Kihikihi Kings: On a march to the throne

Despite this season having just wrapped up, eyes are already looking forward to the next season of Superstock teams racing, which shapes up to be one of the most competitive campaigns in years gone by.

This year’s titles have been spread far and wide, with the Canterbury Glen Eagles winning the highly coveted New Zealand Superstock Teams Championship in Palmerston North, the Auckland Allstars recently taking the Teams Invitation in Huntly and the Kihikihi Kings emerging victorious at Waikaraka Park in the Teams Nationals in the weeks prior.

With the likes of the Panthers, Hawkeyes, Scrappers and Busters having been through varying periods of success, each to their own, the new age is bringing about the emergence of some immense talent and some absolutely stacked line-ups.

Undoubtedly, the Kihikihi Kings are one of those teams, fronted by influential manager Euan Means who has tapped into a driver market of varying levels of expertise, positioning the team in a manner that makes them hard to overlook for any forthcoming competition.

Next to Means’ side is experienced campaigner Mitch Vickery, no stranger to the sport, having achieved success in recent years with accolades, including Stockcar 3NZ in 2020 and Superstock 3NZ just a year later.

Asher Rees is another campaigner who needs no introduction, the current 1NZ paving his own legacy in the sport despite coming from a family who could all be labelled greats in their own right. While Rees’s successes have predominantly come in solo racing, his prowess in teams racing this year should be something of concern for competitors nationwide.

“I think the best he’s ever teams raced was this year at Waikaraka Park and then again in Huntly,” says Means.

“In terms of individual racing, and I’ve said this for a while, I don’t think there’s ever been anyone close to Asher Rees.

The Kings were outpowered by the Allstars at the Huntly Invitation. Image: James Selwyn

“For teams racing, it’s good to have the 1NZ in there. I think he’s come of age this year. I think the best I’ve ever seen him was in Auckland. Sometimes having someone like Asher is detrimental to having in your team environment because he’s such an attraction.

“He attracts a lot of attention on the track, which makes it a little bit easier for guys like Mitch, who in his own right is an exceptional team racer and could easily make any team in the country.”

While the Kings’ raw pace and running abilities are often at the forefront of the display, there’s also a significant amount of work going on further back, with veteran Gavin Taniwha leading a defensive line-up capable of challenging any of the country’s top runners.

“Going out, I think the pressure and the targeting are on Asher, but by the same token, in our team at the moment, you’ve got to look at Gavin Taniwha as the best teams racer in the country, and that was identified ages ago,” Means continues. “You’ve got to have a good block man to win races.

“I think Gavin has proven that to a lot of people who have been sitting there watching what he can do with their mouths hanging open, to be honest, because in Auckland Gav’s car was under development. It was a development car when we raced it at Palmy with a BMW motor.

“It was the first race it had ever had. It went well, but we weren’t happy with some of the stuff it was doing, so we quickly changed that out and it wasn’t available for Waikaraka.

“You can pretty much chuck Gav in any car; he goes out there and performs like a champion.”

Coming from humble beginnings, Taniwha attributes his successes to those who have helped him along the way, including none other than Peter Rees.

“I was doing adult Mini Stocks and was sharing a car with my son Chev, and that’s how I got into the sport,” says Taniwha. “Peter Rees must have taken a little notice and gave me a drive of his car when he had a sit-out period.

“Because of Peter Rees, for some reason, he gave me a drive of one of the top Stockcars back in the day, and he’d been knocked out, or something like that, in one of the teams races, so he offered me a drive, and I raced that car for about three meetings.

“He must have seen something he liked in me, and he acquired the old track car that Peter Bengston used to race as a Superstock, and we got that as a roller and put a standard Holden V6 in it and went racing from there.

“We made the Steelers in the first season and won in Huntly. Then we won the New Zealand Stockcar Teams championship down in Wellington.

“That’s how the teams racing side of things started, and then it progressed from there, really.”

Following multiple moves over his decorated career, Taniwha announced his retirement from the sport in 2017, when a regular spot was hard to come by in the stacked Gisborne Giants.

The Giants and the Kings went to war at Waikaraka Park with Kihikihi winning a thriller. Image: Wayne Drought

“Form-wise, I’ve always said to myself, if I’m no longer in the starting line-up, then the writings on the wall,” he stated in that announcement.

Despite retiring, Taniwha continued to make cameo appearances around the country, often with son Chev who was also making a splash in the scene. It was an incident involving Chev, Taniwha says, that almost made him give up the sport for good.

“I happened to be given a drive with the old track car and was teams racing up in Auckland with my son, Chev,” he says. “He broke his neck in a teams race up there, which was really traumatic.

“I basically didn’t want anything to do with Speedway after that, and stayed away from the place for a season and a half and gave away all my trophies and ribbons and everything.”

The brutal nature of the sport was something Taniwha had also cited in his retirement announcement, saying, “The head knocks in teams racing is a concern; there have been times I have come off the track and couldn’t remember what happened or where my trailer was parked. You only get one brain; mine was already rather limited, lol.”

Ultimately, the Kings got Taniwha back into the car, a welcome addition who has done wonders in his time onboard.

“Euan and Mitch Vickery brought me back into the fold, so I’ve got a lot to thank them for. Those two were the instigators,” he says.

Of course, three people don’t make a team, with Vickery, Rees, and Taniwha joined by the more-than-capable Shane Mellsop, a decorated racer who has racked up an impressive record over a career that has spanned many years.

Having all four of these drivers on track at once, Means says, would put the Kings in the running for any championship. That’s something easier said than done, however.

“All teams have their luck and have been unlucky,” said Means, “but we’ve never really had a final where we’ve had our top four on the paddock at once, and that’s been like that for three or four years, with the likes of babies, or illness, or whatever. So if we could field Mitch, Asher, Gav and Shane, for example, all on the paddock at once, we probably would have had a few more titles, to be fair, in the last four years.

“The Palmy Teams is something every team wants to win, and I feel that if we can turn up with Asher, Mitch and Gav all on there at the same time, it’ll be a different story from what it has been in the past.”

