Neville Mather and Richard Verner became the first team to take two round wins in the Lucas Oils 2021/22 National Extreme 4×4 Trials series, with a tight victory over series leaders Sam Thomsen and Mitch Caldow in the Porter Group backed 4th round at Whatawhata in the Waikato.
The teams (both running Chev V8 powered Nitro Customs D-Class Buggies) ran close all day, with Thomsen and Caldow holding a slight lead at the midway point, and taking out the first speed stage honours, but then falling off the pace a little in the afternoon, coming home fourth for the session, while Mather and Verners dual second places for the sessions took them to the overall victory.
Rain prior to the event brought the first wet and muddy conditions for the season, but it was pretty much business as usual as the top teams got to grips with the slippery surface.
The conditions took their toll, though, with six of the D-Class entrants retiring during the day, five before the midway point.
Top runners in the 4 cylinder C-Class, Nathan Fogden and Mike Gibbons suffered from radiator damage, and were relegated to second at the mid-point by Rhys O’Brien and Clarry Vazey, who had a comfortable 80 point lead, and were holding a very creditable 11th overall against the mostly V8 D-Class field.
Daniel Morris and James DeCleene appeared comfortable at 3rd in class in the 2.4 Toyota diesel powered “Coal Runnings”, just ahead of Glenn and Jacob D’Ath.
An on-fire Rowan Huckstep and Henrick Hofstee had powered their LS3 Cowper Truck into third in D-Class, just ahead of the Mason brothers in the Biggs-Howat rig.
Rounding out the top 5 were defending champion Scott Biggs, with new co-driver Jamie Taylor, who had taken over the left hand seat when Sam Thomsen moved seats and purchased Biggs’ championship winning truck from last season. Biggs and Taylor had missed the first two rounds due to the covid lockdowns, and were still sorting the all new Nitro #1.
Rounding up the top 10 were Neal Turner and Wade Alexander in their 6.2 litre Hi-Jinx2, last round winners Dave and Reece McKie driving the LS2 powered Cowper, Jarred Biggs and Fleche Crawford in the 900HP Nitro 2, Phil Cameron and Beau Taylor in the superbly presented #44 Nitro, and Phil Hobart and Shane Beech in Hobarts unique rear engine V6 Chev.
Missing from the top 10 were top runner Kevin Hermansen and ex Sprintcar Champ Jamie Larsen, who were both about to do something about that!
Hermansen and co-driver Nicholas Hamilton were languishing back in about 13th at the break, but the come-back of the season saw them annihilate the competition, to win the afternoon comfortably, and jump up to 3rd overall for the round.
According to Hermansen, “we just hadn’t fired in the morning, but it all came together in the second session.”
“It was pretty cool to pull off a couple of zero’s the others missed,” he added, “but then we rolled on our very last stage, otherwise we were in to win it.”
Larsen and his co-driver Jacob Higgins put their best session together since moving into the sport, hauling the LS3 Nitro Custom through to 3rd for the session, and jumping 7 places from 15th to 8th overall.
Although better known as speedway driver (he was the NI, NZ Sprintcar Champion), off-roading is very much in Larsen’s blood. “I grew up in the 4WD Trials world, both my parents were into trialling, and I spent a lot of time at interclub events.”
Jamie’s parents are Owen & Sharron Larsen who together won 5 national titles, back-to-back-to-back-to…, from 1992-1996. Only Dan Cowper has won as many!
The Kapiti based Crane Manager was very open about his move to Trialling, “When the family decided to retire the Sprintcar, I knew I couldn’t afford to run one myself, so I looked around for something else.”
“We had become great friends with the Towers family in those early days, and recently I had driven Shaynes buggy a bit, and I just sort of moved across.”
Having had the experience in Tower’s C-Class “Tom Built” Custom truck, the choice to go with the Nitro Customs build followed, and in the midst of Aucklands lockdown, Jamie took delivery of his new Supercharged LS3 powered Nitro truck at 3 pm on the day before the first round of the series in Whakatane.
“It really didn’t go the way we had planned it,” Jamie explained, “the truck was built alongside Scott Biggs new NZ1, and I was going to go up to help finish it off, and get to know how it all worked.”
“Instead of that, the first time I even saw it in the flesh was when we collected it from Infomotive in Rotorua where it had just been Dyno’d, and took it over to Shaynes to get it as close to what we wanted as we could that night.”
“It hasn’t got the performance of the Sprintcar,” he admits, “but it’s a lot heavier and stronger, and it’s sure got enough power for me to get us into a lot of trouble.”
