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New Zealand’s current Midget Speedway Champion Michael Pickens announced ambitious plans today to race in the Toyota Racing Series and launched a ‘Racing to America’ programme intended to establish him in NASCAR racing.
The 24-year-old Aucklander will make his road racing debut in the famous Lady Wigram Trophy at Ruapuna in Christchurch on January 5-6. It will be the first time Pickens has ever raced on a full road circuit and his first time competing in a single-seater racing car with a manual gear change.
His initial road racing programme will continue the following weekend when he enters the New Zealand Grand Prix at Manfeild (January 12-13); and may be extended to the TRS race at the A1 Grand Prix meeting in Taupo (January 19-20).
Also confirmed at the announcement at Western Springs Speedway was a bold undertaking to establish Pickens in NASCAR, America’s spectacular stock car racing series run on banked ovals. NASCAR is second only to NFL football in American television viewership.
Pickens – a two-times winner of the New Zealand Midget title - has already achieved recognition racing in America and Australia but his speedway nickname “Slim Pickens’ may no longer be appropriate for the talented young racer.
Pickens is being supported in his new International programme by a similar concept to the successful initiative that got Scott Dixon into Indycar racing; and is currently behind Brendon Hartley’s strong bid to race in Formula 1. Enthusiasts and business interests will raise funding to underwrite the ‘Racing to America’ concept currently being developed.
The surprise news that Pickens will race in the Toyota series at the end of next week – the Lady Wigram Trophy race is the day before he turns 25 - follows secret testing in a variety of racing cars at Ruapuna just before Christmas.
A week of intensive testing, starting in a sports car and moving onto a Formula Ford and eventually a 2.0-litre single-seater chassis; enabled Pickens to qualify for his Motor Sport New Zealand International racing licence.
His rapid transition from top speedway racer to road circuit rookie was overseen by experienced ex-F1 engineer Andy Neale who is based at the Ruapuna racing school in Christchurch.
Neale will continue coaching Pickens’ circuit racing skills during a brief TRS programme that will see him teamed alongside Christchurch driver Andy Knight, a three-season veteran of the TRS New Zealand Grand Prix-car category. Knight won all three races at the opening round of the Toyota Racing Series at Pukekohe in early November and will now act as Pickens’ mentor.
Pickens, a former auto electrician who was raised on a Coatesville farm, will also enjoy some family connections when he switches to long circuit road racing.
The newcomer is the step-brother of Daniel Gaunt, two-times winner of the TRS Championship and the winner of both the Lady Wigram Trophy and the New Zealand Grand Prix during the 2006/2007 season. The pair have never competed in the same race series before.
Gaunt now races in the Porsche Carrera Cup but is making a return to TRS for the Ruapuna and Manfeild races, where he will drive for the Colin Giltrap-backed International Motorsport team.
On the clay Western Springs speedway track Pickens can lap in less than 14 seconds and reach a top speed of 140 kph. His methanol-fuelled midget car runs ‘staggered’ tyres with off-set suspension, very little braking is necessary and the 410 kg space-frame chassis has a direct drive transmission. The four cylinder engine produces 260 kW (350 bhp) at 8,600 rpm
His ethanol bio-fuelled Toyota single seater will take more than a minute to lap most tracks and will reach speeds of 250 kph. The 1.8-litre engine produces 160 kW (215 bhp) at 8,100 rpm and drives through a six speed manual gearbox. The carbon fibre monocoque TRS car weighs 450 kg and the state-of-the-art open-wheeled single seater is built by Tatuus in Italy to full FIA Formula Three standards.
The Ruapuna debut will be the first time Pickens has experienced a standing start from a grid and his first race on a paved permanent road circuit.
Pickens began racing in karts at the age of 10 but, after a couple of seasons in the Junior Restricted and Junior classes, he switched to quarter midgets and oval racing. In the 1999/2000 speedway season he made his debut in midgets with a dispensation to run at 15-years-of-age. On his first night he won both his heats.
In 2000/2001 Pickens became the youngest driver ever to win a midget feature race. At 17, with sponsorships from Brett Morris, he began rewriting the record books.
The 2001/2002 season was the start of something special: the following season he became the youngest driver ever to win the New Zealand Midget title.
By the 2003/2004 season Pickens had emerged as a speedway star, winning 28 races, including six feature wins, making 52 starts and finishing in the top four 42 times. In 2005 Pickens entered the biggest midget race in the world, the 'Chili Bowl Midget Nationals' in the United States, with 249 entries. He finished sixth and was Rookie of the Year.
During the 06/07 season Pickens won just about every major New Zealand race including the New Zealand Midget title for a second time and both 50 lap International midget features.
The 2007/2008 season has started in a similar fashion, except he will now extend his talents to circuit racing in the International TRS series.