Taniwha shares these sentiments, pointing out occasions where a complete line-up could have painted a different picture this year.

1NZ Asher Rees has had a year to remember in teams racing. Image: Wayne Drought

“We lost Asher in the Palmy Teams against Christchurch, and we lost a few numbers, but then we were unfortunate with Roigard rolling himself over; it’s just a bit of a luck thing, it just didn’t swing our way, which it could have. If Roigard stayed up and Asher wasn’t taken out. I was the last one running. It’s pretty hard to block for a team when you’ve got no runners left.”

“Of this season, I think Asher at Waikaraka was outstanding. I missed Huntly because I was shifting house that weekend. But then I heard Mitch Vickery came out of a cold because he’s pretty much sat out this season, but he was outstanding as well.”

The Kings finished third in Huntly this year, losing to the Allstars in the semi-finals.

The rotating line-ups have produced an unseen benefit, however, with a range of younger talent presented with opportunities to perform at the top level, given the absence of one or more of the stars.

The likes of Stefan Roigard, Matt Picard, Matt Nielsen, and Dion Henderson have all had hit outs this year, capitalising on the opportunity to impress while surrounding themselves with the wealth of talent present in the King’s stalwarts.

“You’ve got to try and fold them over,” says Means, discussing the succession planning in place in the team. “That’s what we’re trying to do at Huntly by giving Dion Henderson a run because we’ve got the Kings Stockcar team, which is a feeder to the Superstock team, so many of those guys are keen on getting through to Superstock and moving on.

“We have to, obviously,” he continues. “You can go out and search for drivers, and we do get approached every year from a few drivers who say, ‘Hey, look, we’re coming’, but I think they come with the intention that they’re going to get in the team straight away, and it’s not the case. You’ve got to earn your place.

“Everyone’s welcome at Kihikihi, 100 per cent. It’s just that for the Superstock team, you’ve got to put your hand up and prove your goods before you get a spot. For those guys that are racing there now, if they go off the boil, there are enough drivers there to put a little bit of heat on them to make sure they’re meeting the requirements from a teams point of view.”

The value of the youth is also identified by Taniwha, who recognises the importance they have in the future of the Kings, but also how important the experience of the veterans plays a part.

“It’s very important [to have a mix]. In some teams, like the Rotorua Rebels, there was a bit of youth, but you need a couple of older heads in there,” he says.

“I think you do need a bit of a mixture. I think I offer a bit of calmness. I don’t say a lot, and I’m pretty relaxed before a meeting. I’ll quite happily have a snooze or stretch out before we hit the track.”

“He gives it 110 per cent; that’s all you can ask,” he says about Rees. “It’s just down to us new guys to hold the team together. We’ve got the young blood in Picard, Nielson and Roigard to fill those voids and perform.

“Obviously, I get a kick in the arse if I don’t perform.”

75K Gavin Taniwha has been a force for the Kings this season. Image: Wayne Drought

The experience of Rees, Taniwha and Vickery is a fundamental asset in this regard, with Picard recognising their influence as a significant benefit to have on hand when he made his debut at Waikaraka Park last month.

“To have Asher, he’s been there and done it back-to-back,” says Picard. “He’s one of the best to be doing it. In those team meetings, Euan’s the manager, but Asher acts like one. He’s got the knowledge, as does Mitch Vickery. You can’t learn from any better people.

“I probably wouldn’t want to do it learning off anyone else. I’m in unreal hands. They’re such good talkers, and they can teach it well. You try to learn from some people, and they don’t really teach you that well, but they’re really good at it.

“Gav’s done that many teams races for that many different teams; he could tell you about different environments and how good it is in the Kings’ environment. He could just about fall asleep before a teams race; he’s done that many.”

Since their return from an extended hiatus, the Kings have two major awards to show for, the first being the Huntly Invitation last year, followed most recently by their victory at Waikaraka Park, which proved the first was no fluke.

However, Taniwha admits luck was on their side at that event when Ethan Rees was looking likely for Gisborne in the final.

“I think at Waikaraka, we were very lucky,” he says. “I don’t think we should overlook the fact that I didn’t see Ethan coming at 100 mph behind me when he snotted me, and that stuffed his battery up, which basically put his car on limp mode, as far as I know. We were really lucky. If that didn’t happen, they would have won easily, and we’d be talking a different story.

“There was a bit more luck, too, because in Auckland Asher could have quite easily landed on his backside with the car not going, but it worked out,” he continues, referencing the superb rollover Rees executed on Gary Lonergan in their second race, which almost also tipped the 1NZ.

Despite their successes, one major trophy escapes the team, with the New Zealand Teams Championship a noticeable blip on the record.

The preparation towards a tilt at that next season has already begun, with the team and drivers using the long off-season as a chance to gear up for the charge.

“We’ve probably been a little bit slack the last couple of years with organisation compared to what we used to be, off the track. Now we’re just looking to regroup, get some new sponsors and get organised,” Means states.

“The hard work starts now, the preparation for next season. A few of the boys are getting new cars, and we’ve highlighted some areas that need to be improved. One of those areas is the gear. If you come up against teams like Gisborne, regardless of how good they are individually, you’ve still got to race as a team. When you look at how good some of their gear is, though, you’re on the back foot; you don’t have that top-of-the-line stuff to roll out with.

“That’s our plan moving forward to ensure these boys have gear up to standard.

“We’ll do a season review in June and have a recap on who’s keen to keep going and carrying it on, which I think most of them are ready to go again.”

Taniwha admits he’s one of those sticking around, preparing for another campaign on the dirt.

“I sort of have to because Euan owns my car,” he laughs. “A lot of it is dependent on himself. If he decides that’s it, then unless someone else gets me a car, I don’t have the budget or funds to own a car myself.

Shane Mellsopp holds off a charging Peter Rees in the final at Waikaraka Park. Image: Wayne Drought

“I appreciate what Euan and Jo Means have done for me. I couldn’t see why I couldn’t continue because I’d just moved house. I’m out in the country now, so it’s certainly a more user-friendly place to have a Stockcar, but I was smack in the middle of Palmy before, with seven different neighbours.

