NZ SALOON GRAND PRIX
1st 76G Ethan Cook
2nd 27B Josh Smith
3rd 77G Dan Cook
Fortune Favours The Brave – By Rob Arnold.
This time honoured adage was very much apt for NZ Saloon Grand Prix at the McDonalds Kihikihi Speedway last Saturday in more ways than one. Not only we saw bravery on the track, with loads of real ballsy action out wide, but the race organisers were equally as brave as they too made some daring moves in changeable weather.
With rain forecast for much of the north of the North Island the chances were high that an early call would be made to postpone the meeting to Sunday to save competitors travelling further unwarranted expense. However unlike the days before rain radars available at a click of a mouse when most tracks had no option but to make calls solely on weather forecasts and/or local knowledge, club officials pressed on as while some showers hit the track it wasn’t enough to ruin the track safe in the knowledge the bulk of the rain had struck further north, south and east. Indeed this was enough to see Baypark, Waikaraka Park, Rotorua and Stratford to be all called off, so Kihikihi was very much had luck running their way.
This was only a harbinger to the on the spot judgement calls officials had to make when a more substantial shower hit straight after the opening ministock race. Had this been a more low key event the temptation to pull the pin would have been large but with an SNZ title to be run and the hassle for all concerned had it been required to come on Sunday, the call was made to push on. The saloons were all out to do a wheel pack sufficient enough for the stockcars to mud slog their way in their opening heat, then came more track packing by the saloons.
They had done a reasonable job of getting the track closer to a standard acceptable for an allocated title, but by now it was 6.20pm, some 80 minutes past the event’s scheduled kick off with only two races complete and still some way off from being raceable. Officials mindful of the venue’s strict 9pm curfew had to make a decision there and then over the fate of the meeting and in one final throw of the dice, track manager Paul Wade was given 15 minutes to remove the sludge off the circuit with the grader and if this failed the fixture would have been postponed to 1pm the next day. Happily this worked a treat and just on 7pm the six shooters began their opening race.
What then took place was nothing short of a miracle as we saw fifteen races run with the precision of a Swiss timepiece in two hours and ten minutes with all qualifying heats, repechage and championship final run in full with only three of the original 22 races programmed unable to be run. Though it did see the event run ten minutes past 9pm, in the circumstances there are grounds for some leniency by the powers that be and one would have to be rather mean spirited not to forgive the Kihikihi club in situations like these as this was far preferable to coming back the next day.
If not for a few minor cautions the meeting would have finished within an unofficial grace period after 9pm allowing a race in progress to continue to its conclusion. As things transpired it was to be the right call as heavy thunderstorms struck much of the Waikato the next day, including Kihikihi that would have seen any re run washed out saving them all the hassle that comes when SNZ championships need to be rescheduled.
36 cars lined up for battle, quite a respectable tally for a GP title for this category, and in fact well above the average for recent NZGP’s even if there were no South Island entries. While this was never going to a meeting that would attract a king sized crowd and one could be excused that the dodgy weather would put off all but the diehards, the crowd was surprisingly good with that in mind, even if the H20 everywhere else put off some.
Qualifying actions was largely quick and clean on a track that had multiple lines available, assisted immensely by the rain together with the cooler weather that retained most of the moisture in the track. This was totally different from the searing late summer heat seeing the track rubber up very quickly expected by many when the date for this meeting was set last winter. Another bonus for spectators with the earlier rain was that it made for pleasant conditions for spectating, a welcome relief from the unrelenting heat day after day in the Waikato, and in fact got rather nippy once the sun went down!
76G Ethan Cook was top qualifier after the heats with a perfect two from two while 46A Nigel Ross with a win and a fourth was enough for a place on the outside of the front row. Newly crowned 1NZ Thomas Korff also won his second heat but a poor run in his first saw him with a lot of work to do from the back part of the grid in the final. 27B Josh Smith and 8M Jarrod Fletcher won a race each and had strong results in their other race to be on the second row for the final while 77G Dan Cook and 2NZ Scott Lansdowne both with solid runs in their heats to end up on the third row, Scott also scoring a heat win along the way. 3NZ Tom Roberts had a reasonably good effort , albeit not showing the pace that took him to 3NZ at Huntly a week earlier to be on the fourth row next to 18K Chris Taylor. As expected he was best of the locals while 77K Ross Creswell was more competitive than expected given the lack of track time in the class this summer focusing mainly on the DVS Series in his super saloon to be not far off Taylor’s pace.
