Aucklander Michael Pickens has added another title to his already-impressive 2006/2007 speedway season.
Pickens won the New Zealand Midget Car Championship at Powerbuilt Speedway (Ruapuna, near Christchurch) last Sunday, leading throughout the 25-lap final.
Pickens came under intense pressure, first from Shane Alach and then from Steve Currie, but he didn’t provide either of his fellow Aucklanders a chance to get past.
On a hot Sunday afternoon, the final was marred by a succession of yellow caution lights for incidents down the field, but to understand how the championship panned out you had to go back to Friday evening when qualifying for the 36 cars had originally been scheduled to begin. Rain caused the qualifying races to be held over until Saturday-night. As usual, the track surface slicked out a little, but still provided racing room during the races.
With qualifying out of the way, many predicted a dustbowl for Sunday’s daytime racing.
Racing began at 4pm with the sun still beating down, and the track quickly became hard and black.
By the time the two qualifying races to determine grid positions for the final came around, drivers were tip-toeing around trying to keep their cars on a tighter line.
The biggest casualty of qualifying was Brad Mosen, whose car stopped while he was leading his first race. The car wasn’t seen again until the next day’s repechage, but once again it stopped with engine problems after a handful of laps.
Nelson’s Nevil Basalaj didn’t get that far, his car a non-starter with engine
problems, while Simon Longdill was lucky to make qualifying after rolling his Midget on the hot laps.
Shaun Insley won the first of the heats, which determined grid positions for the final. Pickens moved through from (grid 22) with a display of patient driving and precision overtaking to take second place. Next up were Bryce Townsend and Alach.
Nerves were beginning to stretch by the second heat. When Wayne Green spun in the town bend, he was hit by Bryce Townsend. Townsend couldn’t restart and made sure Green knew he was unhappy.
At another restart, Graham Standring – who had been having a miserable run with an engine misfire – was sent to the back of the field and clearly wasn’t pleased.
Insley spun twice and ruined his chances of a vital front row start in the final.
Pickens won the second heat from Alach and defending champion Tony Fabish.
With the top points score, Pickens started the final from the inside of the front row with Alach alongside.
By the final it seemed that either the drivers had adapted to the track, which by now had the appearance of pavement right across, or the rubber laid down was providing better grip.
Still, there wasn’t much grip to be had out wide, and Pickens started the way he meant to carry on by slowing and bunching the field before the green light and hugging the pole line as if his life depended on it.
The first half of the final provided close exciting racing, with Pickens holding the black Seamount Special in tight to the pole line and Alach probing to try and get the nose of his car inside. A tap and spin seemed likely, but it didn’t happen.
Currie was close behind them, but had Insley hassling for third. Then there was a gap to an impressive Bill Clarkson, Lance Beale and Fabish.
Toward the end, the caution periods came thick and fast and the race somewhat lost its pattern.
At each restart, Pickens kept the tight line, so there was no way Alach could pass. When he did try Alach drifted wide out of Turn 2, and Currie pounced to take second. By this time, Insley had glanced the wall out of Turn 4 and was out of the reckoning.
With another tangle with four laps to run, Pickens held firm at the restart and so won the championship, with Currie and Alach still fighting nose to tail behind. Then there was a gap to Clarkson, Beale and Standring.
Asked about his defensive driving style, Pickens said: “That’s why I was getting pressure (from Alach and Currie). I was holding it at 70 to 80 percent, I knew I had to keep the tyres underneath me and that the worst thing would be to drive at 100 to 110 percent and blow my tyres away.’’