With class numbers on the rise at Vodafone Speedway it is inevitable that there will be a number of rookies. One of those amongst the Sprint Car ranks is Mike Wheeler, a long-time spectator at ‘The Springs’ finally getting a chance to get behind the wheel.
Wheeler is no stranger to running on the dirt as a long-time competitor amongst the Meremere Dirt Track scene and after taking a unique approach that paid off with plenty of results, decided it was time to fulfil a life long dream.
“I bought an ex-Super Saloon off Darren Pennington, whose boys run at the Springs. I took the Super Saloon and converted it to right hand drive, and then you may not like this, but I put a little turbo rotary engine in it! Purely just to go and stick it to the V8 boys, who all have LS engines and all the gizmos on them, some of them even had Sprint Car engines with all the bells and whistles inside, so I thought I’d try to do something different and beat them, which I did,” says Wheeler.
“We won pretty well everything there was to win at Meremere in our classes, I won the overall feature last year and said to the old man that the next dream was to get into Sprint Cars because one, it’s a dream and two, let’s be honest, it’s just about cheaper to race a Sprint Car rather than a Midget in New Zealand these days.”
With a dream and a plan, Mike and his family based team then began the hunt for a solid car to start down a new path with, looking at a lease option before finally ending up with what would become the 59A Sprint Car.
“We tried hard over the off season to try and lease a car and couldn’t really get the right deal together, they were all very expensive and you were getting a lot of unknowns. Then this car package with trailer and whole lot came up for sale and we just jumped at it, it was a perfect opportunity and a good car to start off your career in.”
With a new car in hand, Wheeler took to a test day at a private speedway near Patetonga to give himself an idea of just what he had got himself in for.
“We went to Patetonga and did 20 laps, which isn’t a lot, there was a lot of people turning up and having a go and the track got real dusty and quite dangerous, a couple of the Sprint Car boys actually crashed. With me being new and not realising with the horsepower and what the track feels like, we just did 20 laps to learn how to start it, sit in it, put all the gear on and once we were happy with that, we turned up to practise day fresh off the boat. That was my first ever run on a half decent track which was still pretty dusty and dry, so we sort of jumped in the deep end for opening night, which was quite a greasy track so the car was reacting totally differently to what it would on a dry track. Obviously the speed is phenomenal compared to a Saloon car.”
With a successful record at the dirt track, the uneducated might expect Wheeler to be straight up the front fighting for feature wins, however as he explains, the two styles of vehicle are like chalk and cheese.
“It’s totally different. Everything I’ve sort of learnt about driving on the dirt and even we have to turn left now (Dirt track at Meremere runs clockwise), everything’s different. I’m used to sitting on one side of the car and Ii’s a lot different sitting in the middle of the car. With a Saloon you basically come up to the corner, slow it down and control the slide, but with the Sprint Car you basically keep your foot up it and turn in and the thing just wings itself in.”
One of the big secrets to extracting speed from a Sprint Car is trusting the downforce generated by the massive wings, a challenge Wheeler is adapting to, but doesn’t claim to have mastered.
“To be honest I don’t think I’ve been fast enough yet to fully understand what it is and how it works. I can feel a little bit of difference when you pull the wing back and when it’s forward, but I’m still very new to the game and as soon as I get to a corner I end up trying to drive it like the Saloon and back off too much, I need to keep my foot up it.”
Although in his first season behind the wheel of a winged warrior, Wheeler already has his sights set up the road, not prepared to give up until he has mastered the art of Sprint Car racing.
“There’s been a lot of dreams, but dreams are free. The dream would be to become good enough that somebody would let me drive their car, a bit like a Dean Brindle for example, someone that can get a drive. The realistic dream would probably be to go out, be competitive and enjoy racing those cars, obviously everyone wants the sponsorship and the perfect deal, but certainly just to be out there amongst it in front of a crowd and be able to pedal these things once I get a bit more confidence will be pretty cool in itself to be honest.”
Like any team at Vodafone Speedway – Western Springs, Wheeler has a massive team of supporters that make it possible for him to throw the dirt.
“I’d love to thank all my sponsors, the bigger plug the better! City Tiling Limited, Multispares Truck and Trailer parts, Onehunga car and commercial clinic, 0800 Big Deal, City Pavements, Fulton Hogan, Lucas Oils and the Wrap Shop. We’ve got quite a few sponsors, everyone has seen where we have come from and is quite excited to get involved in the journey.”
It’s a journey we hope you look forward to following from the stands here at Vodafone Speedway.