STORY Allan Batt
PHOTOS Bryan Hopping
What started as a way of keeping Sprintcar racing in the South Island alive, has grown into being arguably New Zealands premier domestic open wheel series, and last summer saw the War of the Wings series, now presented by Hydraulink, kicking off its twentieth season.
It was in 1996 that Sprintcar numbers had plummeted in the South Island with just a handful of competitors left. The class had been propped up at Ruapuna by ‘converted’ Modifieds, and the injection of Six Cylinder Sprintcars from Ellesmere.
The highly successful team owned by Phillip Mills had thrown in the towel but there was still a sniff of enthusiasm. All that was needed was direction and leadership.
During the winter of 1997 Brian Barclay, a former stand-out TQ racer, and now ‘wanna be’ Sprintcar racer got several interested parties got together to hatch a plan. Existing, past and potential competitors were invited to a meeting to either plot a path forward or seal the demise of Sprintcar racing.
That meeting saw sufficient interest but the key to that was the idea of creating a small road show series, targeting a set number of events at Ruapuna, and pitching in rounds at Ellesmere, Ashburton Dunedin and Cromwell. That series was given the name ‘The War of the Wings’.
Car numbers weren’t great down south either, but Oamaru’s Peter Walsh and Gerry Angus along with Owen Marsden from Geraldine were doing their best to get the ‘United Modified and 360 Sprint’ series going south of Christchurch. An ‘amalgamation’ with the War of the Wings helped to provide a reasonable number of cars to each event.
That first season certainly proved to the doubters that by being pro-active anything was possible and the drivers happily supported the War of the Wings, with a set appearance fee being paid to each driver as an incentive, and small reward. To provide further incentive for the drivers of the 360 (and less) cubic inch engine cars, a separate trophy was up for grabs for them as well.
Bruce Pluck, who at the time had won three consecutive South Island titles was the inaugural winner of the War of the Wings with Peter Walsh claiming the 360 honours.
For the next three seasons Ruapuna anchored the series with Dunedin and Ellesmere having a ‘cameo’ performance each season but the class had literally spread its wings to the point that by the mid 2000’s Cromwell had joined the fray as a regular host.
There were a couple of seasons that the war of the wings was put on ice, this was driven by Ruapuna coming under the Springs promotions banner, and a domestic ‘affair’ was something that didn’t interest the Auckland based business.
Once the battles resumed it was Nelson’s Kevin Freeman, who had won the series back in 2002-3 who led the charge, and a by-product of that was a surge of interest in the top of the south region, where Modifieds had once ruled the open wheel roost. Freeman continues to have a considerable involvement in the series as one of the organisers, and as car owner for ‘Slammin’ Sam O’Callaghan.
Real momentum came along when Cromwell’s Jason Scott decided to move out of Super Saloons and into Sprintcars. His enthusiasm, connections and ‘think big’ ideas took the war of the Wings to another level with a $60,000 prize pool being pieced together. A far cry from the early offerings!
Scott’s influence on the series has been immense, not only as an organiser of the series, and promoter of races but he was also the series winner in 2014 and has five feature race wins to his credit.
By far the most successful driver in the series history is Jamie Duff, with 23 feature wins, and four series crowns to his credit. Duffs father Steve was also a winner of the WoW back in 1999 but the Duffs are not the only family with a bit of history.
Hard case character Bob Baughan raced in the first season, his son Ray is a two-time series winner, and now Caleb Baughan carries on a great tradition. Caleb won the first round of the 2019-20 campaign at Ruapuna.
The Leversedge family also have long ties with Peter, the patriarch of that racing dynasty being a first season combatant. His grandson Matthew fits in WoW racing when his Auckland campaign allows him. Matthews father Brent being the car owner, but the dust had settled on Brents racing days by the time that the series was started! Let’s throw Matthews uncle Kevin Clive into the mix. ‘KC’ was the series winner in 2004.
A couple of other long-time servants have been ‘The Flying Farmer’ Matt Honeywell, and Race Director Alistair Kelso.
Honeywell, with seven feature wins and two series wins has been a dominant force on the track for over a decade, while Kelso has been at the helm for most of the twenty seasons that the War of the Wings has been contested.
He has a great relationship with all the drivers, tracks and teams while also being the conduit between the series, and major sponsor Hydraulink. ‘Almo’ was, in fact one of those called in by Brian Barclay back in 1997 to assist with the launch of the South Island Sprintcar association, and the series.
What is clearly obvious is that the War of the Wings has not only given the competitors something to strive for, but it has also raised the bar considerably, and very much closed the previous gulf that existed between North and South Island drivers.
The likes of Connor Rangi, Alicia McLauchlan, Caleb Baughan, Jayden Dodge and Sam O’Callaghan are very much on the rise, while the tough heat races and 25 lap features continues to hone the skills of the gnarly old veterans like Honeywell, Paddy North, Ray Baughan and Daniel Anderson.
The existence of the WoW has also been a contributing factor in luring the likes of North, Martin Harcourt, Jason Smith, Andy Erskine and Jacob Brownlees from their previous chosen Speedway classes into Sprintcars.
While it is easy to look at the current strength and momentum that the war of the Wings enjoys, there have been a few tough season’s too.
That previously mentioned Springs Promotions ‘lack of interest’, and then the 2010-11 Christchurch earthquakes has seen three seasons of ‘DNS’ on the ledger, while the current Covid situation halted the 2019-20 campaign for Hydraulink War of the Wings honours after two rounds. It is hoped that the remaining races will be held before New Year’s Eve 2020! Given some of the hurdles that Sprintcar racing on the mainland has endured- the virus is hopefully just a blip on the radar.