US DRIVERS HUNTING THE 1NZ

MIDGETS DELIVER MAXIMUM VALUE

Written by: Pete McNae

 

Tonight’s national championship will be decided by the who’s who of the New Zealand midget car scene – Michael Pickens, Peter Hunnibell, Brad Mosen and Shayne Alach, and the who’s he – four relatively unknown but outrageously talented young American drivers who launched a pre-emptive strike at the Milestone Homes Top of the South Speedway.

Last night’s qualifying for the Equus-backed 75th edition of the New Zealand Midget Car Championship drew the lines between the land of the long white crowd and the boys from the US of A; youngsters Alex Bright, Zach Daum, Tyler Thomas and Spencer Bayston. The Kiwis will not surrender the title easily but, in their first visit to the cosy corners of the Lansdowne Rd raceway, the American quartet showed they mean business. The meeting took the format of 10 qualifying heats of which seven were raced last night, an A dash, a B main and a 30-lap final. Those first seven heat races showed that whoever is going to win the championship will need a combination of speed, reliability, car control, an eye for a gap – and balls the size of grapefruit.

Most of the 34 entrants had three heat races last night. For some, Stratford’s Chris Bagrie for instance, the title tilt was over almost before it begun. After two minor tangles in his first heat, Bagrie went wide off turn two, clipped the wall, kept his foot hard up it and rolled so heavily that his car was bent beyond repair for tonight’s meeting. Bagrie wasn’t the only driver to come a gutser, either. Nelson-registered Dunedin driver Gavin Wilkie was “fed a wheel” by Huntly’s Dayne Maxwell and tipped over off turn four while another Nelson veteran, Nevil Basalaj suffered a heart-breaker in his final heat. Starting off the front row and needing points, Basalaj didn’t just wind back the clock, he turned back the calendar to dash out to a commanding lead. But, with a lap to go, he was squeezed wide while lapping a backmarker, punctured a left rear and took a hellacious tumble in turn three that will make qualification a long shot.

Predictably, the Nelson track had a few of the first-timers and infrequent visitors scratching their heads early on. Sunbaked, choppy and a little one-laned, passing was limited to the very quick and the very brave. But, as the sun set and drivers found their rhythm, the racing became breath-taking. Heat six of the seven held last night was as good as it gets. Mosen and Auckland clubmate Scott Buckley took on Americans Thomas and Daum in a slide job duel, drivers chopping low for the pass then sliding out of the corner in front of their rival, only to have the role reversed in the next corner. The astute Nelson crowd, healthy but likely to grow by a thousand or two tonight, saluted Mosen and his three chasers after what were 12 spectacular laps of top-drawer speedway.

Every driver gets at least one more heat tonight before 16 progress directly to the A main, which will decide the championship. Before that, there could be 16-18 vying for just four transfer spots from the B main with a good grid likely to play a pivotal role. Basalaj, if his car is repairable, is one driver who might already be targeting that route, along with Wilkie and many of the other South Island entrants.

In better position, although nothing is yet confirmed, are night one points leader Pickens, defending champion Hunnibell, past titleholder Mosen, Alach who won the last time the title was contested here and those Damn Yankees. Bayston has two heats left but is strong with a second and a fourth, Daum won a heat and added a third and fourth, Thomas went 5, 3 and 2 and Bright also finished in the top five in each of his three races. But it’s hard to look past Pickens, chasing a record-equalling seventh national title. His run from 13th to third in his second heat was compelling, his 13.19s lap was easily the quickest on the night and his Toyota snaps, crackles and pops as it gets out of corners like no other car in the field. He’s been around long enough, though, to know that nothing is certain till 10.30 tonight.

Support racing featured TQ midgets, youth ministocks and an abbreviated appearance by the streetstocks. They had just two races before being retired, stockcar driver Troy Currie having some fun among the “grubbies” and giving Canterbury’s Kieran Skurr and Daniel Baldwin target practice. Race wins went to Ryan Musgrove in the Steve Soper 97N Falcon. A third race was scrapped when just four cars made the dummy grid.

Hamish Carter and Wade Sweeting were given handicap starts in the youth ministock class and made to pick their way through the pack. They gave it a fair crack in the first two heats but couldn’t reel in Baiden Mailman-Byrman, who got clear and raced away for two victories. Carter, conceding a smaller headstart in race three, picked up the win from Sweeting with Caleb Jessop rounding out a good night with a third placing.

The TQs wrapped night one of the two-night meeting with continued support from the Canterbury class. While Nelson’s Alicia Mclauchlan was away qualifying comfortably for the nationals in Hawke’s Bay, Kyle Glover and Mike Moulin took heat wins for the Cantabs but it was Morgan Frost who came through in the feature, driving a heady front-running race to beat Glover and Dylan Cuthbert-Stone.

Finals night of the Equus 75th New Zealand Midget Car Championship starts at 7pm tonight. The feature class will run three more heats, an A dash and the B main before the title will be decided in the 30-lap feature. Support racing will come from sidecars, production saloons, stockcars and superstocks.

Points totals from night one available HERE

 

Images by Tom Laney, www.imagepress.co.nz