“So now I’ve got that sorted out, I’ve got the space and have a new shed going up. Healthwise, I’m in as good knick as I’ve ever been. I just need to sort my eyesight out a little; it’s starting to catch up with me”

Means also admits he’s hanging around, determined to deliver the club some more silverware.

“It’s a good club; they’re really supportive, so at this stage, there’s not much chance of me doing anything else.”

While not directly commenting on Rees’s future, he does recognise the rumour mill is always turning when it comes to such a calibre of a competitor, somewhat mimicking football’s transfer window deadline day.

“Every year people say Asher’s leaving, just for the sake of it, but this is probably the longest he’s been at a club.”

Picard recognises that joining a successful team has been beneficial towards his development, something which will continue to appeal to the stars of the future and anyone looking to join the club.

“I’m sticking it out with Kihikihi next year. Euan’s given me more opportunities to keep me there and give me more teams racing,” he says. “All I want to do is keep teams racing. I love it.

“When I was in Stratford, I was in the Scrappers, I was named in the wider squad at the start of the season two years ago, but that’s nothing compared to this.

“From doing the team talks before and after the race to discuss how we went, with all the atmosphere that’s around is pretty big, and trying to learn off that is really important.

“Those team talks are just so brutal, and you didn’t think they’d be like that. You’ve got to take in everything. If you get told something like, ‘You’ve got to do four laps, and I want to see where you’re at, if you’re going to be running or blocking’.

“All that knowledge can come in, but it won’t pay off on the track if it comes in one ear and goes out the other. Being in an environment like that is such a good environment.

“Moving forward with the Kings and me, the more teams races I get, the better I’ll get. The goal is going to Palmy. That’s a dream I want to do, and that’s my main goal to get there, but the more teams races I get, the better,” he continues.

“I’m watching millions and millions of videos during the week on how I can get better and asking how I can get better.

“Also, with my car, we went up to Auckland with it, and there were a couple of things we didn’t bring because we didn’t know we had to bring them, like spares and those little bits and pieces. Now we know.”

It should be seen that a significant number of stakeholders have contributed towards the revival of the Kings, with mechanics and sponsors alike having positioned the team in a manner that makes them a force to be reckoned with.

Means identifies the relationship with the Kihikihi Stockcar team as pivotal for the Superstocks, with their crews able to ensure that off-track activities remain harmonious with that on-track.

“With the connection with the Stockcar team, obviously, when the Stockcar team’s racing, the majority of our crew will go and help them, and vice-versa,” the manager states.

“That’s been a really good part of joining the Stockcar to the Superstock team because we get the likes of Dion Henderson, his dad and a few of their friends. There are always a couple of trucks with welding gear.

“We’re very fortunate with what we can do between a race. Apart from blowing a motor up, there’s no way we wouldn’t get a car out, let’s put it that way. We’re probably one of the better-equipped teams between races, and that is super, super important nowadays, especially because the race programs hardly ever go to plan.

“Sometimes you don’t have much time to get back out and get your gear sorted. I would say half of the strength around the Kings is the ability to be able to repair in between races.”

There are also the sponsors, crucial contributors who, quite frankly, without, the team wouldn’t exist. Investors from near and far have provided valuable input to the Kings, none more so than AP Group, who have been naming rights sponsors since the team’s re-birth.

Matt Picard leads the parade as the Kings prepare for war at Waikaraka Park. Image Wayne Drought

“The AP Group have been there from the start, but this was their last year, so we were on the hunt for a naming rights sponsor,” says Means.

“I can tell you now that we’ve got Rawson Plumbing from Te Awamutu, so it’s good to have a local company that’s connected to the Kings that have been with us since year two. Now they’re standing up to become the naming rights sponsor.

“The connection with The Cobb has also always been very important. The most expensive trip we do is the one to Palmy, with accommodation, food, and everything else, so The Cobb is essential to the team as one of the big sponsors. They’ve been with us since about Year 2 and are continuing on.

“Obviously, there’s a real connection with Speedway Garage as well, but there’s a lot of little sponsors in there that help immensely. Every single one is really important.”

With the 2022/23 season not long done but the 2023/24 season just around the corner, it’s hard to overlook the Kihikihi Kings as a genuine contender for some much-deserved success.

A well-balanced synergy between blockers and runners alike paints a picture of promise for the years ahead for the Kihikihi Kings, with a varying degree of racers based on experience and roles set to head to war as soon as the days get longer and warmer and the rain (hopefully) goes away.

Standing in their way, however, remain title-contending teams from across the country, each deserving of their own silverware and feature article in this magazine.

While winter has only just begun, summer can’t come soon enough for the Kihikihi faithful.

June 2023: Welcome

I’d love to thank our subscribers and followers for their readership and kind messages of support and praise over the month. It really is a motivator to hear how well the content from our fist issue has been received.

Before we get into it this month, I’d like to issue an apology for a couple of delays. Our last issue was on time to print and our distributors but was unfortunately delayed in making it to the end user, by the vagaries of NZ Post.

This month, we are slightly behind schedule, largely due to an untimely dose of Covid which hit me hard over the days before the deadline.

I’d would like to commend Allan Batt for his contribution this month; ‘When God Raced in Paradise”, an in-depth piece of writing reviewing the great AJ Foyt’s visits to New Zealand. As you’re aware, we’re still new to this gig and this was a welcome addition through educating us with some history.

There’s a lot of love for the Superstocks in this issue following teams competitions at Waikaraka Park and Huntly since we last went to print. It’s only fitting our feature focuses on one of those teams, the Kihikihi Kings. It’s been awesome to chat with Euan Means, Matthew Picard and the great Gav Taniwha for this article, and I thank them for their time. I hope I’ve done your team justice.

We’ve also included an opinion piece from Jody Scott discussing the NZ title rotation system, which we took to Speedway NZ to get a response. Their reply is on the pages following his piece.

