Monster Kihikihi Season Opener – By Rob Arnold.
There was a time, and it wasn’t that long ago that Kihikihi opening nights in terms of on track action were slightly underwhelming affairs. While fireworks and things such as colouring competitions and Halloween costume contests meant a healthy crowd was trackside, the racing while not bad for the numbers that showed, it wasn’t quite of a standard to entice the many that only go to speedway once or twice a year back for more. With the programme consisting of just the bread and butter classes, it was also not enough to attract anything like the crowds seen at the likes of Paradise Valley for their fireworks nights.
From 2016 onwards, that has steadily changed, as stronger car counts and the appearance of glamour classes such as sprintcars, super saloons and superstocks has seen crowd attendances at Kihikihi season openers improve with every year in spite of the weather forcing the 2017 edition to be postponed 24 hours and last year cutting it short with the fireworks lit the following evening.
The writer has felt for sometime there was nothing stopping Kihikihi getting the same crowds seen elsewhere provided there was a first class attraction on the track for their fireworks meeting and this was definitely the case in 2020. The much publicised influx of talent into the Kihikihi superstock ranks over the winter gave the numbers to make a feature attraction for the class on opening night viable, which led to the creation of the first Rosetown Superstock Classic, the first time in 15 years there has been a feature on track attraction at a Kihikihi opening meeting.
Last Saturday also was another first as this was the first time since 2002 that Kihikihi has run its opening meeting on Labour Weekend, thanks to a quirk in the calendar that saw the long weekend fall on the last weekend of October, in recent times Kihikihi’s usual start to the season. There was a small downside to this as this saw a double up with Baypark’s opening night, that saw sprintcars and super saloons dropped from the programme, but the sheer calibre of a star studded 24 strong field of superstocks, a huge crowd attraction in its own right, more than made up for this. Youth ministocksand saloons got an extra race to compensate while quarter midgets were also drafted in at the last minute as well for the same reason.
The flip side to that was that the Labour Weekend timeslot enabled far more out of town fans to come than is usually the case for a Kihikihi opening night, a young family from Taumaranui, an area where speedway has practically zero following, spontaneously making their first visit to a speedway meeting after a superstock in tow down the main street piqued their interest a case in point. This largely contributed to what say with confidence that this was far and away the largest crowd ever for a Kihikihi fireworks meeting. When the writer arrived at 4.10 pm, some 50 mins shy of the scheduled kick off, the carpark was already filled to the point equal to what was seen in the past as a good crowd for a Kihikihi opening night.
At this time a 50 metre queue, almost unheard of at Kihikihi formed at the ticket booth and the crowds still poured in as late as 7.15pm to see an absolutely gigantic crowd, not far off what was seen for the NZ Stockcar finals in 2017 and almost equal to that seen at the Conducive Education charity event back in March. It was not that long ago that crowds of this nature were lucky to be seen at Kihikihi once every five years for the NZ Midgets, but big crowds, albeit not quite as big as this are now commonplace at the McDonalds Kihikihi Speedway, proof that they definitely doing something right. Having two big drawcards certainly helped, as did the weather which after weeks of blustery wind and rain and the writer having to regularly light fires this far in spring was out of the box for a change.But what really made the event a success was the great work made via social media to publicise it as early as early July when the season calendar was released, an entry list out in August before the season even officially began, plus more traditional publicity drives closer to the event. Jared Wade’s superstock was on display at several Repco stores in the Waikato along with poster giveaways along with Connor Garret’s new car doing likewise at several Placemakers outlets. Evidence of the track’s new found popularity was the massive queues at the hot sole food vendor which has long been sufficient for Kihikihi’s hitherto modest crowds, but is now feeling the strain to the point that another van is certainly warranted at the bigger shows at least. It’s a nice problem to be having!!
The meeting received some totally unexpected attention by the children’s TV show What Now! who had their cameras at the track for a segment with no prior warning, giving Kihikihi some free national publicity that money can’t buy. Speedway struggles to get any attention in the mainstream media full stop which can only be good for the sport in general.
To the racing, and the superstocks did not disappoint with action with a capital A from start to finish, the rollover count standing at three for the evening, two of which were in the opening heat with plenty of aggression besides, the numerous red lights testament to the high energy level on the track.
It is said that the cream always rises to the top and for the second meeting for the class in succession is was a member of the Rees clan that emerged the victor as the patriarch Peter followed on from son Asher’s success in the charity event in March to show why he is 2NZ with a brilliant display of driving all night. Making it a Gisborne quinella was 331G James Kirk, who unlike many of his clubmates in the class that carries a G actually lives there, showing the ability seen in the stockcar ranks and the Gladiators stockcar team. Best of the locals was 85K Jared Wade, and while quick just couldn’t match the sheer pace much of the horde of Gisborne cars that supported this opening leg of the inaugural GK Challenge Cup for the class that has several legs over the season at both venues.
Making it two Rees’ in the top five was 2018 NZ Stockcar Champion Ethan in the 127G in fourth with 31G Gary Davis making it a near total Gisborne lockout of the top five in fifth, a solid effort given that his car was anything but race ready as late as the Wednesday prior to the meeting.
