Written by Pete McNae

Jason Smith started an apprenticeship in his mid-40s. The chief executive and owner, with wife Natarsha, of Smithconcept Construction, knew about business and was pretty good at it too, employing a staff of up to 100 in the pressure phases of the Canterbury rebuild, but in a sprintcar, he was the new chum.

Smith was no speedway rookie; he’d had a long and colourful career in superstocks but the 47-year-old is the first to admit that sprintcars are a whole different kettle of romping, stomping, kick arse race cars. Almost everything he knew about speedway was rendered obsolete in the space of a few 12 second laps.

“Without that front bumper, you get yourself in and out of trouble in a different way,” Smith said. “The acceleration and the exhilaration – there’s nothing like it. You can see why this is the elite class worldwide. I loved superstocks, loved teams racing, loved being able to rub someone along the wall. When that ended for me, I wasn’t sure if I’d find something that thrilled me in the same way but sprintcars absolutely do.”

On Saturday, Smith and his team’s 89N Maxim will be part of a strong field for the first of two Nelson rounds in the Hydraulink War of the Wings (the other is in January) at the Milestone Homes Top of the South Speedway. It wasn’t that long ago that the class was a sideshow in the South Island, half a dozen ageing cars with a couple of modifieds thrown in to make up numbers.  Last weekend at Ruapuna’s War of the Wings round, 28 cars lined up to qualify – modern machinery averaging around 800 horsepower apiece, towed in plush, enclosed trailers carrying a full array of spares and backed up by posters, T-shirts and slick promotion. Smith says the South Island class is the envy of others.

“We don’t have the bickering between tracks they do in the North, and that’s possibly because we all came along later from pretty humble beginnings and have done as much as we can to grow the class together instead of being rivals and trying to squash others down. In saying that, Jason Scott, Kevin Freeman and Greg Hiddleston are the backbone and the reason we have 30-plus good cars and this outstanding series. They won’t look for recognition but they’ve loaned cars, shared parts, done deals and given people their own stuff to get another car on the track – then grown this series to the point where the North Island drivers look across the strait and want what we have going down here.”

Other key contributors to the burgeoning success of the series are hardworking committee members AJ Batt, Alistair Kelso and Tarsh Smith, along with a commitment to sharing the rewards — travel money is generous and prizemoney is paid out in such a way that you don’t need to be on the podium to see some return on your investment.

Saturday’s meeting in Nelson should attract a field of 20, more than enough on the club’s cozy oval, for four crossover heats, a B Main and a 25-lap A Main feature race. Smith had the best of the field at Nelson’s fireworks meeting, running 12.0 second laps as he won the Trackman Trophy, but it will be much tougher this weekend.

Smith said you only had to look at last weekend’s Ruapuna round for evidence of how the threats can come from all directions. Nelson teenager Connor Rangi, who got a taste last year in a leased car, ran second in the A Main, pushing Daniel Anderson all the way to the flag. The Rangi family team had an expensive wreck in Nelson a week earlier but rebuilt the car and Connor’s dad, Andrew, made an astute call to set the car up to run low on the track in Ruapuna. “I was stoked for them,” Smith said. “It’s a family team without the big trailer and all the shiny bits, Connor has maybe a hundred more horsepower than he had last season and he was out there doing it last Saturday, he drove so smoothly and was really pressuring Daniel. We had some bad luck and took a little bump that broke a cheap part so I got a great view from the middle. I’d rather have been trying to catch him, but that’s what the South Island class is about – if it’s not your night, you get in behind the other teams.”

It might seem surprising that a Canterbury based team, who first got involved crewing for an Invercargill stockcar driver, has teams raced superstocks for the Glen Eagles and does business in Christchurch and Auckland (“you seal deals here with red wine and lattes, rather than Speights”) carries an N on the car and is an active sponsor of the Nelson Speedway Association, until you hear Smith explain the reasoning.

“Through my superstock years, we raced with and against some fantastic people and you make lifelong friends. It just happens that many of our closest friends and the people we enjoy being around are involved with the Nelson club. It’s absolutely no disrespect to Ruapuna at all but it helps the Nelson club to apply for national meetings when they have numbers, they’ve always been great to deal with but, mostly, it’s just the fact we have some really special friends there.”

Smith’s superstock days ended with a bad crash at the World 240s in Rotorua – a crash that cost him a broken back, headaches for 18 months, complete memory loss for a week after the incident – but he is revelling in his second chance in speedway.

“I had my second big crash and then we lost a very dear friend in Gary Ellis way too soon, Tarsh and I are grandparents to six lovely grandkids and the business was soaking up a lot of time and energy so we could have taken that all as a sign and walked away to focus on other things but I’m certainly not regretting giving this class a go,” Smith said. “In the early days, I got taught a few hard lessons – we wrecked 13 top wings in our first half-season but I think I’ve earned a place in the field now and it’s starting to come together more consistently, thanks to an awesome crew and family of sponsors.

“This War of the Wings is the real deal now, the bar goes up every year with the number of entries, the presentation of the race cars and the show that goes with it. I’m an old superstock guy at heart but I’m loving serving my apprenticeship in sprintcars, they really are a little bundle of fun.”

  • The 89N XLR8 Motorsport Maxim races with the support of Hella Motorsport, Patchell Stainless, Bairds Collision Centre, Smithconcept Construction, Clarkson Sign Studio, HDPS, Evolve Hygienic Engineering, SADT, Tyre General (Christchurch), Newlands Auto Electrical, Truckers Pride and Mr X. Crew members are Tarsh Smith and crew chief Laurie, along with Nigel, Ashley, Wog, Bryan, Toby and Garth while the Smith team appreciate the advice and assistance of the Duff family, Forsey family, Greg Hiddleston and Kevin Freeman.
  • Saturday’s programme from 6pm features the Hydraulink Sprintcar War of the Wings, hit to pass for superstocks along with production saloons, youth ministocks and a streetstocks teams race between the Richmond Exhaust and Radiator Nelson Knights and the Canterbury Cobras from Woodford Glen.