The 2009 offroad racing national championship is shaping up to be a duel between the fastest unlimited-class and Super 1600 cars in the country, with the smaller classes fighting over points at events where the big class one cars miss a top-points tally
From the beginning of the series, the Championship title chase has been dominated by Cougar and Cougar Evo race cars.
Palmerston North hosted the most recent round on Saturday, and the fastest race teams in the North island came to town with the aim of adding to their championship pints tallies.
Whakatane’s Clive Thornton has been a strong contender in his two-seater Australian-built Southern Cross V6, but was not able to maximise his points grab from a clean three-from-three run in short course heats due to a reduced entry in the unlimited class.
His car went up against turbocharged Eagle and Ryan cars driven by Hamilton’s Paul Smith and Napier’s Shayne Huxtable respectively, but the Australian car proved to be the class of the field during the short course heats, held on a slippery grass and sand based course in a farm forestry block south-west of Palmerston North.
Thornton said it was a long way to come to face reduced points, but he loved the track.
“The course was everything it should be, narrow, fast, challenging. I’d done well at the first round and was determined to get my championship challenge on track, and though my car was bigger than the Smith and Huxtable single-seaters I was pleased that we did so well.”
Huxtable’s challenge faded early with mechanical troubles and he put his car on the trailer. That left a determined Paul Smith in his Eagle single-seater, matching a New Zealand-built turbocharged car against the Australian V6 two-seater of Thornton.
“Paul was on the pace and we were neck and neck several times through the heats; I think we had the edge off the start in the heats because of the torque from our V6. It wasn’t easy though. The course was narrow and very slippery, there isn’t a lot of grip on wet grass growing in sand under pine trees. I was having real trouble holding the car on line down the back straight,” said Thornton afterward.
Making the most of a full field of Super 1600s at the event was Aucklander Alan Butler, who was keen to maximise points and return to the front of the championship. The class also included Malcolm Langley from Whakatane and Warren Rogers from Manukau.
Langley had come out of the first North Island rounds just four points behind Butler, and the pair would renew their rivalry on the short course, though Langley was slowed by two big hits from Papakura racer Matt Koppens, who flattened the Langley car’s “nerf” (externally mounted side intrusion) bar when he drive into the side of the car in the first corner.
Ironically it was the Koppens car that finished the morning on the trailer with smashed front suspension, while Langley went on the start the afternoon’s 160 km endurance race.
The front row of the grid for the afternoon race was an all-Whakatane affair, with Langley on pole and Thornton alongside, Butler one row back. It was Butler, though, who took the early lead part-way through the first lap – and promptly lost his way when he mistook track markers from other events on the site for the race course.
“I went the wrong way and had to turn around, and Clive and Malcolm slipped through with Nick Leahy’s Challenger right behind them. That was diabolical,” said Butler afterward.
His charge would end a couple of laps later when the Cougar slid into a tree, smashing the right front suspension.
“It didn’t even seem like a big hit but it’s pushed the tower back and cracked the torsion tubes, and there was a big wedge of tree sticking out of the wheel, plus it bent the steering so there really wasn’t any point carrying on round the track”
Clive and Max Thornton now led, but the lead would soon change again, as Thornton dropped out to sort an ignition problem, handing first place to Langley in his Bakersfield car. Leahy hung on in his Challenger in a spirited drive, but was eventually overhauled by Smith. As the race entered its latter half, Smith put a clean overtaking move on Langley and moved through to the lead.
“I was watching Malcolm and could see where he was going a bit slow, so I lined him up and got him!” Smith said afterward.
Langley said he had seen the turbo Eagle coming but “there wasn’t a lot I could do. I’d watched him get closer and closer and was waiting for a big tap on the back of my car, so I was happy enough to have Paul go past. Gave me something to chase.”
In the closing laps, though, the race lead changed again. Smith went out with a suspected blown diff, allowing Langley back into the lead. Thornton was fighting back in a determined drive and clawed back all the way back to second. The Whakatane pair finished in this order and are now second (Langley) and third (Thornton) outright for the championship. Thornton partly broke the Cougar dominance by taking the weekend’s top points -67 – in the big Southern Cross.
The other Bay Offroaders entry, Anthony Hewitt, brought his big Dodge Ram home second in Camco Offroad production truck class behind the Mitsubishi Pajero of Hamilton’s Nigel Newlands. Newlands was second to the Ram in two heats, won the other when Hewitt hit a tree, and won the class in the enduro. The class lead is still held by South Island Isuzu Mu racer Tod Johnson.
Wellington’s Glenn Turvey edges closer to defending class champion Simon Smith of Christchurch Camco Offroad class four, with just three points separating the two.
No class six entries finished the latest round, meaning Christchurch’s Neil Falkingham retains the class lead in the four-door, four wheel drive, four seat, four-person-crewed “Strange” Rover – a clever race truck build based on the “classic” Range Rover and designed for four adults with race seats and harnesses protected by a comprehensive roll cage.
Likewise, class eight points remain unchanged after Justin Leonard crashed out of the Palmerston North event during qualifying.
Southern Lakes Transmissions Super 1300 class was won on the day by Napier’s Dean Graham, always fast and consistent, ahead of Pete Tinsley and Warren Trim. The series lead is still held by Auckland-based South Island racer Ryan Densem.
The VW Shoppe Challenger class at Palmerston North was a pitched battle between Nick Leahy, Troy Tufnell, Greg Mullins which was resolved in Leahy’s favour after Tufnell’s car began to smoke during the short course heats. Second for the weekend was Geoff Matich, third Greg Mullins; Matich is top Challenger for the series to date and Leahy moves into the championship top ten overall.
The final regional rounds of the 2009 Asset Finance New Zealand Offroad Racing National Championship take Place at Gwavas south of Napier in late July and at Nelson in August; the final round will be held at Christchurch over Labour Weekend.
2009 Asset Finance New Zealand Offroad Racing Championship
Top ten after four rounds of seven
Dennis Andreassend, Auckland, 138 pts, 1
Malcolm Langley, Whakatane, 130 pts, 2
Clive Thornton, Whakatane, 127 pts, 3
Ryan Densem, Christchurch, 126 pts, 4
Geoff Matich, Auckland, 116 pts, 5
Daniel Powell, Christchurch, 114 pts, 6=
Simon Smith, Christchurch, 114, 6=
Glenn Turvey, Wellington, 111 pts, 8
Tod Johnson, Christchurch, 110 pts, 9
Nick Leahy, Auckland, 109 pts, 10