The Number ‘NZ1’ sits well on the side of the bright yellow “Killer Bee II” Cowper Truck. It also sits well in the mind of owner-driver Greg McDell.
Greg, with brother Chris in the co-driver seat, was awarded the NZ Trials Series Championship title following the recent decision to cancel the last round because of the Corona Virus Pandemic, and declare the result on the points totals after 5 of the scheduled 6 rounds.
At that point, Greg had a 10 point lead over defending champ, Scott Biggs, with Scott’s twin brother Jarred, one point back in 3rd. The brothers both driving factory team Nitro Trucks.
The series win comes despite Greg and Chris not having won a round all season, and the Biggs brothers having one win each.
Where the McDells absolutely dominated, was the sheer consistency that took them to 4 second places, and one 6th.
The last time the championship was won, without winning a round, was when truck builder Dan Cowper won the (the 1997/98) season.
“Following a couple of NZ3s, this first NZ1 is a big weight off our shoulders” admits Greg. “It was just awesome to come away with a win in the sport my dad Keith, was instrumental in creating. Doing it with my brother makes it even more special.”
The new #1 truck is Gregs’ 3rd mount in 4 years. First was a ‘Moose Truck’ he purchased from Tom Baeriswyl, Nitro Trucks hot-shot engineer in 2016, which only lasted 4 rounds, before being replaced by the ex Dean Foster Cowper Truck which took Greg to two NZ3s.
The latest rig took-over 12 months ago when Greg bought the late Ray Raising’s Cowper after an earlier deal for another truck fell through.
“I knew this truck was for sale,” says Greg, “but Jarred was a big part of putting the deal together.”
Once he got it home Greg and Chris stripped it bare and decided it should go on a bit of a diet. “We needed to improve the power to weight ratio, and improve the visibility, to maximise performance.”
By shortening the front, and redesigning the centre section a bit, we were able to achieve both. Access around the back of the transmission was also improved as an extra benefit.
“We upgraded the materials to a more modern spec, and used a lot less of them.”
Greg rebuilt the 6 litre Chev LS2 to Chris’s specifications. “We’ve gone a different direction than most with the engine build, and so far its worked out well for us,” says Greg. “Chris dyno’d the motor himself achieving 550HP at the flywheel.”
The engine’s bottom end is still standard, but the top of the motor features upgraded heads and valve train.
All mechanicals and the drivetrain have been stripped and rebuilt, except for the Windom gearbox, which was replaced. The drivetrain is the standard Cowper set-up, with Howat hydraulic diff locks front and rear.
“The way we were able to drive the truck all season, with no structural or mechanical issues, is a credit to the strength and durability of Dan’s trucks” reckons Greg.
The truck ran the whole season with the suspension “as it came from Ray” but the team will be trialing new shocks during the offseason, to keep up with developments available to the sport.
“We had a particularly bad landing at Wanganui,” says Greg. “I bent both the rear diff and the co-driver” he admits, “the diff was the easiest to fix,” he reckons.
Right from the beginning of the season, Greg knew the truck had turned out to be a competitive package.
“We were still bolting parts on at the motel the night before,” he says. “We had one very short test drive before we rocked up to the first hazard.”
“The plan had been to just take it easy as a test day and see how it went” he added. “But after about 4 hazards we were hitting them as hard as possible, coming away with the first of the seasons seconds!”
They had noticed a bit of a fueling issue during the afternoon, so the tank and pumps were replaced before the next round, the first of the two-day double-header at Ohingaiti.”
“We drove up to the first hazard” explains Greg, of the drama that would plague them during the weekend. “We walked the track, but when we got back in, it wouldn’t start. We had to wait for a tractor to arrive and tow us back to the pits.”
It was the first of 6 tows back that morning! Each time repairs were successful, but, each time, only temporary.
In the end, the only way to finish the day was to leave the truck running all afternoon. According to Greg, “We traveled the course as fast as possible, jumping queues at hazards and stuff”, but they still had melted plastic on shields and lines, etc by the time they finished the day.
The issues were enough to disrupt their normal finish rate reliability, and that day produced a “still satisfying” 6th place finish.
Overnight the decision was made to change the computer. They were able to borrow Russell Biggs unit from his Nitro Truck, install and reprogram it.
After a quick loop around the pits, it seemed to be all good, then, next morning, it wouldn’t start – again!
“After everyone had started, we set about rewiring the computer,” says Greg. “Something like an hour later we headed out on the course, looking for a way to manage the issue, and finish the day.”
Then, midway through the afternoon, Chris had an inspiration. “He suddenly said, get back to the pits, I know what’s wrong with it!”
With about 6 stages to go, they raced back and replaced the fuel non-return valve. The repair worked instantly, and the team were back.
Greg reckons they were still too nervous to turn it off, so more melted plastic, but they finished the day with their second 2nd for the season.
“We very nearly gave up, and put it on the trailer,” admits Greg. “The way it turned out that would have cost us the season. I’m so pleased we persevered with it!”
From there the season just came alive. With the truck now running faultlessly, Greg and Chris quickly developed the confidence to put the truck where it needed to be.”
Round 4, in Wanganui, was won by Jarred Biggs, with a remarkable comeback from an early hard landing that damaged the engine and front diff.
Greg and Chris collected their 3rd second, to take them to the lead in the series.
The rain was back for the 5th round at Huntly. “There was no doubt it was going to be a testing round, they always are up there.” But Greg reckons they “had a blast all day.”
“We had a few laughs and jokes with fellow competitors in the midst of some fairly tough competition,” was his take on the day.
In the end, Smyth edged the McDells for the round win, but yet another second, confirmed Gregs’ hold on the top spot of the series.
It was looking like it was going to be all on at the final round in Napier. Jarred Biggs had a mathematical chance of snatching the title, but he had to win, and Greg and Chris finish down the field, to force a dead heat for first place.
At that point, Jarred would be champion, with more wins than Greg.
Greg meantime was really looking forward to pushing hard for his first round win, “we had nothing to lose really,” he said.
Then Covid and lockdown happened!
So there it ended, Greg and Chris held their 10 point advantage and became the 2019/20 National Trials Series Champions.
“Aside from the plans for the rear suspension upgrade, the real goal for 2020/21 is to just get out there and have fun.” And get a couple of round wins?? “Well yeah, that’s certainly up there now!”
When 4x4actionadventure.com caught up with Greg after the results were announced, we found him at his day job as workshop manager at the Classics Museum in Hamilton. That day his TLC skills were directed at a very different piece of machinery, a 1920s Bugatti, he is overseeing the restoration of.