Early curtain call on Kihikihi season

The McDonald’s Kihikihi Speedway’s April 29 fixture was initially planned to be their closing night until a dire run of washouts saw the season extended to the following week. Rain that night also saw the meet washed out, save for the demolition derby, meaning the April 29 meeting did indeed round out the season.

Four feature attractions made for a solid night of action, with the King Country Stockcars and Rosetown Stockcar 25 lapper, Rosetown Midget 30 lapper and Saloon Battle of the Sexes making for some great racing.

While this was quite a solid bill, it traditionally wouldn’t get the punters in big numbers at the end of the year when public interest in Speedway is on the down. But, to the crowd’s credit, there was still a reasonable turnout.

The early 3 pm kick-off was a good call on an overcast day which saw a family-friendly finish shortly after 7 pm. It also meant the queues for coffee and food were short for a change.

The Waikato Placemakers King Country Stockcars is usually a well-supported event with plenty of out-of-town cars present. Unfortunately, the dire run of weather all venues have suffered from this summer meant that it clashed with Memorial events at Baypark and Huntly, plus the Stratford teams event.

This, plus quite a few local runners opting to garage their cars for the winter after the NZGP, meant that a relatively modest but still healthy field of 24 cars were trackside. With few heavy hitters in the field, the action could have been more extensive, the main point of interest being the battle for honours between local Dion Henderson and 2NZ Scott Tennant.

In the end, it came to a run-off which presented a fair bit more drama than the three heats proceeding it. Henderson won the run-off, becoming just the second local to win the King Country Championship since it was inaugurated in the 1997/98 season. Third was Rotorua’s Sean Wepa.

8M Midget Shayden Austin was one of the stars of the show in the season-finale. Image: Sportsweb Photography

The Rosetown Stockcar 25 lapper, back after not being run last season with the heavy disruption caused by Covid, was an entertaining affair, with some big hits and heavy attrition that comes with a long race, making for a reasonably good way to finish the year. This was a reverse grid affair, with the highest points scorers from the King Country title starting from the rear. Henderson, in training for his Kings Superstock debut at Huntly the following week, went into block mode, impressively stopping any visitor, especially defending champion Wepa, from any chance of winning.

Ryan Marshall led for many laps only to get spun around, allowing fellow local Chris Shingleton to grab the lead and take the win. Marshall was right behind in second and was able to catch back up to Shingleton, but admirably played fair towards a fellow local and didn’t punt him off the track when unable to make a clean pass. Caleb Hayes made it a Kihikihi trifecta by coming home third.

Also back after a year of Covid- inflicted absence was the Saloon Battle of the Sexes, which this year was expanded into a two-round series with a Palmerston North leg in March.

There was excellent racing in all three heats, and as the ladies found some great form, Ashleigh Halcrow taking two wins and Angela Wintle the other.

It was the men who won the war by a wafer-thin one-point margin of 158-157, even after a minor setback when veteran Nigel Ross had a violent rollover in the elderly Monza he drove with great verve in the 90s up to the early 2010s, which is still competitive today against more modern equipment.

The Farmline/Giltrap Rosetown Midget 30 lapper suffered a little numbers-wise, with Western Springs also running at Waikaraka that night. The dozen on tap still put on a good show, with Hayden Guptill and local Mitch Fabish winning the heat races.

Baypark’s Shayden Austin, impressive in the heats with a few slide jobs, established a big lead in the feature after a super joust with early leader Fabish in the opening laps. Guptill, who started mid-grid after a Heat 2 DNF, was also flying to quickly sit second, unable to get on terms with Fabish until the Te Awamutu flyer had to retire with 11 laps to go when his car slowed to a stop.

The yellow to remove Fabish’s cars allowed Guptill to hit the front. However, Austin was not about to give way, keeping in pursuit to make a do-or-die slider on the final corner. Guptill was just able to sneak in for the win, but Austin was an absolute star of the race, showcasing that with his maturity and confident sliders, suggesting he is one to watch in the future.

Taking advantage of a high attrition rate was Greg Jones of Stratford, who rounded out the podium, and locals Leyton Kendall and the unique Brent Curran rotary were the only others to greet the chequered flag.

