Written by Pete McNae

It’s taken Craig Tatnell the best part of 30 years to become an overnight sensation. When the team list for the Dean’s Truck Services Tasman Thunder was announced at the end of the last meeting at Nelson’s Milestone Homes Top of the South Speedway, Tatnell was right in there alongside regulars Michael Paynter, Adam Hall, John Everett, Brad Neiman and fellow first timer Dylan Clarke. On form, his selection is no surprise – but Tatnell’s resume might open a few eyes.

His dad, Andy, was there way back at the beginning of speedway in Nelson, even before the club began racing at the current Lansdowne Rd site. Young Craig went along as a tot, focused on the racing while others his age were collecting lumps of clay and chowing down on hot dogs. As soon as he was allowed, 16 back then, Tatnell got his first streetstock. “You could get your licence at 15, but I had to wait til I was 16 to race,” says the 47-year-old crane truck driver. “I had already been going out there all my life so I was really keen to get into it.”

He raced streeties for three seasons before buying his first stockcar, an ex-Wayne Wilding wagon from Christchurch. After that, Tatnell built his own and, in a departure from the usual path, chose to power it with a Nissan V6. Sam Woodford had considered using a Mitsubishi V6, although that never saw the track, but Tatnell saw the potential in a lightweight Japanese motor when Falcon 6s, or Ford/Chev/Holden/Rover V8s were the weapons of choice. Then came a move to a quad cam V6 and, although it was a pig of a thing and kept blowing up, Tatnell had stumbled on something significant.

“I believe I was the first to put a quad cam motor in an A grade (as the current superstocks were called). I didn’t have the budget to develop it or even keep it alive some of the time but Tony Mac (McLanachan) came down from Wellington for a teams race and the next season he came out with the original Silver Bullet with the quad cam V8. Now almost every superstock in the pits has a Toyota or Nissan in it, so I guess, 26 years ago, we started something that caught on.”

Tatnell was able to hang in a Nelson field that included the likes of Craig Boote, Brendan Higgins, Jason Moir, Dave Hewitt and Nick Fowler on no budget and with a fraction of the power, but fixing stockcars was getting old. “I was married, working a lot and then the motor kept blowing and I just ran out of enthusiasm for all the work it took to get three races, if I was lucky. I sold the car to a guy in Wellington in ‘91 and got out of speedway.”

While Tatnell occasionally went to Nelson’s championship meetings, it was almost a clean break for more than two decades, until three seasons ago. With the stockcar class well-established and a couple of items he was keen to tick off before he had too many birthdays, Tatnell bought an ex-Colin Cameron stockcar from Christchurch on the recommendation of friend and another fellow Tigers teams racer, Dennis Andreassend. He hadn’t even seen the car and concedes that it’s taken until now, his third summer in the 44N, to get it to where he wants it. There was no shortage of speed but the handling and setup have taken some work and it had made Tatnell a bit of a target for a wall ride in the past. “I wanted to teams race but I said to Frosty (Thunder selector Tony Frost), I can’t be sure of getting away from a hit or putting a hit on with the car handling as it was. This season, that’s sorted, so I put my name forward for selection.”

Tatnell was duly picked for the Thunder, who on Saturday, will defend their Nelson Automotive Solutions and Jacks Tyres Stockcar Teams Brawl title against the Southern Spartans from Invercargill, Greymouth’s Grizzlies and the Canterbury Crushers. All four teams will meet each other across three rounds, meaning six teams races with very tight turnarounds.  Teamwork, on the track and in the pits, will be vital.

“I wanted to teams race again, it’s been a long time since the Tigers and Vipers days and I like the idea of being part of a group of guys who go out there to represent the club. One of the things I was hoping to achieve when I bought this car was to race in the North Island – I have never done that so if I happen to get picked to race in Auckland at the nationals, I could tick that off and hopefully stop in at Palmy or somewhere to pick up another track before we come home. I guess, first I have to do okay this Saturday. With teams racing, you can go out with the best plan in the world and have it all change by the second lap. Guys like Michael and Adam are very good teams racers and everyone says Frosty is brilliant at preparing the team so I will be given a job to do and I’ll do whatever I can.”

At 47, Tatnell says the clock is ticking again and he has the car on the market. “You know how I said I got sick of working on the thing back in 1991, well, there’s still a lot of work and time involved. But I am enjoying the fact that, this time around, I have a competitive car and that gives me the chance to look like a better driver and taste a little bit of success, so I’m mostly glad I let the bug bite me again. It’s one last bash for me and if the car sells, I can say I got the chance to run with the quick guys, got to teams race it and had that opportunity to race in the North Island at last.”

  • The Nelson Automotive Solutions and Jacks Tyres Stockcar Teams Brawl will see four teams race in six teams races on Saturday. The winner will be the team with the most points after the round robin racing. Currently, the trophy is held by the Dean’s Truck Services Tasman Thunder who were leading when night two of last season’s Brawl in March was rained off.
  • Other features from 6pm include the Dave Scott Memorial for superstocks (two heats plus feature, highest points off pole), sidecars will compete for the Brett Lusty Memorial Trophy and there’s open racing for super saloons and streetstocks. The McCall Trophy superstock teams race won’t be raced this weekend, with the Nelson Speedway Association hoping to run it later in the season.
  • Craig Tatnell’s 44N stockcar is supported by BCL Crane and Cartage, Jack’s Tyres and Designart along with crew members Matt Evans and Aidan Hogarth.

Photos by Tom Laney,