By Pete McNae
You’d go a long way to find someone who loves production saloons more than Dave Leitch. The proddies have heard every jibe about being a “hot dog class”, the one whose races you skip for a mid-meeting feed, but Nelson retiree Leitch is adamant we are all missing the point.
He speaks from experience, a lot of experience. Leitch will turn 74 in a couple of weeks (putting him right near the top of the list of oldest active competitors in the country) and has spent almost half his life building and racing production saloons. Ahead of Saturday’s Donaldson Civil South Island championship for the class at the Milestone Homes Top of the South Speedway, Leitch is happy to pump up the production saloons’ tyres.
“We operate with a low profile, we don’t get the promotion, we don’t get the write ups — I’m not having a dig here — we get the worst of the track prep. We know where we sit on the ladder but productions open the door to speedway, we are the most affordable motorsport you’ll find,” says Leitch.
The former Seeka Panel and Parts operator (he sold the business to colleague Rob Jefcoate and has retired with wife, Ann, to a “life sentence block” in Brightwater) raced saloons in Nelson well before there were super saloons, A grade and limited saloons, production saloons and hobby grades. They were just saloons, if they looked like a road car, whether it was a Commodore, Escort or RX7, you raced together. But with costs spiralling, even back in the 1980s, Leitch and Mike Inwood helped draft up a set of rules for production saloon racing in the South Island based on what was already starting to happen across the strait. The platform was to use freely available road cars (the wave of second-hand imports was yet to reach New Zealand) and keep them as stock as possible to limit costs. They would be stripped and caged for the race car experience but the clue was in the word “production”.
“That was back in 1986. Mike and I took the idea to the Nelson club and we are still here, although sometimes we have had to fight to stay here,” Leitch said.
With his parts background, Leitch has always built his own cars and estimates that he’s built 30 of them over the years, for himself, local drivers and others in Blenheim or down the Coast. The ability to engineer and paint them himself has kept the cost to a minimum, something that the driver nicknamed Grey Power by former track announcer David Birdling says is the basis of the class.
His current Peugeot was purchased in Tauranga for $1700 and driven home to Nelson before Leitch sold parts to fund the build to folk with road-going Peugeots. He thinks the end sum for his race-winning car is about $1500. “It’s that cheap because I do the whole lot myself but that price isn’t unusual, that is why we are going through a bit of turmoil now with Speedway NZ looking to change the rules — the costs will go through the roof.”
There’s a proposal to “retire” cars once they are more than 20 years old to enhance the look of the class with more modern, recognisable road cars. A few of the Nelson class would fall on the wrong side of the line and Leitch isn’t happy.
“If drivers come in with $30,000 cars, it’s all over as far as I see it. There’s nothing stopping anyone running a modern car, but it’s meant to be a budget class — THE budget class — and ruling out half a field takes the chance to get involved in speedway out of the reach of a lot of people. In my mind, we never needed to be a national class with a New Zealand championship and official titles, we were happy racing as a regional class and looking after ourselves but that horse has already bolted.”
Hence the South Island title meeting this weekend. There’s a healthy entry list and Leitch is hoping that, being the “feature” promotion, the productions will get some love from the track preparation crew. Often the first class out for a meeting, they get a wet surface, which can lead to carnage on road tyres, a class characteristic that the Nelson group are trying to leave in the past. Leitch said that, two or three seasons back, every meeting ended with wrecked machinery from over-driving on dodgy tracks with standard rubber. It was eating into class numbers and has been addressed and, largely, remedied.
“None of us want to be continually rebuilding,” He said. “I’ve been as guilty as any of pushing in the past but we are looking to clean up that side. The referees need to stay on top of it although I’m hoping they let us run on a dry track, given that it is our championship, it will keep some of the damage in check.”
There’s a group of three Nelson drivers; Leitch, Pam Nixon and Geoff Watson, who have had a few more birthdays than their classmates and the trio have buddied up in recent seasons, pitting together, travelling together and sharing rental homes when they race away from Nelson. That camaraderie has extended out to some of the younger competitors, the likes of the CZ Motorsport team of Zoe Connolly and Cam Lankshear, and there is now an organised online presence for the class locally and across the South Island. Leitch, who has his heart firmly on the sleeve of his race suit, says the future for the class is to be inclusive. Linked to that is the fact that all the Nelson drivers pool their prizemoney at local meetings and each takes home an equal share. You may get the glory of the flag, but financially, everyone is an equal.
“We are looking at having two or three cars available for people to buy a day licence and have a go,” he said. “It’s infectious and it really is cheap. I have more invested in my race gear, black box (lap scoring transmitter) and race radio than the car owes me. And I love being the old guy they come to for advice — I don’t tell them everything though, or they will beat me!”
After entering the sport here in 1981 and missing a couple of seasons only when his late wife took ill and passed away, Leitch has plenty to look back on. He’s built some oddball cars, a Fiat was a lemon but the Honda CRX that went to the Harwood family and got brothers Carey and Shane started was his favourite, he’s made many great mates, he’s still winning races and occasionally hitting the wall (he did both at the last Nelson meeting) but his crowning achievement remains being made a life member of the Nelson Speedway Association. “I was lost for words, it’s been my life, this club, and that was an honour that goes past any race win or title.”
- Dave Leitch has been supported “from day dot” by DesignArt Signs, Preston Brunell at Stoke Mechanical and Rob’s Garage in Quarantine Rd. Wife Ann and grandson Liam help out on race night.
- Other promotions on Saturday, alongside the Donaldson Civil South Island production saloons are the annual demolition derby, the stockcar open club champs, streetstock best pairs and round two of both the sidecar and TQ club champs. The youth ministock class has also been called in. Racing is from 6pm.
Photos by Rebecca Connor Maling, BM Photography