Five Super Saloons and three Saloons came along for the ride and provided great support to the features. Damian Orr ran partner Caitlin Hayward’s car to great effect to take a trio of wins. Saloons 3NZ Trent Amrein had a taste of big horsepower for the first time as he ran the Steve Cowling car, looking right at home from the get-go.

Local Mike Wilson showed some welcome reliability and fair pace, while Craig Marsh in the Mustang saloon was right up with them in the first two heats, embarrassing the more expensive cars in the process.

There was also good racing from the 20 Youth Ministocks, with Rotorua’s Cohen Wright in a class of his own and winning all three races.

The Classic Stockcars were a welcome addition with three exhibition races, and the sight of the Gary Parkes car that won the 1991 NZ Championship was a highlight for the writer. The car is from an era not that long ago in the overall scheme of things, so it’s sobering to reflect that a top-flight championship-winning vehicle from that era looks like a museum piece relative to today’s cars.

Driving home following the meet, there was the sense that Kihikihi was lucky to avoid the weather, with roads damp in places. This was a harbinger of what was to come as the forecast for the following weekend looked dire. It seemed that everyone mentally had already written off any chance of the final meeting a week later running.

A week later, the weather, despite heavy rain over the days prior, wasn’t as bad as predicted. There was no wind or sunshine to dry the track out; however, which meant Kihikihi postponed their May 6 finale to the following afternoon as the track would have taken too long to dry out.

With a demolition derby set to attract many families with children, they couldn’t be expected to wait that long to see any action on an overcast, dull day going into dusk.

Sadly, the weather was wetter than was forecasted, with a shower striking minutes before the meet and an even heavier one following during the driver’s briefing. There was no option but to abandon the meeting.

With club officials tired from a long and disrupted season, there was no desire to extend the season another week, this already a week after the original closing night. The rainoff marked an unfortunate, if not slightly ironic, end to the season.

This meant the Ministock Stampede and King Country Sprintcars that were supposed to race will go down in the history books as not running this season. At the same time, the Saloon Tribute to Jumbo endured its sixth rainoff, organiser Steve Williams just not able to catch a break.

The Central Metals Demolition Derby could be run despite the conditions, however. Kihikihi showed a sense of fair play by giving the few patrons that paid a free ticket for a meeting next season; those ranks swelled by quite a few that got in for free after the call to abort the meeting was made.

As always, it was an entertaining affair won gallantly by Brian Coombe in a Suzuki Alto, up against far larger cars.

Given that the year began with a rainoff, it was rather apt, if somewhat unfulfilling, to finish with one.

Thankfully we witnessed some fine racing and solid crowds in between.

Allstars the Star of the Show at Huntly

For the last three seasons the Auckland Allstars have been on the verge of real success, with a number of solid efforts having landed just short. After knocking on the door so often, they finally scored a long-elusive victory by winning the Pollock Cranes Superstock Invitation at Huntly International Speedway’s final night on May 6.

This event should have been done and dusted six months earlier, but heavy rain forced the original mid-November timeslot to move to early March, only for the rescheduled NZ Superstocks to take that spot. This meant that May 6 was the only possible date for Huntly, which was far from ideal at the end of the season.

While the likes of Rotorua, Stratford and Palmerston North have had their fill of teams racing, a cobbled-together Waikato Wanderers and the debut of the Gisborne development teams joined the Kihikihi Kings, Auckland Allstars and Baypark Busters to make for a six-team event, two down on what is usually seen but still a respectable number this late in the year.

Going into the week leading into the event, there was considerable doubt that it would run with a dire-sounding weather forecast. Thankfully, come race day, the skies, while laden and overcast, stayed dry save for some drizzle early on.

33A Tyler Walker took the flag in the semis against Kihikihi.

The sketchy weather did put off a few punters as the crowd, which, while still moderately large, was down somewhat on the full house this event usually attracts. This was a bit of a surprise given the postponement of Kihikihi’s closing meeting, also planned for this evening which should have seen a few extra fans through the gate.

Opening the first round of racing was the Gisborne Development against the local Waikato Wanderers, which, with several imports, were almost local in name only. They did have experience on their side, however, which gave the home crowd some hope.

