Written by: Pete McNae

It wasn’t without its share of heartburn and headaches but, after 30 laps, MP was the master and all others were reduced to the role of frustrated chasers.

In winning his seventh New Zealand Midget Car Championship at the Milestone Homes Top of the South Speedway last night, Aucklander Michael Pickens joined Ted Tracey, who reigned in the 1980s, as the only man with that many 1NZ midget sashes. Making Pickens’ victory sweeter was the fact that he is also the Australian champion in the class (the only Kiwi to ever achieve that) and the 75th running of the New Zealand title was widely acclaimed as the best field of midget class talent ever assembled for the national title meeting in this country. Pickens, as mentioned, already had a fist full of the things. Brad Mosen and Shayne Alach were former winners, Peter Hunnibell was the defending champion and there were four young Americans aiming to take the trophy back across the Pacific for the season.

But Pickens? Pickens was first class, top drawer, on his game. His seventh title at the Equus-backed event wasn’t a walkover by any means, but the 34-year-old just had an edge about him all weekend. From running the quickest laps in Friday qualifying, to winning the A dash for the leading six cars, to leading 19 of the 30 laps in the feature (including the one that mattered the most), Pickens was the master of his domain. And what a domain the Nelson Speedway Association provided.

Saturday’s weather was chocolate-box perfect, the crowds flocked in and the track kept crew chiefs guessing for two days straight. Slick and slidey on Friday, it had more moisture and bite last night with the big cushion catching out the best in the business in the 30-lap A main. Friday’s big “slide job” passing manoeuvres were replaced by wheelstands as the 400 horsepower, 420kg midgets grabbed the Moutere clay out of turn four, in particular.

Last night’s meeting started with the last three of the 10 qualifying heats. Wins went to Brock Maskovich, Tom Lumsden and USA driver Alex Bright, with all three drivers having enough points to earn one of the 16 automatic feature spots. The unlucky dozen who missed – but were still mobile – went to the B main to find the last four finalists. Stratford’s Duane Hickman won comfortably but Nelson fans got up for Nevil Basalaj, who had rebuilt his car after a big roll late on Friday to work his way in to third and a spot in the A main.

Pickens, by virtue of his victory in the Dash, started the championship race on Grid 1, alongside Mosen, and it looked like a contest – for the first 30m. By turn one, Pickens was already disappearing into the distance. But a heavy wall slap by Huntly’s Dayne Maxwell brought on the first yellow and Pickens duffed the restart getting, as he described it “outside the kerb” to allow the hard-charging Hayden Williams in to the lead, Pickens dropping to third behind US teen Spencer Bayston. And Williams wasn’t laying down … for 12 laps he held Pickens off, occasionally surrendering the lead, only to make his way past in the next corner as Mosen fended off three Americans behind him. It had been four, but Alex Bright hung his car high in the turn three fence on lap 22, pruning the American onslaught by one.

And then, the speedway lords giveth and the speedway lords taketh away. In the same way Pickens had lost his lead, Williams had one bad corner and got outside the cushion to drop to second, then third as he erred slightly again, allowing Mosen past. That’s how it stayed until metres from the flag when Bayston found a way past Williams to take the final podium position behind Kiwi kings Pickens and Mosen.

The drivers were full of praise for the Nelson club’s staging of the 75th national title meeting. It might not be a traditional track but it was spectacular on both nights, in different ways, allowed passing opportunities and testing crew and driver talent. The only setback last night was a long and unavoidable delay when a track worker was  injured. A stockcar driver careened into the infield when his car was left without brakes and steering after a heavy shot and hit one of the tow trucks with one of the truck crew suffering what appeared to be multiple injuries. However, a club official was today able to report that the tow truck crew member was concussed and heavily bruised but had suffered no broken bones in the accident.

The stockcar class were competing for spots in the Blacks Fasteners Tasman Thunder team to race in the teams nationals in Gisborne and tested their bumpers in two heats with the third race being scrapped after less than a lap after the infield injury. Race winners were Dylan Clarke and Keightley Teece with Teece joining Michael Paynter, Adam Hall, John Everett, Brad Neiman and Tim Ross in the Thunder.

There was almost as much contact in the production saloon class with Nicole Marr’s 95N Honda looking more like a refugee from the demolition derby than a non-contact race car after copping a few body shots. Tony Diedrichs marked his return to the class this season with a win, but that was as good as it got for him with Jared Blanchet, Eddie Frans and Blenheim’s David Allan winning later races. Allan and Vaughan Cornelius were there or thereabouts all night.

The sidecar class competed for the Brett Lusty Memorial Trophy as an initial field of seven was reduced to five for their feature. The teams had dealt with a lumpy track in their earlier heats but, even when it smoothed somewhat for the final, the outcome was the same – game, set, match to Adie Drake and Kieran Satherley, who went undefeated. Brent Steer and passenger Kyle Ball had a strong night for second with Blenheim’s Lester Schroder and Corey Crowther claiming third. But once the final points were tallied, the Blenheim bike climbed past Steer and Ball overall.

Another memorial trophy night, for club life member Dave Scott, attracted nine Nelson superstocks. After Tigers management worked the phones to field a team in Palmerston North this coming weekend, with drivers from Hawke’s Bay, Rotorua and Whanganui joining Jared Gray and Trevor Lineham in orange and black, it was hard to see the potential Tigers talent performing at home. Shane Harwood, who declared his unavailability before the season started, won the trophy with two firsts and a second behind Gray with Gray, Alex Bright and Blair Cunningham the best of the rest. Luke Ewing logged a strong third place in heat one but wasn’t able to make the grid for heat three.

The Tigers are away at the ENZED-Dewtec teams nationals next weekend with the next race meeting in Nelson, on February 11, featuring the final of the Hanmer Holiday Homes South Island superstock series and the return of the modifieds, formerly one of Nelson’s favourite classes.



Featured images, Tom Laney, www.imagepress.co.nz