Near-zero visibility, mechanical problems and fierce competition turned the final round of the 2006 Asset Finance New Zealand Offroad Racing National Championships into the toughest battle seen in this decade.
In hot, choking dust so thick he frequently found himself driving "blind", with an ailing race car and with the best and brightest offroad race drivers from north and south snapping at his heels, racer Tony McCall put in a well-paced drive to scoop the biggest prize in the sport.
On Saturday and Sunday, McCall won his tenth national offroad racing title at the final round, a title he says was among the toughest of his career.
McCall missed pole position for Saturday's dusty 165 km endurance race at Whakatane, lining up alongside longtime rival Grant Ferguson of Drury.
At the start of the endurance race, Ferguson and McCall were quickly locked into a torrid duel for the lead, treating the race more as a sprint and an enduro. But within a handful of laps, Ferguson's transmission failed, leaving McCall a handy lead over the pack.
A disgusted Ferguson said he had run with used gearbox internals after being unable to source new parts from Australia in time for the weekend.
McCall's lead was eroded within a few kilometres, though, when the normally reliable 300 bhp Porsche-based flat four engine in McCall's SFL/PPG Cougar race car destroyed a spark plug.
The Manukau racer persevered with an engine running on three of four cylinders, outran his main class rivals and was still able to finish third overall as key South Island championship prospects Dave Parret and Wayne Moriarty faltered.
"The smallest things can cause the biggest problems in any sport - and in our case we destroyed a spark plug tip just after the start. That meant I had to nurse the car for more than 140 km with a chronic misfire and no power."
The expected South Island championship title challenge failed to fire when Christchurch's Dave Parret - second overall on points going into the weekend - was unable to get his car running for the Whakatane Hotel endurance race on Saturday, ending up after several abortive attempts with the car marooned on the back of the 4.4 kilometre farm circuit.
Another Christchurch driver, Wayne Moriarty, dropped out of third in the title chase when he did not complete Saturday's endurance race.
Moriarty's car races in class three for cars up to 1.6-litres, one of the most keenly contested classes in the sport. Though Moriarty returned on the Sunday for the in-class races, the wins went to North Island drivers Kevin Hall, Drury, and Donn Attwood of Auckland.
Attwood had also taken the outright win in Saturday's endurance race, overtaking McCall's car when it developed its misfire and engaging in a duel with Kevin Hall for the entire race. Attwood drove to his win with a damaged car, driving the final 20 kilometres with no rear suspension.
"Those last few laps were torture. Especially when I saw the 15-lap board put out by my crew when I'd been thinking there were only five laps to go!"
Kevin Hall had meanwhile been slowed when his car - arguably the fastest in its class - lost power steering. He finished the endurance race with badly blistered hands, but was back for more on the Sunday.
The second day's racing was all in the popular "short course" format, with six races for each class over the course of the day.
Though there was no relief for any of the teams from the fine dust that had hung in clouds over the race course near Matata in the Bay of Plenty, McCall put together a spectacular string of three first placings in short course heats to make sure of his title.
Close behind was his toughest late-season points rival in the unlimited class, young Nelson driver Ben Charles, who took out the subsequent race in a close-fought duel with McCall that ended on the final lap when McCall's Cougar Porsche single-seater blew its clutch. Charles then made the most of the final race of the day, winning without effort.
McCall said the win caps a successful year - he has won every North Island round outright and also took out the non-championship Woodhill 100. He rates this year's title chase as one of the hardest he has endured in a career spanning several decades.
"We've raced in torrential rain, thick mud, through storms and now in heat and dust to keep our championship hopes alive. The competition has always been fierce and that has helped me drive to my very best. It's been fantastic."
Through the two days of racing there were mishaps in every class. Greg Mullins rolled his Challenger car, Rick Sciarone likewise inverted his class three car, Ben Charles collided with Tony McCall mid-corner in one short course heat, Maurice Bain tipped over his increasingly-battered Nissan Navara in one race and hit a massive tractor tyre marking part of the course in a later race, local driver Clive Thornton popped a driveshaft in the endurance race, and long time ThunderTruck racer Lyndsay Dowler blew the Lexus V8 engine in his Toyota Hilux.
In 2006, almost all the class titles went to the South Island, along with the overall championship title. This year the North Islanders took their revenge, winning almost every class and bringing the overall trophy back to what they say is its customary home. Only the trophy for class 2 - production trucks - goes south with Suzuku racer Ron Campbell.
One class title even stays in the Bay of Plenty - Otakiri racer and member of the organising committee Gary Baker won the unlimited ThunderTruck class for the weekend and for the series in his spectacular Nissan Navara V8.
2006 Asset Finance New Zealand Offroad Racing National Championship
Final outright placings
Tony McCall, Manukau, 1; Ben Charles, Nelson, 2; Clive Thornton, Whakatane, 3
Kevin Hall, Drury, 1; Donn Attwood, Auckland, 2; Wayne Moriarty, Christchurch, 3
Dean Graham, Hawkes Bay, 1; Dave Parret, Christchurch, 2; Andrew Wilton, Hawkes Bay, 3
Shawn Dickins, Massey, 1; Dale McIntyre, Massey, 2; Brian Rusbatch, Nelson, 3
ProTruck Class two
Ron Campbell, Christchurch, 1;Nigel Newlands, Hamilton, 2; Maurice Bain, Hamilton, 3
ThunderTruck Class eight
Gary Baker, Otakiri, 1; Bryan Chang, Christchurch, 2; Lyndsay Dowler, Kumeu, 3