Leading into the final round of the Tri-Nations Test Series America had all but secured victory with a virtually unassailable lead requiring only four points from this final race to claim series honours.
The race being conducted at the midway point of the evening put the cars on a fast tacky track that offered grip across all racing lines.
Christopher Bell from grid one used the shorter way around the track to take the lead as New Zealander Brad Mosen fell into second place with Indianapolis driver ‘Sunshine’ Tyler Courtney moving past Brock Maskovich into third.
Meanwhile team USA and NASCAR driver Kyle Larson had moved up to fourth place from grid seven passing the Aussie pairing of Matt Smith and Kaidon Brown then Maskovich. With all three Americans now leading, Mosen and Maskovich ran fourth and fifth for New Zealand.
This is how the race concluded with Matt Smith first Australian home in sixth followed by Pickens, Brown and Scotty Farmer on his first tour to New Zealand.
When the final points were tallied the USA obliterated all comers with 117 points, a 34-point winning margin over the Kiwis with Australia a further 10 points behind.
One would be hard pressed to look back through the records and find a stronger American team and we can’t but appreciate the talent on offer.
Bryan Clauson Memorial Feature Race
Historically the early versions of this race were over 40 laps and the event was named the ‘King of the Springs’. New Zealand and Western Springs Speedway were fortunate enough to have American Speedway Legend Bryan Clauson compete in New Zealand between 2010 and 2016.
During that time he amassed several wins as well as adoring fans down under. He made famous the United Truck Parts number 39USA Midget car including winning the 40-Lap race on three occasions.
His untimely death in 2016 prompted a renaming of the race to the Bryan Clauson Memorial and the lap count changed to 39 in his honour.
Larson’s heat race performances made him top qualifier and starting from grid two alongside a vacant pole position in tribute to Clauson who’s car paced the field driven by friend, former teammate and crew chief Shaun Insley.
As the race got underway the field settled in behind Larson and all eyes turned to the rear of the 20-car field that was stacked with talent and had their elbows up and began duelling.
The fastest way around the track was the high line which was half a car width from the wall. That half width showered in a splay of clay chunks which covered rough moist clay; The cushion.
The cushion was the quickest way round and open ground. However, in close quarters the fastest place can be where the position isn’t and the bottom in middle of the track also proved usable in the first half of the race.
Using all lines to great effect were Pickens, Seavey and Bell driving the coveted United Truck Parts team car now numbered from 39 to 21.
Bell and Seavey starting from 19th and 20th set about carving through the field until Bell made contact with Pickens who had started from grid 16.
Bell was heading up the track as Pickens was heading down. The two cars coming together with Pickens continuing on and Bells ride lurching backwards and then over onto it’s side with Jeremy Webb, the solo South Islander in the field and now in a borrowed Auckland car, too close to avoid the incident.
Bells car sat upside down for over 20 seconds as the Webb car was extracted the Bell was righted and restarted at the rear of the field from 18th with 32 laps remaining.
At the restart Larson once again hit the lead followed by Courtney, Mosen, American Chris Windom, Auckland’s Hayden Guptill and Australian Smith.
What happened next was a symphony of slide jobs. Courtney slid Larson for the lead. Larson fired one back of his own. The criss-cross of cars occurring inches between bumper and tail.
The cars were nearly equal but with Larson holding the lead over the start finish line where Courtney the lead on the back straight. Larson eventually holding point and turning under several wicked Sunshine slide jobs.
Further through the field there was intense racing with a multitude of positional changes including Seavey from 20th to eighth in 20 laps. Hayden Williams advancing five spots in 10 laps and Pickens and Bell steadily rising through the field with Pickens a couple of places a head.
Mosen passed Courtney for second with 15-laps remaining. Bell passed Smith putting Bell directly behind Pickens. Pickens and Bell entering into a ding-dong slide job battle.
With Pickens, sensing the looming Bell, was covering the slide job line into the corner until Bell went lower later and faster. He made it stick and put himself in fourth.
Seven laps from the finish the caution came out and the field was reformed for a double file restart. Single file restarts occurring only within the last five laps this two-wide restart put Mosen on the outside of Larson with Courtney and Bell and the second row.
On the restart Bell went immediately to the high side and passed Courtney for third as Mosen made his own move on Larson for the lead but pulled up short which put him into the clutches of Bell who dispatched of Mosen and set about chasing down Larson.
As the lap count dwindled it appeared that Bell would have to settle for second until a late race caution with three laps remaining reset the field nose to tail for the final restart.
Larson picked up the pace at the earliest possible time but Bell was ready and hurtled his car into turn one on the low side allowing it to travel across the track towards the wall and picking up the fastest clay on the high side as Larson steered his nose back down the inside and back to the lead where he covered Bells chances of a similar attempt in the next two turns.
Bells slider math was sharp. Rather than attempt the pass on a path well blocked he instead built up his momentum and waited till the last lap.
Bell only feet off the tail of Larson launched the final assault and for the second night of racing in a row the leaders were within touching distance as they made their way into the final bend.
Larson coming home the winner with Bell close behind followed by Pickens, Courtney, Williams, Seavey, Mosen, Smith, Maskovich and Brown rounding out the top 10.
Larson remarking of his win, “The track was awesome. It got really close to the fence at both ends and made for some good slide jobs. I knew I needed to get my momentum up because the times I would slide myself Sunshine would throw sliders at me and it was nice to have a single file restart to get my momentum up.”
“I knew Bell would have a run on me off of [Turn] 2. I knew I needed to protect in 3 and 4 and I felt like if I could get across quick enough and get to the moisture off of 4 and just get enough of a run across the start finish line… I saw him get to my inside but by that time I had both my rears up in the grip so I figured I could beat him to the line.” Larson said of his second win of the tour.
“I hope you guys enjoyed that one because that was a lot of fun from my seat.” Bell said to the crowd.
“I was trying to play cat and mouse a bit with Kyle. I knew going into turn one he was looking at the big screen. If I was on his bumper I knew he wasn’t going to leave the door open.”
“Coming to the chequered he played it perfect and didn’t leave me enough room to slide him yet he still got a good run off of the turn to where I couldn’t slide down underneath him.” Said Bell.
The final round of the United Truck Parts International Midget Car Series is on Saturday 5th January at Western Springs Speedway.
If you missed the action the full nights racing can be found on www.speedshifttv.com