Michael Pickens secured his sixth Sydney City 50 Lap Classic win on Saturday at Valvoline Raceway in Parramatta driving for his Australian car owner Brett Morris.
Following on from the previous weeks’ New South Wales Speedcar (Midget Car) title, the 11 strong Kiwi contingent were joined by fellow Kiwi and defending 50 Lap winner Taylor Clarke, who had found a ride for this event in the #67NSW Gavin Wesble owned King Chassis car.
With the reigning champ receiving automatic entry his starting spot was assured, however, the guaranteed start was from grid 20 of 24.
The original format was to be spread over two days but with rain drowning out night one the revised format saw time trials scrapped in lieu of main event entry via each competitor’s Heat 2 race performances. The top 19 in points joining Clarke in the A Main and the final four grid spots earned by way of finishing top two in a pair of repocharge B Mains.
The first heat race was won by local Matthew Jackson over Kaidon Brown as home track advantage saw them work their way past early leader and first time tourist, former New Zealand National Midget Car Champion Peter Hunnibell.
In Heat 2 Queensland’s Bradley Harrison laid down a trail of smoke around the oval as oil tricked from the power plant, smouldering over the headers and on occasion bursting into flames. He persisted until oil pressure was too low and pulled his mount pit side.
Heat 2 was won by Pickens followed by South Australia’s Robert Heard and Australian-based Kiwi Scotty Farmer in the potent Seamount #4 car.
On a lap two restart of Heat 3 Darren Jenkins’ car failed to accelerate and left five-time 50 lap Classic winner Nathan Smee in the famous Graham Racing sky blue 14 car with nowhere to go. Smee, along with Western Springs 50 Lap winner Brad Mosen, ended up parked on the pole with Smee stranded on his side. The pair were unable to restart and in a points hole with only one more heat race each to be top 19 in points.
Lone American and Pennsylvanian native Alex Bright did not start this heat race after his experienced ear detected a sour note from the engine in warm ups and declined to start the heat, erring on the side of caution.
Matt Smith dominated Heat 4 winning from his 11th place starting spot followed by Clarke and Dean Meadows.
Heat 5 saw freshly crowned NSW state Champion Kaidon Brown, Williams and Hunnibell secure the top three spots from their third, second and last row spots respectively.
Rod Francis tagged the back of Kiwi Chris McCutcheon, spinning him, bringing out an early caution and sending both to restart from the rear. McCutcheon recovered to seventh but was unable to catch NZ trio Leon Burgess, Hayden Guptill and Pickens in Heat 6.
Bright used the high and low lines equally when needed to win Heat 7 from West Australian Tom Payet and Victoria’s Adam Wallis.
The eighth and final heat was dominated by Australian hot foot Matt Smith who won over Australian Champion Dayne Kingshot buy nearly half a second. Meadows scored his second third place heat finish.
After heat race points were tallied; this self-handicapping crowd favourite format saw Taylor Clarke, as title holder select the driver to start beside him and the selected driver to then choose who was to start next ahead.
Clarke selected Brown who in turn picked Pickens. The Kiwi wanted Smith beside him and Smith selected Bright to start from grid 16. Soon to be Dad Michael Stewart, Hayden Williams, 2015-’16 Classic winner Adam Clarke, Kingshot and Hayden Guptill self-handicapped each other into grids 15 to 10 with New Zealander Jayden Worthington on pole and joined on the front row by Meadows.
The twin B Mains saw cousin of Nathan, Harley Smee, Troy Jenkins, Brayden Willmington and Nathan Smee all transfer to start in the last two rows of the 50 Lap final presented by Seamount Racing. Drivers to miss the show included New Zealanders James Earl, Mosen, Chris McCutcheon and Caleb Antonio-Rooney.
The 24-car field lined up side-by-side on a track that had been freshly ripped, re-watered, and compacted on both high and low lines with the middle left black and slick. As the green flag waved it was Worthington who took point with fourth place starting Hunnibell moving into second. After three laps out front the West Auckland pair were passed by Wallis whose early race set up was fast but he soons became unstuck on lap five and required a restart from the rear of the field.
By lap 10 Pickens has passed 15 cars and was in third place behind Payet and Farmer who had pulled out to a 3.5-second lead. Payet spun low in Turn 2 to bring out a lap 11 yellow. Smith who had followed Pickens through passed Hunnibell for third on the restart and set about chasing down Farmer and Pickens who had moved to the front.
Nathan Smee was now in ninth from 24th starting position and battling a swarm of cars for position as Pickens began to develop a rhythm on the low line conserving rubber for any late race challengers.
At the midway point the field were spread across the race lines with most avoiding the rubber down mid rack unless forced there in traffic or to effect a pass. Burgess driving the only Terra chassis in Australia fought with Smith and for third as Williams perused the duelling pair.
With 20 laps remaining Burgess made the pass by stucking to the low line and went to work on the cushion crunching Farmer in the Seamount Racing #4. The following lap the yellow light shone for Troy Jenkins who was restarted at the rear of the field.
When the race resumed New Zealanders were now top three and five of the top seven cars but not for long as local track experience saw the Kiwis pick the gutter and the Aussies the top shelf. Smith and Smee carrying momentum and gaining spots looked to have timed their run towards the front of the field to perfection.
Farmer was not having any of this and pulled alongside and at times in front of Smith fighting for second place. This to-and-fro for second slowed the pair enough for Smee to catch up. While nailing his marks and using the slingshot drive off the high side to great effect Smee launched his car off of turns one and two to pass both Farmer and Smith on one fell swoop who had missed the tacky clay on the bottom lane by only a tire width.
This put Smee in second to the delight of his local fans. Pickens and Smee, the two five-time Sydney City 50 Lap Classic winners, were now in the top two spots as they entered the last 12 laps.
The following lap Farmer spun bringing on the caution light and the race died down to a murmur, the calm before the storm. The field lined up side by side and Pickens surged ahead of Smee for the final restart of the race.
In a move reminiscent of that seen only several laps before Smee used the top in one and two to pull alongside Pickens and went into Turns 3 and 4 a car width above Pickens preferred low line. Miraculously and to the surprise of all Smee found enough traction in the slick black portion of track to get past Pickens.
The crowd erupted as the two crossed under the start finish line. Ten laps to go as Smee after passing all comers worked to a lead of several car lengths. Pickens having been shown a faster line got his elbows up and followed Smee’s line near the bottom and began closing the gap.
With five laps to go the two cars were line astern. The dark black hue of their right rears indicating severe usage and destruction only laps away. Four to go and Pickens threw a slide job on Smee to gain parity. The two cars side-by-side entering turn three Pickens gained the a wheel lengths advantage and the two cars touched straightening Smee up through the corner dropping him back by several car lengths and into the clutches of a third place running Smith.
With all but three laps completed the nights hard charger Smee, ever questing for fresh dirt jumped the cushion and found himself over the banking in no man’s land, ultimately finishing 5th.
Smith inherited second and Burgess third as the two ran the final laps they were unable to close on Pickens who fist pumped his way to victory with Williams home in fourth. Kingshot, Hunnibell, Brown, Payet Adam Clarke and Bright finishing sixth to 10th.
”I was saying to one of my guys standing next to me when we Nathan was in the B Main ‘Man! His car looks really good’ and he obviously had to come from the back and come up and ran 2nd and I said at that point he’s got a hotrod so I wasn’t surprised to see him,” said Pickens when asked about the challenge from Smee.
“He sort of showed me where to run and I was just a sitting duck. I didn’t know where was quickest and obviously when he passed us we had to change lines.
“We had a slightly better car than him and had to muscle our way passed and we got the win.”