Jim Kayes: PJ Johnston is a hard man to stop

Life is set to come full circle for Peter 'PJ' Johnston.

The return of the World Rally Championship to New Zealand next year for the first time since 2012 has deeply personal connection for Johnston, chairman of Rally New Zealand 2020.

In 1969 his father, Reg, drove in the inaugural Rally of New Zealand, finishing ninth in an event the then-14-year-old Peter recalls vividly.

He also remembers acting as navigator for his Dad in car trialling - a precursor to the rally that was a bit like orienteering but in a car.

“It was an iconic New Zealand motor sport event that we’d had for so long,” Johnston says of the New Zealand leg of the World Rally.

“That was lost to us, and I wanted it back.”

It was lost because other, richer countries bid for the event and where the money is, sports follow.

Just look at Formula 1 and boxing, who happily stage events in countries with dubious human rights records but can pay in oil-fuelled dollars.

But the world’s rally drivers have always wanted to race in New Zealand where the courses are regarded as some of the best in the world.

The details of where the various stages will be held this time are not confirmed, but the iconic stages around Raglan’s coast, north of Auckland and in the south east of the city are sure to feature again.

So too will a harbour-front special stage, and there are plans for stadium racing too as the revamped New Zealand event looks to bring fans closer than ever to the action.

Already more than 120 drivers have said they want to compete and with the field likely to be capped at 100 some of the best in the world will be on show, including about 30 who are regulars on the WRC.

“I know the drivers wanted to come back to New Zealand because we have the best rally roads in the world,” Johnston said.

But desire only gets you so far. Cold cash is needed and Johnston kicked off the fundraising with a gala event in Auckland in 2016 that raised $250,000.

He gave $50k to New Zealand Motor Sport’s elite academy and kept the rest as seed money for the bid to get the WRC back to New Zealand. He has backing from Ateed, Auckland’s tourism and events agency, and has seven underwriters.

Sponsors - and especially a naming rights sponsor, have either been confirmed or are not far from putting pen to paper with details set to be revealed in February.

It will cost about $4.5 million to run the event with a full-time staff of 10 and about 1800 volunteers needed. And while the rally isn’t until September, there is plenty to do and not much time to do it.

In the corner of Johnston’s office at his car dealership in Penrose is a white board crammed with lists of what needs to be done in the next six weeks.

Christmas and New Years will flash past as he looks to confirm the naming rights sponsors, a broadcasting deal, hotels, routes and much more.

“We are flat out,” he says. “About 75 percent of my life is involved in this event. We have a whole lot of dynamics and events within the event to organise.”

Johnston, 64, has liked cars since he first popped the clutch on a tractor on the family’s Matamata dairy farm aged, he reckons, about six.

It wasn’t long till he was driving trucks and bulldozers around the farm too and he quickly followed his father into racing, joining the Hamilton Car Club and racing in the Targa rallies.

“I have a passion for historic group B rally cars,” he says, reaching for a framed photo of several on the wall behind him that he’s driven including a Peugeot 205 T16, MG Metro 6R4and a Ford RS200.

A successful businessman who owned his first panel and paint shop in Hamilton aged just 21 before moving into car sales, Johnston has given back to the sport he loves.

Max Irwin was the first driver he sponsored, and then Irwin asked him to help Kim Austin, who Johnston drove with in a couple of rallies.

But it was his support for a young Scott Dixon that is clearly his greatest source of pride.

There’s a photo in his office of Dixon after he won the Indy 500 in 2008 and a glory wall in the dealership dedicated to Dixon who has won the IndyCar Championship five times and is the most successful active driver and third best in history.

Johnston - PJ to anyone who has spent just a few minutes with him - established a management company that first took Dixon to Australia and then to the USA.

As Dixon became successful he paid the company back and that money was used to help Brendon Hartley make it to Formula 1, though he is now driving in Formula E (the electric car series).

Now there are other young drivers benefitting from the “pay it forward” mentality that is also driving Johnston’s passion for the return of the World Rally Championship to New Zealand.

He knows it’s what his father, who died a few months ago, would want.

“My emotional involvement through my family and early years in motor sport triggered me to make this event happen again,” Johnston says.

“I can’t see us being on a regular rotation but I can see it being here every five years if we’re lucky.”

Luck, though, will have little to do with it if Johnston achieves what he plans to achieve.

“My goal is for New Zealand to be the best event on the World Rally calendar for 2020.”

Once he’s popped the clutch, PJ’s a hard man to stop.

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