Written by Pete McNae

The tired old line of “what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger” sums up the brief speedway career of Nelson sprintcar driver Connor Rangi. He’s packed enough hiccups and setbacks into his 18 years to turn most people away from the sport yet, in mid-December, he was leading the ridiculously competitive Hydraulink War of the Wings series and resetting his goals with each meeting. As the New Year arrived, he still sat in third, just 14 points off the lead. In his first full campaign in the class, the young pedaller is getting better with each outing – worrying news for his opposition.

Rangi’s story begins – as so many do at the Milestone Homes Top of the South Speedway – as a 12-year-old in the youth ministock class in a car leased from Mike Inwood. Having tried it and liked it, the next step was to move into the ex-Morgan Frost frontrunning car. Enter speed bump No 1. Contact with another car earned a trip to the tower and a 22-day stand down. Rangi lost his cool (teenaged boys aren’t the most level-headed citizens), the result was a 12-month suspension.

“I had no idea of the consequences,” he said. “I was in the wrong and, in the heat of the moment, I lost it but a year out at that age is a huge blow. It took a while to sink in and once Dad and I processed it, we thought about going to motocross, but I really loved speedway and wanted to kind of work my way back from the bottom, so we took our suspensions and waited. We’d made a big mistake and put the club in a bad position, so we had to do our time.”

It didn’t take long to get back to winning once he returned and the family purchased a second car, so younger sister Sophie could run the Frost car as Connor moved to the new one. He was invited to Ministocks in Paradise in Rotorua, a gathering of scores of the best cars and young drivers and won two races along with taking a third on qualifying night. The car was taken in for checking and, with the head off, double valve springs were discovered and Rangi was ousted. Connor says the car was run as purchased and he had no idea about the modification but said being booted from the feature meeting was his lowest point in the sport. “There’s not much worse than being called a cheat,” he said. “Some people will never change their minds on that but, again, we had to load up and come home feeling pretty low.”

With the valve springs changed and the car fully compliant, Rangi went out soon after and won the unofficial 1NZ ranking in Oxford, suggesting that the modifications counted for little. As he was turning 17, that victory was Rangi’s last major milestone in the class although he was equally proud of a club championship and a Trackman Trophy win to commemorate the late Murray Teece. In the off-season, the Rangis rebuilt one of John Byrman’s stockcars, father Andrew massaging a shell into a sharp looking car for Connor’s first season in a new class. “My goal was sprintcars, but we’d been warned off and told they were too far out of our budget. Dad knew about stockcars and he does almost all the work himself – I’m getting more useful now – so we went down the stockcar path first. Looking back, we should have jumped to sprintcars straight away but it’s easy to be smart later.”

Rangi was progressing well until a double hit in Blenheim on a club night that turned into an N versus E teams race left him knocked out for five minutes and facing another stand down. “That one really made us think about the future and look again at sprintcars. My plan was to get back out in the stockcar and do a couple of meetings to get my confidence back and prove to myself and others I could take a hit but the sprintcar lease came up, so we sent the car back to John (Byrman).”

Fellow Nelson competitor Simon Rieter steered the Rangis toward a leased sprintcar from Christchurch and, while it was down on power and some of the bolt-ons weren’t brand new, it was the ideal place to learn. “I was pretty nervous, going out there for the first time I was asking myself, ‘what do you think you’re doing?’ but I honestly have loved everything about it. I got seventh in the feature that night with others dropping out ahead of me, which was a buzz, but it was just as good to have everyone in the class giving us so much encouragement and support and advice. Everything about sprintcars was new but all the teams were willing to help us with set-up or a part here and there or even just saying well done.”

For 2017-18, the Rangi team got serious. They purchased the Steve Sullivan Maxim 410 to commit to a full War of the Wings campaign, still running on a bare bones budget with a family pit crew. A blown oil pump in practice was a $3500 setback, then in lap one of race one for the class in Nelson, Rangi and Alicia Mclauchlan banged wheels and the 57N rode the wall, inflicting another $5000 in damage to the chassis, top wing, front wing, arms and bars. “We were $8500 in the hole and we hadn’t finished a lap,” Connor said. But the rebuild went well and the Complete Automotive-Fifeshire Forklifts Maxim has been at the pointy end of the field throughout the WoW series, including becoming one of four cars to crack into the 11s at Nelson last time out.

Rangi said he now has experience on the series tracks and can focus on making better decisions before and during a race. “I’m starting to learn how to use the car and read the track changes, where to take a top line or hang low, and how to work the cushion. The car is pretty predictable, so the improvements will come from me as I get more experience and more seat time to make those instant decisions.”

Of course, the faster you go and the more aggressive you become as you push for points, the risk of a rough ride increases. Rangi says the margins at the front of the field are incredibly small. “The line is fine, but all the driving has gone up heaps even in the time we have been involved. You can be confident of running side by side with anyone out there now, we are all getting used to racing hard and clean in a big field. There’s an international series on up north that doesn’t have as many entries as the War of the Wings does and you can put that down to the great atmosphere in the class and how everyone wants to see sprintcars grow together.”

Rangi’s back on his home track on Saturday for round six of 11 in the Hydraulink-backed War of the Wings series, presented by Ezy Lift Cranes. It’s not a great sprintcar venue but that’s part of the thrill of the series. “Nelson’s cool for time trials but it’s pretty hard out with 20 cars there. That’s the deal with a series though, you have to be consistent across all the tracks, make the adjustments and find a way. We’re loving loading up the family and doing this together. Next year, maybe we will try to travel North and test ourselves up there, but this summer is about my goals for the series and each time I get a decent round, maybe moving that goal a little bit further forward.”

  • The 57N Maxim is raced with the backing of the Rangi family, especially parents Andrew and Cara, and with help from Shaun Ashton at Complete Automotive, Ricky Rose (Fifeshire Forklifts) and Nick Fowler at ProKarts.
  • If recent changeable weather continues until Saturday, please check back on this website and on the club’s official Facebook page, Nelson Speedway Association Inc, for meeting updates.

All images by Tom Laney,