Written by Pete McNae

“Grit your teeth and get into it.”

Jamie Duff’s mantra for the Donaldson Civil South Island sprintcar championships this Saturday might apply equally to the spectators at the Milestone Homes Top of the South Speedway. It’s just a fact of speedway life that 23 sprintcars will turn that Moutere clay into the kind of dust that gets in ears, eyes, handbags and chip pottles. After all, that’s something like 18,500 wild horses being unleashed on the wee 354m dirt oval.

“It’s a track that feels faster than it looks,” says Duff, a former national sprintcar champion and the current points leader in the Hydraulink War of the Wings series.  “At Ruapuna or Cromwell, you get a second or two to straighten out and position the car but in Nelson, you are always working. There’s a slight lift to settle the car and then you mash it — there’s not one second to rest.”

Duff, who works with dad Steve and fellow sprintcar racer, younger brother Steve Jnr at the family firm, Concut in Christchurch, has been in a great run of form of late. With six wins from nine feature races (Steve Jnr has added two more to the tally), Jamie has a narrow lead over Nelson’s Connor Rangi in the WoW series with just the final round to run, in Cromwell at Easter. That hot streak is no accident — for a number of seasons, the Duff team bypassed the South Island champs and the big southern meetings to compete out of Western Springs, the 1NZ in 2014-15 partly the result of the competition available up north then.

But the balance has shifted substantially in the past three seasons. The War of the Wings in the South Island has blossomed in quantity and quality — and Duff gets to race with good buggers (and one good buggeress) at the same time.

“There was no escaping it, even four years ago, if you wanted to go well at the nationals you had to be taking on Jamie Mac and Brindle and Eggleton on their own patch at the Springs. Down here, there just wasn’t the number of frontrunning cars to really sharpen you for traffic or reading a race and learning those smaller skills — if you were reasonably quick and didn’t crash, there was a pretty good chance you would go well.

“But now, thanks to Elmo and Freeman and Jason Scott, the WoW deal is definitely a competitive choice. It’s stepped up 10-fold. And afterwards, we get along great with everyone. You could race wheel to wheel with a guy for 30 laps in a feature in Auckland and he might come over and shake your hand afterwards. Here, do the same thing and we all bowl across the pits with a chilly bin and leave at 2am.”

Evidence of that came last weekend. On Saturday, Duff and teenager Rangi — who are separated by 18 points at the top of the series standings — were race rivals in sprintcars at Ruapuna. Sometime that night, well after racing ended, the Duff crew hatched a plan to put Rangi in the family six shooter (wingless six-cylinder sprintcar) for a meeting in Ashburton on Sunday. That kind of camaraderie seems to set the South Island class apart.

“Connor’s a very quick driver and his family are in this together, a bit like mine. We work together, work on the cars together, travel together and race together — I can’t say that it’s always perfect but Dad is very passionate and involved and my brother and I truly appreciate that commitment.”

Duff has just the one South Island championship to his name — and that came some time ago, at Cromwell in the 2009-10 season.  Dad has four, Junior’s best finish was as runner-up to Daniel Anderson last summer.  Part of the reason for Jamie’s moderate haul (he’s also placed second once) has been the decision to race in the north for greater parts of recent seasons. He’s eager to double his win tally on Saturday.

“I like winning. You’re in the wrong sport if you don’t like winning,” he says. “And I think we are on top of the setup now. I had a new chassis for this summer but we struggled a bit earlier on. I had motor troubles and blamed the chassis and went back to last year’s frame. Put the old boy through some grief trying to get it working then it turned out that I might have unintentionally led him up the garden path a bit — we seem to be on top of things now and the results are coming. We have had some nights where we have been spectacular and some nights when it is not so spectacular, but there seems to be less of them.

“Last year the motor let us down at the South Islands — and that can happen in racing, but we feel like both cars are right there. You just need some skill and some luck.”

There’s a healthy field carded for Nelson’s first running of the South Island sprintcar champs since 1988-89. Rangi is learning fast and goes extra-well at home, Kevin Freeman will field cars for Sam O’Callaghan and Steve Thompson, Jason Scott won five titles in a row and Luke Keegan and Matt Honeywell have been strong in the WoW series, Honeywell coming on with a vengeance later in the campaign. Te Anau entrant Anderson is the defending champion but after a strong start to the WoW has gone off the boil slightly. Duff says Anderson could still “pull one out of the bag”.

“I’m not discounting anyone — it’s a dirt circle with two left hand corners like all the others,” he says. “Everyone there is a rival, so you just grit your teeth and get into it.”

  • Jamie Duff’s 19C sprintcar is supported by The Edge, Ali-art Marine Manifolds, Temps Bar and CONCUT. Jamie thanks helpers and crew; Geoff, Don, Mark M, Mark J, Wayne, Cam, Sonny, Hannah, Monster, Steve Snr and Leslie.
  • Support racing from 6pm Saturday includes the stockcar triples, the second leg of the Mike Inwood teams trophy for production saloons (Blenheim holds a lead over Nelson) and a streetstock best pairs, along with open racing for sidecars and youth ministocks.

Jamie Duff image: Tom Laney, www.imagepress.co.nz