Gisborne Development, while virgins in teams combat, have proven their worth in individual prowess, and this showed as Waikato were lambs to the slaughter for these young lions who scored an easy 1-2-3, making several big hits along the way to book the first spot in the semi-finals.

Next to race was the defending- champion Kihikihi Kings, up against the Baypark Busters, the former seeing Mitch Vickery back in action after his injury at Rotorua in November. Todd Hemingway led for Baypark on flag fall, but the Kings soon were in front. However, with debutant Dion Henderson out of action very quickly, Kihikihi looked vulnerable as Baypark kept them honest.

Had Asher Rees, who was brilliantly shepherding race leader Vickery on his way to victory, been blocked, Kihikihi would have been in real trouble.

The final bout in the opening round was the Auckland Allstars and Gisborne Giants. Gisborne quickly established the early advantage as the Aucklanders got caught out by a slippery outside groove, delaying the rapid Cody Mckee when he was poised to take the fight to the Giants. A late rally by the Aucklanders saw early leader Ethan Rees lose a massive two-lap advantage over Mckee, who took the front after a stoppage with just half a lap to go to claim an impressive come-from-behind win.

99M Todd Hemingway avoids stranded teammate Dylan Towler and Waikato’s Allan Dunn. Image: James Selwyn

At this point, it seemed hard to believe that after such a strong drive, Gisborne would be racing for the wooden spoon against Waikato, with Baypark only just ahead on points. However, there was a little sting in the tail as Allstar Craig Chatfield was excluded from fourth, promoting Giant Tim Ross into fifth, providing enough points to vault the Giants narrowly back into the semis.

The Kings and Allstars faced off in their first semi, an exciting prospect given their close battle at Waikaraka Park two weeks earlier. The Kings again put Vickery into the lead, but when Henderson was punted hard into the Turn 1 concrete by Randall Tarrant, ending a difficult night, they were again looking vulnerable.

Despite the early setback, Asher Rees ran shotgun again for Vickery, and they were looking good. In block mode all race, Tarrant took Stefan Roigard to the wall, rendering him almost immobile after half distance, suddenly putting the Kings in real trouble.

Tarrant then proceeded to put Rees to the infield just as the reds came out for some debris on the track; the instigator also taken out of the equation with a broken wheel guard. His sacrifice paid dividends as Chatfield blocked Vickery off the restart with two laps to run, going onto the wet grass and preventing a quick re-join.

With Rees having to restart from a muddy area just beyond the pole line, it allowed Tyler Walker to hit the front and claim victory in his debut as a super-sub, and just like that, Auckland were through to the final of a major event for the first time in yonks.

The second semi-final was a local derby between the Giants and the Gisborne development squad, and the Giant’s superior experience showed, Ethan Rees scoring an easy win to put the Giants to the final, up against the Allstars for the second time of the night.

72A Cody McKee took the flag for Auckland in the final. Image: James Selwyn

Gisborne Development, however, showed signs that they could progress with more experience as Sam Hughes and Brodie James double-teamed Peter Rees to put him out of the running. They were unfortunately caught out by the wet infield, which kept James from taking the fight to Ethan Rees while in a close second in the early laps.

The battle for 5th and 6th between Baypark and Waikato saw the first real aggression from Waikato, with Logan Nicholson-Mabey leading for a lap and Allen Dunn tipping over Dylan Towler, but Ross Ashby’s blocking quickly put Baypark back in front to score an easy win for Hemingway. It was a small crumb of consolation after missing the semis by a steward’s call they had no control over.

It was also one-way traffic in the race for third between Kihikihi and Gisborne Development, the Kings keen to atone for their loss to Auckland when success was close at hand.

After Gisborne led the opening lap, the Kings lived up to their name to maintain their 100% record of finishing on the podium in every edition of this event.

It is rare to see two sides that clashed earlier in the night back for another encounter in the final, but this was the case when the Giants and Allstars met again in the decider.

Peter Rees got to the front for Gisborne and led in grand style, with the Giants appearing to be in control just before half-race distance, only for the Allstars to make some well-timed blocks on the leader with seven of twelve laps completed. A key block on Peter Rees from Walker was made, which propelled McKee into the lead. Excellent attacking from Auckland put pay to any Gisborne counterattack, the Allstars emerging as well-deserved and popular winners.

