By Pete McNae
Whoever decided to place a high horsepower engine in a lightweight speedway chassis, then leave the wing at home, we salute you. While the midgets might lack the deliberate contact of the stockcars or the untamed horsepower from the sprint cars, there is a reason the class has been a part of New Zealand speedway for the best part of eight decades. Put a quality midget car field on a quality midget car oval, like Nelson’s Milestone Homes Top of the South Speedway, and you’ll get a spectacular show.
Last night’s Southern Streetcars New Zealand Midget Grand Prix served as a reminder to the midget-starved local crowd of just how entertaining the class can be once the sun goes down and the track starts to accept the best from the open wheelers. Some of the big names were absent, due to the Chili Bowl meeting in Tulsa, but no one was complaining about the 25-car field, the heat races, B main nor the 30-lap feature. When Auckland’s Peter Hunnibell clambered up onto the cage of his 39A car in front of the back straight patrons as the new GP champion, the remaining fans were warm in their recognition of a job well done.
The field was initially split into five groups for crossover heat racing that largely proceeded without incident. The dry Nelson summer meant the track built a cushion after one heat, then slicked off by the second but few drivers had issues with it, aside from a couple of turn 4 spins for first-time visitor Hamish Dobbyn from Auckland. One of the South Island’s top prospects, Tom Lumsden, had a costly DNF in race one (won by Auckland’s Hayden Williams) while Nevil Basalaj scored one for Nelson in a largely incident-free second race. By the time the championship class came back for the second round, the sun was setting and the track coming round, although multiple South Island champ Dave Kerr seemed to find ways to get into the midst of most of what went wrong. Another Aucklander, James Cossey, took the win in race three with heat four seeing a strong return by Lumsden. The last of the group races saw Basalaj dice with danger on the turn one wall before another Western Springs competitor Hayden Guptill, banked the win.
With the bulk of the field set, the semi-main to find the final four qualifiers went to Chris Bagrie (Palmerston North), ahead of Ben Huijs (Whanganui), Canterbury’s Jay Chadwick and Dobbyn, who locked down the last qualifying spot.
The field of 20 became 18 before the race officially started with Mark Willans (Stratford) on the infield and young Ruapuna racer Jack Low dicing with Nelson’s turn 1 wall and rolling on lap one, forcing a full restart. Pole men Hunnibell and Guptill got away quickly and turned in 30 laps of classic midget racing, one sliding inside the other, only to concede ground on the exit from the turn. Hunnibell had the car speed and a handy lead when the first yellow came on while, behind the front two, the experienced Canterbury pair of Glen Durie and Kerr were duelling but also closing on Guptill. Lumsden was hugely unlucky to get checked up with Williams as the pair went into turn 3, Williams spinning and Lumsden being sent to the rear but that just meant that anyone who took their focus away from frontrunner Hunnibell saw possibly the night’s best drive as Lumsden carved his way forward over the final 12 laps.
When the flag fell after 30 circuits, Hunnibell, a former national midget car champion, was a handy winner, Guptill a second and a half behind as runner-up while Basalaj made huge ground to be third across the line, only to learn that his electronic lapscoring transmitter failed to record his last four laps. Provisional results had Kerr in third — although the casual observer might have seen that differently. Williams was fourth while Lumsden was a remarkable fifth after being 15th with 12 laps to run.
With the crash classes racing elsewhere or staying home to weld up more spares, open wheelers in the form of three-quarter midgets and the invited class of quarter midgets for drivers aged 8 to 15, provided support.
It was a rare night with no rollovers for the TQs although the quarter midgets stepped up there, Dyllan Forsey banging heels with Ethan Smith, collecting the turn two wall and pirouetting through the air. The young Canterbury driver made it back out for the last heat of their CrediFlex Southern Series. Prominent across the three heats were Aucklanders Emerson Vincent and Dakota Scott and seasoned Canterbury racers Jacob Cunniffe, Jack Brownlees and Smith. Eight-year-old Locky Martin had his first run under the watchful eye of the Nelson club president (dad) and former superstock and sprintcar racer Jason Smith.
Three-quarter midget racing saw Alicia Hill put points on the board in heat one while Morgan Frost turned his quick lap times into a win in heat two. The feature was shortened by five laps and brought forward in a programme that was starting to drift later than hoped, Frost leading another MTF team 1-2 beating Dylan Bensemann with Jayden Corkill third. Mark Bezett had his best meeting in a while, running in the top six, on the tail of the fast group but ahead of the chasing group.
The production saloons were back in business after hosting the South Island championship recently with reigning SI champ Eddy Frans looking like he could add another winner’s sash in the closed club championship. To the naked eye, Frans had to settle for second, though, Kaylim McNabb turning around an uninspiring season in the best way with a great win in the feature when he got the jump on Frans off the front row and went flag to flag for the apparent win. Again, however, electronic lap scoring failed to record McNabb’s last two laps as he attempted to retain his club title with lap sheets showing Frans first ahead of Pam Nixon and Cam Lankshear. A final outing for the class saw Zoe Connolly running strongly in third before her car broke the driveshaft and coasted infield while David Leitch had a massive rollover coming off turn four, bits of his little yellow Peugeot littering the infield as it fell off the tow truck hook when some parts departed. Hardly the ideal preparation for the New Zealand title meeting in Cromwell — Leitch faces some late nights if he hopes to have any chance of attending but, right now, with the car heavily damaged, one of the oldest of Speedway New Zealand’s current competitors might just want a hot bath and a lie down.
Youth ministocks completed the show and, for the first time this season, the jostling that has marred recent summers was evident. It was later announced that the meeting was for the club championship and, as a training class, the club tries to de-emphasise winning. Cambell McManaway had two wins and a second and is the new club champ, ahead of Callum Russ and Jonti Austin, while Max Baker wasn’t going to let the win get away in race three. Aleisha Oakly had a big moment in the turn two wall and both Luke Higgins and Rebekah Bugler delivered the best races of their young speedway careers but the referee has made it clear that a continuation of the contact will be stomped on quickly.
Nelson’s next meeting is on February 1 when the super saloons come to stir up a dust cloud (please, no more “Sandstorm” by Darude on the sound system when we are eating clay with our hot chips) in the local round of the Mag and Turbo Super Cup.
UPDATE: Nevil Basalaj’s third place finish in the Southern Streetcars New Zealand Midget Grand Prix and Kaylim McNabb’s production saloon closed club championship win were both confirmed at last night’s prizegiving.
Photos: Rebecca Connor Maling, BM Photography