Where do you even begin to describe someone with the talent and credentials of Michael Pickens? Ten-time New Zealand Midget Champion, 2021 New Zealand Sprintcar Champion, six-time New Zealand Midget Grand Prix winner, 2016 Australian Speedcar Champion, multiple-time USAC event winner, 2011 Chili Bowl podium-getter. The list goes on. For Pickens, it’s all about enjoyment, not only for himself but also for his team. That, combined with his neverending desire to learn, is what has contributed to the creation of one of New Zealand’s greatest-ever dirt track racers.

By his own admission, chasing titles is something he’s not in the sport for. That comes naturally when he goes out week after week on tracks around the country, and further abroad.

It’s rare to have a driver whose successes have not only defined a legendary career but also taken the sport to unprecedented heights in the country.

We sat down with Pickens, touching on the highs and lows of his career, discussing what makes him so successful, what his favourite moments are, and what the future holds, beginning with one of his most recent accolades.

Pickens also took his third 1NZ Midget title at Stratford.

Ten-time Midget 1NZ

As so often has been the case this season, weather played a role in what was shaping up to be a massive two-day event in Stratford.

Forecasted Saturday rain saw organisers rightly make the eleventh-hour call to turn the title fight into a one-night display. What followed was a marathon meet, nearly six hours long and concluding with a dramatic 18-minute dash to claim 1NZ honours.


The schedule change also brought a format change, with the five qualifying heats now reduced to three, followed by the B Main and the 30-Lap finale.

Less run time didn’t mean less action, with New Zealand’s top Midget racers putting on a show for the ages.

One man would emerge a level above the rest to claim the coveted title and the number drivers all strive to have on their car. That man was Pickens.

“We knew we were going to be a top three [heading into the event], I suppose,” he said. “How it plays out, in the end, is anyone’s guess, however. As we were halfway through the meeting, we were struggling with car speed, so our expectations were quite low, to be honest, as it was building to the final race.”

His admission of difficulties with car speed doesn’t match what was seen on the track. In the first heat, Pickens was second, only behind Brad Mosen. He backed that up with victory over Hayden Guptill in his second run before finishing third in his final heat behind Guptill and Alec Insley.

The signs were ominous, the then-nine-time New Zealand Champion storming through to the final as the fourth-best qualifier, behind only Mosen, a consistent Max Guilford, and Guptill.

The scene was set. He was fourth on the grid with 30 laps ahead, putting him in the mix to add the 1NZ to his Midget for the tenth year.

It looked like it would go the way of Mosen early on, the veteran leading the first 25 laps and looking likely for his second crown.

Resilience makes a champion, and Pickens showed plenty of that late on to move towards the front, ready to pounce in the dying stages.

“As the race played out, we got into lapped traffic, and that sort of fell into our hands,” he stated, discussing the final. “The longer we ran, the better we got. It was really only on the last lap or two where we were the better car. It was funny how it worked out.”

As so often seen in years gone by, a fierce Mosen vs. Pickens battle burst to life. Pickens was running a lower line with great speed, eventually taking the lead on the penultimate lap.

Mosen fought back, the two exchanging places multiple times in the final minute until Pickens pulled clear, winning by just 0.751 seconds.

With the famous win came more silverware, the 1NZ crown, media attention, and ultimately, another stamp on a record that defines him as one of New Zealand’s most incredible ever.

“Leading up to it [there were] low expectations, which makes it all the more special to win it,” he says.


Victory at Stratford wasn’t a first, with two other national titles (2010 and 2019) also won at the same venue. He’s also claimed three titles at Ruapuna (2007, 2013 and 2020), two at Western Springs (2003 and 2014) and one at each in Huntly and Nelson (2012 and 2017, respectively).

Picking a favourite title will always be challenging, with each 1NZ representing a year of hard work culminating in a single meet over a single weekend. It’s the first one that Pickens says justifies his position in the sport.

“The NZ title is a little bit tricky because it’s a one-race deal, so if it happens, it happens, but if it doesn’t, we soldier on.”

“The first one is always special because as you’re growing up as a kid, it’s a race you always want to win.