Baypark’s Ryan Hunt takes care of Kihikihi’s Stefan Roigard. Image: James Selwyn

It has been a long time between drinks for the Allstars, who struggled for much of the 2000s and up to the early 2010s to stay alive, let alone be competitive. The emergence of Mckee in 2020, together with the skills of seasoned campaigners Gary Lonergan, the retiring Jamie Ferguson, and, more recently, the addition of Randal Tarrant, has energised the Allstars over these past three campaigns.

Those fans that never lost faith in Auckland through the lean times have had their perseverance pay off in a big way.

Also on the programme was the Cooke Roofing Waikato T.Q. title. Victory in the 15-strong field in the winner-take- all final going to 2NZ Kayden Barker, ahead of Regan Tyler and 1NZ Aaron Humble. The stockcars also put on some good action, along with F2 Midgets and Production Saloons in a supporting role.

It brings an end to a season that promised so much for Huntly with three major NZ titles in addition to their own big attractions but ultimately was severely disrupted and ruminated by a terrible run of wet weather.

The fine racing seen at the Teams Invitation would have eased some of the pain, and after such a trying year, going into the off-season on a more cheerful note hints of better times ahead come springtime.

Scott Tennant Slams NZ Stockcar Grand Prix

It’s rare to see such domination as that seen from Scott Tennant at the Placemakers NZ Stockcar Grand Prix at the McDonalds Kihikihi Speedway on March 23 and 24.

The reigning 2NZ put in a performance for the ages at the meet, sweeping all three qualifying heats and backing it up 24 hours later with two more wins and a third to secure the Grand Prix title in grand style, claiming an astonishing 87 points out of a possible 90.

It was arguably one of the best displays of individual driving in a category where tribal alliances count more than solo endeavour. Even after allowing for the fact that the Aucklander had numerous track mates to help him if required, there’s no denying that his superlative performance came from his own effort.

This has been an event a long time in the making, postponed from last season due to Covid, then postponed twice more because of a terrible run of weather. This time, the weather finally played ball, allowing such a breathtaking display of racing to take place.

Like so many events impacted by the weather this season, the continual postponements took much of the pre-event enthusiasm. However, there was still a good turnout, with all North Island venues, except for Wellington, represented.

Tennant won five out of six heats over the Grand Prix weekend.

A generous seven qualifiers from each group make the finals, plus two from the repechage, meant that Friday night qualifying was relatively tame for the light crowd in attendance. There were a few big hits and a couple of rollovers, but banking the points was the name of the game.

The most significant talking point from Friday’s qualifying was the large Auckland armada that had qualified for the final, with no fewer than seven Aucklanders making the final 30. Stratford had five, including national champion Josh Walsh who showed the confident pace that took him to the 1NZ and NI titles.

Huntly was next best with four, while Rotorua, Palmerston North and the host track saw three qualify. Cody Lockett was Wanganui’s sole qualifier, with nobody from Meeanee or Gisborne able to make the cut.

A far bigger crowd fill the banks of the Kihikihi Domain on a slightly nippy Saturday afternoon, anticipating a fine evening’s entertainment. They were not to be disappointed. Pole-sitter Keegan Orr narrowly emerged from opening lap carnage to add a fourth Rotorua car to the finals, taking the race win. Runner-up Alex Maule gave Palmerston North a fourth car in the finals thanks to Orr’s track mate Joel Steiner, who spun Maule’s clubmate Cody Hodge, who was in that spot, to protect Orr’s lead.

Tennant quickly moved into the lead from P3 in the opening heat and stayed there, shepherded from potential attacks from track mates Josh Simpson and Logan Peat, who finished second and third.

With fellow Aucklander and defending GP champion Gary Longergan in fourth, it was clear, even at this early stage the championship was going to stay in the Super City, with the nearest non-Aucklander being Palmerston North’s Kyle Rowe, who was sixth, and Rotorua’s Brent Stewart who was seventh.

