Even before the start of the Battery Town sponsored first round of the 2020/21 NZ Trials Series, everyone was picking that last year’s champions were going to have a battle on their hands, defending their title against one of the most competitive fields in years.
But Waikato’s Greg McDell, co-driven by brother Chris, showed he is well up for the challenge when he took out the opening round at his ‘home’ event, winning the morning session, on the way to beating home ex-Champ, Wanganui’s Hamish Auret in Round 1 of the 2020/21 series, held near Matamata.
Auret, back after an injury forced absence last season, and co-driver Paul Barnes, really took the battle to the McDells, battling back from a fifty-point deficit at the halfway mark to win the afternoon section, but having to settle for second overall at the end of the day.
McDell and Auret, both driving Chev V8 powered D-Class Cowper Trucks, were joined on the podium by the first of the Nitro Customs V8 pilots, Scott Biggs, with Sam Thomsen on brake duties, who recovered from fifth place midway to take third.
Thomsen’s younger brother, Michael, partnered by wife Laura, took out the C-Class win, in their first event together in their Evo 6.5 powered rig, after early leaders Nathan Fogden and Mike Gibbons copped a 100-point maximum penalty when a recurring brake problem brought their Mitsi powered Cowper to a momentary halt on stage 25.
The Thomsen’s held a comfortable lead at the halfway point from Michael McGivern and Joel Hobart, but as the South Waikato team faded in the afternoon with Turbocharger problems, to finish 6th in class. A strong performance by Rhys O’Brien and Clarrie Vasey lifted them into second, just 5 points in arrears, with Fogden/Gibbons recovering to third with the afternoon’s top score.
The win was “a bit of a surprise” for Thomsen, who had only driven the truck 3 times before. After purchasing the ex Jarred Biggs truck off older brother Marcus, Michael had spent some time working on the frame, and modifying the suspension in the stroked out Evo 6.5 Mitsi powered rig, before his first run, halfway through last season.
When Laura stepped into the co-driver’s role, “She pretty much knew what to expect”, Michael claims, “she had been following us for a while”.
Michael was full of praise for Laura’s effort. “We were pretty surprised when Marcus came up and told us we were 7th overall at the lunch break, but we had had no issues with the truck, and Laura was listening and doing her job well. Our biggest issue was keeping calm for the afternoon session!”
“She put up with a lot with the time I put into the truck and the business (All Terrain Alignment), and to be honest, I wouldn’t even be here without her support. This win belongs to her and the team!”
But the dominance of the V8-powered D-Class rigs was such that the best of the C-Class teams were back in 13th and 14th overall by the end of the day.
For the McDells it was a win that had been a while in the making. After a comprehensive rebuild before last year’s series, and an NZ1 title that had been taken without winning a single round, the brothers started the season with “a bit of a freshen up, and new rear shocks. We got a chance to test them out at the Taranaki Pairs Event a few weeks ago, coming away with best individual score”, explained Greg, “and we knew we had a winner on our hands.”
“The change just took it up another level!”
Greg also credits a changed attitude on their part for a lot of the day’s success. “After winning the champs last year, we were there much more just to enjoy it.”
“That NZ1 was a monkey off our backs, we were out there to have fun and just enjoy ourselves, and the results just came,” he reckons.
Part of that fun he puts down to the course. “There was lots of loose soil, so we had to treat it a bit like a wet day. It was a really good track, there were lots of challenges, but it never seemed dangerous.”
“Even so, was wetter than we had expected”, he added, “There were even a few big mud holes”.
It was one of these mud holes that could have caused the team to falter, when early in the afternoon they rolled onto their side, coming to rest with Chris briefly dunked.
The safety crew were right on hand however, and the truck was upright again in seconds, and quickly back on dry land. After scooping a serious amount of mud and weeds out of the truck, they moved on to the next stage.
“These days we don’t let things like that unsettle us anymore, it really had no effect,” says Greg.
After the truck was recovered, the clerk of the course cancelled the stage.
From third overall at the break, Auret really came out to play in the afternoon, outscoring the McDells by a mere three points, and doing enough to displace Stuart and Liam Earle from second. The Earles were also overtaken by Scott Biggs, finally finishing in 4th.
The big break for Auret, and co-driver Paul Barnes, came on stage 12 in the afternoon, where every other driver on the day got caught on a steep ditch exit and copped a 60-point penalty for the stage.
“To be honest, we didn’t expect to do any better,” laughs Auret, “but we gave it a big serve, it leapt out the other side, and we came out of it with a 20.”
The result came with a cost though, the team was unable to clear the stage, and rolled out of the course after the 20-point mark.
“It wasn’t that bad, we just had a bit of cosmetic damage,” Auret explained, “but it did wreck our brand new bonnet.”
