Highlands Motorsport Park Review

On a recent road trip holiday to Queenstown, New Zealand, I was lucky enough to spend some time at the Highlands Motorsport Park – a facility that bills itself as one of NZ’s top motorsport destinations.

In this article I am going to review the Highlands Motorsport Park, focusing on two key areas:

  • The museum
  • The Ferrari Hot Laps experience

I will also share my experiences with a few other areas of Highlands.

Please note this is just my personal take. I’m not a professional travel blogger! If you have any further questions or comments, then you can leave a review in the comment section at the bottom of this article.

History

The Highlands Motorsport Park is a purpose-built facility, which opened in 2013 at a cost of around $25-30 million.

The land for the park (88ha) was originally purchased by a trust back in 2006, with local council consent given a year later for the development of the facility.

Funding issues meant no progress for some years, but in 2012 millionaire businessman Tony Quinn (who made his fortune out of pet food, which is no surprise to anyone who has bought the stuff recently – my dog is bankrupting me) purchased the supporters trust and basically gave the facility enough funding to get off the ground.

Highlands opened in 2013 and is now one of the premier Motorsport venues in New Zealand, with top events held there as well as a permanent suite of activities/attractions for the general public.

The Highlands course itself is just over 4km long, and is described as a world-class track. There are actually multiple ‘tracks within a track’, with different configurations for various events. This birds-eye photo from the Otago Daily Times shows the track in great detail, although it appears to be somewhat dated and prior to the full construction of the facility.

Aerial view of the Highlands Motorsport Park at Cromwell.

 

Getting There

Highlands Motorsport Park is about a 45 minute drive from Queenstown (the self-proclaimed ‘adventure capital’ of New Zealand).

It is located on the outskirts of the small town of Cromwell, which is famous for producing some of the best summer stone-fruit in the world … hence the giant novelty fruits in the middle of town:

Yum yum

If you are venturing down Queenstown way you will probably have a car of your own (either you have driven down, or flown in and got a rental car). Getting an Uber or taxi would be extremely expensive, but there does appear to be some public transport available according to Google Maps.

We were heading back from Arrowtown to Wanaka (a smaller town famous for great skiing) via the ‘long route’ that takes you through Cromwell, which means we had to go right past Highlands.

With regards to the turn off, look out for the “spider car” and head in from there.

The car park itself wasn’t amazingly well sign-posted, but you just keep driving through until you reach the front of the facility.

Highlands Motorsport Park Price

Pricing varies depending on exactly what it is you want to do.

For example, you can just do the museum entry, which costs $30 for adults and $10 for children (at the time of writing in July 2021)

Pricing for some of the other activities is as follows – and is in $NZD.

  • Ferrari Hot Laps – $179 for one lap. You can add on another lap for $79.
  • Go Karting – From $49 for a 10 minute session (I didn’t check out the go-karting track while I was there, but it looked decent from what I could see from the observation deck in the museum). There are also tandem karts available for parents & kids, which is a neat idea.
  • Drive it yourself” experiences – Highlands has a few “DIY” drive experiences. I had originally done some research into these, but the availability was a bit confusing and we didn’t have the time for anything that was going to require several hours there. There are options for driving a Radical SR3, as well as a V8 Mustang, although the Mustang experience wasn’t available when I checked. There is also a group track day experience with the fleet of Subaru WRX/WRX STI but this is not available to individual customers, as far as I can tell. Prices start from around $400 NZD.
  • Highlands Taxi – Another variant on the Hot Laps theme, this time using a Porsche Cayenne Turbo to allow the driver to take you and your friends/family around the track at speed. Obviously you won’t go as quickly as in the Ferrari, but this is a great family option – and more reasonably priced from $129 for up to 4 people.

As you can see, the pricing for Highlands varies greatly depending on what you are wanting to do. A family might expect to spend anywhere from about $80 for museum entry, through to hundreds if everyone wants a go at a hot lap, go-karting or something a bit more exotic.

What is nice is that there is something to suit every taste and budget.

Because prices and available activities can change, I would suggest that you check the Highlands website and see pricing. I would also recommend booking in advance for any of the activities, as there is no guarantee of availability on the day. Booking in will also make life easier for the staff; I noticed a family in the queue before me were having some trouble with getting sorted for go-karting. They had booked on the day but the message wasn’t correctly sent to the go-karting staff. I imagine this type of problem would be avoided by booking in advance.