I’d also like to take the time to emphasise the points made by Speedway New Zealand President Ricky Boulton in the middle of the magazine.

Baypark up-and-comer sticks it on the tarmac

It’s been a busy summer for Baypark up-and-comer Ayrton Hodson, who has been busy at work in the Sprintcar and competing on the tarmac around the country.

The 18-year-old from Katikati has been racing in the renowned Toyota 86 Championship, as well as having a recent outing in the Golden Homes North Island Endurance Series 1-Hour race at Hampton Downs.

Along the way, he’s shown maturity beyond his years, showing dirt track racers have what it takes to stick it on the tarmac.

Starting at Baypark at just 12 years old, Hodson quickly got up to speed in Ministock and progressed to Six Shooters before eventually settling in for a full Sprintcar campaign this season gone.

His early achievements included success in the ‘ Future of Speedway’, first in the third tier of Ministocks in Paradise, second in the Waikato Champs and second in the 0800 Muscle Six Shooter Series, among others.

Hodson wears a similar livery in the Toyota 86 Championship. Image Bruce Jenkins

However, his transition to the big leagues early this season didn’t necessarily immediately go to plan, but in true Baypark fashion, he bounced back to achieve some strong results.

“I didn’t start well; we had a tip over on opening night, five laps into our first heat,” he told NZ Dirt Track Racing Magazine.

“That didn’t start well, but we’ve kind of made really good gains after each meeting. In our third meeting, we had a top five, which was really cool.”

It’s been a season of ups and downs at Baypark for the youngster, who admits that it’s been a massive step up.

“A lot of the time we’ve just had bad luck. We’ve had fuelling issues for about half the meetings we’ve been let down on fuel issues. It’s definitely been up and down; there’s been a few highs, but I think the lows outnumber the highs [this season], unfortunately, but otherwise, we’ve been taking really good steps forward.”

It’s always easy to let the lows outweigh the highs, but the signs are definitely promising for the youngster, who, in only his third Sprintcar outing at Baypark, stunned the field to take fifth in November’s Bay Circuit of Dreams Feature.

The next time he competed at the venue, in the massive ‘Bay International Superstars’ event, Hodson was also on point, with particular regard to Heat 2, where he finished third, upstaging the likes of Jonathan Allard and Shane van Gisbergen.

While he wasn’t able to finish in the Feature, it did showcase what he was capable of in front of a massive crowd and a host of renowned international drivers.

But the dirt oval exposure wasn’t enough for Hodson, however, as he then committed to a Toyota 86 campaign.

Hodson, along with Brett Sullivan, topped their class in the recent 1-Hour Golden Homes North Island Endurance Series race at Hampton Downs. Image Neville Bailey

“It’s certainly something new, but I’ve had my eye on it for a while, and it appeals because of how competitive it is,” he said when the announcement was made.

“We’re under no illusions as to how tough this will be with most of the competitors having run Karts or other forms of circuit racing already.

“Of course the Toyota 86 is a complete contrast to the oval cars I have driven and particularly the Sprintcars. Those cars have absolutely loads of power (800bhp+) and limited grip but the Toyota has limited power and absolutely heaps of grip. That’s a new process for me and I’m really enjoying learning it.

“The Sprint Car is almost instinctive in terms of lines, but there’s definitely a fast way and a slow way around the circuit in the 86. The engineering side is also very different because, of course, we cannot really get any track data out of the sprint car, and an in-car camera is as far as you can go when it comes to collecting any information.

“Everyone has been really helpful getting me up to speed on that side of things, and it’s exciting knowing exactly where you can be quicker in the 86 and whether you have the right braking points, throttle level and things like that. It’s really interesting for me.”

The differences between Sprintcar and Toyota 86 racing need little explaining, ranging from a hugely different car to a completely different style of racing.

For Hodson, that was expected, but one element, in particular, caught him by surprise. “I think how close the tarmac racing is,” he said when asked what the most eye-opening moment was of the transition.

“With all the cars being completely identical, the racing is super close, which I didn’t think it would be like.

“The door-to-door stuff has been a real challenge for me.”

“In Sprintcars, we really aren’t door-to-door a lot of the time, but I think the more racing kind of part has been the real challenge for me switching over.”

His tarmac racing debut at Highlands Motorsport Park did go to plan, where the ultimate aim was to walk away from the round a better driver.

The talented 18-year-old shows signs of becoming a star of the future. Image James Selwyn

“Highlands went well; we were near the back-ish most the weekend,” he says, “but we had some good battles and made some good passes and had a straight car at the end, which is always good.

“It was definitely a really cool experience. We didn’t start off well with quite limited testing; I think we had three to five test days in the 86 in total before our first race weekend.”

From then, his progression has been easy to see, most evident in the practice sessions ahead of each round, where he’s gone from averaging the 15th-fastest time at Highlands to averaging fourth, most recently at Manfeild.

Hodson’s big breakthrough, however, came at Taupo, where he qualified on the front row before driving to an incredible podium in the opening race.

“Yea, that was awesome,” he stated, evidently grinning through the phone. “The team gave me a bloody good car for qualifying, and we put it on the front row on the last lap of qualifying, which was even sweeter. To come away with a podium and even lead a couple of laps as well was awesome.”

Since then, the Toyota 86 Championship has been slightly more rigid on the Baypark 28M, with the latest round at Manfeild producing two unfortunate DNFs and an 18th.

Such results are character-building and an unfortunate part of racing for any driver. Ultimately, it’s the way you bounce back which matters. He has the opportunity to do just that in the championship’s final round at Hampton Downs on the first weekend of this month.

He currently sits 12th in the standings as the fourth-best rookie.

Back at Baypark, Hodson’s continued to run in the Sprintcar whenever possible, evidently continuing to better himself by failing to finish outside the top 10 more often than not in every race he’s finished this year. Along the way, he’s secured several more top-three finishes in heats.

That elusive first Feature podium, and win, is well within reach.

Most recently, Hodson ventured out in a Z4 M Coupe in the Golden Homes North Island Endurance Series 1-Hour at Hampton Downs on April 22, in Class 4 &5.

