new zealand's highlands motorsport park
high octane down under
You might not think of New Zealand as a motorsporting nation. A new track in the country's beautiful South island is changing things though. Jonathan Crouch paid it a visit
Motor racing tracks are usually bleak, unappealing places, typically windswept ex-airfields frequented by die-hard enthusiasts. Not the sort of thing you expect to find in one of the most naturally beautiful places on earth, New Zealand's scenic South island. Yet that's exactly where you must now go to find the most southerly international standard racetrack in the Southern hemisphere, the Highlands Motorsport Park.
Imagine a place you could drive your high performance roadcar to the limit, challenging yourself around a 4.1km circuit with classic corners from some of the world's greatest racetracks. A facility where your machine could be stored, garaged and fettled in your absence. You could even have an apartment above your own pit garage. And here's a place with much more too. A karting track for challenging your friends, an oval speedway for high speed drifting action and a dirt buggy off road track. There's even the possibility of getting out onto the glassy lake that surrounds the track, a stretch of water where the uniquely Kiwi sport of jetboating sees converted speedboats fitted with big V8 engines that can reach eye-watering speeds.
In the evening, your dream can continue. The complex has its own winery and world class restaurant. There's even a museum where you can reminisce around an array of classic road and racing cars. And everything is all laid out against a backdrop of snow-capped Alpine mountain scenery, reminding you that just half an hour away lies the Central Otago region's tourist capital of Queenstown with its easy access to world-standard ski slopes. You can fly there from Auckland in around an hour and a half. Which means that once you've made it to New Zealand, Highlands is very easy to get to.
"Where wealthy supercar owners live out their dreams....
It's all been the brainchild of Scottish-born Australian entrepreneur Tony Quinn, who made his fortune Down Under in Western Australia in petfood and chocolate but has been a lifelong motorsport enthusiast. A family holiday home in Queenstown brought him into contact with a group of members from the region's car club who had a long-term vision for a permanent circuit and a patch of land for it to be built upon near the town of Cromwell near the start of the Kawarau Gorge. Their plan was for a circuit that would not only host race meetings but also be a sort of 'golf club' for cars. Something people could join, giving them access to a track on which they could properly enjoy the performance of their vehicles.
Which is exactly what's been created at Highlands, opened in the Easter of 2013. GT Membership enables wealthy supercar owners to lives their dreams. Selected international race meetings on the FIA-approved circuit spread the word on what's on offer. And tourism is a growing part of the Motorsport Park's day to day operations. The Porsche Cayenne Turbo 'Highlands Taxi' offers a flying lap of the track at speeds of up to 200kmh and if that's not fast enough, visitors can sign up for even faster laps in either a race-prepared Porsche 911 GT3, a brawny Australian V8 super saloon or even a Lamborghini Superleggera. Want to drive yourself? You can do that too, with prior instruction in the perfect starter car, a rorty little Suzuki Swift Sport.
One of the advantages of Highlands is its situation. The Central Otago region surroundings are not only breathtakingly beautiful but also plenty of other ways of petrol thrill-seekers to complete the trip of a lifetime. Once I'd tried the track and seen off the competition on the kart track, I headed over to Shotover Jet, a jetboat operation on the Shotover river just a few minutes from Queenstown. The ride's short, wet - and very memorable as you power up the fast-flowing mountain stream just inches from the sheer rocking walls that surround it. And you can't leave the area without an ariel perspective on its breathtaking beauty. We tried a short scenic flight with Wanaka Helicopters that showed the Alpine countryside in all its beauty. Both these things are crucial keys to an exciting Queenstown area visit.
But for driving enthusiasts, the Highlands Motorsport Park will be the real draw. If you love your cars, your skiing, your scenery and your high octane thrills and you've never visited New Zealand, you need to start planning a trip.
NEW ZEALAND SOUTH ISLAND HIGHLANDS MOTORSPORT PARK
NEED TO KNOW
Where?: Cromwell, nr Queenstown, New Zealand
Other key thrill trips in the region:
- Shotover Jet - jetboating trips - www.shotoverjet.co.nz
- Scenic flights with Wanaka Helicopters - www.wanakahelicopters.co.nz