When Sam Thomsen and Mitchell Caldow took out the win in the Darby and Helms backed Counties Round 5 of the Covid affected 2021/22 National Trials Series, they also sewed up the overall series win, with a round to spare.
Even a win in the last round would have seen second placed team of Kevin Hermansen and Nicholas Hamilton three points shy of overtaking Thomsen and Caldow, so the trophy, and the coveted NZ1 belonged to the Manawatu based pair.
Which didn’t mean there was nothing to play for for Hermansen and Hamilton, with at least three of the chasing pack in with a mathematical chance of knocking them not just out of second, but right off the podium.
Thomsen and Caldow still showed up for the day, in a whole different way; Sam co-driving for Mitchell in the latters top running C-Class buggy. “Right from the start of the season I had told Mitch that if we had nothing to gain from the last round, he could drive the truck”, explained Thomsen, “but in the end he decided he would feel better in his own wagon.”
The choice seemed to be paying off for the team, as they comfortably led the class by the halfway point.
Behind them, in the potent Mitsi powered Team Zook Cowper truck, usual co-driver Mike Gibbons, with ex NZ-1 Champion Co-driver Paul Barnes on brake duty, had taken over driving duties for the day, as usual driver, Nathan Fogden, co-drove for son Brinn in the little A-Class Suzuki that Fogden Snr started his career in.
“With both Brinn and Cody competing, the event was number 100 for the BFG Zook racing team, and to get the chance to do it beside Brinn in that little buggy, and as a team mate for Cody, was just too special to give up,” Nathan admitted.
Fogden and Gibbons had, like Thomsen and Caldow, an unassailable lead in their class, and Gibbons has some successful history in the truck, having driven occasionally in the past.
So Class C had become the battle of the co-drivers, with the first of the regulars, Daniel Morris and James DeCleene, in the unique 2.8L Turbo Diesel “Coal Running” a distant 3rd, 80 points in arrears.
Meantime, in D-Class, and overall, defending NZ1 title holder Scott Biggs, with co-driver Jamie Taylor, had his game face on, determined to show what might have been if not for the pandemic.
The pair were blitzing the course, to take an almost 20 point lead into the break, ahead of a constantly improving Neal Turner and Wade Alexander, having their best showing in the 6.2L “Hi-Jinx ll.
Keeping their overall series second place podium step in mind, Kevin Hermansen and Nicholas Hamilton were a very solid third, less than 10 behind Turner. Hermie can’t have been taking it too carefully, he took the morning speed section fast time comfortably.
Rowan Huckstep and Henrick Hofstee continued their run of form to be sitting 4th, with Jamie Larsen and Jacob Higgins in an impressive 5th spot, as they continue to improve as the season winds down.
Caldow and Thomsen’s C-Class lead was enough to put them in 6th overall, beating out Brian and Richard Hall, who were 5th in class, another team going from strength to strength as their season went on.
Gibbons and Barnes came out all guns blazing in the afternoon session, beating home Caldow and Thomsen by a massive 160 points, to comfortably win the class, and finish inside the top 10 overall.
Caldow did manage to turn the tables in the speed section, with fastest time for the class for the session.
In the afternoon points tally, however, he was at serious risk of falling back into the clutches of Rebekah and Jenni Templeton, who were just 0.47 points behind for the session, and Morris and DeCleene just 3 points behind them.
But there was no risk to his second place podium for the round, comfortably ahead of Morris and Templeton in 3rd and 4th.
It was almost the same story in the top level D-Class, with Turner and Alexander turning the tables on Biggs and Taylor, beating them home in the afternoon by almost 10 points, but the NZ1 duo had built up enough of a lead in the morning to head home the field in their last round carrying the number.
Turner and Alexander picked up a further 10 point advantage over Hermansen and Hamilton for 2nd, and their best round result to date to set them up for some big things next season, but, although Huckstep and Hofstee pushed them hard in the afternoon, there was no denying Hermansen and Hamilton the second place podium for the season, in the radical Cowper built “The Gambler.”
Behind Huckstep, who was having his last outing in the LS3 powered “Mad Cow”, things were really being turned on their heads, with Larsen and Hall dropping dramatically down the field.
A disastrous 160 penalty haul on 3 consecutive stages towards the end of the day dropped Larsen and Higgins a staggering 10 places to 15th in class, and 17th overall, while the wheels really fell off the Halls effort, dropping them to a very disappointing 19th.
Amid the carnage, some stellar afternoon performances saw a few teams burst from nowhere into the top 10, starting with Wayne Weatherly and Shaun Nicholson, whose season best 5th for the session, rocketed them from 18th in class to 10th.
The effort put them just over 1/10th of a point behind Russell and Glen Hall, who themselves had come from 14th into the 9th place, just behind Neville Mather and Richard Verner.
Two time round winners Mather and Verner, managed to hold reasonably steady on 8th, down just one placing, and taking out the speed section for the afternoon, and Stuart and Liam Earle had picked up a couple of places to displace Mather from his 7th at the midway point, while Russell Luders, in only his second outing of the season, advanced 4 placings, up to 6th.
As part of the musical chairs theme of the round, Luders was teamed with defending NZ2 co-driver Fleche Crawford, as his regular co-driver, Chris Tomalin, was driving his own D-Class buggy for the day.
The afternoon proved a disaster for Tomalin, who had Crawfords regular driver, defending NZ2 pilot Jarred Biggs co-driving, when mechanical issues saw him drop from 9th to the bottom of the D-Class standings.
Interestingly, it was Tomalin and Crawford who teamed up for the drive of the season, when they took the Templeton’s C-Class “Ruby” to an amazing 3rd overall way back in the opening round.
Just ahead of Luders and Crawford were Dan Cowper and Luke Donald, who registered the drive of the day, recovering from not only 11th at mid-point, but a crash in round 5 that had left Cowper unconscious, and the car badly damaged.
Multiple time NZ champion Cowper had temporarily taken over the driver’s seat of the car, normally occupied by Luke’s father Scott, while he himself recovered from a work injury.
A very consistent season, including a pair of second placings delivered the Earles the NZ3 podium for the 21/22 series, while Biggs and Taylors win in the final round saw them grab a 4th equal draw with Mather and Verner, who, despite two round wins weren’t quite able to put together the consistency to finish with a podium.
Brinn and Nathan Fogden finished, and won, A-Class, while Cody Fogden, with Jacob Muir, won E-Class, to give the family team an exceptional 100th event weekend.
Fogden Snr and Mike Gibbons won C-Class for the series, an impressive 9th overall, while Cody and Muir took out the E-Class title.
Morris and DeCleene were second in C, 19th overall, just one point, and one place, ahead of the Templetons.
Father and son team of Brent and Michael Ward won K-Class, by winning every round in the series, finishing 21st overall.
Sean Cushing and Geoff Butcher took out J class for the day, and the season.
It was a fitting end to the season, with the class champions having dominated right through the series, and some unexpected results and team combinations thrown into the mix.
Despite all the issues and uncertainty, the competitors, officials and event organisers produced a series that could have easily never happened.
Roll on 2022/23, I’m picking Thomsen and Caldow in Nitro Customs #1 to defend their title, and Mitch to drive the NZ1 in the last round!
But don’t rule out Hermansen and Hamilton, I hear there is still more development coming for the radical Cowper “The Gambler.”
Bring it on.
Special thanks to Daniel Howat