UNDER DAD’S WING
By Pete McNae
Caleb Baughan is an unlikely Covid casualty. No, the “tricky virus” didn’t make the Canterbury car painter crook … but it sort of messed up his moment as the champion of the Hydraulink War of the Wings sprintcar series.
What happened was the 2019-20 series was three-quarters done when the first lockdown happened in March last year. As it dragged on, any chance of completing the season was abandoned and speedway went into winter hibernation without crowning a WoW champion. With the team of five million (mostly) behaving and getting the virus under control, the sport was able to start again in October and one of the priorities was to round out unfinished business from the year before. Alicia Hill and Jamie Duff were probably best-placed to take out the series but things fell nicely into place for Baughan and he picked up his first big speedway achievement when he wrapped up the 2019-20 series victory.
The only problem is, the class had a commitment to run a War of the Wings championship for 2020-21 so Baughan barely had time to soak the champagne out of his race suit when the series recommenced, making his reign brief. While Jamie Duff wrapped up this season’s series, no one can ever take Baughan’s name off the honours board — but he should feel slightly shortchanged.
“I dropped too far back after two rounds (this season) where things didn’t really fall my way — but that could never change the feeling when we got that series win,” Baughan, the eventual runner-up this time around, said. “It was an absolute dream come true and a reward for the crew and for the old man.”
The “old man” is Ray Baughan, Caleb’s dad, fellow sprintcar racer, and boss at Advanced Panel and Paint. As so many of our current competitors have, Caleb grew up following his dad to race tracks as Ray raced midgets, the “Chicken Man” Baughan versus “Nevil “Bullet” Basalaj battles keeping fans on the edge of their concrete seats over many seasons. Caleb did a short stint in quarter-midgets then graduated to the modified sprint class for four seasons before the Baughans pieced together Caleb’s first sprintcar from Ray’s spare bits.
“Wouldn’t be out there without him, no doubt. Getting that War of the Wings win was as much for the old man as it was for me because he lives and breathes it.”
Baughan, who will chase another two trophies at the Milestone Homes Top of the South Speedway on Saturday when Nelson hosts the rescheduled Dirtworks Nelson South Island Sprintcar Championship from 6pm and in Sunday’s Collision Centre Sunshine Classic (in conjunction with Mike Rollo of Harcourts) from 5pm, said the WoW win fell into his lap a little.
“We were hanging around the top of the field and had picked up some good results and points but then Jamie (Duff) had his motor issues in Nelson and suddenly we started to think we were on. When the feature came (in the final round at Ruapuna), I was able to kind of count cars and know where I had to be at the finish to take it out. I was maybe a little conservative — looking back I could have pushed harder and going conservative could have backfired — but I would also have been kicking my own arse if I had one hand on the trophy and threw it away with a wreck.
“It’s all hindsight, eh? It worked out good in the end and it was certainly a big moment for me and the old boy.”
After that brief time on top, Baughan set about defending the title in the 2020-21 campaign but, in his first meeting in a new Maxim chassis, ran over a stray brake calliper and cut a tyre at Cromwell while running close to the lead, then missed the set-up a little in Greymouth and ran fourth in the feature — not bad, but not enough in an abbreviated campaign. With Duff putting the WoW trophy back on the shelf, a good run this weekend in Nelson would go some way to having the second half of Baughan’s season match the first bit.
“To be honest, Nelson scares the shit out of me. There’s no time to settle, you are constantly working hard. It’s definitely not a traditional sprintcar track but that’s part of what makes it interesting, you have to be completely on your game to go all right there,” Baughan said.
While Baughan and his father race in the same class and have been known to pinch the odd spare from each other (okay, Caleb has taken Ray’s stuff), Caleb says they try to run their cars separately. There is an advantage in pitting side by side in that they can share some inventory and knowledge but with Ray, who is currently serving a Speedway NZ stand-down, still looking to win features and meetings and titles, he’s not giving too much away.
“I owe him everything,” Caleb said. “In saying that, we still compete and still look to get one over the other guy. We do things pretty separately which probably helps us stay good mates.”
Baughan moved to the Maxim chassis this season and is enjoying the change of maker while his Mopar engine, which is owned by Collision Centre Richmond proprietor Landon Dawson, is plenty strong enough to get the job done. Baughan said “Landy” and his father were, still are, good mates and Dawson bought the engine then brought it in from Australia as part of a major sponsorship commitment to the 59C car. “That’s pretty unreal — I have so many guys who aren’t just sponsors, they are friends who keep me on the track.”
Although he is in his fourth season in the class, Baughan Jr feels like a little more recent arrival, moving from rear of the field racer to WoW champion-quality in short order. Part of that is the quality equipment he has now, part is feeling he belongs in the car and the class.
“When you’re truly comfortable in the car, it feels like everything slows down and races open up ahead of you,” he said. “Some of that comes from not having to battle the car but a lot is just seat time and learning to trust yourself to do the job.”
He did have a crack at a national title meeting last season in Palmerston North on a track that was ill-prepared to host a sprintcar meeting and ended up in a big wreck that meant he “took the old girl home in a shoebox”, then bypassed Baypark this season. His reasoning was that he didn’t want to make his first visit to a new venue coincide with a title meeting when he might perhaps ruin someone else’s championship run as he found his way around a track and the setup required.
Travelling is in the plan, though, having hit the road with Ray as a five-year-old to watch him race the midget at Western Springs. “You can’t put a price on it, eh? Time with the old man, my girlfriend (Courtney Jones) races a modified sprint, my crew are my good mates — racing gives us the chance to hang out with the people I like most.”
CHAMPS UPDATE: Jamie Duff is unable to compete this weekend having welcomed a new addition to the family but the South Island champs have a more than able replacement in Californian former World of Outlaws competitor and multiple NZ champion Jonathan Allard, the current 2NZ, in the 19C car.
- Caleb Baughan races with the help of Harry (crew chief), Andy and Cody, Courtney and dad Ray while mum Leigh has supported his sport from those quarter-midget days. Baughan says he couldn’t race without the sponsorship assistance from Landon Dawson at Collision Centre Richmond, Bowater Motor Group, Brian Humm Contracting, Advanced Panel and Paint, Doyleston Engineering Works, Elite Auto Services, Racing Shock Technology and GTR Developments.
- While Saturday’s Dirtworks Nelson South Island Sprintcar Championship starts at 6pm, the second half of Nelson’s final race weekend of the season — the Collision Centre Sunshine Classic (in conjunction with Mike Rollo of Harcourts) for sprintcars — starts at the earlier time of 5pm.
- An interview with one of the drawcard drivers for the Collision Centre Sunshine Classic will be online on Friday.