Wade had better luck in the best pairs competition, winning with partner Peter Rees with the all Huntly pairing of 218H Aaron Alderton and 96H Thomas Joyes, in second ,Thomas arguably Huntly’s fastest runner at present with eye catching speed all night with Davis and Kirk completing the trifecta.
Peter Rees had yet more success when won the ShickConstruction Dash for Cash, a race that seemed out of his reach for much of it as the improving 5M of Elias Dykstra, who is now something of a stubborn hard charger gamely led for a number of laps until a red light stymied his progress. The 9G of Cantbarian Jamie Hamilton, who showed strong pace all evening then hit the front until he got a flat tyre with two laps to go to give Rees a win he wasn’t expecting with Kirk again in second with Stefan Roigard in the 58K, the second of two cars in the Wade Racing stable completing the trifecta.
Not to be outdone by their big brothers, the 26 strong field of stockcars after a relatively quiet opening heat turned it on thereafter with the hard hitting action we come to expect from, a healthy amount of visitors taking the opportunity to get some laps in before the Placemakers North Island Championship in December.
422H Dylan Ashton was in excellent form to start and finish the night with a win, the latter surviving a last lap attack from 53R Aaron Powell to clinch the finale. 449K Josh Walsh gave the locals a taste of success by snatching the lead off 544R Dion Henderson at the final corner by moving him out of the way! Other locals on the pace were 11K Ben Ellis and 95K Caleb Hayes, both scoring a second place each, this Hayes best result in the class so far. Also quick was 88H Justin Hutchby and 361H Clinton Cheetham, the former local now in the Huntly ranks with brother Casey in the 97 still with a K, this spicing the action nicely as his ex trackmates now see him as a target, evident when he was rolled at the start of the second heat!
Saloons always put on a good show at Kihikihi and though there were four late withdrawals, a baker’s dozen is still a good field for an opening night, and as expected had fast clean racing with just one caution all evening.
18K Chris Taylor excels in the slick conditions, and the first two heats, run when the direct sunlight on a warm day with the 5pm starts that makes the track dry and dusty in the early part of the meeting are tailor made for him as his took the Hydralink backed Mustang to win the first two heats. 27B Josh Smith grabbed the lead off the fast improving 56K Corey Tyler early on, but he had still work hard as Corey kept pace with thereafter staying within a second of the Hawkes Bay flyer at the chequered flag. 8K Kevin Williams, sporting a new body and paint scheme this season was looking the raciest he’s been for a long time to head a four car battle for third in this race, following another third in the previous race.
They saved the best for last with a brilliant five car battle for the lead in the opening half of the race, 8M Jarred Fletcher holding off serious pressure from Taylor, the pair running side by side for several laps until the track slicked off with Smith displacing Taylor to be secondand try as he might and try he did he had to give best to Fletcher, who scored a well earned win with Taylor having to settle for third. Old stager Ross Creswell in the 77K, again doing double duty this season with the super saloon also chipped in with a third in the opening heat after leading early on. With more locals still to appear along with some of the regular visitors it’s shaping to be another strong season for one of the staples of the Kihikihi programme.
The pack of 20 youth ministocks had another solid display of fast clean racing. The category now races to saloon rules, i.e. rolling starts, yellow flags for incidents and Indian file restarts, eliminating the messy chaos that comes often in the opening lap and stoppages immediately afterred flag restarts when cars fail to get mobile again. Any worries of getting them back in racing order, a worry felt by some pundits when the rule change was made were unfounded. Apart from one instance when the red flagcame for a stricken car when a yellow should have sufficed, officials and competitors adapted to the changes very well, which are a change for the better.
It was a very competitive evening with four winners in as many races, wins going to 212R Terrance Dorrell, 56K Regan Tyler, 95R Mitchell Fabish, and 72B Bailey Smith. Also quick were were 25K Jake Belk, 23R Caleb Ashton, and 67K Blake Castleton, with 22H Xavier Martin and 95H Kyle Whittaker each getting a single top five finish as well.
After being scheduled to appear several times last season but were no shows due to rain outs on insufficient entries, it was good to see the quarter midgets given a late call up to the programme. Being drafted in a short notice saw meant that a relatively light field of eight showed up and were essentially there to give a bit more turnaround time for the other classes.
Eight wasn’t quite enough for a good show, and most of the crowd would have seen them as simply a chance to grab some food but for the more dedicated fan it was passably worth watching, and in fact the racing not bad for the numbers on hand. 49A Regan Edwards was the one to beat with two wins with 54A Kelano Weir, looking slightly quicker than Edwards in raw pace scoring a win while 77A Alec Insley and 18A Dylan Cooke also featured in the minor placings.
While the racing and indeed the superstocks by themselves were worth the price of admission alone, the fireworks display, another excellent display from the Van TielPyrotechnics team was the icing on the cake to an excellent way to open the season at the McDonalds Kihikihi Speedway. Being lit just before 9pm [the track curfew at that time does not apply to fireworks displays] saw justice to the spectacle that only organised displays can bring, something not possible in the days of twilight racing when they had to be lit well before it was fully dark lest the public be waiting too long.
The momentum and goodwill generated by this event will be immense and while the King Country Sprintcars on Nov 16 and the DVS Super Saloons on Nov 30 are mid card attractions, they will nevertheless be of sufficient entertainment value to encourage a good chunk of the many irregular patrons impressed by this meeting to return for a second helping.