Nolan jumps in at the deep end

Written by: Pete McNae


Think Leicester City and Cronulla Sharks. Think Chicago Cubs and the Irish rugby team. Think, if you must, The Donald. Yes, sometimes the outsider wins. It doesn’t happen often – when it does, it makes for great stories. And, make no mistake, if the Nelson Tigers can beat the Palmerston North Panthers for the Challenge Cup on Saturday, it will be a GREAT story.

Over the years, there has been a strong history of rivalry and respect between the two superstock teams. The Panthers have been hard to head off on their home track in February, but the Challenge Cup has been closer, with both teams winning at home and away. But that was a Tigers team with Higgins and Harwood, Cunningham and Clayworth.  This weekend, Nelson will front at the Milestone Homes Top of the South Speedway with vastly experienced captain Jared Gray, Trevor Lineham (one teams race), Luke Ewing (none) and former Nelson Knights streetstock racer Ken Nolan, who has the grand total of two-and-a-bit superstock meetings under his belts. The Panthers counter with Peter Bengston (former 2NZ, current NI champ, holder of a truckload of teams titles), Simon Joblin (past 1NZ and the reigning NZGP champ), Adam Joblin (twice NZGP winner) and William Humphries (second NI but 3NZ and a GP winner in stockcars). David, meet Goliath.

Nolan’s not conceding, though, despite the apparent mismatch. With the Tigers facing the possibility of canning the cup contest with just three drivers keen to race at this stage of the season, Nolan was approached about taking the fourth spot, based on his background with the Knights, where he had three seasons of streetstock teams racing. A quick check and a thumbs-up from car owner Keith McCabe and Nolan was a Tiger, eight races in to his career in the class.

“I had my hand up, teams racing is the ultimate buzz in this sport so you want to have a go, if you get the chance,” he said. “Kerry [Hill] has been a huge help in getting me in to the class and putting another car on the track and when he and Keith said ‘go for it’, I was pretty excited to join in. It’s the Tigers and the Panthers – doesn’t really get any better than that.”

Nolan had decided to step away from streetstocks in the offseason, the reality of working two weeks to put together a race car each meeting having taken its toll. Then it became known that Hill wasn’t going to run the McCabe flat chassis-Toyota again this year. “It was one of those offers you can’t refuse, the car is leased but there is no way I would be doing this without Keith and Kerry’s support. It’s old but it is a bloody good learner car and I am definitely only learning.”

The car is old – maybe as old as Nolan himself – but on Nelson’s track, it circulates reliably and Nolan has that teams racing experience behind him that Lineham and Ewing are still in the early stages of acquiring. “Reading a race takes some practice. It’s going to happen a lot faster when I’m in a superstock instead of a streetie and there are four Panthers cars hunting, but I think the fact I have done three seasons with the Knights might help a bit. Saturday will tell!”

Nolan was encouraged by his performance last weekend at Woodford Glen, where he was part of an 18-car field for the second round of the Hanmer Holiday Homes South Island series. The Glen is a big, long track that suits cars with up to 150 horsepower more than his, but he came away with a seventh in the feature race. “Stoked,” he said. “We are learning every race and I am lapping it up. The more cars, the better, the more races I can get, the better. Eighteen cars there and that good field we had on opening night in Nelson are a real jump in the deep end deal so getting seventh felt good. The track was wet and rutty which suited our car, I know, but it felt like we made some progress.”

Nolan is approaching Saturday’s Challenge Cup race with the best possible attitude – respect everyone, fear no one. “We all have a car; we are all on the track and it’s teams racing – one good shot can change the whole picture very quickly. I’m still processing the fact I’m in the Nelson Tigers to race the Palmerston North Panthers, you know. Teams racing is the best you can get and this rivalry has so much history behind it. Whatever happens, it just has to be the best thing I’ve ever done in speedway.”

Nolan is realistic about the limitations of both car and driver, though. He’s excited to be racing this weekend but there is no way he will take his current car to Palmerston North for the ENZED teams champs in February. “It’s just too slow, I’d be a sitting duck. One day, in a faster car, it would be my dream but not in this one … not fair on the Tigers and not too safe for me.” Having just started his superstock career and enjoying every minute, Nolan would love to continue, maybe moving in to better machinery if the budget allows. “They are expensive but once you’ve raced in a decent field of superstocks, you just want more.”

He can’t thank McCabe and Hill enough for their endorsement and continued support while he’s also grateful to fiancée Tania Kitto, his pit crew and sponsors Eurocell Wood Products, Trinders and Waimea Engineering, Waimea Drilling, Jacks Tyres and Donaldson Civil. “Hard to believe, eh? A few weeks ago, I sat in the car for the first time, this weekend it’s got the black and orange team body on – me and the boys will just go out there and give it our best go. The Nelson fans might have been a bit surprised when the team was named but they’ve been right behind us so we will try hard for them, I can promise that.”

  • Other promotions at the Milestone Homes Top of the South Speedway from 6pm on Saturday include the streetstock hit to pass, the first round of the TQ midget club championship, the Mark Thorn Memorial for the sidecars and the best pairs for the youth ministocks.

Main photo: Janelle McKeown

Supplementary photos: Tom Laney,