Legends Series: Rod Millen

By: Ian Adcock, Photography by: Peter Burn

Presented by

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This dare-devil Kiwi has scaled the heights of success

From the archives: First published in Unique Cars issue 292, Nov/Dec 2008 

Rod Millen

For a man who took 40 seconds off the Pike’s Peak hillclimb record the first time he went there in 1994, setting a new time of 10 minutes 4.06 seconds, the gentle slope that meanders across the front of Goodwood House and up a slight incline for all of 1.9km must seem like a Sunday afternoon kindergarten run.

Rod Millen looks you in the eye with a wry smile creasing his tanned face. "Yeah it’s a gentle run, but very high profile and I just love coming here," the New Zealand twang to his accent hardly blunted by his decades living in the USA, now his spiritual home.

This is Rod’s fourth visit to the Festival of Speed in West Sussex, England and, over the years, he has become a firm favourite with the crowds, slinging the fearsome Toyota Celica he developed uniquely for Pike’s Peak with the verve and enthusiasm that belies his age but confirms that the skills which bought him countless rally victories, truck racing championships and numerous other dirt road wins remain undiminished.

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By the end of this year’s Festival of Speed, Rod was third quickest with a time of 46.16 seconds, thundering through the speed trap at 224km/h. To put that in context, second place was taken by sometime F1 jockey, Anthony Reid driving a Williams-Cosworth FW07 in 44.58 seconds (235km/h) whilst fastest of the weekend was Justin Law who hurled the Silk Cut Jaguar XJR8/9 up the hill in a barely credible 44.19 seconds (243km/h).

For a car designed for the wide open spaces of Le Mans – where it had won the classic Group C race just hours before the start of this year’s main race – that takes incredible skill, commitment and bull-sized gonads. But back to Rod…

"I started out in New Zealand doing hillclimbs so it’s kind of interesting being here doing another, so I guess things do go in full circle," he says as we stand chatting in the pits early on the Sunday morning, surrounded by fellow competitors, drivers, mechanics and true enthusiasts who had given up their Sunday morning lie-in to get to Goodwood for 8:30 in the morning.

"With most Kiwis it’s a case of, having made your mark, where do you go next? I went to Australia, which was the first big step, and did the Southern Cross rally in the early-’70s, the RAC rally in the UK and then went to the States where I did a rally programme with Mazda for 15 years in their Pro rally series. I did Daytona 24 hours and some off-road racing for them as well."

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Rod’s links with Mazda came from New Zealand where he won three rally championships for the Japanese marque before an equally successful career in the Asia-Pacific Championships and, eventually, the USA.

Our conversation is interrupted as a racing Mini bursts into life just a few metres away, its mechanic whap, whap, whapping the throttle to warm it up prior to tackling the hill. Equally suddenly he kills the engine and relative peace returns to the paddock although other, less shrill engines are being coaxed into life all around us.

"It was Mazda who wanted me to go to the States, they had just launched the RX7 and wanted to increase their profile as it was going to be the car’s biggest market."

But I sense there was another reason to Rod’s decision. Although he trained as a civil engineer, he has always prepared his own cars, relishing the technical challenges as much as the driving ones.

Back then, the American rally series wasn’t governed by the FIA and the organisers had much more laissez faire attitude to the technical regulations with the result that Rod engineered, developed and competed in a unique four-wheel drive RX7. Such was its effectiveness that, on more than one occasion, he beat the all-conquering Audi Quattro taking a championship along the way. "All the rules and regulations just stifles creativity, they were much more liberal in the States when it came to things like that."

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Although Rod raced a GTP in the Daytona 24-hour race he stayed clear of open wheelers. As he’s obviously a very talented, natural driver I asked why he hadn’t taken what many consider to be the ultimate driving challenge? It doesn’t take him long to form an answer.

"Pretty much open wheel was the only thing I didn’t go after because I didn’t find it as interesting. It was never about going at high speed, I always liked the satisfaction of car control, car balance, and then along with designing and building your own cars. I felt that was very rewarding and that’s the area I wanted to go in, whether that was rally cars, off-road or hillclimb cars, that’s what attracted me to motorsport."

You get the sense that’s what spurred him on to engineer the radical Toyota Celica that blew away the opposition.

Pike’s Peak, like the Indy 500 back in the 1960s, was an American institution ruled by home-brewed drivers and cars. That is until those pesky Brits, in the shape of Jim Clark and Lotus, went and blew the local front-engined cars into the weeds in 1965. And so it was with Pike’s Peak until Audi and then Peugeot appeared with heavily modified versions of their Group B rally cars with all-wheel drive, flame-spitting turbocharged engines and more wings and aerodynamic devices than a squadron of fighter jets, and ran back home with the main prize.

Toyota might be as foreign to the Americans as their European conquerors, but at least they built cars in the States and their driver spoke the same language, even if the accent isn’t quite mid-west. Better that than the guttural Rohrl or monosyllabic Vatanen, or heavens forbid, Mouton’s Bridget Bardot accent.

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Millen’s own team came up with the Celica we’re standing in front of, now shorn of its one piece front shell, whilst his team fettle it for the day’s run and pour some foul smelling liquid into the fuel tank. Rod reveals what it is, but at that very moment the Mini bursts into life again drowning out his words. It probably contained elements like, ‘ethyl’, ‘nitro’ and ‘thenes’.

The Celica’s four-wheel drive system is powered by a modified GTP race engine producing 634kW at the Pike’s Peak start line. "It’s more than that at sea-level but it’s enough for Pike’s Peak because it’s a gravel road and even with four-wheel drive we’re traction limited," Rod tells me with a completely straight face.

"It’s very hard to make the car work on those very slow hairpin corners but still work on the high speed corners as well at very high altitude, and still have good performance. We not only had good performance, engine-wise, four-wheel drive, but also an aerodynamic package that allowed us to take a leap over the competition. That meant we had more corner speed and could match them on the acceleration and traction on the slow corners and carry speed on the high-speed portions."

Rod also built a Pike’s Peak truck, using the same type of engine but boosted with nitro, "so I could use wide open throttle in fourth and fifth gears…"

Nowadays most of Rod’s time is spent managing his own engineering business that produces special vehicles for the American marine corps, amongst others, including hybrids and electric specials. He’s still an important cog in the Toyota machine as well building and developing many of the concept cars the Japanese auto giant displays at motor shows around the world.

He hasn’t lost his appetite for cross-country driving challenges. Last year he drove a Porsche Cayenne in the inaugural Trans-Siberia rally. It almost goes without saying that he won.

That apart, he competes against his sons in the annual Baja 1000, although he declined to tell me how he fares against them. Or, maybe my question was drowned out by that damned Mini and he didn’t hear me?

Name: Rod Millen
Born: 22 March, 1951, New Zealand
Claim to fame: Pike’s Peak record-breaker
Career highlight: No highs, no lows… it was all a wonderful journey
Career lowlight: none so far
Inspiration: Stirling Moss
Favourite quote: Where to next?

 

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