Not more than a few hours to go before the start of the Highlands Festival of Speed, and Highlands Motorsport Park owner Tony Quinn (also a series owner, event promoter, sponsor and race-car driver) is explaining why he invested NZ$25m in a racetrack in Cromwell, Central Otago.
“It wasn’t a business decision,” says Quinn. “Highlands is about leaving a legacy. I did it for selfish reasons. I could own a superyacht, a golf course or an airfield, but I have a racetrack instead.”
Born and raised in Aberdeen, Scotland, Quinn left for Australia in his early 20s. Thirty years later, he and his wife Christina run a business empire that includes VIP Petfoods and Darrell Lea confectionery. They are worth an estimated AU$400million. But Quinn stopped counting a long time ago.
“People tell me what I’m worth, but it’s just a number,” he says. “I don’t want for anything. I’ve got two or three Rolex watches that I never wear. I drive a ute or a truck or a ride-on mower. I just don’t care. I’m equally happy in the pits or at a top restaurant in Sydney, where the conversation usually gravitates to my story, because it’s the most interesting.”
Quinn’s father was a dog whisperer. People saw what he could do with dogs, so they asked what he fed them. That’s how Jim Quinn entered the pet food business. His son worked in the factory from a young age and was a straight-A student without trying too hard, the kind of kid who’d enter a chess tournament without knowing the rules and win it.
Quinn was into cars before he was old enough to drive. His friend Geordie Taylor was a mechanic who raced at the weekend. Quinn put Taylor’s car on the front row of the grid in his very first race and was hooked. In his late teens, he dreamed of racing for a living. One day, an American go-kart champion came to town and blitzed the field in a borrowed car. Realising he wasn’t as fast as he’d thought, Quinn gave up motorsport and focused on making money.
After working for his father, Quinn set up his own signwriting firm, making a small fortune. In search of greater riches, he set off for Australia, but when he landed in Perth and opened the Yellow Pages, he found 12 pages of ads for signwriters. “I mowed lawns instead,” says Quinn. “I did OK, but there were times I cried myself to sleep thinking, ‘What have I done?’”
Perth never felt like home, so Quinn moved to New Zealand and got back into the pet food business. He lived in Dargaville for nine years before winning the contract to supply a supermarket chain in Australia. Quinn relocated to the Gold Coast and made his first million in the late ’90s. His accountant, a fellow motorsport enthusiast, encouraged him to race in Targa Tasmania. Quinn won the Rookie category and was bitten by the motorsport bug once again.
Since then, Quinn has won Targa Tasmania twice and is a five-time winner of Targa New Zealand. He has sponsored V8 drivers and teams since the early 2000s and, in 2011, took charge of the Australian GT Championship. He’s also the owner of the Aussie Racing Cars series, a marquee event at the Festival of Speed.
Tony, his son Kent and son-in-law Kynan Yu are suited up for the first Friday morning practice session. Quinn is second-fastest, but he knows he has home-track advantage and the other drivers will get quicker. This is only his fourth time in an Aussie Racing Car and he’s not expecting to get on the podium. “Don’t go putting money on me,” he says. “I’ll go alright, but I’m a big enoughw–ker without winning too many races.”
When not racing, Quinn’s uniform for the weekend is a Highlands T-shirt, black shorts and Nike trainers. Now 57, with crow’s feet around his eyes and a thick head of hair with just a hint of mullet, he looks more like a volunteer than the boss. But he’s comfortable enough in his own skin not to give a damn what others think – especially not sports administrators.
In 2004, Quinn was fined AU$3,000 by the Confederation of Australian Motor Sport (CAMS) for spinning his car on the track before a Porsche Carrera Cup race. Quinn owned the series (he bought it for AU$50,000 and sold it a few years later for AU$2m) and considered the fine too severe. So he emptied all of the vending machines in his factories and dumped a pile of coins before a CAMS official.
“The message was, ‘If you want to f–k with me, you’ll be beaten. You’re going to be embarrassed. Administrators like to have a crack at people, but the thing is, I enjoy standing up to them. It’s a p–sing contest and I’m a competitive guy.”
Quinn’s comments may sound brash, but his lilting Scottish accent softens the impact of any profanity. He has a self-deprecating sense of humour and a ready smile, but it’s also obvious he’s a man you wouldn’t want to cross in the boardroom.
“I surround myself with good people and leave them to do what they do best,” says Quinn. “But I tell them, ‘Don’t f–k with me. I’m trusting you. If you f–k up, the end will be swift.’”
Josie Spillane is Business Development Manager at Highlands and one of Quinn’s most trusted advisers. “Highlands is such a challenge to anyone’s sense of normal,” she says. “People expected it to fail, but they didn’t know Tony. By no means is he perfect, but he’s incredibly charismatic and creative. He’s like an idiot savant. I could look at a brown square and see a brown square; he would look at it and see a way to make money. That’s an incredible individual to be around.”
Highlands cost Quinn around NZ$25m, but he reckons it would have been 10 times as much if he’d built it anywhere else in the world. “Most people would have employed a team of consultants and engineers and lawyers before they even started building,” he says. “Instead, I made very quick decisions and just got on with it.”
The project took less than a year and opened in March 2013. The 4.5km track is bordered by a pine forest and framed by the Dunstan Mountains. The complex employs more than 40 staff, and facilities include the National Motorsport Museum, 48 garages, 12 pitlane apartments, a restaurant, a technology park, a go-kart track and even a dinosaur safari park.
“Watching racing all day is boring as bats–t, so we’ve got a bus that gives tours of the park,” says Quinn. “This place is as much about tourism as about motorsport. I reckon it has a lifespan of 20 years as a track, then it’ll have to reinvent itself. The sport is changing. My generation used to mess around with cars. Now you lift the bonnet of a car and you’ve no idea what you’re looking at. Modern cars are a means to an end. They’re all the same.”
What’s under the hood may have changed, but crashes still mean work for the mechanic. On the second lap of the second race, Quinn is in seventh when a car spins into his racing line. The impact can be heard in the pitlane and the front of his car is a mess. When he gets back to the pits, Quinn tells his mechanic what happened. “I had nowhere to go,” he says, “but hey, at least it was in front of the crowd on the hill. It would have been a terrible waste if it had happened in the forest where no one could see it.”
Several thousand spectators turn up for the three-day festival, a decent turnout considering ’80s soft-rock legends Foreigner and Heart are playing a concert close by. Quinn’s next project is the relaunch of the iconic Race To The Sky, last held in the Cardrona Valley in 2007. The 2015 event will take place on April 17-19, with a 14.5km course through the Pisa mountain range that makes it the world’s longest gravel hill-climb. He is also in negotiations to buy Taupo Motorsport Park, part of his masterplan to drag New Zealand motor racing out of the doldrums.
“Motorsport is in a bad way in this country,” says Quinn, taking time out ahead of the second of his five races this weekend. “It used to be highly regarded the world over, but I think it’s been abused by the people who run it. I want to help it get back on its feet.”
As Quinn talks, a father and his young son approach to shake his hand. “Thank you for building this, Tony,” says the dad. “It’s fabulous.”
“Mate, that happens all the time,” Quinn explains when they’ve gone. “I ask them to tell me the worst thing about the place. I haven’t had a good answer to that question yet.” He looks over at his car in the pits. “OK, are we done?” he asks. “I’ve got to go and drive a race car.”
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