South Island Track Tour (SITT)- the preview (Part 1 of 3)

Crown range 993

Four tracks, ten days, 2,800 kms of touring and a recently purchased Porsche 993… Nothing like jumping straight into it! Our trip would involve a ferry from Wellington to Picton, drive down the ruggered West Cost to Queenstown. Then to Invercargill and track one- Teretonga. Back to Queenstown for a visit to Cromwell and the amazing Highlands Park. A run through the MacKenzie County to Timaru and Levels Raceway. Finally up to Christchurch and track four- Ruapuna, before a mercy dash up the East Coast through Kaikoura to meet the ferry again in Picton. Phew, it was going to be epic! We had a great crew to convoy with- a E36 BMW M3, Porsche 996 Mark1 GT3 and a Porsche 993RS. We would then meet up with the rest of the cars on the tour- organised by Playday on Track. The track days would be run in three groups- slow, fast and Prestige. Designed so that people could drive to their ability or pace of their car. They ranged from Fiat 175 coupes, Toyota Celica GT4’s through to a Nissan R35 GTR, BMW F10 M5, track based single seat Juno’s and an AC Cobra.

A stunning day greeted us for our 3 hour ferry crossing to Picton. The sea was as about as calm as you’d ever experience in the often rolling Cook Strait. The cars tucked up in the hold were a sight out of the ordinary from the usual camper vans and trucks. Into Picton and motel number one. A steak dinner and couple of beers was just the ticket for a nights rest before along drive the next day- just shy of 11 hours and 900kms according to the GPS to Queenstown.

Wharf RSWharf   Ferry loadingFerry view

6am was a rude awakening, especially as my sleep was disrupted by freight trains rumbling past our room and my dads best impersonation of a freight train with his snoring! Still, nothing quite wakes you up fresh in the morning than the sight of a 993 RS’s wing at sunrise. Fuelled up we were off. The first hour was straight roads dividing up wine country. That quickly changed with the turn onto State Highway 6 and some flowing, sweeping corners. The South Island roads we really starting to live up to their reputations. Rolling into Hokitika and to Franz Joseph Glacier the scenery was certainly a match for the roads and cars and a feast for the eyes.

6am set offStop sign Bridge crossingRoad ahead

The other 911s were owned by the same guy. A generous man that shares his love for cars with anyone that’s interested. He’s always the last to leave the track, buzzing the spectator viewing walls as fast as he can. It’s his fault I love Porsche’s so much. He introduced me. The first Porsche I drove was this same RS- in a wet car park where he coached me to do donuts and even let me borrow the car for my senior formal as a 17 year old! He’s raced Porsche’s for 20 years and the the first one I bought was a 944 from him- made up of all the good bits from spare parts for his race car. He’s incredibly knowledgeable so I jumped from my standard 993 into the 993RS for a straight comparison- ‘chalk and cheese’ is the phrase that comes to mind. The RS is everything enhanced as you’d expect being the homoligation special for Cup Car racing… Immediately the seating position is lower, the bucket seats hug you and the interior stripped out. Fire it up and the exhaust is intoxicating. Honestly with the two cars parked side by side you can’t even tell my car is running! The deep rumble of an aircooled 911 is unmistakable. The clutch has a fine bite point and the shift is much tighter thanks to a close ratio box. There’s a lot more feel in the steering and it teaches you how to drive a 911 properly… slow in, squeeze the throttle to make the back end sit and get the traction out of the corner- and reinforces the golden rule- never lift!! Being that much lighter and having a 3.8 litre as opposed to 3.6 litre (300 bhp vs. 285 bhp) in my car it has more immediacy on the power. Overtaking in sixth gear was a doddle whereas sometimes my car would need a lower cog. Should this all really be a surprise, no, not really. The RS is widely regarded as the best 911 ever built and as air cooled Pcar prices rocket the RS fetches easily six times what my car would be worth. Still, experiencing it first hand again with my car was pretty special.

GT3 bridge crossing

Fuel stop number two we found that petrol stations were going to be our second home… Fox Glacier to Haast was wind swept, rugged and pretty wild running along the coast. The turn inland up the Haast Pass was spectacular to say the least. Shocking as it is, I’d never done this drive before despite growing up in NZ. You always seem to explore the rest of the world before your on backyard. The road follows the Haast River and the mountains tower skyward- real Lord of the Rings picture postcard territory.Haast riverI must say though, being outside of the tourist season, the road works were horrendous! The amount of unmanned sites full of shingle and rocks was shocking. Lesson learned- don’t follow in close convoy with sticky tires. My front bumper was bruised and battered, fog lights lenses cracked and windscreen pitted being quite upright. But boy it was fun! The road tightened up and gradient increased on the climb to Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea.Lake Wanaka GT3 panorama

Here my comparative lack of horsepower started to show. The GT3 is a weapon with 360bhp on the road. We were two up, full of gear and my soggy standard suspension was bottoming out on the hard turns. Before the trip I’d swapped my 17 inch Cup Two wheels off so some 18 inch 997’s with Bridgestone Potenza RE55S so the extra stiffness was noticeable and extra grip addictive. After driving the RS thoughts of modifying the car started creeping into my mind- first suspension then an exhaust and a Steve Wong chip for some extra power… the slippery slope for more! Still, the drive was an utter joy. I was falling more and more in love with my car. The gearbox is 170,000 km old but it’s such an involving, mechanical drive, changing manually and with no nanny computers interfering with traction.

It was a great drive into Wanaka. The run into Queenstown has one of the best driving roads in NZ- the Crown Range. I’d driven it one before in a rather expensive Italian 6-speed vehicle before- a Fiat Ducato camper van! So I was looking forward to it in something a bit more suitable (I’d ignored the “Not suitable for large vehicles” sign the first time to be rewarded with alarms and the smell of cooked brakes). Sunset was greeting us at the top of the range for a photo shoot of the cars lined up. Down the other side and into the underground car park at the hotel in town the cars were parked up dirty, bug splattered, stone chipped and ticking themselves cool. They had served us well and it was an amazing adrenaline fuelled start to the trip. All arrived in one piece, no speeding tickets and in time for dinner. Success. Day one- complete.

Crown ranges

Hotel carpark

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