Tennant capitalised on the early mêlée in Heat 2, quickly vaulting into third. He then diced with race leader Lowe for several laps following a stoppage, eventually taking the lead and winning over his rival. Third-placed Simpson and fourth-place Peat cemented their title chances, while Lonergan remained in the hunt with sixth.

Tennant had a perfect score of 60 at this stage, giving him a massive five-point buffer over Simspon, Peat and Lowe, all tied for second. Lonergan was next on 52, with Stewart completing the top six on 48. Dion Henderson was the best local on 47; he and Stewart needing something exceptional to happen to score a podium.

With the rare luxury of a five-point buffer, all Tennant had to do was cruise and collect. By his admission, he wasn’t pushing hard in the finale. Nevertheless, he took advantage of his car speed and early skirmishes ahead in the pack to finish third and claim the Grand Prix title by a whopping seven points.

This is not to say there was no attempt to give him a run for his money as Kyle and Taylor Lampp tried to assist Lowe, but the Auckland armada and their allies were far too strong.

Fourth place for Simpson in the finale was enough for him to claim second overall, on 81 points, with Peat, who ran shotgun for Tennant for most of the race, third on 79 for his first podium in an allocated title. Lowe was a solid fourth on 77, while Stewart was fifth on 75. Henderson gave the best performance by a Kihikihi driver to finish sixth He was one ahead of defending champion Lonergan, who lost ground in a skirmish in the final heat. Kyle Lampp on 63, Brad Simspon on 58 and Cody Lockett on 50 completed the top ten. Lockett did well to make the top ten after not starting the opening heat, a win in the finale vaulting him up the order.

Locals had something to cheer for when Cameron Taylor won the Rosetown Rumble for the non-qualifiers, with Rotorua’s Riley McDonald and Auckland’s Matt Stone completing the trifecta.

A Night Of Champions at Kihikihi

The Andrew Edwards Sprintcar Memorial returned to the McDonald’s Kihikihi Speedway on April 15 following a one- year Covid-inflicted hiatus. It was a night of fantastic open- wheel racing, with three of the five classes competing boasting the 1NZ and 2NZ. The entire NZ TQ Midget podium were also present.

Adding spice to proceedings was the final round of the Midas Midget Allstars series, while the Sprintcars were also racing the final round of the Auto Super Shoppe Sprintcar Master Series. It was no surprise to see a big crowd along the banks of the Kihikihi Domain expecting first-class action from a top-drawer programme. That’s precisely what they got.

The Andrew Edwards Memorial boasted a massive field of 22, minus defending champion Stephen Taylor who chose to contest Ruapuna’s Salute to Goodie that night. Despite his absence, there was still plenty of A-list talent on hand.

The Heats were competitive, with four different winners in as many races, being Rodney Wood, Dean Brindle, Michael Pickens and Brad Mosen, in a rare Sprintcar outing.

The feature was arguably the best Sprintcar race seen at Kihikihi in recent years, with excellent racing from start to finish, coupled with rarely-seen slide jobs as the race progressed. Dean Brindle grabbed the lead from pole and gradually pulled away in the early laps, only for O’Conner to pile on the pressure trying to lap Baypark’s Holly Williams, the pair running side by side until Dean cleared the young lady. The battle for second became just as fierce, with Cooper, Thomas and Pickens looking to make gains after a cautious start.

Dean Brindle celebrates in style following his historic Andrew Edwards Sprintcar Memorial win.

A caution for a stationary Lance Beale with ten laps to go made it a sprint to the flag, with Brindle checking out and Pickens quickly moving to second. With Brindle taking it easy approaching traffic, Pickens made a do-or-die lunge in the final turn that saw him clip the wall and roll. The restart saw Brindle grab the win, the first for a Kihikihi driver in the event’s six years of running at the venue, having previously been held at Baypark.

Brindle has placed in all but one of the Kihikihi editions of the event, making this victory that much more special.

Making it a Kihikihi one-two was Thomas, who got past Cooper in the final dash to the flag, the latter showing he’s no longer an up-and-comer but a regular front-runner. O’Connor and locals Brian Edwards and Keaton Dahm completed the top six.

