Hometown Hero Takes the Spoils | From February ’20 issue

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STORY Matthew Percival
PHOTOS Pete Paltridge

A very good crowd filed through the gates at Robertson Holden Speedway for the 50th running of the New Zealand Sprintcar title. Perhaps intrigued by the prospect of two Superstock teams races as much as the 23 car Sprintcar field, the crowd had to hold their applause until the last race as their beloved Superstock teams were completely outshone by a hometown Sprintcar hero.

The format for the New Zealand Sprintcar title saw the field divided into two groups for a marble draw and reverse grid heats. A planned pole shuffle was shelved on the night, a good decision as drivers have adapted to the shuffle format and use it as little more than a two-lap practice session. The heats led straight into the title race with no semi-main required.

Palmerston North does not have a great history of Sprintcar racing, particularly at national titles. Much of the talk in advance of the title was around the possibility of another expensive demolition derby. Outcome was pretty much the opposite with just one crash of note in the title race on a night of clean racing. The team at Palmerston North put on a fantastic show with sensible heat fields and a track worthy of a New Zealand title in a premier class.

Heat race action was always going to be crucial with each pass consequential in the context of the title. The opener saw local hotshot Dean Cooper lead away with Jamie Duff on his tail. Dean Brindle made forward progress from mid grid whilst a little further back, Michael Pickens advanced to the mid-pack from a rear grid. The lone American in the field, Craig Dollansky, got by a few cars from the rear. The surprise non-performance was from Stephen Taylor who struggled to make the expected impact given his form this season.

Jamie Larsen had his front grid in the second heat and made no contest of it. Larsen making the most of familiar surroundings, stamping a level of authority over the field. At the other end of the spectrum, it was disaster for Matthew Leversedge. His car came to a stop mid-race, Leversedge parking it near the pole to activate the caution lights. An attempt to restart was unsuccessful and that was the last we saw of the 78c entry on the night. A shame for Leversedge who must have rated himself a podium chance on the back of solid lead-in form. Keaton Dahm and Daniel Eggleton were among drivers moving forward but none could match Rodney Wood who set the standard with a five-place forward move. Wood was crucially able to use the Leversedge restart to extend his run forward.

Drama unfolded at the start of heat three, the first group back on track. On the initial start Taylor got into the back of Paddy North who veered off piste into the opening corner. The cautions activated for a second attempt. Dollansky led away with Pickens joining him for a lead duo. Whilst southerners Ray Baughan and Connor Rangi advanced a couple of spots, the focus was on the leaders. With a couple to go, the crowd found their voice as Pickens relegated Dollansky to second place. Pickens set the mark for the group on 19 points, three ahead of the next best. That Rodney Wood won the fourth and final heat was relatively predictable given his earlier form, leading home Eggleton and Dahm.

Though local eyes were looking further back to see how far Larsen could advance through the field. Advance, he did, using a patented higher line against lesser drivers who were glued on the pole. Larsen made it through to fifth, good enough to tie with Wood for the overall points lead. For the title race Wood would be the polesitter with Larsen setting the pace on the outside. Pickens and Keaton Dahm occupied the second row. A six-way tie was split for the third row, Duff and Brindle the best two on lap time.

Twenty-One starters took the green for the title race, but that number was soon reduced. Having just completed a lap, a car got out of shape with Caleb Baughan the unfortunate victim. Following a colourful interview, he would find himself joined on the infield by Rob Vazey and another driver, reducing the field to eighteen. The remaining combatants would run 29 laps straight to the chequered flag.

Larsen had got the jump on the initial start much to the displeasure of Wood who claimed post-race that Larsen had squeezed him into the front straight wall. Wood restarted second but was quickly in third courtesy of a stunning Pickens move. Wood tried to return the favour but couldn’t quite get the job done.

Relative to Larsen, Pickens might have been ever so slightly faster in clean air, but this race was always going to be won or lost in traffic. Initially the leaders were unimpeded, up on the high line whereas the lappers were on the bottom. But once the leaders moved into more demanding lapped traffic things got interesting. Pickens appeared to be set for the bottom of the track to come in which never happened. He remarked post-race the track didn’t rubber up as he anticipated. The approach hampering his efforts as most lapped cars were also on the bottom.

Larsen wasn’t having it his own way either. Twice the crowd took a deep breath as Larsen navigated a very high line with two lapped cars beneath him. Twice he survived. Perhaps the closest moment to his demise was a spinning car in turn one. How Larsen avoided contact was a Sherlock Holmes level mystery. But avoid he did and for the duration of the race there was enough of a gap between each of the lead trio to have a certain level of comfort. Larsen taking a popular hometown win ahead of Pickens and Wood.

In other action on the night, the Mustangs and the Panthers both suffered comprehensive losses. The Mustangs lost Zane Dykstra in the first corner. The front right wedged between the fence wires. It didn’t get much better from that point on. Ricky Dykstra struggled in a block role and Stratford ran all over the Mustangs. It wasn’t a whole lot better for the Panthers. Ron Tye failed to make it a full circuit and the Manawatu faithful could have been forgiven for thinking they were watching an action replay.

William Humphries gave it his best in a running role but never made a serious assault on the lead. Rebecca Barr also ran but made a clever switch to help Wayne Hemi in the blocking stakes. However, it was all in vein, the winning margin exacerbated when Humphries was left stranded on the back straight infield. Wanganui inflicting the defeat on the Panthers. One couldn’t help but think Wanganui and Stratford might have been better off facing each other to have a decent hit out!