FOWLER TAKES A SEAT

SHORT-TERM GAIN

Written by Pete McNae

Nick Fowler was an ex-superstock driver.  He’d hung up the Hans device. At 44, the owner of the Pro-Karts business and its related attractions at Tahunanui Beach figured he’d done his dash when it came to driving dirt ovals.

Fowler had started in A grade stockcars (known now as superstocks) as a 16-year-old, raced four seasons then took time out when a catastrophic engine failure emptied the bank account. He returned a few years later in a better car and won a second South Island championship, got second in the World 240s and fifth at the nationals, before life and business again took over. Phase three was when Craig Boote invited Fowler back to drive for the Boss Motorsport team, initially in the iconic Gordge-Donovan Chev, followed by a newer Gordge chassis with Ford V8. When Boote decided to wind up the speedway operation, Fowler went back to being a former competitor.

“Those were fun seasons and I can’t thank Craig enough for the privilege and the opportunities he gave me because there was no chance I was going to have a car of that standard on my own,” Fowler said. “When it finished in 2014, I just went back and poured that time and energy into the business and didn’t even really consider speedway.”

That’s not entirely accurate. Fowler admits that the teams champs meeting in Palmerston North each February always got the juices flowing but the reality of running a car through his busiest business months in summer meant a proper campaign was unlikely. He stayed connected through naming rights sponsorship at the Nelson track for one season (courtesy of Boote) and a link to the Junior Members’ club but rarely had the chance to make it to a meeting at the Milestone Homes Top of the South Speedway.

“Since they shifted to earlier 6 o’clock starts it’s been even harder because we are often hard at it at work til 7.30 in summer,” Fowler said, “but a wee while back I realised that work was putting a dent in my social life and personal life and I decided to switch things around a bit. If an opportunity came up, I wasn’t going to automatically rule it out because I had to be at work.”

And then the phone rang. The caller was Rotorua engineer, chassis builder and former superstock driver Steve Hampton. He had a pretty potent race car in need of a driver for the big meetings this summer and wondered if Fowler would be interested. “I thought about it over the weekend — not at all about the car or the opportunity but more how I could fit it in with work. And then that promise I’d made to myself kicked in and I realised I had to fit work around this opportunity, instead of the other way round.”

The car, a Hampton chassis tri-rail, runs the Marsh Motorsport Chev that was built for Boote’s own car … it revs its head off, produces big torque and huge horsepower. Fowler says the tri-rail chassis is new to him but he’s learning. Because of the extra man hours required, they tend to be more expensive to build than a traditional spaceframe or Tank configuration, while their structural strength means they give the driver a good shake if they hit the wall.  Balancing that, Hampton’s car is fastidiously prepared by one of the best in the game and handles like it is on (tri)rails. The whole package has been described as a “weapon”, a “beast” and “brutal” and the Hampton family decided regular driver, Dylan, Steve’s son, would benefit from another season of watching and learning before running the car in big fields.

“Some guys come out of ministocks or whatever and slot straight in, for others, it takes a little bit longer. Dylan was out of it for a while. He’s going to be good in the car but the family’s choice was to give him that extra window to grow into it.”

Fowler had one race in the 18N superstock of Shane Harwood at Nelson’s December 8 meeting, then went north to race the 66R car a couple of times before competing in the nationals at Woodford Glen on January 4-5.  He improved as the meeting went on, closing with a second place finish in the second-tier TWS championship for cars that missed the title field of 26. Then it’s the Westmeat New Zealand Superstock Grand Prix here on Saturday night and the World 240s before the car transfers back to the owners. Fowler has had to get as much seat time as he could in a short window but he’s vastly experienced and a calm and composed driver.

That first outing, in Harwood’s car after five seasons away, saw him run off the front row and spin up early. After that, he settled into his work on an open track and lapped within a tenth of a second of race winner and open club champion Asher Rees.

“I adapt to cars pretty quickly. The pedals were a bit of a reach in Shane’s car and I had two Christchurch guys up my arse so spinning out wasn’t the worst thing. It gave me some room to settle in on a clean track and I was feeling pretty good once I got that clear air.”

Nelson’s superstock ranks have been thin for a while and took an unnecessary and punishing hit when Brad Neiman was run into the turn three wall on December 8, while Trevor Lineham was injured on the same night. Phil Krammer and Dwayne Whitfield have joined the ranks this season, though, Ian Clayworth is thought to be close to a comeback, Dale McKenzie has entered the GP and Fowler isn’t completely ruling out a return either. A competitive car can be purchased for 50-60K now, rather than the $80,000-plus that was being asked a couple of seasons back. And there’s that rearrangement of priorities in Fowler’s world.

“For me, in such a summer-based business, it is a double hit. There was the cost of owning and running a car, alongside the business cost and loss of earnings of not being at work for weekends in summer when the karts and trampolines and things are really busy. But I’m trying to train myself to balance work and life and take those chances that come up because I tell people I’m 25 but my body tells me I am into my 40s. I’m just starting to realise that as you get older and make excuses, the opportunities dry up. That’s why I was never really going to say no to the chance Steve and the Hampton team have offered me in their car.

“It’s just a perfect opportunity. I know the motor well, and I know it’s got the goods and the chassis is probably better than we had five seasons ago,” Fowler said. “The unknown will be me. You get bullied around in the big meetings, you get smashed and it’s an adjustment to make to come from not even going to the speedway to running the biggest meetings of the season in a very powerful car but I kind of back my ability. I need track time but it’s all pretty exciting — I’m expecting the superstock bug to bite hard again over the next month.”

  • The Nelson Speedway Association has reshaped the Westmeat New Zealand Superstock Grand Prix in response to its ongoing resource consent issues. The meeting has become a one-day event, on Saturday, January 12, starting at the earlier time of 5pm. The field will be split into groups for qualifying heats with the top 26 cars racing a three-heat finals series to find a champion.  Scrutineering will start at 12 noon with a grand parade at 4.50pm. With the first qualifying heat underway by 5pm, the club is hoping to have the meeting wrapped up around 9pm.
  • Due to the quality of the field assembled and the fact that patrons will effectively get two meetings in one, adult entry and family concession passes have been increased for this meeting only. A single adult pass is $25 and the two adult, three children concession will be $50. All other prices remain at their usual levels.
  • Support classes include stockcars, streetstocks, production saloons and a big field of youth ministocks.

 Rotorua photos courtesy of Graham Hughes, Sportsweb Photography

Nelson photo, Tom Laney, www.imagepress.co.nz