Night Fever gripped Southern Lights Rally

A generation after the last rally championship event took place on New Zealand’s southernmost roads, the nighttime stages of the Transport World Southern Lights Rally captivated participants and spectators alike.

Insights gathered from four individuals: veteran photographer Euan Cameron, new generation photographer Tayler Burke, Rayonier Matariki Forests’ Hamish Fitzgerald, and Janet, a first-time spectator, have all been gathered to get an understanding of just how it went.

Euan Cameron, recalling his last visit to the Pebbly Hills junction at night, provided a grounded perspective based on his extensive experience in what many consider the heyday of rallying in New Zealand.

“2003, I think, was the last time I was at that location,” begins Cameron. “It was pretty loose back then. There was tape, and spectators stood behind it. This time, with the new requirements, it was much, much better organised. Along with the barriers for spectators, we could be photographing on the inside where the bank was raised above the road, well within the MSNZ requirements. Having the lights was a huge bonus. In the past, if the TV crew were there, we’d have lights until they packed up, so I’d have to use a powerful flash—that’s what you had to do.”

Cameron praised the decision to charge $10 and the addition of a coffee cart and food, which he saw as significant improvements. When asked if he detected excitement from the spectators, he responded swiftly: “Heck yes. You could see the excitement and anticipation of the people that turned up. I’d guess somewhere between 500 and 1,000 people—maybe more.

Molly Taylor in action at night.

“The vibe amongst the crowd was still there as we walked out. It was quite noticeable. We overheard one woman telling her husband how much she enjoyed it, even more than spectating during the day.

“The anticipation of the rally with its faster cars and Hayden at the front of the field was a big drawcard. The cars are faster and a lot more spectacular than they were the last time people saw them.”

Tayler Burke, a MotorSport New Zealand award-winning photographer and a first-timer at a night stage, had a unique take on the experience. Arriving well ahead of the first car driven by Hayden Paddon, he noticed the crowd grow from three-deep to 8-9 deep at its peak.

“It was hard to know if there was going to be a crowd or not, but when I got there, I was pretty impressed by the cars down the road—it was wild. The one big thing was a lot of kids there, a lot of youth—which was cool. Bringing new people into the sport. 

“Having the lights made it a cool point to watch from because you could actually see more than just blinding lights of the cars.”

Burke faced a tough decision on whether to use a camera flash or not. Despite the light tower, it was still a difficult choice. “Flash photography is quite new to me and difficult to get my head around, so I decided not to use flash. Then I felt the pressure of seeing others with a full studio flash setup.

“Once I got my shot of Hayden out of the way, I dove into the forest to get a picture of Emma and got a cool shot of her exiting with the brake rotors red hot. Then I went further back into the trees to capture crowd and trees photos—to see what I could do.

Emma Gilmour’s glowing brake discs were clear for all to see.

“It was a cool night—I loved it; it was awesome. While it was really challenging, it was really rewarding at the same time. When you look at the photos at the end of the weekend with the night aspect in there, it was more interesting to capture all the stages of light levels.”

Rayonier Matariki Forests’ Hamish Fitzgerald added, “There was a really positive atmosphere as we walked into Pebbly Hills, a bit like the buzz of anticipation before a big footy match, with a group of us power walking to get to the vantage point before Hayden Paddon roared past.

“It was fantastic to see hundreds of Southlanders supporting the event and enjoying the environment that people in the forestry industry are lucky enough to work in each day. It was brilliant to see all of the kids there too, many of them taken along by their parents who had gone along themselves as kids in the 90s and early 2000s.

“This was an extremely well-organised and professionally run event. I’ve since had a number of people ask me when the rally will next be run in Southland, which is pretty solid evidence that it was a great night out. Hopefully, we’ll see the Southern Lights Rally back in the Deep South again before too long.”

Invercargill local Janet, a first-time spectator, was pleased the weather had done its bit: “It was a bloody good night. Wasn’t too cold, still, and a full moon. I’ve never been to a rally before – it was an experience that I didn’t want to miss.

“That drive out there in the dark and then you see the bright lights – it was an adventure you don’t see down here these days. I’d definitely go again, and I know my husband would be there too.

“We then followed the rest of the rally on Facebook, which was cool, that was something else I could share with others.”

The Friday night stage was a clear win from the spectator’s perspective, highlighting the key ingredients that make the sport accessible and entertaining for those on the sidelines.

From the competitor’s perspective, those spoken to at the end of the stage were all in favour and rose to the challenge. The sense and spark of adventure in a night rally stage seem to be exactly what today’s world is craving.

As the organisers R2G look ahead to September’s Daybreaker Rally, the plan is to include a little more of what has worked well at Southern Lights 2024.

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