Driven to help young drivers

Rally ready . . . Rhys Gardner in the control seat, with co›driver Phil Hall (UK).

Motorsport motivated motor business for rally driver Rhys Gardner.

The two›time winner of the Catlins Rally has a business degree he applied to his lifelong love of driving to pioneer the next generation of driver training.

‘‘The first thing I drove was an early ’80s Hilux,’’ said Gardner, who went to South Otago High School and grew up on the family farm near Owaka.

As a boy he was keen on motocross and laboured on the farm, working to learn the family business so his grandfather could retire.

‘‘I went to university without much idea what I was going to do, so I studied commerce because of its broad range of applications but spent a lot of time crutching and shearing because racing isn’t cheap.’’

Aged about 24, with the help of local businessman and mechanic Paul Goatley, Gardner was driving a Toyota Corolla in high›level amateur rally competition and making his presence felt nationally.

‘‘It’s relaxing managing and processing the input and controls — there’s no time to think about anything else. For me, rally driving is the most effective form of meditation.’’

But back home he was feeling a growing concern for young drivers, the high›performance driver said.

‘‘I know what it’s like to be a young man in charge of a machine and it looked like teenagers were learning to drive the same way I did — by taking risks and making mistakes.

‘‘We don’t think about danger and tragedy. I saw a need and I was in a position tooffer something back tothe community.’’

He launched a training programme that began almost a decade ago by putting teenagers behind the wheel of a Toyota Starlet in the relative safety of an empty paddock on the family farm.

This initiative had grown into his own company — Gfactor — which integrated the growing sector of virtual reality, Gardner said.

‘‘There are plenty of race simulation options for gaming and competitive training, and every reason to make the technology I train on available to beginners at entry level.

‘‘Ordinary driving has risks and consequences that can’t be reproduced in a real›time learner›driver situation but with our technology people can experience everything from basic safety to sudden emergencies.’’

Gfactor was in important stages of prototyping and market development as he and his team introduced their systems to selected secondary schools, he said.

This kept him busy but he hoped to return some attention to racing as soon as time permitted.

‘‘Besides the Corolla we’ve rallied two Mitsubishi Evos, and these days we have a Mazda Demio AP4 [pictured].’’

The machine waiting for him was an all›wheel›drive, turbocharged four›cylinder which ran on ethanol.

‘‘It’s been a few years since we raced but it’s ready to go, hopefully for later in the year,’’ he said.