“It’s actually the number plate on my car, believe it or not, 1NZ03, with 2003 being my first title. That was pretty special, but my tenth one is obviously special too. To win it ten times is amazing. They never get old, any big race to win is special, and that’s why I’ve kept doing it for so many years.”

Title 4 came at Huntly in 2012.

The Sprintcar or the Midget?

It’s not just the Midget class where Pickens is known for applying his trade; the Aucklander is also a regular face at Sprintcar events throughout the country.

He’s also won the national title in that, with his maiden success coming just two years ago in a phenomenal meet at Baypark.

He finished second in this year’s New Zealand Championship, now getting to wear the 2NZ badge for the coming season. He also finished on the podium in the championships in 2017, 2018 and 2020.

Despite not having a record that matches that in Midgets, Pickens is still a force come race time, often running double duties between the two classes whenever possible.

“We pretty well split them,” he says. “When we’re running Western Springs or a track that runs both, we’ll always run both cars.

“The Midget can be more racey, in some respects, but as a car, the Sprint Car is probably more rewarding because they’re such an extreme racecar to drive, with huge horsepower and huge aero, and you drive them a lot differently.

“I enjoy both the same, but it’s nice to be able to jump from one to the other.”

The temporary closure of Western Springs from January’s floods has seen slightly less run time in the Sprintcar. However, the results still speak for themselves.

Winning isn’t necessarily everything through Pickens’ admission, with each race presenting an opportunity to head out and learn something new and continue to develop, even at this stage of his career.

“We don’t necessarily just chase titles,” he says. “It’s just about being the best we can and winning as many races as possible. It’s just about making ourselves a bit better in every aspect we can, like driving the car, the setup, and the infrastructure around the team. We’re just making ourselves better and winning as many races as we can.”


Title 5 came in 2013 at Ruapuna.

A career that almost never was

Like many great motorsport drivers, it all began with karting at a young age, in 1996, on the Rosebank Road circuit. The Quarter Midgets were present at the track one day; from there, the rest is history.

There’s been so many highs and lows along the way, but more often than not, Pickens has found himself at the pointy end of the field.

His 10th New Zealand Midget title was also the 216th win of his career.

He was also the first New Zealander to win the Australian Speedcar Championship, an achievement he rates among his best.

The reality is Speedway may have lost Pickens the year before he won his second Midget crown, with a potential NASCAR Craftsman Truck drive coming calling in 2005 when he was scouted by Roush Racing, despite the Kiwi having no pavement experience.

A reality-style TV show called Roush Racing: Driver X featured on the Discovery Channel and covered the process. In this show, team owner Jack Roush auditioned racers from around the world to hire a driver for the Craftsman Truck Series. The audition was informally known as The Gong Show.

They would then analyse the driving skills, public relations talent, and personality traits of the chosen 26 finalists among thousands of applications.

Pickens was one of those finalists, making it deep into the show until his lack of tarmac experience finally caught up, seeing him fall agonisingly short of the seat.

Previous winners of the show include the likes of NASCAR great Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards and David Ragan.

Pickens admits that a NASCAR drive was actively pursued but should have tried from a younger age.

“Definitely NASCAR was my goal, outright, but now it’s just about having fun and enjoying the racing,” he admits.

“I ended up testing for Ford a few times, and got a deal with them, but it never really eventuated. It didn’t go much further. We did a bit of testing here and there, but I just lacked the pavement experience at that point in my career. I had zero pavement experience. It was a big gamble for Ford to invest in me as a driver, but there were absolutely no guarantees as to what was going to happen.”

Despite the outcome, the now-speedway great says he has no regrets, with his involvement in the sport bringing not only success but also individual joy.

“To be honest, having fun,” Pickens replied when NZ Dirt Track Racing asked what the most important part of racing today is.

“I’ve done it for so long. Enjoying every moment of it is really important; enjoying it with my guys is really important, and that really produces results because everyone’s enthusiastic about every single job they’re doing.

“The winning just happens naturally when everyone’s enjoying themselves. It’s not that they’re not focused or concentrating on what they’re doing, but the enjoyment factor is really important for me because I want all my guys to enjoy what they’re doing at track and during the week when we’re washing and servicing. That’s really big for me.”