Larsen reckons he has had to change everything in his switch to trialling, and not just the driving style, there has been a mental shift as well. “It’s a lot more relaxing, with few expectations, and a lot to learn,” he explains, “I spend a lot of time looking for advice, and trying to improve and develop myself and the truck.”
The other big difference is working with a co-driver. “There is this guy sitting beside me who has just as much control as I have getting us through, it’s very different.”
Larsens co-driver, Jacob Higgins, is no stranger to off-roading, but as a mechanic at Goodman Contractors, came with a solid background in Winch Challenges. “We’ve been friends for years,” says Larsen, “and we seem to be growing into a pretty good team.” The fact that Higgins is a diesel mechanic, and can really contribute to the truck’s development is an extra bonus.
Ironically, after the decision to move away from the Speedway, Larsen was offered a paid Sprintcar drive at Western Springs, and he spent part of the summer splitting his time between the two classes, but still managed to complete the full Trials series.
Following this Waikato Round, he left the team to load up and get the buggy back to Kapiti, while he headed to The Springs just in time to climb into a car that a different crew had prepared and scrutineered, just in time to head out for the first Sprintcar race of the night.
When questioned about the future, it’s obvious Larsen is leaving his options wide open.
“We’re going to have a baby in a couple of weeks, so that’s going to change things a bit, and with the commitment to the Sprintcar, I can’t see us doing the full trials series next year, we’ll just be competing when we can.”
And, like every Speedway driver in the country, there is the lure of the USA. “There are a couple of big track drives on the bucket list,” he admits, “But I’m not sure the super intense “on the road” life of a full time professional is for me.”
With Hermansen and Larsen heading up in the placings, and Huckstep and Cameron both heading down, things were getting complicated in the top 10.
The Masons and Scott Biggs stayed in 4th and 5th respectively, as Huckstep dropped four places to 7th, courtesy of a maximum 100 point penalty on a deceptive stage 26, that also caught out Cameron and Jarred Biggs.
It was never going to be easy for Huckstep to hold his position, as an injury to Hofstee in the pits meant he could not compete in the afternoon stages. As Rowan explained, “At lunch Hendrik was putting the dust cap back on the end of axle and put his back out, so i was on the hunt for a new navi for the afternoon. Walking down the pits I see a truck on trailer, and that’s when I met Duncan Bradley. He agreed to jump, in so formalities done with stewards and we were all go.
It was going great till that mistake on 26. “I was furious with myself” admits Huckstep. “We could see where most of the teams had gone around a ledge right at the start, but I said ‘We can jump straight up here’”
“Turns out we couldn’t.”
“I said to Duncan, ‘my mistake, we’ll just have to carry on’, but we were both gutted!”
That mistake cost the team a comfortable 3rd overall for the day.
For Cameron and Taylor the 100 was part of a difficult round that dropped them from 8th to 16th, while it dropped Biggs and Crawford to 11th, and out of the top 10, but they at least took speed stage bragging honours, by 15/100ths of a second from Mather.
The McKies picked up a place, finishing just 3 points ahead of Huckstep, while Turner and Alexander dropped 3 places to 9th, with the Earles filling out the top 10.
The competition was so tight, that in the end 20 points ( the penalty for missing just one peg) separated 5th and 10th.
Back in C-Class it was a different story, as Fogden and Gibbons showed the rest of the field no mercy, winning the afternoon by over 180 points, and comfortably taking back class win from O’Brien. Their afternoon performance was good enough to give them 7th overall for the session.
Meantime the D’Aths had done enough to comfortably overtake Morris and DeCleene for 3rd in class.
Down in the smaller classes, Brent and Michael Ward took K-Class from Stuart and Luke Mickell; Sean Cushing and Geoff Butcher took out J, and temporarliy unemployed regular event announcer Archie Griffin helped by Bradley Laird had dragged Archies Pajero Jr out of retirement to take on Cody Fogden and Jacob Muir in E-Class, but had to settle for second in class behind the little Suzuki.
So, as we move past the midway point in the series, the field waits for a ruling from the governing body as to how the Championship will be decided to allow for the Covid disruption at the start of the season,
At this point, the very provisional standings (which we include purely for interest sake) have Hermansen and Hamilton comfortably ahead of the Earles, who have just a single point advantage over the Masons.
By the time the series moved on to the 5th round, hosted by the Counties 4WD Club at Waiterimu, things were expected to be a little clearer, but no less competitive.