Glorious Sunshine | From February ’20 issue

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STORY Matthew Percival
PHOTOS James Selwyn

For the second consecutive year the International Midget Series ran it’s gruelling six meeting schedule without a drop of rain. The highlight of the open wheel summer saw big crashes, a scooby doo level mystery disappearance and yes, some high level on track racing. It was a great advertisement for the sport and a series that further solidified the legacy of New Zealand’s greatest speedway driver.

Boxing Day Bash

An unusually named promotion for a non-contact class became rather pertinent as two massive crashes beamed around the world. The best Midget drivers on the planet, Christopher Bell and Kyle Larson found a bizarrely similar way to find a demise via the wall coming out of turn two. Larson got himself in a tough spot whilst approaching countryman Zach Daum in the final test race while Bell departed in the semi-main. Both completing highlight reel barrel rolls.

Bell returned home and, in a statement, made to, he admitted he pulled the pin. Larson would miss the next two meetings, later revealing a black eye and blood red pupil. His return complicated by contradicting medical reports regarding why he was sent to hospital. Once the record was straightened, Larson returned for the second half of the series.

We don’t always see the best of the overseas contingent at the first show and so it proved again. Chris Windom’s rotten luck continued, lasting two feature laps before a mechanical issue flared. Zeb Wise and Tyler Courtney had to come through the semi-main whilst Logan Seavey barely made the field. That left Springs regular Zach Daum to go to battle with Australian Kaidon Brown and the local stars.

Former NZ champion Peter Hunnibell led away, initially resisting Michael Pickens before succumbing when Pickens regrouped. A few laps later Kaidon Brown made the move for second on a track that featured a substantial cushion by Springs standards. Max Guilford was another to impress, justifying his qualification for the NZ Midget team earlier in the evening. The race concluded in messy circumstances. A last lap melee saw the race completed with the yellow appearing as the field crossed the finish line.

With some drivers finishing and some reverting to the previous lap, the result didn’t make a lot of sense to the casual observer. However, it was clearly Pickens taking a dominant win from Daum and Brown.

Baypark Never Disappoints

One thing you can say about Baypark speedway is it’s never a dull night. Drama unfolded before the meeting with a difficult racing schedule rectified. Drivers voted to change the format from a single heat, semi-main, A-Dash, feature format to a dual heat, semi-main, feature.

The Sprintcar feature saw a crash tearing down the fence netting. The holdup whilst the repairs were taking place and the track was being prepared, unfortunately meant the midget feature race was going to be cut short.

The 18-lap race that did occur would be punctuated by cautions, crashes and was a lottery due to track conditions. Kaidon Brown went end over end through the trench. He would drive the United Truck Parts Christopher Bell entry for the remainder of the series. Hayden Williams and Tyler Courtney led at various times but when the clock struck 10:10pm it was that man again Michael Pickens at the front of the field. Even more remarkable considering he sustained a flat left front during the race.

Pickens midget series record at Baypark is remarkable. In five international midget series appearances he has a worst finish of second place. Courtney is another driver to develop a liking for the big oval. His podium was his third in three appearances, completing the trifecta of a first, second and third.

Sunshine Breaks Through

It was back to the Springs for night three of the series on a racetrack close to perfection. Last season Michael Pickens won the opening two nights before failing to record a victory in any of the next four races. He was a man on a mission to ensure that statistic wasn’t going to repeat. Pickens took the early lead in the 48th running of the World Midget 30-lap derby, establishing a gap between the duelling duo of Wise and Courtney.

Behind them Brock Maskovich and Hayden Williams held fourth and fifth respectively. The racing remained stable through the middle stages, although Logan Seavey made a forward run from a semi-main transfer. That all changed in the final stanza, the race exploding into one of the crazier finishes. Zeb Wise brought on the first caution, stopped high in turn four. The attempted restart resulted in a mess down the field, cars strewn across the track.

