Racing in New Zealand: An American photographer’s adventure – By Tim Aylwin

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Here is an article by Tim Aylwin featured in the Sprintcar & Midget Magazine:

Off season? There’s no off season in sprint car and midget racing. Soon after the World Finals in Charlotte, winged sprint car drivers hop on those big jumbo jets to head to New Zealand and Australia while the midget racers have to wait until after Turkey Night in California to head to New Zealand for their international season of racing.

As with any racing trip you take, you try to get as many racing nights in as you can in the short amount of time you have planned. My girlfriend Serena and I planned our first trip to New Zealand for 11 days, with the idea of seeing 10 nights of racing that included the International Midget World Derby 30, 40 and 50 lap feature races along with a few sprintcar and superstock shows.

After landing in Auckland, New Zealand from the 1-hour flight out of LAX we rushed up to Jonathan Allards cottage just north of the city as he offered his house to us for the time we were going to stay, to get a nice, fresh shower and then head down to Western Springs Speedway.

Just as with many tracks in the United States, Western Springs fights the everyday battles of disgruntled homeowners filing noise complaints. The track is smack dab in the middle of the city, surrounded by homes behind the hill of the frontstretch. As a result, they have a strict 10.30pm curfew, regardless of what’s on the track or at what stage of the race. When it hits 10.30pm the checkered flag comes out.

Our first night of action was on Boxing Day, December 26th, which is a statutory public holiday in New Zealand. Everything is closed, including schools, private businesses’ and government offices. This night of racing always brings out a huge crowd to watch the four classes of open wheel mayhem: the midgets, sprints, F2 midgets and TQ midgets.

As a fan, you get your money’s worth as they race a minimum of two to three heat races per class plus features during each race night. A general admission ticket gets you full access to the pits and grandstands, it’s similar to the foot traffic of the Chili Bowl, with fans checking out the competitors throughout the night of racing.

Boxing Day was the fourth meeting of the season at Western Springs, and this night the midget feature would be dominated by Bryan Clauson until engine problems (broken rocker arm) with four laps to go would cause him to drop back to a 2nd place finish behind Michael Pickens and Brad Mosen rounding out the podium of the 33 midget field.

The sprintcar contingent in New Zealand is not very large by any means, with only 18 cars showing up for the Boxing Day event. Jamie McDonald won his first feature of the year over Chico, California’s Jonathan Allard, who calls New Zealand home from November to March and is usually the dominant driver to beat at Western Springs. Western Springs attracts sprintcar stars from the United States for a few weeks out of each year to showcase their talents, including Donny Schatz and Sammy Swindell in past seasons.  This year Brad Loyet (in the 5USA) and Steve Kinser would make their way over, with Steve driving for car owner and former driver Peter Murphy in the 11USA – dubbed the “Salute to the King New Zealand Tour”. Steve won on December 3rd at Western Springs Speedway over Jonathan Allard.

The next night of the tour would take us to Rotorua, to watch the superstocks at the Superstock Championships. Now when you mention the city of Rotorua, it’s like us American race fans referring to Knoxville or the Chili Bowl. Ears perk up and the first thing they ask is “Did you go on the luge”? And one simply does not go to Rotorua without riding on the luge. After taking a gondola ride up the mountain of the Skyline Rotorua amusement park, you hop on the luge, which is part go-kart, part sled, and should be on everyone’s list of things to do if you visit New Zealand. With three tracks – 2klm, 1.7klm, and 1klm in length – that offer some of the most spectacular scenic views going down the hills and tight turns and can reach speeds up to 40 mph, you will be hooked after you take that first ride down the hill.

Meeting number five of the year at Western Springs would be the first night of the International Midget World Derby, which featured a 30 lapper with25 midgets signed in for the Monday night meeting. Bryan Clauson made motor repairs and continued to show how strong he was at Western Springs. But, on this night, Michael Pickens would match his speed as Clauson and Pickens traded slide jobs for the first 24 laps of the feature. Eight lead changes had the crowd on the edge of their seats watching Pickens pounding the cushion every lap as Clauson masterfully worked the bottom to success. After a late-race caution that bunched up the field, 5th place starter and 2014 POWRi Rookie of the Year Spencer Bayston would overtake Pickens on the ensuing restart and make it a 1-2 American finish.

We travelled down to Waikaraka Park to catch some more superstocks with the “six shooters” as a support class, which was a non-wing sprint car class utilising six-cylinder powerplants based on the American Buick motor.

There just happened to be a little American history at the track. The main grandstands were built during World War II by the Americans stationed locall, so that they could play some gridiron (football) during their downtime. Unfortunately, the original concrete stands have become deteriorated over time, causing the racetrack to condemn them for further use.

