Much had happened between the end of the 2020/21 Trials season and the start of the 2021/22 series.
The final round of the previous season had been cancelled, the NZ Championship had been decided on the rounds run to date, the title holders had been crowned, and we had come out of lockdown.
By the start of the new season, winter had been and gone, many of us were back in lockdown, and competitors were still “all revved up, with no place to go.”
And massive uncertainty was back in charge.
With venues for the series secured, most competitors ready and able to compete, and a sense of “we have to do something”, the National Trials Committee made the decision to start the series on time, under the Covid regime that was in place, knowing that they themselves would probably be the most disadvantaged by the decision.
The series would start on time, with no Auckland or Waikato entrants competing, including many of the defending champions, who had just made defending their titles a lot more difficult.
Among those missing from D-Class were the Biggs Brothers (NZ 1 and 2), Russell Luders, along with other top runners Greg McDell, Hamish Auret and Derek Smyth who had all retired at the end of last season.
This left a couple of co-drivers, without rides, including Chris Tomalin who normally can be found beside Luders, and Fleche Crawford, who has been co-driving for Jarred Biggs since he started in the Nitro Truck.
Parked in Tomalins workshop, without drivers, was Ruby, the C-Class buggy of mother and daughter team Jenni and Rebekah Templeton, who were also locked down. The solution seemed obvious.
“I could see the numbers dropping for the round, and Jenni was keen for the truck to run” explains Tomalin, “So I rang the Whakatane crew to see if I could enter, they were happy to have us, so a deal was done.”
“Then I needed a navi. I knew Fleche didn’t have a seat, so I gave him a call, he said ‘hell yeah’, and we had a team!”
Dropping about 4000cc and 500 HP each from their usual D-Class mounts Chris and Fleche would certainly do that.
“We did a bit better than we thought we would,” admits Tomalin. “I’m still not sure they didn’t cock the scoring up somewhere.”
In what will probably go down as the drive of the season, the team dominated the class, narrowly ahead of a very tight battle between defending C-Class champs Nathan Fogden and Mike Gibbons, who were just 1.4 points ahead of Rhys O’Brien and Clarry Vazey at the midway point.
From 7th overall at midday, Tomalin, Crawford (and Ruby) came screaming back in the afternoon, opening up an 80 point lead over O’Brien and Vazey who had moved into second in class ahead of Fogden and Gibbons.
In the process they took out second place overall for the session, and climbed from 7th to third overall in the final results.
“It was quite different in C-Class,” reckons Tomalin, “in the big trucks we aim to clear the stage, but we’d look at a stage, set a target, and Ruby would just sail on past.”
“I’m damn sure there was a third person in there with us,” they claimed at prize-giving.
In D-Class there were some interesting changes and pairings as well.
Sam Thomsen, who had co-driven Scott Biggs to the NZ1 title last year, had purchased the championship winning Nitro truck , and co-opted fellow C-Class competitor Mitchell Caldow into the Navigators seat.
“We started together back in about 2014, when we ran my old Nissan in D-Class” explains Thomsen. “It still had the original diesel engine in it, so things have changed a bit.”
The team totally dominated the event, winning both sections, and finishing with a 75 point buffer ahead of second place Kevin Hermansen.
“We had a couple of practise events before this round,” says Thomsen, “and went in with pretty high hopes, especially with the Auckland guys away. But getting the win first time out was a bit bitter sweet without the Nitro guys there.”
Thomsen says buying the Nitro1 had been in the back of his mind for a while, “but a lot of things had to fall in line for it to happen. I was just lucky it all worked out when it did.”
But while Thomsen and Caldow were largely untroubled all day, odd mistakes and penalties kept mixing things up behind them.
Following a difficult season in the revolutionary all-independent suspension Cowper truck ‘The Gambler,’ Hermansen and builder Dan Cowper “cut it up a bit in the winter, and had another bash” according to Kevin.
“We lifted it a bit, put longer shocks on, and changed things around under the floor to give us a bit more clearance.”
Crucially they also removed the Accusump from the big 6.2 litre Chev V8 after suffering engine issues last season.
Trailing Thomsen and Caldow by just 15 points after the morning section, Hermie and co-driver Nicholas Hamilton were having a blinder of an afternoon, having drawn level with the Nitro Truck, when a tight downhill off-camber U-Turn caught them out, and they copped an 80 point penalty.
“It was pretty gutting,” admits Hermansen, “the truck was going mint, but we just couldn’t get it to turn.”
Thomsen and Caldow cleared the hazard and went on to win the round by 75 points.
Hermansen and Hamilton took bragging rights for the morning speed stage, beating home Start and Liam Earle in their Cowper Buggy (Wolverine) who finished 3rd in class and 4th overall.
Winners of the afternoon speed stage and 4th in class were local brothers Kurt and Alex Johnson, in Kurts 5.7litre LS1 powered “Green Hornet” improving from 7th at the break.
Their 4th in the afternoon moving them past Taranaki brothers Reuben and Shane Mason, father and daughter pair Wayne and Rachel Buckthought, and Shane Hazeldean with Ashley Clarke, who grabbed second in the speed stage as a bit of a consolation.
“Yeah, it wasn’t too bad,” says older brother and driver Kurt of the top 5 finish, “but we’re really just going out there to have fun, the results don’t affect us too much.”
It’s the Johnsons third season in the buggy, which Kurt designed and built in just three months, to replace a long serving “Dirty Lorax.”
The Green Hornet Racing buggy was another to see a bit of development over the winter, “It was always too low,” admits Kurt, “so we lifted it about 80mm, and (fellow competitor) Phil Hobart gave us a lot of help in tuning the suspension.”
“It’s taken us a while to get used to the buggy, and learn how to drive it,” says Kurt, “we started with the LS turbo’d, and were starting to come to terms with it, but it kept breaking stuff, so we took the turbo off, and had to start again.”
“Now we have rebuilt the suspension, and fitted diff locks, it’s another new ball game, but we are pretty happy after the weekend.”
The Masons and Buckthoughts, who had been running 3rd and 4th at the mid point dropped back to 5th and 6th in class, 6th and 8th overall, the Buckthoughts also losing ground to the O’Brien/Vazey pair from C-Class, but managing to hold out Fogden and Gibbons, who finished 9th, just 4/10ths of a point ahead of the 10th placed Silven Schicker and Jason Rinii.
Returning to the scene after many years absence, past champion Graham Foote, with Carol Adams co-driving, was holding 10th in class at the break, but dropped out of contention in the afternoon.
Just outside the top 10 were Phil and Brittany Hobart, who recovered from 14th at the break.
The smaller classes really suffered for entries, but managed to keep it tight among themselves, with Class J winners Sean Cushing/ Geoff Butcher beating home K Class winners Daniel Whiting and Willow Eayrs by just 1.2 points.
Nathan Fogen’s son Cody with Jason Muir won E-Class in Nathan’s old Suzuki SJ413.
With Covid regulations still hanging over everything, no certainty of a Round 2, and competitors unsure of who will be able to enter, and some more usual combinations returning, it is going to be almost impossible to pick a winner.
The same, but different.
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