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Co-driver ditches onion fields for gravel roads

For six months of the year, Samantha Gray is immersed in onions. For the other six months, her head is in a swirl of dust, gravel and road maps.

In her paid job, Gray is an onion agronomist – which is probably best explained as a ‘crop doctor’. In summer, she walks through 30 paddocks of onions in Timaru, ensuring they’re growing well and predicting how many will be harvested.

This season, she’s watched over a healthy crop of 40,000 onions, with most of them sent off to Europe in the last few weeks.

But in her spare time in the winter, 24-year-old Gray hits the back roads, calling the shots as one of the country’s top young rally co-drivers.

This week Gray takes a break from the onion factory and heads north to Whangarei, to prepare for the race of her career – co-driving for New Zealand’s No. 1 rally driver, Hayden Paddon.

Telling the former World Rally Championship (WRC) driver where to go, and how quick to get there, is a huge opportunity for Gray, and one she intends to make the most of.

“I’m using this opportunity to elevate my career. I want to co-drive overseas,” she says.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s with Hayden or someone else - though ultimately it would be pretty cool to sit in a car with a Kiwi.”

Paddon invited Gray to navigate for him in the International Rally of Whangarei, which begins on Friday, after she impressed him with her navigating skills during a test drive last year.  

It's been a fast track to this pinnacle, considering Gray is relatively new to the co-driver’s seat - although she grew up surrounded by rallying.

Her grandfather was a rally driver, and her parents, Sonya and Steve Gray, met through rallying. They drove together through the 1980s – Steve driving, Sonya co-driving - and Samantha remembers watching them compete when she was a pre-schooler.  

“Then they stepped back from the sport when my brother and I got to school age. They sold the car, and we’d go to events as spectators,” she says.

But it wasn’t until Samantha Gray was 20, and in her second year at Lincoln University, that she decided she wanted to give rallying a go.  

“I was a trap shooter at high school. I got to national level, but I had to stop when I went to uni, because I didn’t have the time. But I still liked sport,” she says.

“We were watching the Otago Rally in 2015, the year Hayden won the event outright in a classic Escort. I turned around to my parents and said ‘I really want to do this sport’. I was sick of standing on the side of the road watching; I wanted to be out there doing it.”

A couple of months later, Gray got her motorsport licence and started competing. She didn’t want to be a driver, because she didn’t have the money to buy a car. “I left uni with 97 cents to my name,” she laughs.

She’s not averse to getting behind the wheel. She races her own rally car now, a Mazda 323, with her dad co-driving. “We’re always at the back of the field, having fun, no pressure,” she says. “It’s a great change from when I’m co-driving - it’s always intense.

“I’m better at co-driving, and it means I can race in a faster car. I use my driving to better understand the road and the pace notes.”

It will be Samantha Gray's job to call pace notes to Paddon, getting "every single intricate detail in the right order". Photo: Jack Smith, MA Media.

Over the past three years, Gray has certainly made an impression on the sport. She was selected in two national academies in 2017. The first, the Elite Motorsport Academy, takes eight drivers or co-drivers from all four-wheeled events in New Zealand and teaches them “everything outside the car”, Gray explains.  

She was then chosen for the first Rally NZ co-drivers academy, to develop more top-level navigators.

Since then, Gray has paired up with Regan Ross to drive in the NZ rally championship in a classic Ford Escort RS1800. Last year they won the International Otago Classic Rally, and Gray took out the co-driver’s championship for the season.

Leaping into Paddon’s top-level Hyundai i20 will be quite a change for her. “I’m not nervous, because I haven’t quite let it sink in yet, and it probably won’t until I’m in the car on the start-line,” she says.

Gray says she's “always known” Paddon, who also hails from South Canterbury. Last year, she helped sell his merchandise at rally events, and prepared guests to take rides with him. “I’d get them belted in and tell them how to be a co-driver in a way,” she says.

“I never thought I’d be up to his level to be able to co-drive for him. But then I asked him if we could take a test ride, so he could see if I was on the right track. So I jumped in the car with him, and called back at the notes at rally pace. He said it was pretty good.”

Paddon was impressed enough to offer Gray the chance to drive with him in one of the country’s top rallies (in fact, one of only two international rallies in New Zealand this year), through Hyundai’s Pinnacle mentoring programme for “passionate Kiwi teens”.

In the past, Paddon has given students the chance to work as technicians on his team, and now he’s looking to co-drivers. “Samantha is one of the young leading co-drivers in the country and has ambitions to take her career international - and if we can help a little towards that, that’s what we want to do,” Paddon says.

It will be Gray’s job this week to build a set of pace notes for the event that will guide Paddon through the twists and turns, cambers and crests of the roads they’ll be racing.

“Hayden’s notes are a lot more complex than what I’m used to. So it’s about speaking clear and fast - because he’s going so much faster than everyone else - and getting every single intricate detail in the right order,” she says.

On Thursday, Paddon and Gray will do their first reconnaissance (or recce) on the course, writing down the notes  It’s probably the most important part of their race – well before it’s even started.

In the Rally of Whangarei, which doubles as a round in the FIA Asia Pacific Rally championship, drivers and co-drivers are allowed to do a second recce – or two passes. It means Gray can call back the first notes to Paddon as he’s driving, and he can then refine them.

“In overseas rallies, they do two or three passes. That way, you know 100 percent that your notes are correct. It’s good getting to do the two-pass and learn the international side of rallying,” Gray says.

She has been doing her homework at nights, going over Paddon’s notes from last year’s Rally of Whangarei, which he won with co-driver Mal Peden. All co-drivers have their own short-hand, so she’s been translating them into her own language. "You don't get much sleep in rally week," she says. 

Samantha Gray would love to co-drive overseas, and see if NZ roads really are the best in the world for rallying, she says. Photo: Geoff Ridder.

Even though she’ll be sitting in the car for around nine hours each day, Gray needs to keep fit.  

“You have to be quick and strong to change tyres,” she says. “I try to focus mostly on core and back strength. It’s about holding yourself in and being physically strong in case you’re in an accident, and you can walk away.

“Good neck strength is vital for a co-driver, because you’re always looking down.” Touch wood, she says, she’s never been car sick: “Even though as a kid I got sick with every single car ride.”

Accurate timekeeping is also part of Gray’s job, making sure she clocks in exactly on time for the start of each stage, and relays how much time the team have to work on the car. She also has to make sure that Paddon is “fed, watered and happy”.

All of her time as a co-driver is unpaid, but she’d love to be a professional.

“At the moment it’s a hobby, but I would like to take that next step up. The ultimate goal for a co-driver would be going professional, making it a full-time job,” she says. “Whether it’s in WRC or not, that doesn’t bother me. As long as I was competing at the top level.”

She’s lucky, she says, that her partner is also entrenched in the world of rally. Jack Williamson drives a Subaru R4 in the New Zealand rally championship (his mum, Brenda, is his co-driver) and professionally, he is a motorsport engineer.

In fact, he’s also an engineer on Paddon’s team. “Jack jumps between driving his car all day and then servicing Hayden’s car,” Gray says.

But Gray and Williamson have never competed in the same car together. “We’re very professional with our sport,” she says. “We don’t wait to sit together, and not be professional and then something happens. And we have our own rides going on.”

This weekend, Gray can claim to have the best seat in the race.

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