On our next adventure, we made the five-hour trip down to Mount Maunganui – following a course provided by Navman, our Budget rental GPS. If it had kept us on the main roads, it would have only been a three-hour drive, but the route it took us on was spectacular. On that trip, we saw scenery you might expect to see only in movies, with the green rolling hills and mountains and winding roads that would compete with some of the World Rally Championship stages. Baypark Speedway would be the host stadium for the night’s sprintcar and midget meeting. And when I refer to the facility as a “stadium”, I mean stadium. It’s nothing like you’ve ever seen before. An 80,000-seat stadium hosting a dirt track event that also holds events for rugby and sprint boat racing. Bryan Clauson would put on another clinic, easily taking the midget victory while James Dahm won the sprintcar feature.

Back to Auckland. We got rained out for two nights in a row, including the World 40 lapper at Western Springs. But, instead of succumbing to the weather, we did some research and investigative work with a little help from some kiwi friends and tracked down the owner of a vintage Hank Henry sprintcar once owned and driven by Beast Chassis founder and legendary racer Bob East during the 73/74 season. John Stanley purchased this car back in 2001 and took 3 years to restore it to its immaculate state. The current owner, Mike Baylis, purchased this beauty in 2012 and housed it with the 2008 USAC National Midget Series champion midget of Brad Kuhn in his Auckland estate. Mike also owns an active midget team that races the NZ circuit with driver Michael Brunt.

That brings us to the coveted 50 lapper at Western Springs, which is also the only time there is qualifying for the midgets. As anyone would suspect, after two days of rain in Auckland the track was very wet and spongy. The track crew worked diligently for hours trying to get the track as smooth as possible, but it was evident during qualifying that it was going to be a very tough night for the midgets.

Dayne Maxwell would put up the top time in qualifications with a lap of 13.573 seconds (an average speed off 108.745 Km) Spence Bayston timed in 13.645 seconds, while Nathan Smee 13. 720 seconds, Hayden Williams 13.728 and Bryan Clauson 13.858 rounded out the top five.

After fighting the rough track for qualifying, an ocean drizzle began to toy further with the surface for the entire A-Main event. The front row occupied by Bayston and Williams. Bayston jumped out to an early lead for the opening nine laps before getting hung up behind a lapped car opening the door for Williams. Going into turn 3, Williams hit a rut causing him to bike and allowing Pickens to sweep past both to take the point from 3rd. One lap later would see our first red flag of the feature as Shayne Alach found the turn 3 rut in a bad way.

On the double-file restart, Bryan Clauson would pass Bayston for 2nd and set his sights on Pickens. At lap 16, Brock Maskovich would become the 2nd accident victim of the feature and cause the field to bunch up one more time. For the next 11 laps, Pickens showed the3 way while behind him a torrid battle for 2nd raged between Clauson, Williams and Bayston. The battle would come to an end when Clauson hit the hole in turn 3, launching a violent tumble that left the driver shaken and disappointed as he sat beside his midget in the infield. On the restart, teammate Basyston never made it past turn 3 as he too biked and destroyed his mount. After all the carnage, Williams sat in 2nd followed by Tracey Hines, Tyler Thomas and Zach Daum.

The final red flag would wave on lap 36 when Thomas’ left rear wheel nut unwound during the race. As he sped down the backstretch, his left rear wheel flew off causing Thomas to begin a series of vicious flips into the turn 3 catchfence. He would get out under his own power but was visibly shaken.  Pickens would receive one last challenge from Williams during the remaining laps of the feature, but the rut in turn 3 would cancel his charge as he had to settle down his car from his best hoverboard impersonation, following Pickens to run off and win the 50 lapper over Hayden, Michael Brunt and Zach Daum, with Nathan Smee rounding out the top five.

You’ve no doubt heard the phrase “You’ve gotta do it at least once”. That is the case for New Zealand. There is so much to see and do if you want to race and sightsee, or just race. We got to see eight races at five tracks and had to incur tow rainouts plus do a little sightseeing, like walking up to the 761-foot summit of Mt. Maunganui, visiting the beach there, and making time for a few of the Rotorua activities. There are plenty of tracks to see, with all sorts of racing from midgets, sprintcars, superstsocks and modifieds to saloons. If you get to a superstock race you must go, as it is some of the wildest racing you will ever see. It’s racing with a hint of bumper cars mixed in.

We would like to thank Greg Mosen of Western Spring’s Speedway and Bruce Robertson of Waikaraka Park, along with their track staff for welcoming Serena and myself with open arms to their facilities. Thank you goes to James Selwyn and John Sprague for showing us the ins and outs of being a New Zealand photographer.