At 83, Ray Stone appears to be a fairly modest figure, with a soft, measured voice, although the stiff ponytail may hint at years of his youth spent in a less ordinary occupation.
To many he’s not likely to be considered a household name, but in New Zealand auto racing and rally circles he’s legendary.
Although he is not a driver, his status has been earned as a mechanic and rally team manager.
Known in his youth as the Bird’s Nest for long hair, Stone’s involvement in New Zealand motorsport has been chronicled in There is no such thing as “She will be right”, automotive writer Gordon Campbell’s biography of the now resident of Taupō, whose skinny face, framed in frayed hair, can be seen staring at the camera from a number of photos of mechanics at the job.
Pose was a default setting for photographers, Stone said.
“I used to be a little cynical – they all wanted the same thing, ‘Can you open the hood and stand there… and look like you’re tinkering with something.”
Remember, this is what drove him – despite his mother’s wish for him to become a civil engineer – the boy who grew up in Alfriston started working on racing cars at the age of 18. or 19 in the late 1950s.
“I was very lucky, they were very special cars at the time.”
The first was an Alfa Romeo P3 owned by Tazio Nuvolari (The Flying Mantuan), winner of 72 major races, 150 in all, enough for Ferdinand Porsche to call him “the greatest driver of the past, present and future.” . “
“When he left New Zealand he was ordering millions of them,” Stone said, “it’s hard to put a price on now and the next one was a Maserati 250F, there are a few more – probably five or six. “
It had belonged to the British Formula 1 driver Stirling Moss who, despite more than 200 victories in several categories of competition, became “the greatest driver to never win the World Championship” for his four and three-thirds seconds between 1955 and 1961.
“So it was a really good start for me, great engineering and machines, but also because these are such special cars.”
Stone eventually switched from open-wheel cars to sedans, as well as rallying, which by the early 1970s was gaining popularity internationally and here.
“We went to England and built a rally car and raced it in the 1972 RAC rally – the British International Championship rally – and then we came back.”
Stone led the NZ Wool Board sponsored Ford Woolmark team which competed in the first international rally in New Zealand in 1973, with all three cars on the team, including Finnish driver Hannu Mikkola, the international Ford competitor, finishing first , second and ninth.
“So it was very impressive… and from then on my career was almost entirely dedicated to managing rally teams. We ended up representing Ford virtually with our team which became the Masport Escort team.
He particularly remembers Rally New Zealand 1977 for the relationship that developed between him and Ari Vatanen, another Finn.
Vatanen, in his early twenties, was a new name for Ford who sent him out of Europe to gain more experience and while Ford did not enter a factory team, Vatanen, a driver from factory, would still accumulate world championship points.
“Times were pretty tough back then due to fuel shortages so the rally here didn’t have any international participants,” said Stone. “They weren’t going that far.
However, once Fiat heard that Vatanen would be behind the wheel, he got into a full squad.
“They thought we had better do it… even if it’s just one car run by locals.
Vatanen made a name for himself during the race, Stone said, his falls becoming rally history.
“He was young, extremely fast, he had to get off the road on half of the stages and some of them were quite important. At the end of each stage, there would be our frantic team completely rebuilding a demolished car. “
Vatanen has repeatedly overtaken the three well-endowed Fiat’s, but would then have another crash.
“There was only one Fiat left by the time we got to the end of the rally. Ari’s car had been rebuilt a million times and the winning Fiat car limped in the show grounds on arrival in Auckland and just expired and Ari came in second seconds later.
In fact, Vatanen’s accidents had pushed the exhaust and floor of the car upwards, which burned his foot and Lee, Stone’s wife, had to fix it as well.
Vatanen’s image of a gentleman contrasted sharply with that of the Italians, with a campaign valued at $ 400,000, which became “the people everyone loved to hate,” Stone said.
“As a professional team, they had helicopters and caravans, but they were also discovered to have radio communication between the helicopter and the car – you weren’t allowed to do that at the time… and they were receiving speeding tickets on the road. “
Vatanen however, called his mother every night – a quirk that hit the press.
“He lived in Tuupovaara, I remember that because my toll bill at the end of the rally was quite high.
Late one night in the middle of nowhere, Stone said, Vatanen and his co-pilot Jim Scott saw a small hotel still lit up.
“He said ‘Jim stop, I’m going to ring the doorbell’, so he walked in, overalls and safety gear and there was a little old lady behind the desk in this very small hotel … and he’s walked in, big Finn in his running gear, and she looks up from her sweater and says ‘you’re the man from finland, you wanna call your mom’.
Stone and Vatanen still talk to each other three or four times a year.
“Ari is a really genuine guy. After Erebus’ accident, he wrote a letter to say “Ray, I think of you and all the boys.” Finland and New Zealand are countries of a similar size, and I’m sure you all knew someone on the flight ”.
Stone smiled, “My whole life was just fun, doing what I loved. I didn’t consider it a career or a job at the time. I was so lucky to do the things I love to do.