Pickens about to head out in the 2021 North Island Sprintcar Championship. Image supplied

It’s a team sport

Motorsport in any form is never a solo effort, with a wide range of stakeholders contributing to the success of a driver, a team, and the sport.

This isn’t lost on Pickens, who recognises his credentials have not only come through his skill and determination but also from the assistance of others, including his crew, his sponsors and the fans.

“People are everything,” he says. “It’s no different to anyone who runs a business, I can’t do what I do without good people, so I’m really, really fortunate to have the best people in the game for both Sprintcar and Midget.”

Double duties can add to the challenge, requiring more time and, henceforth, people.

“That makes it even more difficult running two cars almost every week,” Pickens adds. “I rely heavily on both Crew Chiefs and the crew to not only get everything washed and serviced during the week but also having everything run smoothly during the night because I quite often don’t have much time to have a lot of input during the night, so you rely heavily on the decisions the Crew Chiefs make. It’s usually the right decision because we’re usually up the front somewhere, so it’s pretty important.”

It’s not just the people at the track who are essential for Pickens’s success, however, with a diverse range of sponsors having backed to 40-year-old throughout his career.

“We wouldn’t be racing without them, for a start,” he adds. “CRC, in particular, is an easy company for us to promote because it just fits with what we do really well. It’s a pleasure to promote their brand.

“We’ve also got a lot of other associate sponsors and product sponsors that we represent as well, and every product sponsor that’s on our car is the best, in my opinion, and that’s why they’re on there.

“You can’t do it without them, [and it’s the] same thing, people are everything, so we look after them the best we can.”

The same can go for the fans, with the 10-time New Zealand Midget Champion having built an enormous following in his successful 20-year career.

At the time of writing, over 19,000 people follow his Facebook page, with fans hard to miss wearing a tidy range of official Michael Pickens Racing official merchandise at circuits around the country.

There’s little doubt that Pickens brings a lot to Speedway racing in New Zealand; his on-track prowess combined with his off-track personable nature not only brings him and his team success but also benefits dirt track racing in New Zealand as a whole.

Such exposure can often lead to the downfall of a racer, with an added element of pressure brought by an expectation to perform. That’s not the case for Pickens, however, who remains grounded.

“There’s no added pressure; it’s just nice, to be honest,” he states. “For every post that we do, it’s really humbling to have as much support as we do. We try and keep our fans engaged as best we can with merchandise and updates and what we’re up to if we’re travelling overseas.

“There’s no pressure added, but we’re definitely proud to represent all our sponsors and also do our fans proud because we do have a lot of supporters. It’s much appreciated.”

Such success isn’t the result of a lack of competition. Fortunately, New Zealand remains one of the best breeding grounds for some of the world’s top talent. Pickens is just one of the hundreds of talented racers currently competing around the country.

It’s this competition he says is vital, something that has kept him busy over the years through his endless pursuit of being the best racer he can be.

“You have to be kept on your toes,” he says. “Obviously, Jonathan Allard does that in Sprintcars, [having been] full-time in America a few years ago. He’s definitely one of the best guys, and it’s fantastic to have him racing in New Zealand because it keeps you honest.

“With the Midgets, in the International Series, we were lucky enough to race against Buddy Kofoid and Justin Grant, both USAC champions in their own right. That also keeps you honest.

“There’s always new talent coming through; it’s great to be kept on your toes because you don’t ever want to be left sitting on your hands thinking I don’t need to do anymore because you always have to be improving. That’s why I’ve always travelled to America and Australia to race, because it improves me as a driver, racing against those guys overseas.”

Pickens and team following a home title at Western Springs (2014).

Taking New Zealand to the world

The exponential growth of dirt track racing in New Zealand continues to draw top international drivers to our shores, pitting them against our best and presenting drivers and the sport with an opportunity to grow through the exposure.

Just this year, renowned USAC Midget Champion Koiford graced several of our tracks, providing our racers with an opportunity to upstage the victor of arguably the class’s biggest title.

Koiford was joined by three other Americans, Ethan Mitchell, Taylor Reimer and Justin Grant, to put on a thrilling show at the World 30 Lap Midget Derby at Western Springs, among other events.

