By Pete McNae
Nelson’s a popular place at this time of the year. Holidaymakers come from Christchurch and the Coast, even across the strait, to get a bit of top of the south sunshine and hospitality. Until the visitors come to our speedway — then you best bring your A game and an attitude.
Last night, the Milestone Homes Top of the South Speedway hosted what was just the third ever South Island production saloon championship — rare in a sport with almost 80 years of history in this country. That is because production saloons have only recently gained national recognition from Speedway New Zealand after running as a regional class for decades. So, before last night, only two drivers had their names engraved on the South Island trophy, neither from Nelson. So, in a sense, on a dusty, chilly night in Nelson, history was made last night.
Eddy Frans is the new Donaldson Civil South Island Production Saloon champion after a flag to flag win in the feature. Clubmate Vaughan Cornelius was second, no surprises there as the pair are probably the most consistent front-of-field performers on their home track while Blenheim’s Brett Allan, who has logged dozens of trips over the Whangamoa over the years, completed a top of the south top three. Two more laps and Pam Nixon might have had some say in the outcome — she was coming on strong and fought her way through the field for fourth.
Nelson’s dominance wasn’t terribly surprising. The local class is ruled by small, slippery front wheel drive cars (Nelson is not Falcon-friendly or Commodore-cosy) and the likes of Frans, Cornelius, Cam Lankshear and David Leitch usually scrap over the flag. Defending champion Matt Sherlock, meanwhile, was in a borrowed car after messing up his own one on Boxing Day in Christchurch and long distance travellers from Invercargill and Whanganui simply couldn’t make much headway on Nelson’s close curves.
The field raced four heats, two groups with a marble draw and reverse grid each, then a repechage and final for all the chocolates. Group 1 winners were Lankshear and Kaylim McNabb, group 2 heats were taken out by Greymouth’s Scott Ritchie and Frans. A runoff from group one saw Zoe Connolly haul away for direct entry to the final while Geoff Watson cleared out in the repechage. The 20-lap feature had top aggregate points scorers Frans and Cornelius off the front row and they maintained those spots lap after lap, all the way to the finish. Behind them, Lankshear challenged, then went wide and was picked off by Allan with Nixon, 12th on lap one, having a great run through to fourth and all over Allan’s rear bumper at the finish.
Donaldson Civilians also hogged the limelight in the night’s other feature — the demolition derby — which helped draw a big crowd despite the absence of the traditional drawcard classes. The Nelson club were swamped with late entries although quite a few cars were familiar from the 30-lap streetcar race a couple of meetings back, particularly the blue and white Donaldson Civil cars and the yellow cars of Dan Kitto’s Downer group. There were five Kittos on the grid, including patriarch Graeme, celebrating his 60th birthday. Thirty-odd minutes later, it was another Kitto shouting the drinks in the clubrooms with daughter Sarah declared the winner over Michael LeGros and Nigel Tulouna. Kitto’s Toyota stayed in perpetual motion and was the worthy winner. A couple of the other blue and white wagons, brothers Josh and Brayden Nell, decided to hit back when the derby sheriffs, Dylan and Adam Hall, were asked to step in and take them off the track. Josh kept finding his way back to the clay while Brayden got involved as well. Dylan Hall’s firm but fair front bumper was about to apply a finishing touch to the 87N when the situation was defused.
That all made for a very late night, especially with a number of other promotions in the programme. The stockcars needed a runoff to find a new club open champion, streeties raced in a best pairs arrangement and there were rounds of the club champs for sidecars and TQ midgets. Throw in a big field of youth ministocks, with a number of visitors and some out of town cars not seen here before, and Sunday was peeking over the horizon when they turned out the lights.
Ben Smith had to put in overtime for his stockcar title. He’s often been close but never got across the line — it was his turn last night, although he needed to see off lone visitor Wade Sweeting (huge credit to him for stepping out of his home patch, alone, week after week). Race one saw Keightley Teece take the win, minus a portion of his wing but it went poo-shaped in heat two for Teece, rolled as he tried to go round the outside of Dylan Hall. Smith took the second heat to lead on points at that stage while Michael Paynter came back from an unlucky opening two heats to win the third. Once the tally was in, Smith and Sweeting had 56 points with Adam Hall keeping his car away from the wall for third overall, and Morgan Dumelow’s final heat third lifting her to fourth, ahead of Dylan Clark. Sweeting got the better start in the runoff and led for a couple of laps but one loose corner gave Smith his chance and he pounced for the spin and the win.
Good things always happen when one-time New Zealand streetstock champion Simon Bland comes to town. His old Whanganui-registered but Ashburton-based horse looks pretty tired these days but Bland is an entertainer and can still master the art of the hit and run. And a chequered flag always sees him perch the Falcon on the wall and remove some mud for the clean-up crew later. Shannon Marr was clearly the stirrer of the night and smeared Thomas MacLeod into the turn one wall while Neville Soper, Harry Moffat-Schwass and Bradley Evans had handy pace. Pairs racing is all about getting two drivers home consistently and Soper and Evans finished up well clear of Bland and Marr with KC Rose and Aaran Findlay third overall. Bland was the top individual points scorer.
It wouldn’t be a speedway Saturday without a three-quarter midget rollover, Kyla Blackbourn drawing the unlucky card this time as she tangled with James Nicholson and went over twice in turn two. With younger brother Connor needing medical attention in a youth ministock race and younger sister Piper being rear-ended on a red light, it wasn’t a great night to be a Blackbourn. Morgan Frost and Alicia Hill put in work in the heats, their reward being a rear of the grid start for the feature but Frost made quick work of the traffic with Hill tracking him through to finish first and second respectively. Dylan Bensemann is right there with the leaders now and was third in a very drawn-out feature.
The sidecar class welcomed back visitors and some of their own for their round of the club champs. An early attempt to run was ruled out with the track not ready for them but as it dried, smoothed and slicked off, they ran six trouble-free heats with the pairing of Ching and Solly good for two wins and a second. Drake and Satherley went 1-1-3 while Steer and Harris were also right there with 1-2-2. Two Christchurch combos plus two bikes from Blenheim came to town to help out the local field.
That leaves the youth ministock class, who fronted with 19 cars including a first night out for Violet Jones in 88N. The man to beat locally is Cambell McManaway and he enhanced that status with two wins from three starts but didn’t finish heat two, won by Blake Hearne who posted nippy lap times. Callum Russ, Max Baker and visitors Ben McSweeney and Riley Letton kept McManaway focused. Of the new season drivers, Luke Higgins is making real progress and ran eighth in heat three as Harlen Brunt was back into it after his big crash at the last meeting.
With championship season hitting fourth gear over the New Year, the Nelson Speedway Association’s next meeting will be the Southern Streetcars New Zealand Midget Grand Prix in three weeks’ time, on January 18.
Photos, Rebecca Connor Maling, BM Photography