Racing to the finish

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It started with a phone call to racing driver Tony Quinn, a Gold Coast multi-millionaire with a Queenstown holiday home. 

Local petrol-head Grant Aitken was asking him to contribute to a recently-consented motorsport park at Cromwell. 

Scots-born Quinn, a motor-racing sponsor in Australia, says: “I had no idea they were building a track in Cromwell.” 

Aitken – one of the park’s four directors – says: “We approached Tony to see if he was interested in coming in as a 20 per cent partner. 

“He had a look at the whole thing and said, ‘I’m not really interested’. 

“Then he came back to us saying, ‘Look, I wouldn’t even be interested at 52 per cent’. 

“But, in his inimitable Scottish way, he said, ‘But f… it, I’ll buy the lot’,” Aitken recalls.
 
“Within a month, Tony had done his due diligence and he gave us an undertaking that if we sold it to him that he would build it, and he’d build it quickly because we already had the consent in place.” 

The deal was done 12 months ago and now the park – the most comprehensive motorsport facility in New Zealand – is two months from its official opening at Easter. 

Aitken believes Quinn has accelerated 10 years into 10 months. 

“I think we’d have built one track this year, but that would have only been a maybe one-kilometre track with a pup tent at the start-finish line.” 

Quinn won’t confirm speculation that he’s pumped in $20 million. 

“I’ve decided to take a lump of money and put it into this but once it’s spent, that’s it, I’m not spending any more.
“Thank goodness that the guys did eight years of apprenticeship before I got here. 

“To be honest, I couldn’t have been bothered with that, I’d have moved on. 

“It’s the old story, a dictator came in and made it happen – a committee would still have been talking about it.”

Quinn first met Aitken on the motor-racing circuit about 10 years ago – and it wasn’t smooth with Aitken beating him. 

Aitken, who rates Quinn highly, recalls: “He was a bit grumpy then because I dusted him.” 

Quinn’s association with Queens­­town goes back even further. 

In the 1980s, he and his family spent eight years in Whangarei and one in nearby Dargaville. 

“We came to Queenstown once and loved it and said we should buy something down here.” 

Quinn moved to Australia where he and his wife Christine have made a fortune in the pet food business – their four children also occupy senior roles within the company. 

Quinn recalls his Ashburton-based brother-in-law asked him over to give a second opinion on a Queenstown property in Hensman Road. 

“I came across one Easter, took my mum and dad over and I ended up buying the place and my brother-in-law didn’t. 

“We’d come over for a week at a time, but once you’ve done bungy jumping, luge and walking the tracks, you’re looking for some­thing to do.” 

Quinn sold Hensman Rd and bought a $4m property, near Arrow­town, just over two years ago. 

“That was good because we’ve got more grass to cut but after a day you’re still looking for something to do.” 

Thankfully, Aitken’s phone call gave him that “something to do”.

But Quinn also thinks his Highlands Motorsport Park will give Central Otago visitors more options. 

“What I keep saying to people is it’s not a race-track, it’s not that at all, it’s a venue with a race-track.” 

Aside from two or three major race meetings a year, attractions include a newly-opened restaurant/cafe, a motorsport museum honouring past and present leading NZ drivers and a go-kart track. 

Visitors can also buy a ride in a race-car. 

Quinn’s also keen on setting up an academy to identify young driving talent – “so that in five days we can tell a father if he should continue to waste his money on his son or he should buy a set of golf clubs or a tennis racket. 

“Already we’ve been approached by some of the Queenstown helicopter companies that can see an opportunity in helicoptering people up the gorge, giving them a shot in a go-kart, filling them full of wine, then flying them back over Coronet Peak or whatever.” 

Quinn’s very encouraged that 80 founding memberships, at $25,000 a pop, have almost sold out. 

“I actually thought it would take us three years. 

“It needs to be made very clear that I’ve got to pay to be a member, and my youngest son, Klark, he’s going to be a member. 

“There are no free bus rides.”