IN THE DRIVER’S SEAT

The wind beneath his wings

 

Written by Pete McNae

 

There’s no 50 shades of clay for Nelson Speedway Association vice-president and sprintcar team owner Kevin Freeman. It’s black or white, wrong or right (if you don’t agree, you’re probably wrong) and he calls a spade a poor substitute for a grader or a track ripper. So when Freeman says of Sam O’Callaghan, “this kid knows what it’s all about,” then the 24-year-old Queenstown builder has some high-powered support.

O’Callaghan is the sole driver for the Freeman Motorsport team this season, contesting the Hydraulink War of the Wings and the other big South Island shows like the Gold Cup, the South Island champs and the plum, the New Zealand Sprintcar Championship, to be raced this summer on O’Callaghan’s home track in Cromwell. Freeman has run multiple cars in the past, usually two at most meetings with a third at home for spares and emergencies, but has decided to narrow his focus this season and take a run at it with one primary car and O’Callaghan as his contracted driver.

Things began promisingly too, with the 75N less than 0.1sec off the track record at the Milestone Homes Top of the South Speedway at an early practice meeting, followed by a similarly quick outing in Cromwell. Frustratingly, that form didn’t translate into a happy night in round one of War of the Wings at Ruapuna on Saturday. Rain during the week affected the track, creating ruts like canyons and O’Callaghan admits he had a mixed night at the helm.

“I didn’t start well, right from the time trials. There was a big rut and I managed to hit that so we were well down the bottom of the field. There was nothing wrong with the car except I put it in the wrong place and it cost me time when you really need to be spot on.”

Freeman, who guides the set up on the 75N car, changed shocks for the first heat, which was marred by multiple restarts. After starting off grid 5, O’Callaghan was back in eighth when the yellows were shown again with a couple of laps left. He got it all together after the final restart though, making up five places to finish third after a charge over those final two laps. More changes in the back of the car for heat two saw O’Callaghan running second but a spin sent him to the back and the best he could manage was to climb back to eighth. Those heats were good enough for automatic qualification to the A Main, though, and a grid start from the fifth row.

O’Callaghan ran the bottom of the track for much of the race, which went 23 laps before the first — and only yellow flag — before pushing up to the high line, but eighth overall wasn’t quite how the team wanted to start the season.

“The track was a mess and Sam didn’t just hit one rut, he found them all,” Freeman said. “But the car came back in one piece and we learned a few things we can bring to Nelson this weekend.”

Saturday sees round two of the War of the Wings with the Nelson round presented by Mike Rollo of Harcourts Real Estate. The 21-car field at Ruapuna might dwindle a little — Freeman anticipates 18 cars here as an economic slowdown in Canterbury bites — but that is more than enough on the tight Nelson track. The format will see time trials from 5.30pm, then three or four groups crossing over in heats before the 25-lap feature. The B Main won’t be required in Nelson with all entered cars going to the feature but passing can be a challenge so there will be a real emphasis on strong heat performances and gathering passing points for the overall series.

O’Callaghan is buoyed by that pre-season hit out that saw him 0.09sec off Nelson’s fastest lap of all time.

“I’ve raced there four times and in the first two, I struggled through [turns] 1 and 2 but that run we had in practice, even with just three cars on the track, opened my eyes,” he said. “The car has all the bits we need and Kevin and the crew are brilliant on the set up so it’s back to me to be on my game. Jamie [Duff], Luke [Keegan] and Connor [Rangi] were fast on Saturday but we can certainly put our car alongside them with a bit better luck and driver choices.”

O’Callaghan is in Queenstown now but home is Winton in Southland. While still at high school, he got interested in the Six Shooter class, wingless sprintcars that run six-cylinder motors. Uncle Jason Scott (along with Freeman, one of the most staunch supporters of sprintcar racing in the South Island) was an inspiration and O’Callaghan’s parents helped him into his first car. Over four seasons in Six Shooters, he cleaned up most of the trophies on offer before making a move into his own sprintcar, with three seasons in the class. But it’s not gone quite as smoothly with an expensive engine failure, and a head-on ride into the wall in Dunedin that heavily damaged the Triple X chassis. Then Freeman called.

“We were running a couple of cars and I had Steve Thompson (ex 1NZ modified pilot) in one and Rossco [Nelson’s Ross Troughton] in the other when he was free. And it was going okay because they are both great buggers and good drivers but we were doing two things a bit half-arsed. When Sambo crashed, I called him to see if he’d be interested in being our driver,” Freeman said. “I just like how he goes about his business … he’s aggressive but he isn’t out of control and he lives and breathes it. He will watch a race to learn, not just because it’s a good race, he’s seeing stuff and understanding what he sees.”

The clincher was the crew combination. Both O’Callaghan and Freeman run Triple X chassis, although Freeman’s Shark 410 cubic inch engine is a superior unit, but Freeman said his team and O’Callaghan’s crew of Carl Scully, James Mckeown and Jack Egerton, were on the same page. “They’re a good close-knit group,” Freeman said. “It’s a good fit with my guys.” Freeman also has a Maxim-Shaver ready if needed but “Sammy prefers the black car”.

The bonus is that O’Callaghan brought his sponsors across to the 75N car. Freeman’s trio of sprintcars has often carried lucrative-looking livery from huge international brewing companies. Don’t be fooled. There were no Budweiser bucks, no Coors cash. Freeman liked the beers so he put them on his cars. “I have basically always run with imaginary sponsors. Sam’s come in with all his support and I wasn’t expecting that — we would have worked together without it but it’s a bonus, for sure.”

O’Callaghan is enjoying his side of the partnership, too, and hopes it will be more than a one-season shot. “Kev’s put me in his car to win races so that’s the aim. If it goes well, hopefully we do the same next season. There aren’t many grey areas with Kevin — he wants the car to run the top and his driver to gas it up.

“People come to watch a show and that’s his way of thinking. He’s not interested in his drivers sitting safely for a seventh place. And I don’t like seventh either so the plan is to push and have some faith that we can start to make some progress.

“Those practice laps in Nelson show we are headed in the right direction but, with 27 dates in the calendar, we are going to have to deliver consistently to keep Kev happy.”

And, in the War of the Wings, happiness is a team owner with a few feature wins and a pocket full of passing points.

  • The Freeman Motorsport team runs this season with the support of longtime backers Lakeland Glass and Southern Edge Building , along with Remarkably Raw, MTF Finance Nelson, Valvoline, TNL International, Barnett’s Scaffolding, Nuroads Civil, Queenstown Hardfill, Design Art Signs, EZY Lift Cranes, Sun City Panel and Paint, Cyclo, Billy Bob’s Hotrod Emporium and the Track Shack.
  • Saturday will also see the first appearance of the season for midgets in a round of their Southern Series, there are streetstocks best pairs and the stockcars have been called back in after initially being on stand-down. A Tasman Thunder side will be chosen for a teams race at the December 8 meeting. Racing begins with Hydraulink War of the Wings sprintcar time trials from 5.30pm.

 

Images courtesy of Josh Thomas (Josh’s Speedway Photography) on Facebook and Joseph Johnson Photographer (also through Facebook)