Sharing his drive with the ever-fast Cantabrian Brett Sullivan, the duo faced limited runtime in Friday’s practice due to electrical issues with the car.

A wet Saturday greeted the pair, but they relented, driving to overall class honours in a trying race that presented plenty of drama.

Hodson in action at Baypark. Image James Selwyn

It should be noted that the entire race was run on a wet tarmac track, further emphasising Hodson’s adaptability to perform at a high level on any surface presented.

They’ll return to action in the 1-Hour at Taupo later this month before heading to the South Island Endurance Series, where strong results will further cement their claim to the crown.

As it stands, Ayrton Hodson is a genuine possibility to be a New Zealand Endurance Series Champion by year-end.

Of course, at such a young age, a time will come when a decision needs to be made as to where his career heads.

For now, however, New Zealand dirt track and circuit racing fans will get to enjoy watching this talented youngster continue to grow.

“I love doing both,” he says. “There will come a point where I have to pick one or the other, but at the moment, we’re still exploring options and what kind of paths we can take with dirt and tarmac. It’s still kind of a plan in progress at the moment, I guess.”

With the backing of his father, fellow Baypark regular Paul Hodson, and sponsors including the likes of Llama Racefuel, Llama Engineering, Liquimoly, Raceworks, Eye Spy

Security, BOP Signs and Pacific Toyota, there’s little telling where this talented teenager could end up.

Michael Pickens: The never-ending pursuit of perfection

Where do you even begin to describe someone with the talent and credentials of Michael Pickens? Ten-time New Zealand Midget Champion, 2021 New Zealand Sprintcar Champion, six-time New Zealand Midget Grand Prix winner, 2016 Australian Speedcar Champion, multiple-time USAC event winner, 2011 Chili Bowl podium-getter. The list goes on. For Pickens, it’s all about enjoyment, not only for himself but also for his team. That, combined with his neverending desire to learn, is what has contributed to the creation of one of New Zealand’s greatest-ever dirt track racers.

By his own admission, chasing titles is something he’s not in the sport for. That comes naturally when he goes out week after week on tracks around the country, and further abroad.

It’s rare to have a driver whose successes have not only defined a legendary career but also taken the sport to unprecedented heights in the country.

We sat down with Pickens, touching on the highs and lows of his career, discussing what makes him so successful, what his favourite moments are, and what the future holds, beginning with one of his most recent accolades.

Pickens also took his third 1NZ Midget title at Stratford.

Ten-time Midget 1NZ

As so often has been the case this season, weather played a role in what was shaping up to be a massive two-day event in Stratford.

Forecasted Saturday rain saw organisers rightly make the eleventh-hour call to turn the title fight into a one-night display. What followed was a marathon meet, nearly six hours long and concluding with a dramatic 18-minute dash to claim 1NZ honours.

The schedule change also brought a format change, with the five qualifying heats now reduced to three, followed by the B Main and the 30-Lap finale.

Less run time didn’t mean less action, with New Zealand’s top Midget racers putting on a show for the ages.

One man would emerge a level above the rest to claim the coveted title and the number drivers all strive to have on their car. That man was Pickens.

“We knew we were going to be a top three [heading into the event], I suppose,” he said. “How it plays out, in the end, is anyone’s guess, however. As we were halfway through the meeting, we were struggling with car speed, so our expectations were quite low, to be honest, as it was building to the final race.”

His admission of difficulties with car speed doesn’t match what was seen on the track. In the first heat, Pickens was second, only behind Brad Mosen. He backed that up with victory over Hayden Guptill in his second run before finishing third in his final heat behind Guptill and Alec Insley.

The signs were ominous, the then-nine-time New Zealand Champion storming through to the final as the fourth-best qualifier, behind only Mosen, a consistent Max Guilford, and Guptill.

The scene was set. He was fourth on the grid with 30 laps ahead, putting him in the mix to add the 1NZ to his Midget for the tenth year.

It looked like it would go the way of Mosen early on, the veteran leading the first 25 laps and looking likely for his second crown.

Resilience makes a champion, and Pickens showed plenty of that late on to move towards the front, ready to pounce in the dying stages.

“As the race played out, we got into lapped traffic, and that sort of fell into our hands,” he stated, discussing the final. “The longer we ran, the better we got. It was really only on the last lap or two where we were the better car. It was funny how it worked out.”

As so often seen in years gone by, a fierce Mosen vs. Pickens battle burst to life. Pickens was running a lower line with great speed, eventually taking the lead on the penultimate lap.

Mosen fought back, the two exchanging places multiple times in the final minute until Pickens pulled clear, winning by just 0.751 seconds.

With the famous win came more silverware, the 1NZ crown, media attention, and ultimately, another stamp on a record that defines him as one of New Zealand’s most incredible ever.

“Leading up to it [there were] low expectations, which makes it all the more special to win it,” he says.

Victory at Stratford wasn’t a first, with two other national titles (2010 and 2019) also won at the same venue. He’s also claimed three titles at Ruapuna (2007, 2013 and 2020), two at Western Springs (2003 and 2014) and one at each in Huntly and Nelson (2012 and 2017, respectively).

Picking a favourite title will always be challenging, with each 1NZ representing a year of hard work culminating in a single meet over a single weekend. It’s the first one that Pickens says justifies his position in the sport.

“The NZ title is a little bit tricky because it’s a one-race deal, so if it happens, it happens, but if it doesn’t, we soldier on.”

“The first one is always special because as you’re growing up as a kid, it’s a race you always want to win.

“It’s actually the number plate on my car, believe it or not, 1NZ03, with 2003 being my first title. That was pretty special, but my tenth one is obviously special too. To win it ten times is amazing. They never get old, any big race to win is special, and that’s why I’ve kept doing it for so many years.”

Title 4 came at Huntly in 2012.

The Sprintcar or the Midget?

It’s not just the Midget class where Pickens is known for applying his trade; the Aucklander is also a regular face at Sprintcar events throughout the country.

He’s also won the national title in that, with his maiden success coming just two years ago in a phenomenal meet at Baypark.

