WEST ISLAND REFUGEE

 

By Pete McNae

 

Brett Sullivan is still wrapping his head around the fact that his home track is about 10 minutes from his front door. In recent seasons, Sullivan has faced an eight-hour tow — minimum — to flick clay in his sprintcar.

His past half-dozen years have been spent in Australia, initially in Cairns before moving almost 3000km away to work in the uranium, copper and gold mines of South Australia. His boss had told him he knew there were speedways nearby and there were. Unfortunately, none of them ran 410 cubic inch sprintcars.

So, each race meeting, the Sullivan team would arrive from far-flung destinations. Father, Steve, a well-known competitor in midgets, super saloons and sprintcars at Nelson’s Milestone Homes Top of the South Speedway, would fly in from New Zealand, often with Cantabrian Cody Batt alongside. Crew chief Michael Armstrong travelled from Western Australia while Brett drove the Volvo hauler up with race cars in the back.

It sounds extreme to those of us lucky enough to have a speedway on the outskirts of town but the 27-year-old Aimex fittings division manager said the payoff was worth it.

“We loved it, every bit of it,” Sullivan said. “You’re racing on the bucket list tracks like Parramatta, Warrnambool and Toowoomba — big, wide-open half miles with big banks, Parramatta has no outside wall and you have 60 cars show up. You go as far and as fast as your courage takes you.”

For the former Nelson kart racer and South Island Formula Ford champion, who had dabbled in sprintcar racing alongside his dad before shifting to Australia, that was a B feature win at Parramatta and qualification for A Mains, where he competed against the biggest names on a “fierce” Australian 410 sprintcar scene.  While the World of Outlaws drivers and the promotion they are part of in the US are next level, Sullivan says the Aussies take no prisoners when it comes to sprintcar racing.

“You take the Outlaws guys out of it, they are professionals on big-budget teams doing a couple of hundred shows a year and the next toughest group would be the Australians. It’s fiercely competitive and they certainly don’t take a backward step when the Outlaws guys head down there,” he said. “It’s pretty cut-throat but, saying that, they were good about the Kiwi guys who set up there and travelled in from all over and tried to foot it with them. We made great friendships.”

The move back home a year ago was triggered, in part, by a lifestyle change as Sullivan and partner Kayla prepare for an addition to the family but Covid-19 was another complication. The team shipped the truck and two race-ready Spike chassis cars back to New Zealand during lockdown with a view to building a house and making Nelson home again. Talk of getting in the odd meeting back in Sydney is parked for now — quarantine and community cases have put it in the too-hard basket. Likewise, Sullivan’s ambition to get to the US and race through states like Ohio and Pennsylvania is on hold. The team has the gear there, more cars and another hauler, but plans for winter 2021 seem hopeful, at best.

Instead, Sullivan has committed to the Hydraulink War of the Wings series which hits the top of the south this weekend with a round in Blenheim on Friday and another in Nelson, presented by the Brightwater Fathers’ Group, that opens with time trials at 5.30pm on Saturday. Hydraulink have been Sullivan team backers from the early days and he’s eager to represent the brand well with a good showing in the series. But he’s certainly not suggesting he will bring his Warrnambool ways to Nelson — quite the reverse.

“I’m trying to unlearn the way I have driven for the past few years and it’s harder than you think,” he said. Sullivan hasn’t raced on a “flat” track like Nelson, Eastern States or Ruapuna in years, with the Australian sprintcar tracks heavily banked and often twice as long. He had the 69NZ car at Nelson’s first practice and tried to hammer the car around turns 3 and 4 as he had in Aussie. Didn’t work.

“I definitely have to tame it back here,” Sullivan said. “In time trials there, you just don’t lift. If you’re not totally aggressive over there, you might as well not bother, you really can’t give an inch. But these tracks are a different set of challenges — there is more, I guess, thought needed and balance in how you attack it. We don’t drive here as they do there and that’s mostly down to the tracks and the budgets. The talent is good here, but it’s applied differently.”

Sullivan has been to Ruapuna for their opening meeting and was making some headway with his adjustments by the end of the evening but is keen to test Blenheim’s longer straights and the improved drive in Nelson. This Saturday’s meeting clashes with the New Zealand Sprintcar Grand Prix in Auckland but the War of the Wings was always going to win that one. The team is keen to get to Baypark in Mount Maunganui later in the season for the New Zealand championships, though. After his time racing in Australia and the potential plans for the US, he admits it is unusual to have never raced in the North Island. One previous attempt was rained out, the truck blew up on the other.

“Nationals are definitely in the plan, Baypark is one track we would like to try but the major goal is our series here and trying to get to grips with the people up the front who run South Island tracks all the time. I’d really like to work on being a better driver on New Zealand tracks.”

He’s also had to adapt his style after switching chassis to the lesser-known Spike. It’s 5cm shorter than his previous car and Sullivan said it’s “the fastest reacting car” he has driven. “Its weight transfer is amazing, it is so pointy and reactive … it makes you become a better driver”.

Former 1NZ Jamie Larsen runs one but they haven’t been widely adopted, yet. “The guys who run them usually do well but it’s a car that gets your attention,” Sullivan said. There are two in the hauler, he is just hoping he doesn’t need to drag out the backup after Blenheim on Friday with Nelson’s field somewhat at the mercy of the meeting on the previous evening. “We have another gun if we need it but I’d prefer not to be unloading that second car, it would mean something had gone badly wrong.”

No, in Sullivan’s ideal scenario these days, it’s lunch at home with the family and a leisurely 10-minute drive to his nearest clay oval for a night of 410 sprintcar action.

Brett Sullivan thanks his dad Steve (who never missed a race meeting in Australia), partner Kayla Coudret, Aussie crew chief “Army” and Cody Batt, local helpers George Crosbie and, when he isn’t racing his own sprintcar, Stephen Taylor and a band of willing workers plus his major sponsors Hydraulink, Gates Hoses, Aimex, Sable Clothing and Motul.

  • Time trials open Saturday’s meeting at 5.30pm with two hot laps per driver earning series points. The War of the Wings will be staged over three group races leading into a 25-lap feature.
  • Due to low car numbers, superstocks and midgets have been replaced in the programme by youth ministocks and TQ midgets.