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Slick pit work and savvy tyre choices were the key to victory at the Twizel 250 offroad endurance race on Saturday.
Christchurch racer Daniel Powell shrugged off two flat tyres, rear brakes that lost their “bite” halfway through the race and a rear anti-roll bar that broke mid-race as he powered his Jimco race car to victory deep in the McKenzie Country.
Powell, a former national offroad racing champion, has spent part of 2011 in the USA, racing and searching for a new offroad race car.
But his current car, an American-built Jimco with a turbocharged Nissan 350Z engine, was fast enough - and strong enough - to surge from eighth on the start grid and win the final South Island regional round of the Mickey Thompson New Zealand Offroad Racing Championship outright.
It was a race that would be decided by tyres, with each of the top contenders slowed in the early or later laps by flat tyres and race winner Powell crossing the line with his car’s right rear tyre shredded into two parts.
Qualifying for the big race ran on a short loop at the start-finish area and was held in chilly sleeting rain that made the course slippery, rendering the more powerful cars less dominant against the stopwatch.
The diminutive Barracuda class 10 car of Hamish Lawlor posted a fast time, ending up second on the grid ahead of the Cougar Toyota of Wayne Moriarty. Donald Preston started his sprint aggressively but finished it on fire when his engine’s alternator seized and caught fire. He posted sixth fastest time but was unable to start the race.
Pole went to expat Kiwi racer and Melbourne resident Tim Culling in his Jimco Honda with a time of 40.28, 0.25 seconds ahead of Lawlor in the flying Barracuda.
Powell was eighth on 46.37.
At the race start, the battle for the lead across the river flats and into the narrow riverside track that led away from the pits was between Culling, Lawlor, Moriarty and John van Dyk, with the sole class five racer Clint Densem falling quickly behind with a misfiring engine. Powell moved up past van Dyk to close in on the leaders as the pack went single-file into the riverside track.
On the big straights away from the river, across the end of the property and then on the top gear run across the flats back to the pits Culling stayed in front, Powell pushed through to second with Moriarty hanging onto the two speeding Jimcos in third place. Behind them Lawlor’s tiny Barracuda held off Bruce Rolls in a Chenowth Honda class three single seater.
On the next lap, Moriarty had slipped into the lead. Powell was losing ground on Culling on the flats heading back toward the pits, and pulled into the pits with a flat left rear tyre. Simon Smith had also pitted his Nissan Terrano V6 to change a flat tyre.
Both racers had fallen victim to the sharp embedded rocks that studded the course – Smith would return to the pits twice more to replace flat tyres.
AFWE production truck class racer Steven Boyd, also of Christchurch, had the windscreen in his Suzuki Vitara shattered by rocks flung up as other competitors passed, while in Coms4U Challenger VW class leading competitor Terry Munro was being pelted with rocks almost every lap as the fast unlimited-class cars went past his smaller Cougar VW.
Though Powell’s Jimco Nissan is more naturally driven through and out of corners in a tail-out oversteer attitude, the rocky course dictated a more careful approach.
“The car just lives on revs and throttle, and it’s just amazing in the fast stuff out there, but the rocks can be tricky – if you get too sideways coming out of the corner you put your rear tyres at risk,” he said afterward.
Hamish Lawlor had held onto the leading pack, and slipped through to third as Powell pitted on the third lap.
Two minutes behind, Murdock Halliday, Steven Boyd, Clint Densem and John van Dyk formed a duelling pack waiting to step up if the leaders should falter.
Over the ensuing laps the lead changed again and again as the fast four fought for dominance. Wayne Moriarty pitted to fix a flat tyre, Powell moved up and took the lead, and Culling and Lawlor were locked in a battle for the podium position behind Powell, with Culling moving into second place for a Jimco 1-2.
Simon Smith had returned to the course, only to suffer two more flat tyres; Bruce Rolls held onto fifth behind the front group, and a Challenger-class battle had begun between Terry Munro, Adam Reid and Barry Phillips.
As the race entered its closing stages, the course had smoothed out, the 20-strong field hammering the exposed rocks into the soft earth and mosses of the river flats in many places - but the speed of the top cars had also lifted large rocks out of the earth in many of the faster corners, forcing racers to choose their lines carefully in order to avoid smashing suspension arms, shock absorbers and other components.
Powell said he hit three such rocks with his front wheels, putting three equally spaced dents in the aluminium of the left front wheel rim.
Culling, who had run as high as second during the race, was forced to pit with one lap remaining when he suffered a flat tyre. Moriarty also briefly pitted, but had clawed back much of the time he had lost and remained second to Powell, running on the same lap after 250 km.
Behind them, Hamish Lawlor sped through the start-finish area as Culling returned to the track, taking over third place.
Bruce Rolls’ consistent form had been rewarded with a secure fifth overall and second in Bu-Mac class three, with Terry Munro coming into the last lap as leading racer in Coms4U Challenger Class.
Powell’s charge to the chequered flag was not going smoothly in the final twenty minutes. A second flat tyre slowed the big Jimco on that final lap, and he drove the ten kilometres on a right rear tyre that was slowly shredding itself. The car crossed the finish line with the tyre flapping loose, torn in two by the rough ground and the torque of the car’s engine.
“It was a fantastic race and a great course, I just seem to have caught the flat tyres each time as I was heading away from the pits so that was frustrating. Great to get the win in the end though, and the slower cars were very good, keeping out of our way and letting the fight for the lead go on without disruption.”
The pace of the leading group had drawn lap times down well under ten minutes, with average speeds edging up toward 140 km/h. Once Powell was clear of the field, his lap times had come down to 6 minutes 12 seconds with a best of 5 minutes 45 seconds. He was hitting top speeds of 242 km/h on the big straights of the course, forced to hold his helmet down with one hand against the force of the airstream entering the cockpit.
The finish order was Powell, who also won Whakatane Commercial Spares Class One; then Moriarty, who had recovered from his early troubles and finished second, winning Bu-Mac class three; Hamish Lawlor, who was first in Coms4U class ten and was the only surviving. Odyssey class racer; and Tim Culling, who had returned to the track on the final lap after fixing his flat tyre and finished fourth overall ahead of Bruce Rolls.
The 2011 Mickey Thompson New Zealand Offroad Racing Championship will be decided at the national final in Nelson at the beginning of October.