He finished second in this year’s New Zealand Championship, now getting to wear the 2NZ badge for the coming season. He also finished on the podium in the championships in 2017, 2018 and 2020.

Despite not having a record that matches that in Midgets, Pickens is still a force come race time, often running double duties between the two classes whenever possible.

“We pretty well split them,” he says. “When we’re running Western Springs or a track that runs both, we’ll always run both cars.

“The Midget can be more racey, in some respects, but as a car, the Sprint Car is probably more rewarding because they’re such an extreme racecar to drive, with huge horsepower and huge aero, and you drive them a lot differently.

“I enjoy both the same, but it’s nice to be able to jump from one to the other.”

The temporary closure of Western Springs from January’s floods has seen slightly less run time in the Sprintcar. However, the results still speak for themselves.

Winning isn’t necessarily everything through Pickens’ admission, with each race presenting an opportunity to head out and learn something new and continue to develop, even at this stage of his career.

“We don’t necessarily just chase titles,” he says. “It’s just about being the best we can and winning as many races as possible. It’s just about making ourselves a bit better in every aspect we can, like driving the car, the setup, and the infrastructure around the team. We’re just making ourselves better and winning as many races as we can.”


Title 5 came in 2013 at Ruapuna.

A career that almost never was

Like many great motorsport drivers, it all began with karting at a young age, in 1996, on the Rosebank Road circuit. The Quarter Midgets were present at the track one day; from there, the rest is history.

There’s been so many highs and lows along the way, but more often than not, Pickens has found himself at the pointy end of the field.

His 10th New Zealand Midget title was also the 216th win of his career.

He was also the first New Zealander to win the Australian Speedcar Championship, an achievement he rates among his best.

The reality is Speedway may have lost Pickens the year before he won his second Midget crown, with a potential NASCAR Craftsman Truck drive coming calling in 2005 when he was scouted by Roush Racing, despite the Kiwi having no pavement experience.

A reality-style TV show called Roush Racing: Driver X featured on the Discovery Channel and covered the process. In this show, team owner Jack Roush auditioned racers from around the world to hire a driver for the Craftsman Truck Series. The audition was informally known as The Gong Show.

They would then analyse the driving skills, public relations talent, and personality traits of the chosen 26 finalists among thousands of applications.

Pickens was one of those finalists, making it deep into the show until his lack of tarmac experience finally caught up, seeing him fall agonisingly short of the seat.

Previous winners of the show include the likes of NASCAR great Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards and David Ragan.

Pickens admits that a NASCAR drive was actively pursued but should have tried from a younger age.

“Definitely NASCAR was my goal, outright, but now it’s just about having fun and enjoying the racing,” he admits.

“I ended up testing for Ford a few times, and got a deal with them, but it never really eventuated. It didn’t go much further. We did a bit of testing here and there, but I just lacked the pavement experience at that point in my career. I had zero pavement experience. It was a big gamble for Ford to invest in me as a driver, but there were absolutely no guarantees as to what was going to happen.”

Despite the outcome, the now-speedway great says he has no regrets, with his involvement in the sport bringing not only success but also individual joy.

“To be honest, having fun,” Pickens replied when NZ Dirt Track Racing asked what the most important part of racing today is.

“I’ve done it for so long. Enjoying every moment of it is really important; enjoying it with my guys is really important, and that really produces results because everyone’s enthusiastic about every single job they’re doing.

“The winning just happens naturally when everyone’s enjoying themselves. It’s not that they’re not focused or concentrating on what they’re doing, but the enjoyment factor is really important for me because I want all my guys to enjoy what they’re doing at track and during the week when we’re washing and servicing. That’s really big for me.”

Pickens about to head out in the 2021 North Island Sprintcar Championship. Image supplied

It’s a team sport

Motorsport in any form is never a solo effort, with a wide range of stakeholders contributing to the success of a driver, a team, and the sport.

This isn’t lost on Pickens, who recognises his credentials have not only come through his skill and determination but also from the assistance of others, including his crew, his sponsors and the fans.

“People are everything,” he says. “It’s no different to anyone who runs a business, I can’t do what I do without good people, so I’m really, really fortunate to have the best people in the game for both Sprintcar and Midget.”

Double duties can add to the challenge, requiring more time and, henceforth, people.

“That makes it even more difficult running two cars almost every week,” Pickens adds. “I rely heavily on both Crew Chiefs and the crew to not only get everything washed and serviced during the week but also having everything run smoothly during the night because I quite often don’t have much time to have a lot of input during the night, so you rely heavily on the decisions the Crew Chiefs make. It’s usually the right decision because we’re usually up the front somewhere, so it’s pretty important.”

It’s not just the people at the track who are essential for Pickens’s success, however, with a diverse range of sponsors having backed to 40-year-old throughout his career.

“We wouldn’t be racing without them, for a start,” he adds. “CRC, in particular, is an easy company for us to promote because it just fits with what we do really well. It’s a pleasure to promote their brand.

“We’ve also got a lot of other associate sponsors and product sponsors that we represent as well, and every product sponsor that’s on our car is the best, in my opinion, and that’s why they’re on there.

“You can’t do it without them, [and it’s the] same thing, people are everything, so we look after them the best we can.”

The same can go for the fans, with the 10-time New Zealand Midget Champion having built an enormous following in his successful 20-year career.

At the time of writing, over 19,000 people follow his Facebook page, with fans hard to miss wearing a tidy range of official Michael Pickens Racing official merchandise at circuits around the country.

There’s little doubt that Pickens brings a lot to Speedway racing in New Zealand; his on-track prowess combined with his off-track personable nature not only brings him and his team success but also benefits dirt track racing in New Zealand as a whole.

Such exposure can often lead to the downfall of a racer, with an added element of pressure brought by an expectation to perform. That’s not the case for Pickens, however, who remains grounded.

“There’s no added pressure; it’s just nice, to be honest,” he states. “For every post that we do, it’s really humbling to have as much support as we do. We try and keep our fans engaged as best we can with merchandise and updates and what we’re up to if we’re travelling overseas.