The repechage was which saw the first two join the 18 that directly qualified was a good one with plenty of tension and suspense as the two spots for the final changed hands several times. 45S Dave Hinton led the early laps only to fade to an eventual fourth, then 68H Cody Hata took a few laps up front only for 12S Blake Hopper to muscle through to the lead with controlled but aggressive driving. 67A Scott Rumble slightly rubbed past Hata for the second spot and it seemed things were cut and dried when Hopper in a cruel stroke of luck struck engine trouble in the final tour when victory was almost in sight, giving the win to Rumble and a lucky second for Hata.
The final was a real ripper from start to finish with Ross getting the jump to lead the early laps while Ethan Cook dropped back to third while he played himself in but once he got up to speed blasted past the Aucklander to grab a lead he would keep for the rest of the race unopposed. The real battle was for second place, Ross spinning to the rear a few laps later in a desperate effort to keep up with Cook leaving Smith, Landsdowne Fletcher, Roberts and Daniel Cook engaged in a battle royal for the spot while further down the order Thomas Korff quickly made his way up the pack to be next. Roberts and Cook eventually dropped away as the laps clicked away.
A late race yellow for a stationary Hata saw the battle intensify after the restart and Smith came under even more pressure from Lansdowne, Fletcher and now Cook, re-energised by the caution to rejoin the battle. Korff was now in the fight and even Taylor was in this battle pack. Smith just bet Daniel Cook to second in a photo finish followed by Fletcher, aggressive all race but not able to make the high line work for him. Korff was flying in fifth and one wonders what he could have done had he started higher up the grid. Lansdowne lost a few spots when he went wide with a lap to go to be sixth, followed by Roberts another to fade in the dying laps. Taylor, who excels when the track slicks off was right up there in a fighting eight, and was another who would have finished higher had he had a better run in the heats with 21H Steve Williams and 146A Paul Wright completing the top ten, this one of Wright’s better efforts at this level.
This was Cook’s third NZ Grand Prix on the trot, a remarkable achievement in any allocated title, making up somewhat for his misfortune at the NZ Champs at Huntly a week earlier where a DNF in the heat put pay to his chances of defending the title he won at Meeanee last year. With older brother Daniel in third, the Gisborne duo continue to see that track, sporting just a handful of cars punch well above their weight in this class and with the pair still well in their 20’s there is plenty more still to come from the pair.
Support classes understandably got the short straw with the holdups with the weather but with other venues getting washed out they were probably grateful to get any racing at all.
The six shooters were the writers pick of the support programme the pack of 15 putting on impressive action in a guest appearance, their first at Kihikihi since dropped as a contracted class in the 2016 winter. Though unloved at some of the tracks that race them, they were certainly not a coffee class in the writer’s eye, and maybe Kihikihi could do worse than trying to get a few back with a K and get them back for next summer? With Kihikihi in real need of a development grade for ministock graduates to advance to, this is a class that deserves a second chance. Wins went to 21R Chris Mackie and 7M Luke McClymont.
Sprintcars suffered with several weather related late withdrawals, that whittled the original field of ten down to six, but was still enough for an OK show. 73K Brian Edwards won the first race, the next run back to back to save time, won by 55K Daniel Thomas, making his first visit for the season at his new home venue after a year off and several years for Western Springs. He spun into a gentle tip over that bent his wing in the finale in an attempt to get on terms with Edwards, who was the eventual winner.
As we mentioned earlier the field of 18 stockcars, boosted by several Rotorua and Baypark cars escaping rainoffs mudwrestled their around the track for the opening heat but 95K Caleb Hayes found come grip around the outside next to the wall to easily win this race. Their next one was run to a far quicker pace and while it was a rather quiet race actionwise there was still a few hits here and there to keep passably interesting, and 361H Clinton Cheetham emerged as the victor.
Youth ministocks again had fine racing from the pack of 20, 81M Jorgia Mouat’s last minute trip to Kihikihi after Baypark’s cancellation paying dividends to win the opening heat with 56K Regan Tyler winning their other race.
Kihikihi certainly dodged a bullet and though there was some trying moments when the rain struck the effort put out by track personnel to get the race back in raceable conation but the superb racing by the saloons made it all worthwhile and the R&R they had the next day was well earned. SNZ officials also deserve a bouquet for not activating the yellow lights unless absolutely required on a night when time was very precious, as too competitors for getting to the dummy grid promptly and not causing big time wasting accidents.
Often meetings that have been disrupted but not stopped by the weather stay fondly in the memory banks of many spectators and competitors alike in the years to come and the extra moisture into the track as a result has often resulted in above average racing. Doubtless this will be one of them and those that braved the trying conditions will certainly have a night to remember.