Other drawcards, including Shane van Gisbergen, also contributed to the success of that meet, where Pickens finished second to another hometown hero, Aaron Hodgeson.

Having such fierce competition at home events is a massive bonus for Pickens, who says he uses the opportunity to measure himself against the world’s best.

“It’s awesome,” he states. “In a lot of respects, I’d be happy to run second to one of those guys than to win a local show because those guys are the best in the world, and if you can manage to beat them, then you’re the absolute best there is, hands down.

“We’re really fortunate, here in New Zealand, to be able to race against those guys on our home tracks and in our own cars. It’s pretty awesome.”

Pickens has also continued to fly the flag for New Zealand at international meets in Australia and the United States throughout his career, using it as an opportunity to develop as a driver and stay focused during the long winter months back home.

His ongoing involvement over the years in series such as the Chili Bowl, USAC, and Australian Speedcar Championships has helped contribute to his legendary career.

While other drivers, such as Mosen, have also taken up the opportunity to race abroad, Pickens believes this to be an opportunity more drivers should take up should the opportunity present itself.

“It’s a tough deal,” he says. “I’d definitely love to see more guys going over there. It’s pretty tough to get your foot in the door and expensive to take your own equipment, but it opens the eyes to the rest of the world on how awesome Speedway in New Zealand is.

“To see other drivers going over, there would be great. Me and Brad (Mosen) were both over there at the same time years ago, and it was really cool, but to see more young guys heading over there would be awesome.

“I don’t know why more don’t, to be honest. I’ve done it for a long time, but it’d be great to see it happen though.

Competing internationally has not only allowed Pickens to grow as a driver, but it’s also presented the opportunity to experience different cultures of the sport. There are fundamental differences in each country he competes in, such as the differing nature of Australian tracks, but it’s his time back home that prepares him for the challenge to take on, and sometimes beat, the world’s best.

“[New Zealand’s scene] is similar to Australia’s,” he says. “The only difference between them is the variety of tracks. In Australia, there are much bigger tracks in general, and the tracks are all quite different, whereas, in New Zealand, the tracks are all pretty small, flat, quarter-mile tracks. We don’t get the variety of tracks in New Zealand.

“As far as the competition level, it’s similar to Australia. A good guy in New Zealand can go and run competitively in Australia.

“America is the same as Australia, with a variety of tracks, but it is definitely another step up in the competition level of the drivers. Those guys are the best of the best. It’s a pretty tall order to go to America and win, but that’s where it all sits.”

Pickens took 1NZ title number nine at Ruapuna in 2020.

The pick of the bunch

In over 20 years in the sport, having collected over 200 race wins along the way, picking a top moment will always be a tough ask.

The reality is that there are so many, including the ten aforementioned New Zealand Midget Championships.

For Pickens, however, three moments, in particular, stand out.

“There’s been quite a few, to be honest,” he states when asked about his career highlight. “Winning my first New Zealand title was pretty big because that was the first big race I ever ran. Nearly winning Chili Bowl, we ran third at Chili Bowl a few years ago and that was definitely up there.

“The most memorable race, though, would be our USAC Midget week win at Putnamville. We won that in quite trying circumstances. That’d be the overall most memorable race.”

The Chili Bowl has been a regular stop for Pickens over the years, a massive race held annually in Tulsa, which NASCAR recognises as “the biggest Midget race of the year”. It also goes by the nickname of the “Super Bowl of Midget racing”, emphasising the event’s significance.

Even qualifying for the A-Main is considered an accomplishment, given the size and calibre of the field, and Pickens has managed to do so six times.

In 2005, Pickens won Rookie of the Year honours in the Feature, flying the 1NZ to sixth overall, having started 19th.

He returned five years later to finish 10th, with his first and only podium coming the following year in the 50-lap feature at the Chili Bowl’s Silver Anniversary meet.

In that race, Pickens fought from a mid- race stop for a slowing car in front, putting himself with the front runners in the dying stages. Six cautions over the final 15 laps made for an exciting dash to the line, with the race ultimately coming down to a 2-Lap sprint following a Lap 49 stoppage.