“There’s no pressure added, but we’re definitely proud to represent all our sponsors and also do our fans proud because we do have a lot of supporters. It’s much appreciated.”

Such success isn’t the result of a lack of competition. Fortunately, New Zealand remains one of the best breeding grounds for some of the world’s top talent. Pickens is just one of the hundreds of talented racers currently competing around the country.

It’s this competition he says is vital, something that has kept him busy over the years through his endless pursuit of being the best racer he can be.

“You have to be kept on your toes,” he says. “Obviously, Jonathan Allard does that in Sprintcars, [having been] full-time in America a few years ago. He’s definitely one of the best guys, and it’s fantastic to have him racing in New Zealand because it keeps you honest.

“With the Midgets, in the International Series, we were lucky enough to race against Buddy Kofoid and Justin Grant, both USAC champions in their own right. That also keeps you honest.

“There’s always new talent coming through; it’s great to be kept on your toes because you don’t ever want to be left sitting on your hands thinking I don’t need to do anymore because you always have to be improving. That’s why I’ve always travelled to America and Australia to race, because it improves me as a driver, racing against those guys overseas.”

Pickens and team following a home title at Western Springs (2014).

Taking New Zealand to the world

The exponential growth of dirt track racing in New Zealand continues to draw top international drivers to our shores, pitting them against our best and presenting drivers and the sport with an opportunity to grow through the exposure.

Just this year, renowned USAC Midget Champion Koiford graced several of our tracks, providing our racers with an opportunity to upstage the victor of arguably the class’s biggest title.

Koiford was joined by three other Americans, Ethan Mitchell, Taylor Reimer and Justin Grant, to put on a thrilling show at the World 30 Lap Midget Derby at Western Springs, among other events.

Other drawcards, including Shane van Gisbergen, also contributed to the success of that meet, where Pickens finished second to another hometown hero, Aaron Hodgeson.

Having such fierce competition at home events is a massive bonus for Pickens, who says he uses the opportunity to measure himself against the world’s best.

“It’s awesome,” he states. “In a lot of respects, I’d be happy to run second to one of those guys than to win a local show because those guys are the best in the world, and if you can manage to beat them, then you’re the absolute best there is, hands down.

“We’re really fortunate, here in New Zealand, to be able to race against those guys on our home tracks and in our own cars. It’s pretty awesome.”

Pickens has also continued to fly the flag for New Zealand at international meets in Australia and the United States throughout his career, using it as an opportunity to develop as a driver and stay focused during the long winter months back home.

His ongoing involvement over the years in series such as the Chili Bowl, USAC, and Australian Speedcar Championships has helped contribute to his legendary career.

While other drivers, such as Mosen, have also taken up the opportunity to race abroad, Pickens believes this to be an opportunity more drivers should take up should the opportunity present itself.

“It’s a tough deal,” he says. “I’d definitely love to see more guys going over there. It’s pretty tough to get your foot in the door and expensive to take your own equipment, but it opens the eyes to the rest of the world on how awesome Speedway in New Zealand is.

“To see other drivers going over, there would be great. Me and Brad (Mosen) were both over there at the same time years ago, and it was really cool, but to see more young guys heading over there would be awesome.

“I don’t know why more don’t, to be honest. I’ve done it for a long time, but it’d be great to see it happen though.

Competing internationally has not only allowed Pickens to grow as a driver, but it’s also presented the opportunity to experience different cultures of the sport. There are fundamental differences in each country he competes in, such as the differing nature of Australian tracks, but it’s his time back home that prepares him for the challenge to take on, and sometimes beat, the world’s best.

“[New Zealand’s scene] is similar to Australia’s,” he says. “The only difference between them is the variety of tracks. In Australia, there are much bigger tracks in general, and the tracks are all quite different, whereas, in New Zealand, the tracks are all pretty small, flat, quarter-mile tracks. We don’t get the variety of tracks in New Zealand.

“As far as the competition level, it’s similar to Australia. A good guy in New Zealand can go and run competitively in Australia.

“America is the same as Australia, with a variety of tracks, but it is definitely another step up in the competition level of the drivers. Those guys are the best of the best. It’s a pretty tall order to go to America and win, but that’s where it all sits.”

Pickens took 1NZ title number nine at Ruapuna in 2020.

The pick of the bunch

In over 20 years in the sport, having collected over 200 race wins along the way, picking a top moment will always be a tough ask.

The reality is that there are so many, including the ten aforementioned New Zealand Midget Championships.

For Pickens, however, three moments, in particular, stand out.

“There’s been quite a few, to be honest,” he states when asked about his career highlight. “Winning my first New Zealand title was pretty big because that was the first big race I ever ran. Nearly winning Chili Bowl, we ran third at Chili Bowl a few years ago and that was definitely up there.

“The most memorable race, though, would be our USAC Midget week win at Putnamville. We won that in quite trying circumstances. That’d be the overall most memorable race.”

The Chili Bowl has been a regular stop for Pickens over the years, a massive race held annually in Tulsa, which NASCAR recognises as “the biggest Midget race of the year”. It also goes by the nickname of the “Super Bowl of Midget racing”, emphasising the event’s significance.

Even qualifying for the A-Main is considered an accomplishment, given the size and calibre of the field, and Pickens has managed to do so six times.

In 2005, Pickens won Rookie of the Year honours in the Feature, flying the 1NZ to sixth overall, having started 19th.

He returned five years later to finish 10th, with his first and only podium coming the following year in the 50-lap feature at the Chili Bowl’s Silver Anniversary meet.

In that race, Pickens fought from a mid- race stop for a slowing car in front, putting himself with the front runners in the dying stages. Six cautions over the final 15 laps made for an exciting dash to the line, with the race ultimately coming down to a 2-Lap sprint following a Lap 49 stoppage.

Ultimately, American great Kevin Swindell won the race, holding off a late charge from his father Sammy, himself a five-time winner, for his second Chili Bowl crown.