Ferrari Hot Laps At Highlands Motorsport Park

Originally, I was only intending on doing the museum entry with my wife as a bit of a ‘time filler’ on the way back from our time in Arrowtown.

I was under the impression that if you wanted to do the Ferrari Hot Laps – called the ‘Supercar Fast Dash’ on their website (where you are driven around the track at speed by a trained driver) then you would need to book in advance. Because our trip was fairly busy in terms of what we were trying to pack in, I didn’t think I would have the time to do this particular experience.

However, I decided to ask the reception staff if I could do the Hot Laps without booking, and they informed me they had a few slots available, with one for only 30 minutes after we arrived.

I was originally thinking of doing just one lap, which costs $179 – but then decided it was worth it to add on an extra lap for $79

We also got 50% off the museum entry for buying the Hot Laps.

About 5 minutes before my time slot, a friendly staff member came and found me in the museum and helped sort me out with a hairnet and helmet.

From here, the Ferrari – a 488 GTB featuring a twin turbo V8 pumping out almost 700hp – will come and pick you up from the main entrance.

Yours truly, pictured with the Ferrari 488 GTB in question.

You will get a brief intro from the driver (in true Kiwi fashion, a quick handshake and hello, with not much else) who also gives you the opportunity to put your phone into the phone holder on the windshield of the car. Interestingly enough, the staff recommend using the selfie camera to record your face; there are some “hall of fame” videos played on the TVs in the entrance area showing people’s reactions to the car, which make for entertaining watching.

I chose to film out of the car – I will get the video uploaded ASAP.

Once in the car you drive through an access gate, and then down onto the entrance of the track itself. The driver checks you are ready, and then all hell breaks loose. I was genuinely astonished with how quick the Ferrari gets up to speed on the first straight, into a sweeping corner that allows them to keep the throttle down. I have never experienced acceleration so brutal in a car before – the closest I have ever come was in a friend’s heavily tuned E63 AMG Mercedes, but even that felt like a child’s toy in comparison to the ferocity of the Ferrari! In fact, this was the only time I have ever felt slightly nauseous from the acceleration of a car … I would liken it more to the feeling you get on a rollercoaster ride when you first drop in.

I had such a grin on my face that I forgot to say anything to the driver, who kindly checked I was doing ok about halfway through the lap.

The Highlands track is excellent, with a great variety of fast straights, sweeping corners and tighter turns that allow the driver to showcase the pedigree and capability of the Ferrari 488 GTB.

Although I was only in the car for about 5-6 minutes total, I will cherish the memory and the feeling of excitement for many years to come.

Was the Ferrari Hot Laps experience worth the money?

At over $250 NZD for two laps, this isn’t a cheap experience (considering each lap only lasts about a minute). In terms of $ per hour, this is probably one of the most expensive activities I have ever purchased!

But was it worth the cost?

I think so. I really did enjoy the Ferrari Hot Laps. It was a unique ‘once in a lifetime’ experience, and a memory I will cherish for a long time.

There is very little “ceremony” with the activity … it is quintessentially Kiwi. The receptionist hands you a helmet and hair net, and then the driver picks you up from the front door. There is no safety briefing, no big health and safety declaration to fill out, and the driver – while very talented – doesn’t wear a fancy racing suit or anything. It is all rather understated, which is interesting considering the car in question.

I appreciate that they allow you to film with your own phone as well, rather than trying to fleece you with an add on film package at the end (unfortunately my oversized Samsung Note was a bit too heavy for the phone holder they used, so by the middle of the 2nd lap the phone had actually fallen to an angle).

For comparison’s sake, back in 2016 I did self-drive hot laps at the Las Vegas raceway while we were on holiday to the United States.

I drove two cars, for five laps (IIRC) each – a Lamborghini Gallardo and a Ferrari F430 Superleggerra.

The whole experience cost me around $1000 NZD for the day, but this did include return transport, simulator time, refreshments and the driving experience itself with two cars.

In some respects, I actually enjoyed the Ferrari Hot Laps at Highlands more. Because they have a pro driver doing the driving, they really open the taps on the Ferrari and show you what it is capable of (I swear we got air at one point, or very close to it).

On a side note, I remember being disappointed with the Gallardo – the build quality was very poor and I don’t think it was running particularly well, as there was a definite misfire/flat spot (I was also disappointed that despite the instructor noting this, they didn’t let me swap to another car that was working properly).

