Driven man – the Tony Quinn story

Driven man – the Tony Quinn story

Story Ross MacKay, photos Alex Mitchell

Motor racing has been good to Tony Quinn. So Quinn - the high profile entrepreneur and racer best known here for winning five Targa NZ events and turning Highlands Motorsport Park from dream to reality in under two years - is returning the favour.

Since adding Hampton Downs to his circuit stable late last year, the 58-year-old Scot signed off the long-planned first floor additions to the pit building in time for the two New Zealand Festival of Motor Racing meetings in January, and says that the second “club” circuit and extension to the main one will be completed by April.

In July he will officially launch a New Zealand version of the successful half-scale Aussie Racing Car series, and over the October 29-30 weekend will effectively re-launch the new-look Hampton Downs circuit and complex, which by that stage will include a family-friendly makeover of the current pit-side pavilion, new exhibition centre/museum building, members' club garage compound and hire kart track, at an all-new Hampton Downs 101 meeting.

Not only will that meeting host the penultimate round of the Australian GT Championship's inaugural endurance series and the penultimate round of the 2016 Aussie Racing Cars series, it will also kick start an incredible three weekend triple treat for motorsport fans on this side of the Tasman.

The weekend after (Nov 5/6), nearby Pukekohe Park Raceway hosts both the penultimate round of the V8 Supercar championship and the final round of the Australian Aussie Racing Car series, as well as the opening round of a new 2016/17 New Zealand Aussie Racing Car series plus a special Australia/NZ Aussie Racing Car challenge event.

Then, over the November 12/13 weekend both the Australian GT sprint and Australian GT endurance series will be decided at the final round at the Highlands 101 meeting at Highlands Motorsport Park.

And that's just circuits, cars and categories.

A helping hand
Quinn – still nominally based in Yatala on Australia's Gold Coast, but spending more and more time here – is also putting the finishing touches to a plan to set up a fund, which he likens to the Driver to Europe one of old, to help promising young racing drivers from New Zealand competing here and on the world stage.

Oh, and he hasn’t given up on the idea of owning another circuit (here or Australia, he's not fussy) despite recent overtures being rejected by the shareholders of the Taupo track and the owner of Queensland International Raceway.

So why is he doing it?

The simple answer is because the cut and thrust of business – be it on or off the track – is in his blood.

"I was reasonably smart at school and was going to be an architect, but after I left school," Quinn tells me between races at the second Festival of Motor Racing meeting at Hampton Downs, "Dad took seriously ill and I ended up managing his pet food factory for 20 quid a week when my mates were earning seven doing what they were doing. Then I got the opportunity to start my own business and my profit after the first week of doing that was 132 quid.

"So that was it, I never looked back, I was in business."

First in rendering (processing waste animal products) then sign-writing in Aberdeen in Scotland's north-east coast and – on emigrating to Perth in Australia with wife Christina and the first two of their four children Kelda and Kent – mowing lawns.

Early links with NZ
Quinn's links to New Zealand actually go back to this time, the family spending nine years here, the first in Dargaville, the other eight in Whangarei, after a move from Perth saw a return to rendering and – athough it was something he swore he would never do – pet food. 

In fact it was only after he was offered the opportunity to produce pet food for stores in Australia that he and his family moved again, this time to Yatala, where they started the company Quinn is now best known for, V.I.P Petfoods.

It was as he successfully built that business that an early interest in motorsport in Scotland was rekindled.

As a teenager Quinn had shown raw speed and flair, first in a Ford Escort in club events, then an ageing Merlin Formula Ford. He even shipped out a second Formula Ford, a later model Hawke, when he emigrated to Perth, but only used it once at Barbagallo before selling it to focus on work and family.

Ironically, the catalyst for his return was his accountant, who suggested Quinn join him in a two-car team in Targa Tasmania. The car, a BMW, was nothing special, but Quinn won his class and was named event rookie of the year.

That reignited the fire, and having watched Jim Richards dominate the event in a Porsche, that's what Quinn bought for a full-on assault on the next Tasmanian event.

That initial connection with Porsche also introduced him to motorsport sponsorship, something – as a businessman as much as a competitor – he found surprisingly successful, not to mention cost-effective as he built the V.I.P brand.

The connection also led to Quinn's first foray into category ownership, in this case of Australia's Carrera Cup series. Initially it was with some fellow racers, then with long-time manager, the late Jamey Blaikie.

After several successful years Quinn on-sold the company that owned the series at some profit, prompting him to quip that he was one of only three people in history to actually make money (rather than lose it) out of motor racing, the other two being Bernie Ecclestone (F1) and Tony Cochrane (V8 Supercars).

Having developed a taste for it, it wasn't long either, before Quinn was back in the saddle both of a car and a series, the offer of an Aston Martin GT3 car and eventually the chance to buy the Australian GT Championship, too good to turn down. As, more recently, was the opportunity to buy and put his stamp on the Aussie Racing Cars business and series.

Runaway success
With its exotic, marque-based grids and parity-based format, the GT Championship has been a runaway success across the Tasman. And with the final two rounds of the 2016 endurance series at Hampton Downs and Highlands, and the final round of the sprint one at Highlands, they have the ability to give fans here a glimpse of international GT3 class sports car racing at its best. 

At the other end of the scale, with their proven parity-based underpinnings and sponsor-friendly promotion opportunities (including a choice of silhouette-style slip-on fibreglass bodies) the Aussie Racing Cars category has the ability to bridge a gap – more a gulf really – that currently exists in this country between karts and the various full-size tin-top categories.

With complementary series on both sides of the Tasman there will also be the opportunity for ambitious young Kiwis to showcase their talents in Australia. Or even further afield if they are good enough to earn support from Quinn's planned young driver support programme.

The recent success on the world stage of young Kiwis Brendon Hartley (co-winner of the 2015 World Sportscar Championship), Earl Bamber (co-winner of the 2015 Le Mans 24 Hour race), Mitch Evans (former World GP3 class champion) and Hayden Paddon (now a fully-fledged works WRC driver for Hyundai) disguises the fact. But Quinn knows full well just how hard it is for young New Zealanders to compete, let alone excel, overseas.

He also knows how much cold, hard cash the likes of Sir Colin Giltrap and Peter 'PJ" Johnston have put up to help drivers such as Scott Dixon get to where he is today.

"And that," he says," has to stop. I know all about the Scott Dixons, the Richie Stanaways and the Mitch Evans of this world, and I know how much Sir Colin and PJ have put into these people, and I can tell you we have to stop leaning on these two guys because they have done enough, they have done more than their fair share.

"What I have seen is the pleasure that some of the people who are members of Highlands have derived from supporting Hayden Paddon, so what I want to do is set up a system where people like the members from Highlands and Hamptons can invest in a totally independent fund that is adjudicated by a trust.

"The idea would be that members could invest in a trust and if it was successful they would get their money back. If not, then at least they would have enjoyed the journey.

"I personally pledge to put up $1-million over 20 years, which is $50,000 a year, and if I can get 400 of my members to put up $500 a year each, that's another $200,000 a year. I've also had approaches from some major corporations which have heard about the idea and want to contribute dollar for dollar."

Having sold a majority share in V.I.P Petfoods last year for an estimated $AUS41- million you could excuse Quinn for kicking back and taking a well-earned break from the business and racing worlds.

But no – he is both busier and happier than ever.

"I've got 10 active businesses and nothing I have ever done has been for the money," he says with feeling. "I don’t care about money, I am sure I have got enough. It's more about living life and doing something worthwhile, something that makes a difference, with that money."

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