A LITTLE HELP FROM MY FRIENDS

HARWOOD BACK TO THE FRONT

Written by Pete McNae

Not on our patch, no way. It’s become a piece of speedway history that, whenever Nelson hosts the South Island superstock championship, the title stays local. Ignore the fact the class appeared to be on the bones of its bum earlier this season, when push came to shove (and it did), a Nelson driver wrapped up the championship again.

And the best part of Shane Harwood’s victory at the Milestone Homes Top of the South Speedway wasn’t just a title one week out of retirement for the most seasoned of the Nelson superstock drivers, it was that he had help when he wanted it in heat three when the title could have gone to Christchurch, or even Hawke’s Bay. There were two wildcards in last night’s field — Asher Rees in car 126C, the spare Malcolm Ngatai Gordge, and 87N Thomas Stanaway, back with his old number on the immaculate Lintern chassised car from Stanaway’s current base in Hawke’s Bay. Both were right on Harwood’s back bumper after three heats, needing a runoff (won by Rees) to decide second spot, but the efforts of the home club cars meant that record of Nelson winners stayed intact.

Heats one and two saw the usual jostling and jockeying for position with wins for Stanaway and Rees. There wasn’t a whole lot of niggle although Paul Ewing, pedalling the family superstock, let former 1NZ Ngatai know he was there, the headbutting going on after the flag in heat two. Harwood trailed Stanaway and  Canterbury’s Jamie Hamilton heading into heat three when the battle lines were drawn. And Harwood’s support came from a couple of unlikely quarters. Ewing, filling in while son Luke was at a wedding, blocked like a champion in an older and very rigid car, in which every hit feels like a sledgehammer in the spine. And Alex Hill, up until recently better known for speed and clean lines than the dive bomb, went hunting Canterbury cars. Last week, at Woodford Glen, he put Jacob Brownlees out of contention and forced his withdrawal from the South Islands with bold bumper work — last night, Hill hit hard and often, targeting Canterbury blockmen Kairyn O’Brien and Nick Selfe. Alex Bright took the heat win, Stanaway lost a pile of placings, Ngatai and Hamilton didn’t finish, neither did the McKenzie brothers or Ewing, and Harwood, who only came back after almost a year out of the game just a week ago, took the Fifeshire Forklifts-backed title by two clear points. Rees and Stanaway had an entertaining runoff, Rees grabbing the early initiative and forcing Stanaway to go for the kill (he couldn’t pull it off) while Trevor Lineham and Bright filled out the top five.

A late meeting dash for cash saw Rees roll Hamilton and Stanaway bank the win in an entertaining meeting from the supers, despite five entered drivers failing to show.

Last night’s racing was part two of a two-day meeting with most of the same classes on show — but there was little else that was comparable. The sun shone Saturday, it was miserable Friday. No one showed up on night one, a handy second night crowd helped balance the books. And the rain-rutted first night track became a one-lane highway for the second half of the weekend meeting. Unfortunately, the difficulties of preparing a track when Mother Nature is having a bad air day impacted heavily on last night’s other feature, the seventh and final round of the Vertex Super Cup, presented by SmithConcept Construction. The super saloons make infrequent visits to Nelson these days and they were unable to show their best side on either night. The Vertex Cup series offers passing points to reward drivers for making a charge through the field but passing points were as useful as a chocolate teapot last night. There was very little drive available off the pole line and the dust and slickness meant drivers who started from the front usually stayed there.

Heat wins were taken out by series leader (and eventual champion) Ian Burson by almost three-quarters of a lap, Invercargill’s Craig Phillips, as Burson posted the fastest lap while playing it safe  in last place, and Cromwell-contracted Daryl Ainsley. The Central Otago shearing contractor also won the pole shuffle in which Burson won his first few battles before being picked off by Owen Dixon, who fell to Trevor Elliott, who was beaten for pole by Ainsley. But, in the 30-lap final, Canterbury’s Elliott led lap one and stayed there all the way to lap 30 as, for the second meeting in a row, the feature class racked up 30 laps without a single yellow light.  Ainsley chased but was two seconds back at the flag with third in the feature going to Dixon as drivers largely finished where they started. Burson was clever — he didn’t need to take risks and shielded his sixth position for the full 30 laps to ensure his victory in the Vertex Super Cup was done and dusted (choosing the appropriate sporting cliche).

The other rollover championship from Friday night was the Nelson Marlborough Waste Ministock Mania. Big fields, including competitors from Dunedin, Cromwell, Christchurch and Blenheim ran another four crossover heats so all groups met each other and every driver had three races each night. Saturday’s racing was cleaner — far from flawless, but better. Rather than name and shame the two or three who still don’t get it, credit instead goes to a tight bunch of Nelson drivers with one point separating first from fourth in the experienced grade. Caleb Jessop won the title, in a great showing in a car he took over in time for this meeting, while just a point behind were Brayden Skurr (second), third-placed Cameron Thompson and Zak Baker, who each tallied 84 points. Ministock mania also runs a category for the less experienced youth racers with Blenheim’s Troy Cleveland the victor on 68 points, ahead of Nelson driver Riley-Jay Eathorne and Maiah Bishop from Canterbury.

Harwood wasn’t the only former champion testing out the overalls for size after time away from the sport with Cody Teece making a welcome return for the club stockcar champs. He did okay too, ending up in a runoff for third with Blenheim’s Scott Alexander and earning a place on the podium. Up there with him were Brad Neiman who racked up 55 points to defend his title and Michael Paynter. Pit gossip has one of those drivers eyeing a switch to superstocks next year — both would be a bonus. Neiman was in cracking touch with a win and two second placings but Paynter’s fifth-third-win record was handy too. Teece also won a heat. The field seemed equally divided between those who wanted to run and chase a place and those out to gun, led by Kurtis Bandy and Levi Collier.  Bandy cruised the pole line blocking Blenheim cars while Collier was predictably unpredictable. An early slap from Troy Currie was repaid with interest in turn two when Currie was wide in the marbles and almost stationary. Collier never lifted and clattered the front of Currie’s car, doing a lot of damage. Great top 10 finishes overall were posted by Morgan Dumelow (7th) and rookies Baiden Mailman-Byrman (8th) and Hamish Carter (9th).

TQs wrapped the night with Alicia Mclauchlan and Morgan Frost divvying up the early races before Shane Robertson bolted in heat three and couldn’t be caught. Frost ended the evening with 25 points, one clear of Mclauchlan, with Robertson on 20. Christiaan Fish put some challenging meetings (and a fair few competitors) behind him to be tied with Robertson, having recorded a couple of promising third placings.

Mclauchlan parks the TQ for Nelson’s next meeting and belts back into her Jacks Tyres sprintcar for the Donaldson Civil South Island sprintcar championship on March 17. After that, there’s just two days at Easter and a long, dreary off-season ahead.

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