By Pete McNae

Behold the power of the mullet. For those bold enough, it’s not just a haircut, it’s a lifestyle. And Nelson ministock driver Blake Hearne reckons his hairy waterfall is worth an extra 10 horsepower on the race track.

Locally, their leader is Connor Blackbourn, who has the main mane in Nelson’s ministock class. Hearne is a close second, then there’s Callum Russ, first-season driver Toby Walker and a recent convert in Jack Burson.

“Jack says he’s getting one, he hasn’t really started it yet but he should get one,” Hearne says. “It’s a bit of fun, we just like to compare mullets. Connor is definitely an inspiration but Mum says I can’t grow it out like his. That mullet is right up there.”

Those 10 horsepower will come in handy on Saturday from 6pm when the Nelson Speedway Association holds its Racing for the Kids meeting, in support of the Child Cancer Foundation.  The club’s alignment with the charity will see it donate $2000 from Saturday’s takings while there will be collections in the crowd and a 50/50 raffle will split the returns with CCF. Another popular addition from last summer, the kids’ bike race in which the littlies get to ride a lap of the Milestone Homes Top of the South Speedway, also costs a gold coin donation which will be passed on to CCF.

In keeping with the racing for the kids theme, Canterbury’s quarter midget class for drivers aged 8 to 15 has been invited back to join the three local drivers; Bailey Bensemann, Conley Webley and Locky Martin. And the ministocks will have their local contingent plus a few visitors for the Donaldson Civil Ministock Mania, three heats with separate categories at prizegiving for experienced drivers and new competitors this season.

Not so long ago, Hearne, minus the mullet, was in the latter category.  Now, at 14, the Waimea College student has worked his way to the front of the field as one of the “veteran” drivers. Looking back on his 12-year-old self in his first season, Hearne feels he has learned a lot already and is still soaking up the lessons.

“One thing from those first photos was that you couldn’t even see me at the steering wheel in my first season. I hadn’t grown at all so there’s just this helmet peeking out the top,” he says. Back then, Hearne raced with older brother Raiden, who has since graduated from the class to compete in a TQ. A fairly full night in the pits for dad Justin and mum Lisa got even more intense in Blenheim on one race night last summer. Blake’s car was run into the wall by a rival competitor, against class rules and the chassis was scrapped.

“Dad built this new one from scratch in about six weeks. We could have given up then, but I didn’t want to lose,” Hearne says.

With the motor, diff, dash and seat making up most of the salvageable parts, Hearne had the new 41N back, sporting a Ford Fiesta body and signature Lift n Shift colour scheme before the season ended.

That incident became a tipping point for the class in the top of the south, too. Over two or three seasons, occasional deliberate contact had become an almost weekly event, fuelled by Facebook and pit talk.  Machinery — and more crucially — young teen bodies were being damaged and a hard line was applied by the officials and clubs. The result has been a much better class this summer with very few relegations or exclusions applied. Some of the behaviour has sneaked in but has been jumped on quickly.

Hearne was relegated two spots in a race during the recent club championships, costing him a podium position. It’s a situation he intends to avoid this weekend.

“Sometimes, when you’re battling, you can make a mistake,” he says. “In the car you go, ‘ohhhh, hope no one saw that’, but if you get caught, you have to take it and move on. I’d say there’s pretty much nothing deliberate now and that makes it much more fun.”

And it’s no secret the youth ministocks and quarter midgets are great speedway schools. They teach race craft, track management and basic car function long before kids can get their road licence. Their apparent lack of power (surprisingly, the fastest youth cars lap Nelson in the 17s bracket, while stockcars are just a second quicker and the superstocks might be another seven-tenths quicker again) means drivers learn to be smooth and tidy.

“When you go out there as a 12-year-old, you try to hold your line and not mess up anyone else’s race. As you learn, you try to hold the car’s speed and avoid getting sideways and then later you work on staying low because the more you can shorten the distance you cover, the quicker you’ll get to the finish. Then you start to get better at reading gaps and managing traffic.

“Basically, I learned by listening to dad, who had a bunch of seasons in stockcars, and ignoring mum, who wants me to slow down.”

This weekend’s Ministock Mania clashes with NZ Dirt Track Racing Magazine Ministocks in Paradise, the equivalent of last weekend’s superstock teams champs, but for the little Nissans and Toyotas. No Nelson drivers are travelling this season but the Rotorua meeting will draw away a couple of competitors who might have come to the top of the south. Hearne hopes that might help him crack the top three — something he could have legitimately aimed for, regardless of who showed up.

“Missing the podium in the club champs wasn’t good. It’s a goal to get there this weekend.”

It’s also a goal to get to Ministocks in Paradise before he graduates from the youth ranks although money — and the fact Raiden didn’t go — could influence that outcome. It might also play a part in Hearne’s racing future. It’s telling that his speedway heroes are recent 1NZ superstock driver Jason Long and current 1NZ TQ champion Jeremy Webb.

“Everyone says I should be thinking about a stockcar, then a superstock and getting the Tigers back to Palmy one day but money means it will probably be a TQ like Raiden. He loves it, you can go quick and still afford it,” Hearne says. “I’m 14 so I can still dream of a superstock for a bit longer yet.”

In the off-season, he plays hooker for the Waimea Rugby Club to the edge of rep selection but the number one sport will always be speedway — with a side order of mullet.

“I wear head gear in the rugby season but I make sure the mullet shows out the bottom. You have to make that statement, be proud of the mullet.”

  • Blake Hearne races with the support of Justin and Lisa, pit crew James Keys and sponsors Jack’s Tyres, Ewing Poultry, Lift n Shift, Supercharge Batteries, Oxford Court Motel, Trinder Engineering and Footprint Signs.
  • Patrons are urged to bring along a few coins or a note to help out the Child Cancer Foundation and to support the work they do in our community.

Photos by Rebecca Connor Maling, BM Photography