The National 4×4 Trials Series is one of the toughest tests of vehicle and competitor in motorsport: A single day can provide multiple roll-overs, suspension, drivetrain and engine failure, and serious driver and crew fatigue.
Throw in some of the hottest, driest weather the country has seen, and you have a massive test of man, woman, and machine.
Then get them all to do it again the next day!!
Such was the demand Mike Gee-Taylor made of the championship field when he hosted Rounds 2 and 3 on his properties at Rangiwahia. “I’ve wanted to do a 2-day event for a while,” he explains, “but competing at the same time just got in the way.”
Mike has a bit of experience putting these events together, “Mike Gee-Taylor’s trials are the best,” reckons Phil Hobart, regular series competitor. “He sets some very technical hazards, brain over brawn!”
Pegging out most of the hazards himself, “I know the farm well enough now to know where to find what I wanted,” he says. All of the first day hazards were put together by Mike, but he had a group of helpers for day two. “I didn’t want an army,” he told us, “these guys came in, I told them what I wanted, and they went away and did it. I didn’t change a thing.”
With Mike having sold his own competition buggy, “It’s a raincheck, not retirement,” he is now in a position to try some of the things he has been thinking about. “I wanted to make the two days a bit of an endurance thing, put a bit of pressure on the guys to keep the trucks going!”
Big casualties from Round 2 were D-Classes Russell Biggs, who did not finish the day, so did not start on Sunday morning. Phil Cameron was listed as a finisher on Saturday but did not start Sunday.
The attrition rate was higher among the rest of the field, with Archie Griffin (E), Stephen Andrell (G), and Stewart Mickell (K) all non-starters.
All eyes, however, were on the top runners in D-Class, especially Phillip Walton after his win in Round 2, Greg McDell, whose electrical troubles from the day before had been diagnosed and repaired overnight, and defending champ Scott Biggs.
McDell, and co-driving brother Chris, were under a bit of pressure to recover from Saturday’s result, and chase down Walton’s advantage, to recoup some lost points towards the National Series Title.
Again, the course was very dry and dusty, with the surface rapidly changing from the effects of the preceding competitors. Some hazards became easier as the day went on, but most became more technical and extreme.
At the mid-day break, there was a 5-way tie for the D-Class lead, with Walton and Co-driver Brendan Austin, the McDells, Scott Biggs and Sam Thomsen, Aaron Guest and Garry Preston, and Phil and Brittany Hobart, all with clear score sheets for the mornings’ hazards. Following them, there was a 3-way tie for 6th in Class.
Joining the Class D leaders on Zero penalties, and so also in a tie for overall lead, were father and son duo of Nathan and Cody Fogden, in their Mitzi Evo powered C-Class Buggy. The pair had put on a powerful performance the day before, bringing their Cowper truck home second overall against vehicles with twice, and sometimes almost 3 times the horsepower.
Behind the Fogdens, Michael McGiven and Joel Hobart, Dan Cowper and Jenni Templeton, and Rhys O’Brien with Ryan Clark shared a 3-way tie for 2nd in Class C.
Such was the competition, that their scores put them in an 8-way tie for 11th overall.
For a while, the afternoon was going to be all about the Fogdens. Eleven stages in, they were looking at another overall podium, still holding a clear scorecard, when their helmet to helmet communications failed, interrupting their concentration as well as their teamwork.
Tragically they picked up penalties in their final four hazards, and although they managed to just hold out McGiven and Hobart for the class win, they dropped down to 7th overall.
Speed section bragging rights for C-Class went to the Caldow and Elms pair, 7/10th of a second ahead of Michael Thomsen and Tony Van Vroohoven.
At the top, it was Walton and Austin that prevailed, just, from the McDells.
After a season off driving, to concentrate on co-driving for Scott Biggs, Walton had decided to get the buggy extensively rebuilt by Tom Baeriswyl at Nitro Trucks, and after a disappointing start to the season hit back and won round two the day before.
That win was not without drama, as a couple of early mistakes, then a mechanical issue late in the day meant it was far from a certainty they had won. “I knew we had still done pretty well, but was uncertain on others results, as it was a day you couldn’t make mistakes,” said Phil.
“It was a weird feeling hearing the results on the morning of day two, and trying to contain our excitement to focus on the day ahead.”
Round three started with the team feeling a lot more relaxed and confident going in. A check of the buggy the night before had uncovered only a small fault with the trucks rear steer, which had been repaired.
Overcoming the heat was a big part of the strategy for the day, with Phil’s dad, and 38-week pregnant wife, on water duty all day. “It was tuff out there for the weekend,” says Phil, “my feet were still blistered three days later.”
Phil felt “ the back of the course was pegged more challenging, though there was immense pressure from the other competitors, as the traction was there, and the trucks were really going places!”
Coming into the afternoon session with a 20 penalty point deficit, and in equal 7th, Rowan Huckstep and Hendrick Hofstee were the big movers in D-Class. Climbing to 3rd, they passed Scott Biggs and Aaron Guest, who both had very disappointing sessions, finishing off the podium in 4th and 5th. Biggs and Thomsen beat Mather and Verner by half a second for the speed section win.
Following their afternoon disappointment the day before, Wayne and Rachel Buckthought held on to take 6th in class and beat the Fogdens by less than ½ a point overall as well.
“We are just starting to come into our own” reckons Wayne. Their “Howie” (Brian Howat) built buggy runs a Chev LS1 V8, coupled to a Toyota Windom Auto.
“We ran the day in 2nd instead of the usual 3rd gear, which gave us less wheel speed, but much better response and traction,” says Wayne. “It will be interesting to see how it goes in the mud.”
Russell Luders and Chris Tomalin had a much better afternoon, third in class, behind Walton and McDell. Climbing from 16th at midday they finished 7th overall.
Mather and Verner dropped off the pace a little but held on to 8th ahead of a fast-finishing Stuart and Liam Earle, who were 1/10th of a point behind Luders, and 1/10th ahead of Huckstep for fourth over the afternoon stages.
Jarred Biggs and Fleche Crawford in the 900HP Nitro Customs NZ2 rounded up the Class top 10.
Main casualties of the afternoon were Phil and Brittany Hobart, dropping from a share of the lead to 11th.
The father and daughter pair, from Matamata, were plagued late in the day by an intermittent electrical fault that would see the engine just stop partway through stages.
“When we got it home and got a chance to check it over properly, we found the engine earth strap had come off, but there was also a broken wire in the loom, so we’re not sure what the cause was.”
The Hobarts buggy is powered by a Buick V6, rare in the V8 dominated class. Even more unusual, the engine is rear-mounted!
Adlam held on to beat Howat in E-Class, Clarrie Vazey overtook halfway point leader Daniel Morris to win J, while Brent Ward scored a comprehensive victory over Daniel Whiting in K.
Wards impressive afternoon score would have put him midfield in Class D, and included 9 zeroed hazards, in an exceptional total of 20 for the day.
At the halfway point of the series, it’s getting tight at the top with Waltons 2 out of 2 for the last two rounds leapfrogging him into podium contention, while the McDells consistency puts them right into the picture as well.
Heading into round 4 at Wanganui, the only certainty is that Scott Biggs is going to have a battle on his hands to retain his NZ1 position.