Kevin Swindell’s win was the first time a driver had ever gone back-to-back, and he also won the next two for a four-year reign of domination.

Pickens did qualify for the A-Main the following year, finishing 15th. Since then, he’s competed six times, making the A-Main in 2020 and most recently coming 13th in the D Feature after winning the E Feature earlier this year.

It’s easy to see why the Putnamville Indiana Midget Week victory in 2017 also stands out, with the 1NZ putting in a performance for the ages to claim a sensational win that brought a massive American crowd to their feet.

Pickens started sixth in that race and nearly came unstuck on Lap 5 when all four wheels went airborne after getting sideways.

Cautions throughout the race saw the Kiwi able to make progress by running a high line and dropping down the hill at each turn. Pickens sat second with just laps remaining in the 30-lap feature, making quick ground on leader Spencer Bayston until another stoppage brought them together.

What followed was a cat-and- mouse duel between the pair, with the American also running a high line over the final 5-lap sprint to the flag.

Ultimately, it was a pass on the straight under the white flag which saw the Aucklander take the lead, only to come unstuck in a half-spin at Turn 1. Bayston pulled alongside underneath, only for the Kiwi to recover to draw even with his rival down the back straight.

Both entered Turn 3 on the high line with Bayston two car lengths ahead. Pickens dropped down low and floored it, taking the win by a single car length.

It was the first time a driver had gone back-to-back in series’ round wins since 2009, and it gave the Kiwi his fourth USAC National Midget victory.

Pickens wins at Putnamville. Image Rich Forman.

So, what next?

With summer now done and an on/off season concluding, many would leap at the chance for some rest and relaxation. More often than not, that isn’t the case for racers.

The same applies to Pickens, who is looking for potential drives and opportunities to remain fresh for what’s hoped to be a busy 2023/24 campaign.

Eastern Creek Speedway in Australia hosts the Kiwi on the weekend of publication, with a trip further abroad also possible.

“We’ve got nothing set in stone at the moment,” says Pickens. “I may go back to America, but I’m not 100 per cent sure on that yet.”

“It’s one thing that keeps you on your toes and makes you better as a driver.” Beyond that, the team are taking a relaxed approach to where Pickens’ career heads next.

“I don’t really have a set-in-stone plan,” he continues. “I’m definitely going to run next season and go again, for sure, but I’m not sure what’s going to happen there afterwards.

“We’ll just take it year by year at this stage.”

Potential tarmac appearances also appeal to the 1NZ, who says, “my goal for the future is to get into some circuit racing. I have done a little in the past, but I’d love to do some circuit racing in the near future.”

An opportunity to branch out and try event promoting was presented to the great late last year, with the Pickens 54 held early this year at Western Springs.

“That was always a one-off deal, and that was the deal we had with co-promoting, that it was just a one-off,” he states.

“They’re going to offer it to another driver to do for next season. It’d be cool to see someone else have a crack. It was something we enjoyed, but at the same time, it was a lot of work, and I’d love to see someone else have a go because it’s neat to give back to not only the competitors you’ve raced against for years and years but also the fans to see something different.”


2011 Chili Bowl podium of Kevin Swindell, Sammy Swindell and Pickens. Image Auto Action

What next for the sport?

Speedway in New Zealand is a sport that continues to grow. With growth, however, always lies the opportunity for improvement. For Pickens, that includes his much-loved Midget and Sprintcar classes.

“I’d like to see the Midget class grow a little more aggressively than what it has,” he said. “The Sprint Car class has grown like crazy over the last five years, but I’d love to see the Midget class grow too.

“I would also love to see some more big-money races. For example, I went to Murray Bridge for a 20 grand-to-win race and I’m going to Eastern Creek for a ten grand-to-win race, and that draws people like myself overseas.

“If we could see some big races in New Zealand, both in Sprint Car and Midget, then that would draw some big international names over to compete, which would be great for the sport in general, and the fan base.

“Hopefully, we see Western Springs back up and running next season, too, because that’s the mecca of Speedway New Zealand, so it’s pretty important to have that up and going.”


May 2023: Welcome

Writers and photographers from around New Zealand are who have helped make this possible, changing a blank canvas into something worth reading.

Even in the last-minute scramble to send it off for printing, we had people coming in clutch, providing us with those last-minute details to put everything together truly. You can see the work of those people here, including Daryl Shuttleworth, who provided fantastic recaps of South Island events. We welcome Daryl’s input to the magazine and his contributions to the sport through his media presence. James Selwyn has also been of great help, having the images we sought in a sensational back catalogue that dates back to 2007.

You can see some of those in the Michael Pickens feature I wrote in the pages that follow. I hope you like it. The contributions of Jody Scott, Natasha King, Allan Batt, Tony Stuart and Rob Arnold have gone a long way, not only in providing reading material but also in helping share a story and documenting history in the process. Then there are the photographers, who are so willing to help with contributions that they want to share with everyone. A picture paints 1000 words, which is definitely the case here.

Special mention must also go to S.B. O’Hagen Photography and Graham from Sportsweb Photography, who provided last-minute photographs to us when we were in need. As you can see, it’s these people who make this possible. Behind the scenes, there’s also Alex Schultz, who has worked so hard to work on a layout and come up with the design, ultimately putting everything together once the edit had been done. This wouldn’t go to print without him. Then, of course, there’s Mark Petch, NZ Dirt Track Racing’s new owner as the founder of Autonews Limited.

That portfolio includes, and New Zealand Autocar magazine, two further publications that help spread the good words of anything with wheels and an engine. I’ve been lucky enough to work for Mark for nearly a year and believe his passion for the sport will help this magazine thrive and grow to unprecedented heights. We’re here to share the stories of the people, cars and races which help make our sport great. We welcome any feedback on how we can improve and what you’d like to see more of. In the meantime, we’ve tried to split the love evenly and cover as much as possible. We’re 100 per cent committed to this magazine, and with the support we have and the contributions we receive, anything is possible. Enjoy the read; it’s been quite the learning experience, but as they say, onwards and upwards.

Thank you for reading and thank you for your support. Until next time.