Ultimately, American great Kevin Swindell won the race, holding off a late charge from his father Sammy, himself a five-time winner, for his second Chili Bowl crown.

Kevin Swindell’s win was the first time a driver had ever gone back-to-back, and he also won the next two for a four-year reign of domination.

Pickens did qualify for the A-Main the following year, finishing 15th. Since then, he’s competed six times, making the A-Main in 2020 and most recently coming 13th in the D Feature after winning the E Feature earlier this year.

It’s easy to see why the Putnamville Indiana Midget Week victory in 2017 also stands out, with the 1NZ putting in a performance for the ages to claim a sensational win that brought a massive American crowd to their feet.

Pickens started sixth in that race and nearly came unstuck on Lap 5 when all four wheels went airborne after getting sideways.

Cautions throughout the race saw the Kiwi able to make progress by running a high line and dropping down the hill at each turn. Pickens sat second with just laps remaining in the 30-lap feature, making quick ground on leader Spencer Bayston until another stoppage brought them together.

What followed was a cat-and- mouse duel between the pair, with the American also running a high line over the final 5-lap sprint to the flag.

Ultimately, it was a pass on the straight under the white flag which saw the Aucklander take the lead, only to come unstuck in a half-spin at Turn 1. Bayston pulled alongside underneath, only for the Kiwi to recover to draw even with his rival down the back straight.

Both entered Turn 3 on the high line with Bayston two car lengths ahead. Pickens dropped down low and floored it, taking the win by a single car length.

It was the first time a driver had gone back-to-back in series’ round wins since 2009, and it gave the Kiwi his fourth USAC National Midget victory.

Pickens wins at Putnamville. Image Rich Forman.

So, what next?

With summer now done and an on/off season concluding, many would leap at the chance for some rest and relaxation. More often than not, that isn’t the case for racers.

The same applies to Pickens, who is looking for potential drives and opportunities to remain fresh for what’s hoped to be a busy 2023/24 campaign.

Eastern Creek Speedway in Australia hosts the Kiwi on the weekend of publication, with a trip further abroad also possible.

“We’ve got nothing set in stone at the moment,” says Pickens. “I may go back to America, but I’m not 100 per cent sure on that yet.”

“It’s one thing that keeps you on your toes and makes you better as a driver.” Beyond that, the team are taking a relaxed approach to where Pickens’ career heads next.

“I don’t really have a set-in-stone plan,” he continues. “I’m definitely going to run next season and go again, for sure, but I’m not sure what’s going to happen there afterwards.

“We’ll just take it year by year at this stage.”

Potential tarmac appearances also appeal to the 1NZ, who says, “my goal for the future is to get into some circuit racing. I have done a little in the past, but I’d love to do some circuit racing in the near future.”

An opportunity to branch out and try event promoting was presented to the great late last year, with the Pickens 54 held early this year at Western Springs.

“That was always a one-off deal, and that was the deal we had with co-promoting, that it was just a one-off,” he states.

“They’re going to offer it to another driver to do for next season. It’d be cool to see someone else have a crack. It was something we enjoyed, but at the same time, it was a lot of work, and I’d love to see someone else have a go because it’s neat to give back to not only the competitors you’ve raced against for years and years but also the fans to see something different.”


2011 Chili Bowl podium of Kevin Swindell, Sammy Swindell and Pickens. Image Auto Action

What next for the sport?

Speedway in New Zealand is a sport that continues to grow. With growth, however, always lies the opportunity for improvement. For Pickens, that includes his much-loved Midget and Sprintcar classes.

“I’d like to see the Midget class grow a little more aggressively than what it has,” he said. “The Sprint Car class has grown like crazy over the last five years, but I’d love to see the Midget class grow too.

“I would also love to see some more big-money races. For example, I went to Murray Bridge for a 20 grand-to-win race and I’m going to Eastern Creek for a ten grand-to-win race, and that draws people like myself overseas.

“If we could see some big races in New Zealand, both in Sprint Car and Midget, then that would draw some big international names over to compete, which would be great for the sport in general, and the fan base.

“Hopefully, we see Western Springs back up and running next season, too, because that’s the mecca of Speedway New Zealand, so it’s pretty important to have that up and going.”