Lonergan Nails A Big One At Last

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By Rob Arnold
Photos: The Pits
Feature photo: Three to four wide Stockcar action at its best

After breaking two axles in qualifying it seemed like Gary Lonergan’s weekend was over before it even started. The generous gesture of several Stratford runners to loan him replacement parts, typical of the camaraderie we see in the sport, kept him in the running. The 95a then grabbed a transfer spot in the repechage 24 hours later to make the finals for the Huntly Doors Systems North Island Stockcar Championship on April 6 and 7 at the Huntly Placemakers Speedway. After a brilliant effort he claimed victory to pay back with interest the help he received to win his first Speedway NZ championship after knocking on the door persistently over the past six years.

This was Huntly’s second attempt to run this title after the first try on Feb 9 and 10 was a total washout, the second year running the NI Stockcars has been postponed. Being rather late in the year had thinned out the entry list with many having either run of money or enthusiasm or both. Some felt not wanting to be disloyal to their home track with Whanganui and Stratford having their closing nights while others felt unwilling to wreck their cars a week out from the what turned to be a rain shortened Peter Barry Memorial Teams at Meeanee. The 67 cars that showed was a reflection of all this but still a respectable tally in the circumstances.

Not surprisingly it was largely an upper North Island affair with a smattering of cars from Taranaki, Hawkes Bay and single car entries from Palmerston North and Wellington.

Qualifying before a small but decent crowd for a Friday night this late in the year consequently wasn’t as cut throat as it usually is for an event of this nature but there was still a reasonable amount of action, especially in the final round of heats. This wasn’t totally confined to the feature event as there was the most spectacular rollover seen by a production saloon anywhere in a very long time. Virtually all the contenders expected to make the final 26, (down on the usual 30 allowed for these titles to pad out the fields for the non-qualifier races) with the notable exception of 2NZ Keegan Levien. He was on target to do so but was taken to the wall in his final heat, wrecking his gearbox to the point that he wasn’t sighted thereafter.

Given that with the notable exception of Speedfest, any fixture Huntly runs after the end of daylight saving is a hard sell so the crowd on the Saturday night while down on what it usually be for a North Island title was surprisingly respectable. This even more so when the support card consisted solely of the Repco Future of Youth Ministock Challenge, an event usually conducted as a Saturday afternoon matinee affair attracting a crowd that light you can almost count it on two hands. They were already planned to race on this date anyway so it piggy backed perfectly to the main event. Racing before a far bigger crowd than this event usually attracts seemed to bring out an extra zest in their driving to be far more watchable than many expected. Those expecting them to be merely a chance to grab a coffee had to eat humble pie, especially as the red mist descended among some of these youngsters to create several incidents that wouldn’t be out of place in the main event!

The tempo rose a few notches in the finals with a good amount of action in the first two heats after which saw the 99s of William Hughes an unexpected points leader going into the final with 49 points one ahead of Lonergan in the 95a on 47. Next was clubmate 735a Keegan Orr just one behind on 46. 7h David Moore, the best of the locals by a big margin was fourth equal on 43 with 9r Sheldon Arapere. Along with Hughes he was the big surprise package of the weekend. Callum Flavell 513r was on 36 and 3NZ Haydin Barker on 35 – they were the last ones in with a serious shot but needing something really special for things to go their way.

The action in the third heat began right at the first turn when Hughes was instantly targeted by 45a Corey Taylor who held him to the wall sufficiently to put him out of the points lead. It seemed that several of the Stratford runners had enlisted the support of several of the Hawkes Bay runners to assist in Hughes quest as they attempted to take out the flying Jaffa’s. These attacks saw them come out second best, allowing Lonergan to cruise fairly easily to the championship. Arapere was running solidly and set for a podium until the Jaffa attack nailed him to the pit straight wall in the closing laps. Flavell was never in the hunt while Barker sacrificed his own chances to help out Hughes which after a banzai attack that went unstuck joined the DNF list.
Lonergan’s 72 points out of a possible 78 was a crushing display of superiority rarely seen in a SNZ championship, showing the ability he’s threatened to show for so long. Moore did well to be second on 69 points, another to show his effort at this level and one wonders if he got more effective tactical support from his clubmates. Orr and Hughes, who still had enough points to take to the bank to be tied on 68 had a runoff for third, with Orr easily making it a Jaffa sandwich on the podium with another career best result. Hughes didn’t disgrace himself considering few, this scribe included considered him a serious contender. Behind him the high attrition rate allowed 517s Mark Woods and 52h Sam Van Amsterdam who placed strongly in the final heat to be fifth equal on 53 points. 16b Brett Loveridge was seventh on 52, with 147m Matt Nielson and Arapere, who still got enough points on hand to be equal eighth 47 with 41b Cameron Swift rounding the top ten on 43.

With the invitation only Speedfest a week later rained out and no viable rain date available this proved to be the final curtain call for Huntly for 2017/18. This is the first time Speedfest has been washed out, and this year would have been the 10th anniversary edition. Its possibly the first time in Huntly’s 29 year history that their scheduled closing night has not been able to run as planned. Though this was a slightly anti climate finish to the season at Huntly and not the way they would have liked to finish it, it was in the circumstances a moderately satisfying way to say goodbye. It was a year in which the weather and trying track conditions meant the three SNZ titles Huntly held didn’t quite meet expectations. Most notably the NZ Midgets, the struggles with the track even baffling Rod Wootton whose track preparation skills are second to none.

Next summer sees the NZ Super Saloons and NZ Stockcar Grand Prix and in an encouraging sign of better things the track seen for the Waikato title on March 17 was back to its usual standard. With extensive work on the track planned over the winter to rectify the problems we saw last summer, things can only get better.

Dave Moore’s crew work to cool down the 7h after a heat race