1 AND DONE

By Pete McNae

 

When the Nelson Speedway Association farewells the bizarre calendar year that has been 2020 with a demolition derby meeting on Boxing Day, it will also farewell its current national stockcar champion, Ben Smith.

While the season runs through until April, the Milestone Homes Top of the South Speedway will have to make do without its 1NZ, Smith closing the book on this phase of his career on Saturday. As was always the plan, even before Smith won his national title in Greymouth, the car was listed for sale – with the “SOLD” sign on it half an hour later.

The championship delayed the decision by a year but, with Smith and partner Casey buying a section, it is time to act his age (30) and get a house underway. After Saturday, Smith will take it north to Napier to attempt to defend his title on January 15-16 before the car moves to a new home in Christchurch.

But what if he wins the championship again? How will he show off a fresh 1NZ without a car? Smith laughs.

“You enter every meeting with an intention of trying to win it but I’m going to be one of about 200,” he says. “In Greymouth, I was a bit of a dark horse but you don’t get the chance to sneak around when there’s a 1 on the car.”

Evidence of that came earlier this season at the King of the Arena meeting at Palmerston North. One of Smith’s wishes as a national champion was to hit a few different tracks and take the 1NZ designation around the country. After qualifying comfortably out of a huge field, Smith had a strong first heat, was lined up and taken to the wall in the second, got his revenge later in the race and then ran second in the last heat, although well out of the points by then due to the race two take-out.

“Me and the other guy shook hands and had a laugh, it’s stockcars and we both used our bumpers but that 1 means you are going to attract attention on the track.”

With zero hard feelings, Smith is more concerned about how he has represented the class and the sport since his win in Greymouth – where he was not only the first South Island stockcar driver to win a national title, he was the first to even make the podium.

He recalls his own childhood, following dad Dale to speedway meetings.

“If I got to shake hands or say something to the Craig Bootes or the Higgys (Brendan Higgins), I was floating around for days, they were definitely the childhood heroes,” Smith says. “There have been a lot more kids and people wanting to chat or get a photo since the championship and I’ve tried to leave that same impression on the current crop of kids … a few minutes and a quick photo could be what draws them on into ministocks and up the ranks.”

On the track, Smith wanted to prove his championship wasn’t a flukey one-off. There has been a massive amount of effort and expense ploughed into the 10-year-old Rees chassis that came to Nelson as a new build for Cody Teece. Little remains of that initial car with the Smiths doing a lot of work themselves while past superstock titleholders Higgins and Shane Harwood have been involved with engineering and set-up and Motueka’s Craig Griffith has produced strong motors.

“It feels like this car can get to the front and run at the front anywhere we go,” Smith said. “It’s been a year with Covid where we didn’t make it to all the meetings we wanted to visit but we haven’t struggled for pace anywhere we have been.”

He bypassed the South Island championships earlier this month, which ruffled a few feathers, but Smith’s justification makes sense. He knows Greymouth and has done the South Islands before. With a limited budget and a finite number of race weekends, the new challenges were to get to the North Island more often, to see new tracks and to face different fields – all part of the “national” aspect of being a national champion.

The flipside of that is that Smith has chosen to run in a 15-car field at home this weekend, instead of heading away in search of larger numbers.

“The Nelson club is my home track and we are loyal. I’ve had heaps of support from the Nelson fans so we would rather say goodbye to Nelson on Boxing Day with our field of cars than travel away as my time with the car winds down.”

He will farewell the car in mid-January with a few regrets. Smith said he has never felt as comfortable and “at one” with a previous car and that’s helped him relax in his driving and focus on his own performance, knowing the car will do its part. He has put the Nelson track record right down into the low 16s and won two-thirds of his starts this season.

“Yeah, it will be a bit hard to see it towed off the property, there’s a lot of me and my family and friends in that car but there are other priorities and things to get started on.”

And, for the future? As NBA basketballer Steven Adams told reporters on hearing he had been traded to another team, “I ain’t dead, mate”. No, if factors align, we haven’t seen the last of the 93N team in speedway at some point in the future. Happy holidays, race fans!

  • New Zealand stockcar champion Ben Smith is grateful for the support of Dale, Jo, Liam and Justin Smith, Casey and Tony Frost, Kadin Gomulski, Craig Griffith, Brendan Higgins, Shane Harwood and Kev Barker.  His healthy list of sponsors includes Ecotech Homes, HQ Cafe and Bar, The Loggers Shop, High Rev, Wakefield Auto Services, NVD Logistics, Mini-Tankers, Darrin Thomason, CHS and Hauler Engineering. 
  • Saturday’s Boxing Day meeting from 6pm features the Jack’s Tyres demolition derby as the final event of the night.

Ben Smith images, with thanks to club photographer Rebecca Connor Maling, BM Photography