuit, it promises to be the motor racing event of the year.
The new-look format means that instead of racing 101 laps or just over 400 kilometres around Highlands, this year the GT drivers will battle it out over 501 kilometres. There will be a third pit stop and two driver changes which will mean a change in strategy for the teams. It will also have implications for tyre and fuel strategies making the Highlands 501 a true endurance test.
Two weeks before the Australian GTs come to Highlands they'll race at Hampton Downs outside Auckland in the Laser Plumbing & Electrical Hampton Downs 500. New Zealand drivers in both races, the Hampton Downs 500 and Highlands 501, will be eligible for the inaugural NZ 1001 trophy which will be awarded to the Kiwi driver with the most combined points from the two events.
Of course, it's not all about the racing at Highlands. Crowd favorites remain including the popular take on the famous Le Mans start, grid walks for the fans as well as the introduction of a top-ten shootout. Combine that with the off-circuit entertainment including a free family zone, hop-on hop-off bus, free hot laps and a top notch, safe family environment and Highlands is all set for another sensational weekend of entertainment.