This year’s event was a face-off between UTV race teams, the big four-wheel drive trucks and the traditional race car classes.
All three categories have been at loggerheads in championship offroad racing for five years now, with no category clearly dominant.
The event result, however, was different and came down in the end to a battle of transmissions: defending champion Ben Thomasen’s CVT Polaris vs the ‘proper’ gearbox of the Yamaha shared by Bob Uttridge and Carl Ruiterman of Pukekohe.
A couple of months before, the same forest was the venue for the Ruff-n-Tuff enduro, Nelson’s round of the championship. On that occasion, over a slightly shorter lap, the pace was made by the big unlimited class one cars of John Morgan and Mike Fraser.
Throughout the two day event, in conditions that slumped toward abysmal, Uttridge drove a clever strategy that kept him in touch with the overnight leader, defending champion Ben Thomasen, and enabled him to pounce when Thomasen’s Polaris blew its drive belt.
Ruiterman, meanwhile, had doubted he could race, having broken his ribs in a racing crash before the big event. He took the driving duties on the first day and proved himself quite wrong, setting fastest lap in the process: 24:27.429 for the 33.5 km forest course.
“Carl set the pace and made day two a lot easier, setting the fastest lap on day one and Handing over the car in perfect condition even with his damaged ribs,” said Uttridge.
On opening day, Ben Thomasen was the big improver, fighting his way forward from a P18 start to lead after fog-shortened the day’s racing and an end was called with seven laps complete.
The following day disaster struck and Thomasen’s hopes of a three-peat were dashed as his Polaris blew its drive belt. He had the small consolation of having set the second day (and event overall) fastest lap time, a 24:14.189 running in clear air on his first lap.
Uttridge had settled into his own pace, watching to see how the race unfolded. His secret aim was to do the whole day without needing to stop for fuel – this meant staying with the leaders but not pushing at 100 per cent all day.
“I had a lap time I was working to, but as we know racers don’t like being passed so I was tempted to battle with the hard-charging Nathan Moore. I did that for a while but then once I made a mistake and he passed me I just went back to my own plan.”
A subsequent spin reinforced the wisdom of sticking with plan A. Then on lap six Moore and Uttridge swept past a stricken Thomasen.
Mike Fraser, who briefly held the lead on day two, dropped out of the race while far from the pit area, soon afterward Moore was also out and Uttridge swept through to a lead he would never relinquish.
“With less pressure on and knowing Greg [Winn] and Jacob [Brownlees] would have to pit for fuel I slowed my pace to look after the car. I really needed to change helmets as my vision was down to nil and I did that on lap 8. From there on it was just a steady pace to the end”
Images copyright Donna Gedye.