Paraparaumu driver Jamie Larsen won the 50th Partsworld National Sprintcar title at Robertson Holden International Speedway in Palmerston North on Saturday with a dominant drive in the 30-lap feature.
The current champion – American teenager Michael ‘Buddy’ Kofoid who won the title in Cromwell last season – was unable to defend his title at this event leaving it wide open for some of the hot contenders.
The 23 drivers signed into the venue knowing they were all guaranteed a start in the final. Cars from as far South as Cromwell entered with seven tracks being represented.
The field was split in half for a pair of heat races each with the first grids organised by marble draw and the second round a reverse of the first.
The tight confines of the Manuwatu oval requiring deft and confident passing manoeuvres and a certain amount of faith in the opposition’s ability to allow racing room.
When heat racing got under way locally registered Dean Cooper claimed victory from the outside of the front row over winner of the previous Sprint title held at the track in the 2014–’15 season, Jamie Duff. The Christchurch driver returning to form after an early season slump running second to Kofoid at Ruapuna in the prestigious Gold Cup race.
Another former national champion Dean Brindle was third across the line followed by Christchurch registered Ray Baughan.
Widely considered the man to beat at several of the last championships and current 3NZ is Michael Pickens who is still chasing his first Sprintcar crown to go with his record-setting eight National Midget Car Titles. Pickens the big mover in this heat starting 10th and moving up to sixth.
Heat 2 saw Larsen win convincingly from pole followed by son of Ray, Caleb Baughan with Daniel Rogers and Keaton Dahm in fourth. During this heat recent feature winner at Western Springs Speedway, Matthew Leversegde in the Toyco sponsored 78a car stop and failed to re-fire. The team disappointingly suffering engine damage and out for the rest of the event.
Heat 3 saw group one return to the track which was won by Pickens with 2008–’09 Champ Brindle second, Duff third and American veteran Craig Dollansky fourth.
Dollansky arrived to race in the December International Sprintcar series and throughout the International Midget series meetings to gain enough race meetings to compete for the Speedway New Zealand title.
The lone Blenheim car of Paddy North was 3rd with Palmerston North local Tony Uhlenberg 4th. Both Wellingtons Stephen Taylor and Nelson youngster Connor Rangi both receiving relegations for pole line infringements.
The final 12-lap heat win went to two time Sprintcar champion Rodney Wood in his Mount Manganui – Baypark Speedway registered #51m. Wood was followed home by Daniel Eggleton and Greg Pickerill, both multiple previous podium place getters in national championships.
When the points were added up multiple cars had the same point’s requiring a tie-breaker. Five drivers were tied on points for fifth and three drivers each tied for 10th, 13th and 18th positions.
The rules calling for a coin toss and luck to reorder the drivers. The drivers were canvased and elected to differentiate via fastest lap times.
The top points tie was between Wood and Larsen. The 13.705 second lap of Larsen bested Woods 14.944 and gave Larsen pole position. As the cars rolled out onto the track for the winner take all 30 lap Championship event the rest of the field was ordered Pickens, Dahm, Duff, Brindle, Eggleton, Pickerill, Rogers and Dollansky 10th with 21 cars starting.
The track was now widening out with the high groove only feet off the wall which had accumulated a mound of loose clay sprayed up the bottom of the wall from previous races.
At the drop of the green Larsen and Wood raced hard down into the 1st corner with Larsen gaining ascendancy. As the field crossed the line for the first time the midfield bunch tangled resulting in Caleb Baughan ending up in the wall and out of the race. Rob Vazey and Pickerill also out in the incident.
When the race restarted Larsen showed a clean pair of heals stretched his advantage out. He hit lap traffic making moves on the 1st few cars without a problem on the narrow track. Wood was second and Pickens a comfortable third.
As Larson caught a cluster of batteling lap cars he found it difficult to edge ahead. Larsen made several attempts and got alongside but exercised caution. Behind the leader Pickens passed Wood for second and began to close the distance to Larsen who finally got passed the group to bank more lapped cars between himself and all-comers.
In the closing stages Pickens made up ground but Larsen was able to win by nearly two seconds over Pickens and Wood. Duff, Brindle, Dahm, Taylor, Eggleton, Rogers and Dollansky in the top 10.
Larsen said after the race: “Palmerston North speedway provided a fantastic track with a two-lane option making the lap cars a lot easier to pass than usual.
“The high line was very close to the wall so we were able to utilise all of the track width available. We ran the majority of the race on the high line and passed lap cars up top.
“I had one lucky moment in the race where a lap car spun right in front of me and I was able to ride up the wall to avoid it!
“There was a large group of lap cars racing side by side top and bottom which was the hardest group to pass while maintaining my marks and trying to keep up momentum and pace in dirty air.
“This win means a hell of a lot to us. We are only a small family business run team and to top it all off it was at our home track of Palmerston North which we have an amazing fan following there.
“A lot of friend and family travelled all over to support us along with our local sponsors so it was just that extra special to win on home turf.” Larsen said.
This title adding to Larsen’s two Minisprint titles claimed at the track. Larson is now a four-time National Speedway New Zealand Champion and still the only driver in history to be 1NZ in two Speedway New Zealand divisions at the same time.