SWINGS AND ROUNDABOUTS
By Pete McNae
Jonti Austin experienced the highs and the lows and then another high, all in the space of around three hours at Nelson’s Milestone Homes Top of the South Speedway tonight.
A first-season driver in the three-quarter midget class, Austin’s run at the Baby on the Move South Island championship ended upside down on the wall, his racecar left with just three wheels when he rode the wheel of the car in front, driven by Canterbury’s Ben Morgan, and went for an epic ride that bent his TQ out of the title race. First high (the roll), followed by a significant low (the damage). Needing to burn off some steam, Austin returned for the last event of the night, the Jack’s Tyres and Performance demolition derby and managed to earn $500 for the repair fund when he was the last driver standing.
The derby — and a long time between meetings — helped draw a decent late-season crowd to the track (Nelson just has three race dates left, over two weekends at Easter and in mid-April) but conflicting promotions, damage to vehicles and competitors and the inevitable financial squeeze that comes in the last half of the season meant field numbers across most classes were down. And, with a high rotation for the likes of stockcars and superstocks, who fronted four times with a quick turnaround between races, there were some gaps on the grid by the end of the evening. No one seemed to mind much. Everyone stayed until the final flag and inhaled the burned clutches, overheated engines and flayed rubber that comes with a 30-car derby field. Initially, it looked like the Hardakers or one of the Donaldson Civil team might collect the cash but they were eliminated one by one. Nelson Speedway Association president Wayne Martin was stopped in his tracks and Ross Martin in the production saloon class car that was assembled and raffled in support of fellow racer Pam Nixon’s battle against cancer (an amazing $4400 was raised in five days) was also out before the end.
It was left to Austin in a car he kept pinned high on the rev counter, Serina Russ in a Team DC blue and white entry, Shannon Marr’s 73N and the indestructible Volvo estate of Clint Parris to fight it out, Austin being the one finally able to stand on the roof of his deceased derby car with the chequered flag and a deposit on a new front end for the TQ.
Crashes undercut Nelson’s challenge for Jeremy Webb’s TQ title significantly but don’t be fooled into believing the eventual outcome was going to read any differently. Webb’s SI championship win tonight was his 9th in 10 years and his fifth straight. The four-times-on-the-trot New Zealand champion is a genius at the wheel of a TQ and anyone who wants to win a major meeting in these parts is relying on having their best night while Webb has his worst. Tonight was not that night. From two mid-pack heat draws, Webb won both races, running under the lap record and earned a front-row grid start for the feature. Lined up alongside was Canterbury clubmate Kyle Glover, another talented pedaller who would have won many more red ribbons if Webb hadn’t been in the way. When the green came on, though, Webb was gone, Glover having to work hard to stay clear of Nelson teen Cambell McManaway. In an earlier heat, McManaway led for most of the race until one tiny lapse off turn 4 gave Webb all the gap he needed to get by and, in the feature, McManaway again proved that he can run right at the front of the field.
A crash took out two Nelson hopefuls; Dylan Bensemann and Alicia Hill (she had been battling against a sticky steering box all meeting). Earlier rolls had seen Nelson’s Jayden Corkill eliminated spectacularly while, in heat one, 2NZ Liam McCoubrey’s car made a sharp right turn off turn 2, ran into Nelson’s Kynan Bezett, who rolled — both recording a DNF. McCoubrey’s response was to win his second heat which at least improved his grid position for the final.
And, as Webb simply drove off into the sunset, McCoubrey charged on, getting by McManaway for third, then nipping Glover to finish second overall. The Ruapuna sweep of the podium was no surprise but Nelson’s likely contenders ended up on the infield or the trailer with McManaway finally finishing fifth, Bezett and Raiden Hearne the only other N drivers to go the distance.
The TQ title drew 20 starters, the next biggest field on the night came from their smaller siblings, the quarter midgets for drivers aged as young as 8. Nelson put a win on the board early with Conley Webley doing a great job out in front before the Canterbury wave came rolling in, led by Jack Brownlees, Ethan Smith and Isabelle Clark. The kids even got their own feature race and it was a pearler with Brownlees and Smith going at it, Smith getting the win from Clark with Brownlees third. Webley again shone through among the host club drivers.
With Blenheim cancelling their meeting tonight, there was talk of some extra numbers in the production saloon and stockcar ranks and they did pop over to prop up the stockcar hit to pass. In the productions, it was just the fabulously sideways Falcon of Sam Martin repping the E, his best chance of a win dissipating when he popped a tyre in the same race that Nelson’s Zoe Connolly had a front flat and clipped the wall and the whole wheel flew off Dave Leitch’s Nissan. Heat wins were shared between Fee Frans, who has much more racecar under her right foot with her purchase of a Mitsubishi FTO that’s been sitting in a shed locally for a few seasons, Kaylim McNabb and Jordan Gillespie. In a small feature field, Gillespie doubled his win tally.
The stockcars welcomed Leighton Stanton, Chris McKendrick, Jack Rarity and Alex Maule from the Blenheim club, a gesture greatly appreciated when Nelson had just five cars to call on. Stanton and Maule got wins on the board before Dylan Clarke got away from the blockers and showed how quick his car still is with two heat wins and the hit to pass victory. Nelson’s Baker brothers hunted together, never more so than when Stanton lined up Max, the stirrer of the night, for a big shot in turn three, only to be cleaned up 50m later by older brother Zac. It was crowd-pleasing stuff, the small field at least trying to use their bumpers for all the right reasons.
The same can be said for the superstocks — six cars entered, Josh Nell missed the first heat of the Dave Scott Memorial and Chris Baxter had to sit out the fourth race but the remainder all had a bit of fun, especially Brett Nicholls who seems to be winning in his sleep right now. Four from four confirmed the Scott Memorial Trophy will stay with the 48N team, Nicholls only having one minor flutter when James Nicholson took him to the wall. Nicholson and Alex Hill had turns at trying to block the chasers with varying degrees of success while Ben Taylor rolled in with his new purchase — a car he collected from Rotorua this week — and proceeded to set the quickest laps of the night despite having driven only sparingly in recent seasons. Add in McKenzie, Clayworth, Lineham, Perkins and Michael Paynter in the old Taylor car which has been prepped for sale and Nelson is back in double figures with the prospect of two or three more next summer.
Nelson races again on Easter Saturday in a change from the previously advertised programme. The main promotion will be the rescheduled Thelin Construction New Zealand Sidecar Grand Prix, with racing from 5pm. The local season will conclude with a two-day sprintcar feast on April 17-18.