The Wanganui based team had spent some time on the truck during the year off, with a new top-end set up boosting the horsepower from the LS Corvette engine, and some time spent on an upgrade at builder Cowper Trucks workshop.
“There were a few nerves at the start” admits Auret, “I thought we would be a bit rusty without even a club event before the round, but it was like we had raced the weekend before. I think the co-driver continuity probably helped” he added.
Like Greg McDell, Auret praised the course, “but there were a few tough finishes that caught a few out”.
Earlier in the afternoon, McDell had also been the beneficiary of one of those tough finishes, the only driver to score a 20, against a number of 40’s, 50’s and even 60’s on stage 12, to maintain his lead.
The courses are usually pegged out by a group from the host club, overseen by a track co-ordinator. Long-time competitor, Russell Biggs, gave us a bit of insight into the thinking that goes into laying out a course.
“They need to let the smaller, lower-powered trucks get into the stage, and for the best of the top runners to get out the other end. What happens between those points is what gives us a result.”
He explained there are always a few that are “drive arounds” for the top crews, but set up for the lower classes to go for the zero. “Above all,” he added, “they have to be realistic.”
They also have to comply with the series rules, and these days take into account changing attitudes regarding environmental issues. As well as waterway pollution, potential erosion is starting to become an issue in some situations.
Biggs was quick to point out that the people who set the tracks up are pretty experienced, know what they are doing, and are chasing an “event of the year” award each season.
“We are looking for technical driving,” he said. “Big horsepower and momentum have their place, but the truck has to be in the right place, at the right speed, at the right time. The courses are shaped around the terrain, and even a simple cross-axle challenge can catch out a team who get the diff-lock set-up wrong.
Most rounds also have a speed stage or two to let the teams really open up their big horsepower weapons, round one took this a step further with two of these all-out runs in both the morning and afternoon sessions.
Scott Biggs again proved himself master of the power game, winning a speed stage in both the morning and afternoon sessions, to take two of the four stages, set the mornings combined fast time, and the round’s overall king of speed title.
Auret set the afternoons combined quick time, to add second quickest to his second overall placing.
Father and son team, Stuart and Liam Earle took out the second speed stage in the morning, on their way to second overall for the session, and Jarred Biggs won the second afternoon stage on his fightback from 9th overall at the halfway mark.
While Auret and McDell were doing their bit to stay at the top of the field, Whangarei’s Neal Turner and Wade Alexander were watching their impressive 7th at the midpoint slip away during the afternoon.
Turner, who has been away from the sport for close to 20 years, spending some time in speedway racing a Super Saloon, returned in an early Cowper Truck, powered by a “pretty stock” Chev LS2, campaigned for a couple of years by the McDells.
“It just turned to custard for us” admits Turner, “there were a couple of hazards I got wrong, but nothing went right. That’s just the way it goes sometimes!”
Turner and Alexander dropped 20 places in the afternoon, to finish 27th.
Back at the top, business as usual had resumed, with the NZ2 and NZ3 Nitro Customs trucks of Scott and Jarred Biggs taking out 3rd and 4th respectively for the afternoon, which was enough to lift Scott and Thomsen past the Earle’s into third. Jarred, with his co-driver, Fleche Crawford, climbed to 5th from their midway 9th placing.
Stuart and Liam Earle were 5th in the afternoon, just 0.3 points ahead of Russell Luders, to split the Biggs brothers, placing 4th overall by the end of the day.
Luders bought home his Cowper Truck, “The General”, in 7th, surrounded by Nitro Customs, Derek Smythe in 6th, Phillip Walton in 8th, Neville Mather in 9th, and Phil Cameron rounding out the top 10.
Daniel Howat won E- Class, Hayden McGill J-Class, while Daniel Whiting beat home Luke Mickell in K-Class.
Come-back of the day had to go to Shane Towers and Tony Hadland in their C-Class buggy. The pair took a massive tumble off the top of the quarry stage, rolling at least 3 times on the way to the bottom. The fact that they were able to get their truck checked and repaired, then finish the day in fourth in class demonstrates the strength of the vehicle, and the bravery and tenacity of the crew.
With the series set to take a break over the Christmas period, before moving on to round 2 at Thames at the end of January, there are no signs it is going to get any easier.
The Biggs brothers are keen to knock the McDells off the top peg, and their Nitro Trucks teammates are just as keen to knock their Cowper truck opponents off the podium. There is not going to be much left behind in the pits.
It is going to be tight at the top.
The other question is, will there be room for a C-Class team on the podium?
WORDS BY JR
IMAGES THANKS TO SAM BOLTON PHOTOGRAPHY & DENA PLUMRIDGE