The final leg of the Midas Midget All Stars saw a full grid of 20 on tap, with heat racing showing some of the best midget action seen at Kihikihi. Series leader Brad Mosen started the night with a DNF, though he bounced back to finish second next time out, but still had some work to do in the feature, starting from tenth.

Newly crowned 10-time NZ Champion Pickens only had a middling run in the heats, stalling in the first while leading but recovering to sixth. A fighting fourth in the second heat put him in an unusually low P9 for the feature, which few pundits expected going into this event.

Cantabrian Jack Low, Jayden Worthington and local Mitch Fabish were heat winners, but the most consistent were Aaron Hodgson and Hayden Guptill, who claimed the front row for the feature.

After a couple of early cautions, the race came alive with a long spell under green that saw Hodgson and Guptill have a big joust for the lead until Aaron got the upper hand to pull away. Further back, Mosen and Pickens were having a real fight, exchanging slide jobs for several laps until Mosen got the upper hand and clawed his way to third, albeit some way off the leaders but showing the pace to bridge the gap.

Another caution was the break Mosen needed, and within a few laps of the restart, he’d cleared Guptill and then Hodgson to win the race and the series. Hodgson was second, with Guptill delighted to grab a podium at his favourite track. The promising Jordan McDonnell, who has impressed this season, was a gutsy fourth ahead of Pickens, with Leon Burgess completing the top six.

The Dusty Rhodes TQ Memorial does not, as some may think, honour an overweight 1980s US professional wrestler, but instead, a man who not only did so much for Kihikihi on and off track but also did much to establish Meeanee after moving to Hawkes Bay.

A quality field of 21 put on some blistering action, with 2NZ Kayden Barker looking impressive with two heat wins, with Cole Morrison the other heat winner. So evenly matched was the field that there were no other standouts, apart from national champion Aaron Humble who started next to Barker in P2 for the feature. Barker led from flag fall, with Humble in hot pursuit, creating the possibility of a battle royal between the NZ’s best for the entire race. Unfortunately, Humble soon became unstuck with a spin that put him to the rear, followed by a flat tyre.

Barker, unfazed by several restarts, maintained an edge over the rest to win in a manner seen in his time in Youth Mini Stocks. Barker aside, Dylan Cooke was the driver of the race to finish second, compensation for a torrid season filled with bad luck, with defending champion Reagan Tyler finishing third. Hawkes Bay’s Duane Todd, Troy Pennington and 3NZ Terrance Dorrell completed the top six.

With the NZ Saloons coming to Kihikihi next season, the King Country Saloon Championship served as the first real step in the build-up towards it. Three amazing races, typical of the racing seen by the class, gave the crowd a taste of what to expect next summer.

It was clear from the first heat that title honours in the 14-strong field would be between national champion Jarrod Fletcher, 3NZ Trent Armein and national Super Saloon champion Chris Cowling.

Fletcher and Armein reeled in local Aaron Tonks, who led the early laps to be one-two in Heat 1, Tonks holding on for third over Cowling, who flew fourth after breaking clear of a fierce midfield battle. Cowling comfortably won the second heat, with Fletcher and Armein having another fierce battle to be second and third.

The 15-lap feature was another superb battle, with front-row starters Fletcher and Armein streaking away from the pack. Cowling struggled for pace in the early laps, possibly with brake issues, until he found his rhythm, clearing third-placed Tonks and trying to reel in the lead pair. Time looked to be against him until a yellow worked in his favour. He took the lead off Fletcher with a stunning outside pass to claim the King Country title. Defending champion Fletcher had to settle for second, who again had Armein right behind at the chequered flag. Tonks was best of the locals in fourth, followed by Huntly’s Reece Clements and Baypark’s Dan Hickman.

Also on the programme was a light field of Superstocks, with drivers either saving their cars for the Waikaraka Teams Nationals, the postponed second day of the Easter meeting at Rotorua the following evening or competing at the U26’s at Stratford that night.

It could have easily been a chance to grab a coffee. Still, to their credit, the quartet chose to play cat and mouse with each other to keep things entertaining, creating an amusing sideshow to the more serious business of the evening. Trevor De Malmanche scored two wins, with Mitch Vickery, back after sitting out much of the year through injury, the other victor.