Attempt number two initially feared better only to become the story of the night. Pickens led away courtesy of defensive sliders at each end, only to be bitten by the same turn two wall that had claimed Bell and Larson. The turn two hit lost arguably an assortment of the three best drivers in the series. As Pickens flipped through the air, Williams just barely touched him, but it was enough to force him on to an increasingly crowded infield.

Suddenly, several mid-pack runners were vaulted into contention. No more so than Zach Daum who took advantage of the circumstances to pass Courtney for the lead on lap 24. Courtney, a driver with an unbelievable record of bad luck at Western Springs, wasn’t having any of it and returned the favour. Courtney would go on to take his maiden Springs win with Daum claiming second place ahead of Kaidon Brown. Jeremy Webb a fine fourth from the semi-main. A timely run with chili bowl team boss Richard Marshall and Elliott foundation’s Cindy Elliott in attendance.

Huntly Heading in Right Direction

A returning Kyle Larson headlined the show at Huntly on a chilly summers evening. Larson looked like he’d done a few rounds with Joseph Parker whilst the F2 Midgets set about showing the Superstocks how to dish out a bit of biffo. If the Wanderers are short of a hit man for teams’ champs, they could do worse than scour the F2 Midget ranks for a driver. On the basis on their Huntly performance there is no shortage of contenders for the role.

Though there were a couple of big moments, the Midgets raced well on a track that offered some width. It was perhaps a narrow higher line to hook into. It required drivers to be accurate which isn’t a bad thing. Pickens hasn’t won a Huntly Midget feature since December 2012 and unlike the previous three meetings, failed to stamp his authority on the night.

Perhaps buoyed by his Springs success, Courtney would lead from the green, establishing a modest lead. Daum and Williams formed a lead trio with much of the action back in the pack. The tight confines of Huntly producing an elbow out style of racing that saw frequent positional changes in the 5th through 10th battle. The likes of Wise, Larson and Pickens right in the thick of it.

This would be another race to change complexion late in the piece. Courtney’s bad luck returned with a tyre delaminating whilst in the lead. Daum would inherit the lead, finding none other than Larson alongside him for the restart.

We were late in the race and it was time to get a boogie on. Daum led away on his traditional pole trajectory, leaving Larson little option but to explore the high line. Daum got a bit of a jump but it didn’t take Larson long to capitalise, the winning move coming in deka bend. A late caution for Wise, who flipped after making contact with the wall coming out of deka bend, failed to impede Larson who went on to take an eleventh career international midget series win, his first outside of Western Springs. Daum and a recovering Williams filling the podium.

Webb Creates TQ History

Through the history of the New Zealand TQ titles plenty of drivers have won back to back titles but none had won three in a row. Ruapuna’s Jeremy Webb changed all that with a memorable drive at Western Springs on January 3rd. As the sun went down a higher line popped up that livened proceedings and made for one of the great title races.

Since Noah built the Arc, the Baker boys have been sweeping features at the Springs with the odd incursion by Webb. Those three were the hot favourites with a swarm of others capable of making the podium. Every Speedway New Zealand title seemingly involves favourites taking themselves out of contention and given the difficult track conditions that could have been expected to occur again. Yet it was a relatively true to form grid with the notable exception of Scott Baker who was starting in the mid-teens.

An early race clash defined the event with Ryan Baker and Webb coming together down the back straight. Webb fired infield, re-emerging seemingly out of title contention in 10th. What unfolded over the next 25 laps is a race that should be talked about a generation. Baker caught race leader Ryan Barry, quickly taking the lead and heading off into the distance. But the story was Webb who methodically picked his way through the field utilising whatever lines his opponents weren’t.

Even so, when he reached second place around lap 18 it was a straightaway to Baker. Had the TAB been offering odds they would have been firmly in Baker’s favour with the race set for 25 laps. Yet a combination of lapped traffic and what looked to potentially be tyre wear on Baker’s car, saw the race culminate in the most remarkable circumstances. With Webb hot on his tail, Baker got together with a lapped car on the very last lap. Retiring both Baker and the lapper to the infield.

