IMAGES THANKS TO SAM BOLTON PHOTOGRAPHY
It’s about big engines and big hills. It’s about big tyres and big thrills. It’s about big air and big spills.
It is the NZ 4×4 Trials Series, kicking off on the 5th of December at Tirau with the Battery Town 1st Round, and this year it is promising to be even bigger, with the majority of winners, and top three finishers from the past 5 years fronting up to the challenges.
The format is simple, the day is broken up into a series of short, sharp, virtually undrivable hazards, and competitors receive penalty points for such things as not clearing the track, or going offline, and hitting a marker.
At the end of the day, the winners are the team with the lowest penalty count. To add to the spectacle, most days include two speed stages, and the elapsed time taken to complete these stages is added to penalty points. These times can often decide the winner as the top teams are equal on points.
These days the championships (and most rounds) are usually taken out by one of the unlimited class D Buggies – 600HP plus V8’s or V6’s in lightweight spaceframe shell, with highly modified transmissions and final drives.
The occasional upset is scored by the similar looking Class C Buggies, which are limited to 4 Cylinder engines, but are much lighter and more nimble than the Big Guns.
Harking back to the sport’s roots, production-based, highly modified 4WD’s compete in their own classes, but struggle to run with the purpose-built rigs.
The buggy classes, and some of the truck classes, have independent wheel brakes that are operated by the co-driver, and the teamwork between driver and “Navigator” is key to success.
Although home engineered trucks are a time-honored part of the competition, the podiums have, for the last 5 years by two manufacturers, Cowper and Nitro Customs.
Turakina’s Cowper Trucks, headed by defending champs, Greg and Chris McDell, have taken the top spot for 3 of the last 5 years, but have been pushed hard by Auckland’s Biggs twins in their factory Nitro Customs Trucks.
In 2017/18 the brothers teamed up to take the win with Scott driving and Jared navigating, then Scott won in 18/19, with Jared in second. Like last year’s champ Greg McDell, Scott and Jarred return with virtually the same rigs they finished the last season driving.
“We’ve freshened them up, and checked them over for reliability,” says Scott. “We’ve just got to get them going in the right direction and not break them.”
Wanganui’s Hamish Auret took his Cowper to a win in 2016/17, and second the following year, and after a couple of seasons off is returning with a factory rebuild, including new rear suspension, and is looking for more power from his recammed Chev LS V8.
The Waikato based McDells made some pretty big chassis design changes to their Cowper prior to last season, but this time will be defending their #1 position with just rear suspension changes.
“We fitted a set of new 2½ inch Radflo shocks at the end of last year,” says Greg. “We were reasonably happy with how they performed at the pairs, but gave them a few tweaks when we got back home, and after doing big jumps all weekend at the Counties champs, we are really keen to get on with it.”
“But we have gone right over the Buggy over the offseason and checked everything. Just a few parts have been replaced for reliability.” The crew had a few gremlins at the start of last season they had to work through early on, but are confident the NZ1 is sorted, and ready to go right from the first hazard.
Scott Biggs 2018/19 co-driver, Philip Walton returned last season driving his own Nitro Customs Buggy, making his mark by winning the back to back second and third rounds, and shaking up the establishment.
Add to this mix a potential game-changer in Kevin Hermansen’s mid-engined Cowper Truck, with 4 wheel independent suspension, 4 wheel steer, and a supercharged 6.2Litre Chev LSA, and the championship is wide open.
Another dark horse is Palmerston North’s previous Champ, Derek Smythe, who took a bit of time last season to get his Nitro Truck working to his liking, but, with a win in the last round, showed that he is right on track for a 2020/21 come back.
Underscoring the comeback, Smythe won an early-season warm-up when he took out the Taranaki Best Pairs title partnered with Mark Stockler.
With 2015/16 (plus a few earlier) NZ Champ, and defending C-Class titleholder, truck builder Dan Cowper not competing this year, it is hard to see anyone challenging Te Pukes’ Nathan Fogden in that class.
Fogden, and his son Cody, came close to an overall win against the V8’s in round 2 last year, and his screaming Mitsi would have taken out the Class title if not for a missed round, and the Covid caused cancellation of the final round costing him the chance of making up the lost points.
Under the series rules, there are six points-scoring rounds, with competitors dropping their worse results to make a 5 round championship. The 2019/20 series was restricted to just 5 events when the final round was lost to the Covid lockdown.
The McDells won the series without winning a round.
This year reliability and consistent high points scoring will be even more of a key requirement according to Greg. “We need to keep the consistency going,” he said when asked what it would take to hold onto the title, “but we will need to push a bit harder. This is going to be the most competitive season for years.”
Following the December 5th Battery Town supportedSouth Waikato round at Matamata, the series takes a break till the end of January with round 2 at Thames Valley.
Taranaki is next on the roster, followed by Manawatu, BOP, and Hawkes Bay. The rounds are all being advertised as spectator friendly, and admission charges are usually donated to local causes.