THE PANTHERS ARE COMING

TIGERS HOPING TO EARN STRIPES

Written by Pete McNae

The Tigers versus the Panthers … it’s rivalry, it’s respect and it’s on this Saturday.  Two of the historical hubs of superstock racing – Nelson and Palmerston North – square off for the Challenge Cup in one of the most-anticipated meetings of the summer at the Milestone Homes Top of the South Speedway. It’s orange on black with a dash of Gisborne red lobbed in for good measure.

And yet, for the second year in a row, the MD Freighting Challenge Cup was almost allowed to remain under lock and key in the Palmerston North clubrooms. Last season, it took a natural disaster – the November earthquake – to disrupt the meeting. The Panthers were booked to travel but damage at the ferry terminals and priority for crucial freight meant the superstock team might have been stranded on the wrong side of Cook Strait. The message was “we will try again next year.”

And then next year rolled around and Nelson simply couldn’t find a team. They had raced in Palmerston North in February with two local cars (one of which is currently parked and for sale) and assistance from Hawke’s Bay, Rotorua and a stockcar driver from Whanganui. It wasn’t looking much more hopeful this season with two drivers willing, a couple of others uncertain, then out and the McCall Trophy race against Christchurch being shelved. Returning Tigers teams racer Alex Bright said the Challenge Cup was almost headed the same way.

“Until the middle of last week, we didn’t have the numbers and it looked like we were going to have to pull out and try again in future,” Bright said. “But Hig (Brendan Higgins) wasn’t going to allow that and he started making calls. It even caught me by surprise that it came together.”

Higgins, for so long the face and name of the Tigers, convinced Bright and team-mates Trevor Lineham and Anthony McKenzie to proceed with some outside assistance for the one-off race, then delivered Himatangi-based and Gisborne-registered Peter and Ethan Rees for Saturday’s clash. It’s a move that has a few backs up in Panther-land, Peter Rees was the spine of countless teams race victories while sporting a P and has passed on his teams racing nous to younger son, Ethan, but the reality is the Challenge Cup wouldn’t be happening without them.

“When I heard the Rees boys were slotting in, I was a bit blown away. They are the best in the business,” Bright said. “It had been a bit half pie and I had been ready to skip the idea of teams racing this season but now we have three Nelson cars and two guys for this race and we will see how Saturday goes – try to build from there.”

Bright hasn’t teams raced since December 2014 when he and Dale McKenzie turned in a spectacular drive against the Glen Eagles at Woodford Glen, systematically picking off Canterbury cars to win the McCall Trophy race. The 22-year-old engineer at D2C is remaining low key about his return to the four-on-four format after such a long break away.

“Having Pete and Ethan there will help the confidence, for sure. Racing in the same team as Peter Rees is something I never thought would happen so that’s a big plus, but we don’t have a lot of teams racing experience between Trev and Ants and me, so we are looking at it as a chance to learn and keep that Tigers name afloat. Without Hig and Shane (Harwood) and Kyle (Heibner), I doubt we would have been out there this season but now we can have a run on Saturday and see if there is something to build from that will get a Nelson team on the track in Palmy for the teams champs. It’s just one step at a time, right now.”

Bright made a big switch in the off-season, selling his previous chassis to Dwayne Whitfield and building his own new superstock, while swapping from Midwest Toyota to Hartley VVti Toyota. The car has performed well in its infancy with Bright coming within a point of claiming the Canterbury superstock championship at Woodford Glen last Saturday night. He made good ground in the first two heats and was right there in the third until some Canterbury traffic decided to make him work. The result was a runoff for the title with Harley Robb in the Brownlees-owned Rees Spanks 991C. Robb turned right off the start and pinned Bright on the wall, but he freed himself and waited for a final shot at Robb just before the finish of the four-lapper. Robb got in under the 10N car and had it pirouetting on its side – as close as you can come to a roll without landing on the roof.

“There’s a fair bit of damage and a lot to do to be ready but I’ll round the boys up. It’s payback for time spent fixing their cars each week,” Bright said. “It will be ready come Saturday, for sure.”

The Panthers team to travel was named today with Peter Bengston, Wayne Hemi, Jordan Dare, William Humphries, Bryn Liddell and Shane Mellsop getting the nod. However, there’s talk of other out of town cars coming in, along with the Panthers and the Rees cars, with interest from four North Islanders and possibly one or two from Christchurch. The three cash races should be a flashback to the Nelson numbers of just two seasons ago with between 15-20 cars on the grid, depending on the damage from the teams race. Bright admits that it’s hard to get the kind of track time required for championship meetings when there are six and seven Nelson club cars available but believes it’s all part of a process.

“We lost some top cars and drivers all at once and any club will feel the impact of that. What we do have is some quality so even winning a race in a field of six means you have to be on your toes because the other guys are all good. I hope Saturday is a step in getting some confidence in the class and gaining some experience – especially in teams racing, the more you race, the more you learn.

“It’s not going to be a tame race, just having Pete and Ethan in there means the Palmy guys will treat this as a bit of a slap in the face,” Bright said. “I know we are a bit raw and lack some experience but at some point, you bite the bullet and give it a go. I hope the crowd gets to see a good meeting. There’s a lot of superstock history in Nelson and finding a way to make this race happen means we have something to start from with a group of new drivers and some respected guys in behind us, helping us through it.”

  • Alex Bright’s 10N superstock is supported by D2C, Airco Systems and Service, Fletcher Easysteel, Jack’s Tyres, HiReach Access Solutions, Total Sheetmetal, Hartley Race Engines and mum (Rachel) and dad (David).
  • Nelson Tigers manager Kirsty Nicholls gives a huge shout out to Leanne and Gavin of Rodz, Ridez and Restorationz, Darrin at Thomason Contracting,  Steve of Foot Print Signs and the Nelson Speedway Association.
  • Saturday’s support promotions include hit to pass for stockcars,  the Mark Thorn Memorial for sidecars,  round two of club championships for both TQs and production saloons and youth ministock open races. Racing starts at 6pm on Saturday.
  • Entry forms for The Hits 89.6 30-lap Streetcar Race on December 30 and The Hits 89.6 demolition derby (January 27) are available now for download from nelsonspeedway.co.nz or at the Track Shack II in turn one. The rules have been structured so drivers can use the same vehicle for both meetings.

 

Alex Bright 2017 image, Tom Laney, www.imagepress.co.nz

Alex Bright Tigers teams racing 2014, courtesy of Brian Hopping, www.mainlandphotos.co.nz