At the Las Vegas ‘Dream Drive’ experience, the instructors were a bit reticent to let you go crazy, requesting that you shift gear very early in the rev range, as well as brake quite early for corners, and although I enjoyed it I never had the feeling that I got to have the full Ferrari experience (don’t get me wrong, it was a lot of fun and a memorable experience BUT in terms of sheer thrills I would actually say the Highlands experience was more impressive!)

From a value-for-money perspective, although the Las Vegas experience was much more expensive (if I recall, I paid around $1000 NZD) you got private transport, simulator and instructor time, and all the laps, so it was definitely stronger value-wise.

However, in terms of sheer enjoyment I genuinely had more fun with the Highlands experience, at least from the perspective of getting to appreciate the brilliance of Ferrari’s engineering.

Highlands Motorsport Park Museum

The initial purpose for our visit was to check out the museum at Highlands.

This is billed as one of New Zealand’s premier motorsport museums, with an appealing selection of exhibits – primarily rare and exotic cars, along with memorabilia (primarily from NZ racing/motorsport history) and historical information.

With access costing $30 for adults or $10 for children, it represents good value for money in my view.

Here are some images we took in the museum, showcasing the range of cars on display – more are incoming.

 

One of Michael Schumacher’s early F1 cars – prior to his Ferrari days!

 

A rather tasty Lamborghini Diablo … a true “dream car” of the 1990s! According to a Car Jam vehicle history report, this pristine example only has about 30,000 kms on it.

 

A road-legal Delorean. No flux capacitor on this one.

 

Aston Martin Vulcan. Purchased for around $4.2 million NZD, this is the most expensive car in New Zealand. Highlands owner, Tony Quinn, purchased the car to celebrate the third anniversary of the facility in 2016. Hot laps have been auctioned off at times in the past to raise money for charity.

 

LAPD patrol car. There is even a replica (I would imagine) shotgun in the front! Very different to New Zealand police cars.

 

A selection of the fine cars on display at Highlands Motorsport Park Museum

 

This image shows many of the displayed cars in one view.

 

The only disappointing elements in my view were as follows:

  • A couple of the attractions didn’t work properly (there is a classic arcade racing game for two players, but one was broken with a steering wheel that just pulls to the left and brightness issues on the screen. There is also a pedal-powered slot car racetrack that allows you to race someone else via a stationary bike. This didn’t seem to work either).
  • I would like to have seen a few more cars. The examples that were there are superb, but if you are expecting dozens of cars you might be disappointed.
  • There didn’t appear to be any wandering staff who could answer questions on the cars.

All things being considered, both my wife and I greatly enjoyed the museum. We probably spent around an hour looking around the cars and other exhibits.

Other Activities

I didn’t partake in any of the following, but there are a number of other activities you can do at Highlands (all of which cost additional)

  • Self-drive experiences with a few different cars
  • Go-karting
  • Group track day experiences (using their fleet of Subaru WRXs)
  • Car sculpture park
  • Weird and wonderful toilets (no, seriously)

Some of the activities/attractions make a lot of sense, while others feel a bit “tacked-on” but it all adds up for an entertaining experience.

Conclusion – Is Highlands Motorsport Park Worth Visiting?

100% – I’m glad I visited Highlands, and would probably go back again.

The “litmus test” is that my wife – who has zero interest in cars, beyond whether or not she can connect her phone to Bluetooth to play music and whether or not the car looks nice (I.e. it is a Range Rover or Golf GTI) – had a good time and genuinely seemed to enjoy looking at the different exhibits.

The museum is an impressive facility, not so much in terms of the sheer volume of cars, but the fact that there are some very rare examples such as the Aston Martin Vulcan (the only one in the Southern Hemisphere).

All the cars were very well-presented, and the facility has a clean, modern feel to it – as opposed to some of the more rundown ‘transport museums’ out there.

If you are expecting a large selection of cars you might find yourself slightly disappointed – I would call this a “quality over quantity” museum.

From a pricing perspective, museum entry stacks up favourably when you get 50% off for doing the hot laps (as I did, and they also gave my wife museum access for 50% off as well). At regular pricing, it’s fair enough value but not cheap.

I can’t comment on the food and drink at the cafe as we didn’t try it, but it seemed to be fairly standard fare for that kind of facility. If you are travelling in from Queenstown or Wanaka you would be better to sort lunch before you go, from both a price and quality perspective.

If you are thinking of visiting the Highlands Motorsport Park, then I would recommend giving it a look.

It isn’t the cheapest day out, but in terms of automotive experiences available in New Zealand, this has to be one of the best out there.

Feel free to leave a comment below if you have any questions, or if you would like to share your own experience.

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