New engines, new cars and new attitudes are turning the first round of the offroad racing national championship into a lottery.
Every top team in the spectacular sport of offroad racing will be present when the first round of the 2010 championship kicks off on April 10 at the Whitianga Festival of Speed.
Among the top entries are defending champions and title hopefuls from all over the North Island. The sport’s president, Ian Foster, says he is hard pressed to pick a likely winner out of the coming two day event.
“We have people who have re-powered their cars, others who have new cars including some imported from the USA. And we have a whole new attitude among some of these guys as they step up to race in faster classes. It’s impossible to say who will come out of this with top points, but it’s fantastic to see our teams investing in themselves and in the championship.”
Mr Foster says the number of racers moving up into new race classes, carrying out ambitious engine upgrade programmes or making their debut in new cars shows the sport has weathered the recession well.
“Some of the teams may have seen sponsors disappear last year, and it’s always a challenge to find the dollars to compete at the top level, but I think we’ve done better than many other forms of motorsport.”
Bringing the championship to Whitianga, he says, is “pure genius”.
“Last year the Whitianga Festival of Speed attracted 20,000 people in its inaugural year. This year they are expecting double that number. There’s just so much to see, so much going on, and it’s all free admission for spectators which adds up to a massive audience for our sport. It’s an amazing event, and the Waikato club has done very well to secure a spot at the festival,” he said.
Many teams have spent to off-season refining and upgrading their vehicles. New for this year is a Chevrolet V8 for 2009 Taupo 1000 champion Clive Thornton of Whakatane. He says the new engine, imported from America, is a significant step up from the Holden V6 he previously used. He says the new powerplant has been specifically developed in the USA for offroad racing and is “phenomenal”.
“The car is so fast now, the new engine is forcing me to re-think how I drive it.”
A recent test day at Meremere helped Thornton get to grips with the car, and he had Auckland shock absorber guru Anthony Hewitt of Race Shock services on hand to start work on a new suspension set-up that will make the most of the new engine’s massive power and torque.
“So we will learn a lot about the car as the year goes forward.”
Rob Ryan of Auckland has re-powered his self-designed unlimited-class race car with a big VW type 4 engine, aiming to make the most of the VW engine format’s simplicity and legendary reliability.
Alan Butler of Auckland has imported an American single seater desert race car and is in the process of getting the car sorted for New Zealand conditions. He has only run the car once but he and his trackside advisor Tony McCall say the car’s long wheelbase and sophisticated suspension make it one of the best handling, smoothest-riding cars in the sport.
Neville “Max” Smith of Beachlands, co-founder of the Cougar race car brand, will once more wheel out his high-tech turbocharged unlimited-class single-seater. One of the most powerful Cougars in the sport, it makes extensive use of carbon-fibre and other composite materials to minimise weight and improve the car’s acceleration and agility.
Ryan, Butler, Smith and Thornton are all racing in the unlimited class, setting up the first head-to head points battle of the championship year. The class is sponsored this year by Southern Lakes Transmissions.
In the popular truck classes, Otakiri driver Gary Baker is the first entry and has a new outlook on the sport. This year, he says, is about “giving something back”.
He is auctioning rides in the big V8 Nissan Navara on Kiwi auction web site TradeMe, with every cent of the winning bid going to the Camp Quality organisation, which helps children living with cancer.
Other top trucks include the supercharged V8 four wheel drive Nissan Navara of Raana Horan; while the production truck class entry sees Auckland’s Anthony Hewitt face off in his massive Dodge Ram 1500 against the Mitsubishi Pajero V6 of Hamilton driver Nigel Newlands.
Production, sport truck, challenge truck and the top unlimited truck class are all sponsored this year by AFWE.
In addition to sponsoring the “one make” class seven for cars with specification-controlled VW 1200 engines, Waikato club mainstay Paul Smith will also be racing in the unlimited race car class, running his Eagle single-seater with turbo Nissan power. Also from Waikato, 12 year old Josh Hoyland will be the youngest competitor at the event, racing a class seven car.
Auckland racers James Buchanan and Donn Attwood head up the Big Posters-backed Super 1600 class three for vehicles with engines up to 1600 cc. Attwood is making a return to racing after a quiet 2009 season, while Buchanan is stepping up to class three with a new race car featuring a 1.6-litre Suzuki engine.
Papakura racer and former national class champion Nick Hall is returning to head up another title challenge driving an imported single-seater American race car in the Autoworld Richmond Super 1300 class five category for cars with engines up to 1300 cc.
Action at the first round of the 2010 Asset Finance begins on Saturday April 11 with a drivers’ parade at 10.45. The first short course (stadium) race heats are at 11.00 am; second at 1.00 pm and the third at 3.00 pm.
The track for the short course racing is 1.6 km long, giving spectators a clear view of all the on-track action.
On the Sunday, competitors will race a 175 km endurance race on an expanded 5.4 km course that includes most of the previous day’s short course track. The enduro starts at 11.00 am.
This event is the first part of a motorsport double-bill for the Waikato Offroad Racing Club, with a second ORANZ-sanctioned event being raced three weeks later: the New Zealand Offroad Racing Shortcourse Championship at the Waikato Winter Show.