ASHES TO SASHES
By Pete McNae
Daniel Thomas has been to the bottom but things are looking up.
Less than three years ago, the Hamilton-based sprintcar competitor and his family suffered a catastrophic house fire. He and wife Courtney lost everything, Thomas crawling through the burning home to save his baby daughter, now aged three. With no contents insurance, they were left wondering where to turn next. And then the community hit high gear. A Givealittle page was opened and the donations rolled in, with Thomas humbled by the support, especially from the speedway community he had joined as a ministock racer more than 15 years earlier.
“There were donations from people from all over and sprintcar teams (he cites Nelson’s Connor Rangi Racing) I didn’t know,” Thomas said. “It gave us the basis to start over, with all the insurance in place this time. We rebuilt on the same site and then started to consider how I could get back into racing.”
This season, in just his first full campaign back from the near-tragedy, Thomas stood on the national sprintcar podium alongside champion Michael Pickens and runner-up Jonathan Allard, as close to professional speedway competitors as this country can muster. The 30-year-old heating and ventilation technician had surprised even the most ardent sprintcar fans — but not himself.
“We came back to the sport after a couple of seasons basically out of it as we got through the fire, just doing the odd show here and there,” Thomas said. “With the championships at Baypark Speedway where we race often, we prepared totally to give that one meeting the best shot we could. We had a new car, the results earlier on were good and I thought I could be fast when the New Zealand champs rolled around.”
The proud 3NZ will be in Nelson this weekend for the two-day sprintcar meeting that wraps up the season at the Milestone Homes Top of the South Speedway. Tomorrow, from 6pm, it’s the Dirtworks Nelson South Island championship while Sunday’s racing starts at 5pm and features the inaugural Collision Centre Richmond Sunshine Classic. Thomas’ own car is in the sprintcar hospital so he’s coming to town to drive the second Freeman Motorsport car alongside Sam O’Callaghan in the 75N racecar.
Thomas will add his own seat and some go-fast parts that were being transported to Nelson, strap in and go racing. He said the contact from Freeman came out of nowhere.
“Kevin’s got this new meeting he is putting on and you want to see that succeed. I know he talked to Michael (Pickens) and Jonathan (Allard) but they were unavailable so I guess I was the next in line at number 3!”
A head gasket failure on the 3NZ meant Thomas and team had parked their car for the summer to do their precautionary maintenance but Freeman’s offer was too good to refuse. Thomas has raced just once before in the South Island, winning a national six shooter title (wingless six-cylinder sprintcars) in Ashburton and he was keen to have a crack at the fast, tight and technical Nelson track.
“I’ve been watching videos from a couple of seasons back when you had the NZGP, trying to see where people pass and how they set their cars up to be fast,” he said. “It looks like a great little track, way different from what we are used to at Baypark and Western Springs but that’s part of the fun.”
A slight complicating factor has been some pain in the past week that might be kidney stones. Thomas was to have a CT scan and, maybe, a bottle of Freeman’s Harden The F Up water to be ready to race this weekend.
The South Island champs and Sunshine Classic have drawn close to 20 cars including some talent from the deep south Nelson fans haven’t seen in the past season or two as the southern drivers have held a separate series from the Hydraulink War of the Wings. Thomas is one of a couple of North Island entries and he is well aware of the ability of the likes of Jamie Duff and Matthew Leversedge who often compete at the Springs and Baypark. He’s not apprehensive about stepping into an unfamiliar car, either.
“Kevin’s chassis is the same make we ran until this season and I will have my seat — that’s the number 1 thing, knowing you’re comfortable and safe in the car and the rest is pretty much same-same. You get in the car and see how fast and clean you can run it.”
As mentioned, Thomas started his career in youth ministocks in Huntly back in 2002, having watched his dad on sidecars there. In 2007, he graduated to minisprints with some success then moved up to sprintcars in 2011. An engine failure saw the team convert the chassis to the cheaper six shooter, winning a couple of national titles before Thomas could get the resources to move back into sprintcars. Since then, he has been a regular racer, apart from the post-fire setback when he had a few midget drives and one or two in the older sprintcar. This season, team supporter Jason McIndoe offered the use of a more modern KPC chassis he had bought as a roller while Thomas and his parents added the KRE 410 cubic inch fuel injected motor.
“Straight out of the gate at Baypark, I was in the top two,” Thomas said, “racing toe-to-toe with Pickens and (Jamie) McDonald. That’s when we set the goal of getting a lot of seat time and being fast for the NZ champs.”
At the national title meeting, Thomas had two great heats and was the top qualifier. He chose the outside of the front row for the feature then watched Pickens motor away as the outside line held too much moisture. Thomas dropped back to fourth but picked off the third-place driver and was putting pressure on Allard in second when the flag fell.
“I felt like we were coming on really strong, we just ran out of laps.”
Despite having such a long career for such a relatively young man, Thomas said the success this season had fuelled a passion to keep going until his twin sons (now 6 years old) are ready to step in. “I’ve got maybe six years until I have to step aside and be the crew chief,” he jokes.
A proud member of the Kihikihi club, Thomas was well pleased to add his name to a cluttered 2020-21 honours board for the small Waikato club. His 3NZ sits up there with Asher Rees’ 1NZ in superstocks, another 1NZ for stockcar competitor Ben Ellis, Matt Nielsen’s North Island superstock crown, 2NZGP for Rees followed by last weekend’s North Island title (the second contested this season thanks to Covid disruptions) and a 3NZGP for fellow sprintcar competitor Brian Edwards. The sidecar combo of David Gannon and Daryl Pearce also picked up the second place sash in the North Island titles at Rosebank.
“It’s probably a lot like Nelson,” Thomas said. “It’s a little club that has had its issues and battles but it turns out a lot of winners and it’s very supportive. We’re loving having a K on the car — along with that 3NZ.”
- 3NZ sprintcar driver Daniel Thomas thanks Jason McIndoe, his parents Robyn and Glenn, wife Courtney, crew Mouse, Adrian, Nigel, Kevin and Kale for their support. He races with sponsorship from LoadCo Transport Tokoroa, Flying W Motorsports, Lucas Oil NZ, Central Metals, Viper Property Services, Aussie Spares and Hamilton Industrial Painters.
- This weekend’s programme sees Saturday’s Dirtworks Nelson SI Sprintcar Championship start with time trials for the feature class at 5.30pm. Racing proper begins at 6pm with supporting classes including quarter midgets, TQs, streetstocks, production saloons, stockcars and superstocks.
- On Sunday, for the Nelson Speedway Association’s final race meeting of the season, the Collision Centre Richmond Sunshine Classic, in conjunction with Mike Rollo, Harcourts, will begin at 5pm with sprintcar time trials. Racing also includes quarter midgets, streetstocks, youth ministocks, stockcars and TQ midgets, along with the featured sprintcars. Extra support for the event comes from OEM Audio of Christchurch (sponsoring the fastest lap both nights), GTR Developments., EzyLift Cranes Nelson and Discover NZ Motor Homes.