THE WIZARD NAMED OZ

I’M LOVIN’ IT

Written by Pete McNae

Mark Osborne is a sponsor’s dream. Honestly, what could be better than having a big set of stickers on the side of your vehicle, then fronting up week after week to bank the opposition’s cash? Osborne’s McDonald’s-backed Hypermac super saloon would be one of the more recognisable race cars in speedway, with large golden arches dominating the flanks of the 16R machine. Then, three seasons out of four, the 39-year-old logging contractor and firewood merchant has swept the Burger King super saloon series in the North Island, finishing runner-up in the only season he missed the top step.

“It’s always been good for a few chuckles,” Osborne said. “McDonald’s have been onboard for some time now and we get a little bit of an extra buzz from taking BK’s prizemoney!”

Osborne, a three-time national champion in the super saloon ranks, is in Nelson this weekend for the two-day Easter Extravaganza meeting, the exclamation point on the 2016-17 season at the Milestone Homes Top of the South Speedway. While there are nervous eyes on the weather, the intention is to run Friday and Saturday from 4pm each day. With Cyclone Cook steaming towards New Zealand, though, the club’s rainout contingency plan is to shift across to Sunday at 4pm, if required, to allow two full race dates. Any Friday cancellation would be widely notified on Facebook, on this website and on the club’s phone app.

Many of the super saloon class have headed to Cromwell but Osborne was always keen to come back to Nelson, which he regards as one of his favourite tracks. The Osborne family stay with the McCabes (Keith owns the 96N superstock driven by Ken Nolan) and 12-year-old Ashton will join his dad in the Nelson fields, lining up in the youth ministock class on Saturday. “Nelson’s a neat track … it’s little but you can get into a great rhythm there and, when you have momentum, it is a brilliant track to race. We treat Easter in Nelson as a family holiday which suits me because I’ve always enjoyed racing the car there.”

Osborne was introduced to speedway as a 15-year-old in Rotorua and, by 17, was in the family limited saloon. Then his mates started buying stockcars. “They were travelling in one direction and we were heading in another so the decision was to go over to stockcars – Dad didn’t mind, as long as we were spitting dirt.”

He was good enough to secure 3NZ in superstocks and finish unlucky fifths on a couple of other occasions but says the element of good fortune involved in collision classes made it tough. “You can be the best driver in the best car on the night and someone can end it for you with one right turn in heat three. I love superstocks but it is hard to be consistently successful.”

One of those right turns resulted in a big knockout, Osborne waking in hospital at 3am that night with no memory of the incident. He continued in the class but four or five more concussions – each knockout coming more easily than the last – forced a change. He had won an A grade saloon championship in Christchurch while having a guest drive – the family business was now based in Canterbury – when the opportunity came to buy Hypermac creator Shane McIntyre’s own super saloon. “It was too good to pass up – the car was the best in the class at the time and it’s still pretty useful. I’d never really paid much attention to super saloons growing up but it’s been a good decision. The class is strong in both islands and I’ve had some good results.”

Like an ELF cup series win (now the Vertex Super Cup), three of those BK series titles and the 1NZ in 2012-13 (Woodford Glen), 2013-14 (Waikaraka Park) and 2015-16 (Meeanee). “As a driver, you really just have to focus on yourself in a super saloon, your lines, your gaps and your race plan – back in superstocks, there was you and 20-odd others to worry about so driving the saloon car has been easier. And it’s a bit easier on the head, too.”

While Osborne rates the South Island super saloon field on a par with the north in terms of car numbers and quality, he says the BK series comes with extra polish. “Grant [Flynn, a former 2NZ] basically runs the whole show and it’s slick – great merchandising, lots of sponsor and fan engagement, it’s very polished. The South Island’s product is as good on the track but needs a Grant to take on that professionalism aspect. That’s why we register in Rotorua and base the car up there – it is where most of my sponsors are and it’s a little bonus to take Burger King’s prizemoney off them. I’m due to see the guys from McDonald’s again soon so that 1BK could be handy to show them.”

Osborne is also taking a lot of pleasure in watching Ashton get his start in speedway. He raced at Oxford on a dispensation as an 11-year-old and already has his first race win in Rotorua under his belts. The class there has 40 youth ministock drivers but separates out first-season drivers until they are ready to transition to the senior ranks. The Osborne built car is immaculately turned out, thanks in part to Nelson’s Brad Kelling of Brad’s Smash Repairs. “Ashton’s going good for a new driver, he gets into his flow by race three so we just need him to shift that forward to race one and two and he’ll do well. He’s always itching for a fourth heat when there isn’t one!

“I built a car that should see him out in youth ministocks and then I guess I’d like him to move towards the saloons because of the knocks but that will be his choice – as long as we can do it as a family, I’m happy.”

Osborne’s superstock itch has not been fully scratched and he’s been invited to race in Palmerston North’s Legends meeting on April 22. He will race the Rotorua Top Gear car owned by Lance Ashton and is hoping for a few laps post-meeting in Nelson this weekend to get back in the flow. He also has Asher Rees lined up for some laps in the 16R super saloon. Rees, one of speedway’s most precocious talents, was forced to retire from superstock racing following injury earlier this year but will have a spin in the super saloon as a hint towards his possible speedway future. “I’m happy he’s going to fly in and have a skid,” Osborne says. “Asher’s a huge talent who has been unfortunately hurt but he wants to stay involved and I get that – I’ve been in the sport since I was 15, never missed a season since and I’d say 90 per cent of my lifelong mates come from speedway.”

Easter info

  • Super saloons and midgets will race for their Easter champs Friday and open club champs on Saturday. The supers, midgets and production saloons (who race Friday only) will run two heats plus a feature with highest points off pole. The TQ midgets have the same format but will add their feature points together to find an Easter champion based on both nights of racing.
  • Youth ministocks race Saturday only and will run two heats and a feature with highest points off the rear.
  • Sidecars, who have 15 entries, will run qualifying heats to find a top 6 on Friday. On Saturday, the top 6 will run three heats to find a champion while there will be consolation races for non-qualifiers.
  • The meeting – and season – will finish with The Hits 89.6FM demolition derby after the last race on Saturday.
  • Spectator gates open at 3pm with midget and TQ warmups from 3.20pm.
  • Any weather disruptions will be notified on nelsonspeedway.co.nz, through the club’s phone app and on the Nelson Speedway Facebook page.

Osborne family photos supplied by Graham Hughes, Sportsweb Photography, www.speedwaynz.com