Webb had no trouble from the ensuing restart, leading away whilst Barry held off the underrated Ben Morrison for the podium positions.
Courtney Doubles Down

It was a shame to see the much loved BC39 reverted back to the 40-lap King of the Springs format. Wise was an early retiree and courtesy of a melee in pine tree bend, he had plenty of company on the infield. Mills, Pickens, Cossey and Buckley no doubt disappointed by their early demise.

Subsequently the race would run without incident. North Island champion Aaron Hodgson held the early lead but couldn’t hold off Courtney and Larson. Hodgson would end up first kiwi home in fifth, further cementing what has been a meteoric rise from the F2 Midget ranks. Brown once again ran in third for much of the race whilst Windom showed something. The man known as “big daddy” revelling in the slick conditions to finish fourth. No one anything for the lead duo. Courtney was able to establish a gap to Larson though that closed in the middle stages.

Larson found the bottom in town bend to reel in the leader. Just when he got to Courtney’s tail tank, Courtney also found the bottom, closing off Larson’s avenue of attack. Once again on the same line, Courtney extended his lead to take the win. In doing so well and truly banishing his Springs demons and putting himself in prime position to claim the series win.

Seventh Time a Charm

Apocalyptic conditions greeted all for the World Midget 50 Lapper. A blood orange sky courtesy of the Australia bushfires and a Sunday night combined to give one of the strangest vibes I’ve ever experienced at a speedway meeting. It was a good crowd for the blue-chip event on the open wheel calendar. The track contained a lot of moisture in the early going and it appeared a late slot would be optimal for time trials.

Trialling in groups of three, it was the big three of Larson, Pickens and Courtney who topped the time sheets. Ryan O’Connor and Max Guilford put themselves in the top ten whilst at the other end of the scale Windom, Alach, Webb and Kendall all found themselves fighting for a grid spot in the semi-main. As it happened, former 5-time national champion Michael Kendall missed the show by a solitary spot, unable to make much happen on a hooked-up racetrack.

Kaidon Brown took out the B-Dash from Zach Daum with both advancing through the A-Dash in a dramatic race. Larson spun up and the kiwis came to the fore with Williams and Hodgson relegating Courtney to fourth. There were a series of incidents punctuating the early stages. Shayne Alach flipped, jammed into the wall exiting turn 4 as a couple of drivers got together inside of him. Wise, Guptill, Guilford and a host of others joined him on the grass.
Rather than settle, the craziness amplified. Hodgson inadvertedly stuffed Seavey in the turn two wall. Seavey responded by spinning out Hodgson in the next corner! The commentators suggesting Hodgson had got excessively sideways. For his efforts Seavey was sent to the rear.

Up front the major happening was Pickens getting way sideways in town bend as Hayden Williams was innocently going about his business on the inside. The resulting collision sent Williams infield and to the back of the pack. Pickens straightened up near perfectly and carried on his merry way. With the race coming under time pressure and stress levels rising, the remaining 16 combatants incredibly ran 41 straight laps to the chequered flag.

The race would be a duel between Courtney and Pickens with Larson getting the better of the rest to hold a distant third ahead of Kaidon Brown. Such was the moisture in the pole it proved the place to be. Though the higher line was also decent, tempting drivers and providing a line for the faster guys to pass the slightly slower ones. Courtney led with Pickens keeping a watching brief.

As the race entered the middle stages Pickens closed the gap and when Courtney experimented with the high line in pine tree bend, Pickens pounced. A series of quick laps followed to establish a lead. Pickens lapped all the way to seventh place, the lapped cars working in his favour when Courtney hit the proverbial wall trying to pass. Out of ideas and out of speed, the USAC Midget champion could only watch as Pickens won a remarkable 7th World Midget 50 Lapper. Courtney’s second place got him the series win ahead of the consistent Daum with Pickens in third overall.