This weekend, high-performance race cars will roar through the Central North Island at speeds of up to 200km/h on winding, twisting back-country roads.

This year's Targa Rally starts in Rotorua on Friday and finishes in Havelock North on Sunday. The route includes multiple special stages on closed sections of public roads.

The event has two categories. At the head of the pack are full competition, highly modified rally cars piloted by a driver and co-driver. These competitors race against the clock.

The second category is Targa Tour cars which are generally un-modified, high-performance road cars. While also very quick, motorsport safety rules prevent them from racing against the clock. Among the Targa Tour drivers will be Rotorua's Grant Shirley, who has been participating in Targa events since 1996, in his 2016 Ford Focus RS.

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"There's no other time that you can drive a performance car, at speed on lovely country roads. It's just a delight, you see a lot of the country," Shirley says.

"I did Targa South Island last year and that was fantastic, it's not as densely forested, but I really enjoy any of the country stages. I have a farming background and you certainly see some back roads and things you've never seen before."

Rotorua's Grant Shirley will put his driving skills to the test in the Targa Tour.

While the Targa Tour cars are not allowed to reach the same speeds as those in the main event, they can go up to 160km/h, which Shirley says is still fast enough to get the blood pumping.

"On a winding country road, that's pretty quick. The tour is not competitive, you follow a leader and it tends to be the fastest back to the slowest. The emphasis is on enjoying the driving rather than a race.

"I'd recommend it to anyone who enjoys driving cars, and there are some good spots for spectators to have a look too."

He said having a near-new vehicle like his Ford Focus RS was expensive initially but paid off in the long run.

"You can end up spending that much money on an old car constantly fixing it up and as the years go by it's easier to just drive a modern car. It does go exceptionally well and handles very well, it's a joy really."

One of the highlights for Shirley each year was catching up with other like-minded rally enthusiasts.

"There's a lot of camaraderie, it's a social occasion but not a party environment because partying and motorsport don't mix so well. There's a lot of renewed acquaintances and friendships each year."

This year's Targa Rally starts in Rotorua and finishes in Havelock North. Photo / Supplied
This year's Targa Rally starts in Rotorua and finishes in Havelock North. Photo / Supplied

Targa Rally media officer Paul Shanahan said the event was an opportunity for some big names on the rally scene to compete alongside people you may never have heard of.

"The common denominator is the skill they possess, thrill of speed and the sense of achievement when they cross the finish line. In simple terms this is what gives Targa Rally the x-factor. No pace notes, no practice runs, just pedal to the metal driving on special stages of unfamiliar twisting, winding tar-sealed country roads at speeds far in excess of the usual legal limit."

He said every driver had their own entourage and the event would boost the economies of all the towns it visited.

"The drivers have their technical support crews and families and Targa generates a large number of visitors. In an event like this, apart from local volunteers and marshals, there will be over 1000 people involved. They all need to be fed and accommodated along the way, so their contribution to the economies of the regions Targa visits is substantial.

"The event is a travelling road show and we encourage spectators to come along to the service areas and meet the drivers and their crews. They are very willing to share information about their cars and the history behind them."

For more information on the event and best spectator spots, go to Targa.nz

Targa Rally by the numbers
Friday, May 17 to Sunday, May 19 from Rotorua to Havelock North

• 200 cars
• Three days of competition.
• 1200km of driving
• 600km of special stages
• Speeds up to 200km/h