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Cowling Goes Back To Back In Cromwell

Central Motor Speedway

STORY BY

DARYL SHUTTLEWORTH
Shuttleworth Motorsport Media

Images supplied by: Scott Freeman & Suzy Walker

(Disclaimer – results as seen by myself while commentating, results may have changed slightly due to relegations etc. – This article or extracts from it are not to be used by any other form of media without prior permission.) 

One of the most eagerly anticipated New Zealand Championships in the 2023/24 Speedway calendar hit sunny Central Otago on the second weekend of January, the Super Saloon New Zealand title, a prestigious trophy held at one of the countries best tracks for these high horse powered machines.

Leading into this event you could not ignore the negativity surrounding it for multiple reasons, firstly the lack of entries, we will address that in a moment, before we do I will state that what I write here are simple my opinion, and going by many others in pit lane it’s also the opinion of others.

Just twenty five cars entered, yes small number, means everyone gets through to the final, also means smaller groups across the six groups racing, but did it detract from the show, not at all, in fact while commentating I deleted a comment saying “it must be really exciting watching eight cars go around” well in actual fact, yes it was, the racing was brilliant, actually it was far more exciting than trolling facebook, commenting on something you presumably don’t care about.

The second bit of negativity surrounded the cars themselves, the big debate torsion bar up against four bar and the advantage four bar cars would have, this would also prove to not be the case as well, yes the four bar cars if they got a good clean run were very fast, but a number of torsion bar cars banked race wins while a number of four bar cars really struggled at times to hit the sweet spot, so people claiming its two championships could not be further from the mark if they tried.

Thirdly the politics surrounding the sport at present, in particular this grade and Saloons, social media was rife with it, as was the pit lane, I didn’t feel it had the same championship vibe I felt at Beachlands just twelve months earlier, don’t get me wrong, drivers were awesome to chat to, teams were happy, but all roads led back to the politics of the grade currently, a big dark cloud trying to cover the blue skies over Central Motor Speedway.

So we kick off with night one of Super Saloon action, we would see each driver compete in three heats, then return Saturday for a final two heats and thirty four lap feature race to crown a champion, why thirty four laps? …… it’s a tip of the hat to Cromwell stalwart Ray Stewart, a passionate Super Saloon driver who has run this number throughout his colourful career.

Heat one of the night saw the battle of the Real Estate agents with the Debbie The Webster Group hitting the track with the Lucinda Dickson Lab Realty group, some heavy hitters in these groups with the likes of former New Zealand Champions Shane McIntyre of Blenheim, Christchurch’s Malcom Ngatai and Richie Taylor along with Nelson’s Ian Burson, it would certainly promise a fierce battle.

This heat saw Taylor start from the front of the pack and while Cromwell’s Greig Johnston would apply pressure in the early stages Taylor would be just too fast in clear air taking the race out with ease, Johnston followed home in second with Burson third, a remarkable result after falling almost to the back of the pack midrace, setting the fastest lap in the process.

Heat two of the event saw the VIP Structural Steel Group and the ITM Southern Lakes group paired to do battle, big names in this heat were the current champion Chris Cowling of Bay Park, former champion Sam Waddell also of Bay Park and Craig Cardwell of Auckland.

Cowling would show his class early getting to the front of the pack in a car that Cowling admitted he was struggling with just a fraction, Cowling was kept honest by Alister Lister of Dunedin, Lister has been on the improve leading into the championship, and this was the prime example that a torsion car set up well could compete with the best four bar drivers in the country, Lister push Cowling hard, right till the end.

Cowling would however bank the win, Lister second with Waddell securing the third spot.

The third heat would see the last of the entrants roll out on track, the Stealth Engineering group and the Riverlands Holiday Park group, this race would feature three time champion Mark Osborne of Christchurch who would debut a new car here tonight, Steve Cowling another former champion from Bay Park was also lined up while Bodie Abrahamson of Christchurch would also be one to watch.

This heat was entertaining and fast, it also produced the first caution of the event when Abrahamson clipped Scott Hayward of Bay Park causing the officials to send Abrahamson to the rear of the field. Osborne looked comfortable in his new Stealth machine banking a solid second placing behind Steve Cowling who looked like he was on rails throughout the heat, while Hayward would overcome his early contact with Abrahamson to secure third spot.

The smaller fields did have the added advantage of plenty of track space which was noticeable by how few cautions there was on night one, still tight racing but not the stop start affair you can see in bigger fields.

Ngatai looked quick at Central Motor Speedway throughout the Christmas break, bagging the Christmas Champs before heading to Meanee for the New Zealand Super Stock Championship, Ngatai is certainly a driver who demands respect on track and has nothing to prove here in Super Saloons, heat four Ngatai looked like a seasoned campaigner fighting off Waddell who was hungry for the race win, Ngatai would take out the race, Waddell settling for second ahead of Cardwell who had a solid run in heat four.

Heat five and it was an all Ford front row with Dunedin’s Matt Greene and Christchurch’s Ryan Marsden sharing the front row in their Lovelady’s. Greene got the jump and actually pulled a slight gap early before the hoards came chasing, Greene would soon be dispatched by Marsden, Cromwell’s Euan Shearing and Hayward who were all making their way through the field.

Shearing would snatch the lead and fight off Marsden to claim the race win, Marsden second with Hayward consistent again taking third place. 

Next heat saw another major upset unfold but not before a caution period where Osborne would spin on his own accord in turn three, both Stewart and Lister unable to avoid the incident, all three cars eventually going infield and taking no further part in this race.

The surprise package was up front where Gary Edwards of Blenheim would absolutely spank his rivals in a display of good clean racing, punching out constant laps, lap upon lap, Edwards leading home Dunedin’s Ricky Boulton in second and Chris Cowling working his way up to third from down the grid.

After about a forty minute delay for sunstrike the action resumed, track lights were on and the track was changing, one thing a number of drivers stated was how different this track felt compared to previous years, the new material in turns three and four had drivers saying they had to race down low, notoriously Central Motor Speedway rewards the brave, those who want to pin their cars up high on the wall.

The cars rolled out for heat seven and this is where we saw the share pace of Waddell, Christchurch driver Hayden McKay controlled this race from the front and looked as if he would be the man to steal the show, but Waddell timed his move to perfection, snatching the lead with just laps to go to grab the heat win, McKay second and Kane Lawson of Christchurch third, a solid result for Lawson after a fire in qualifying saw the team working overtime just to get the car on track.

The changing track conditions would catch Steve Cowling out in heat eight, the former champion spinning late in the race in between turns three and four, this would bring out the only caution of the race, this would also be the race that Taylor would double down on his earlier heat win taking out this race despite Kihikihi driver Benji Sneddon throwing all sorts of pressure at the Cantabrian, Sneddon unlucky not to steal the race win. Taylor wins, Sneddon second and Boulton third.

The final heat of the night saw an early Lister spin in turns three and four, out front Lawson looked as if he was going to be the man to beat but Hayward continued on the constant form of the two previous heat races, battling with Lawson in the closing laps to secure victory, Lawson happy with second after a tough night with Stewart third place.

The top five cars after night one were Waddell, Hayward, Taylor, Ngatai and Boulton.

Night two of the New Zealand Super Saloon Championship and a delayed start, two more groups rolled out to race but the track had a fair bit of water applied to handle the sunshine that was expected, however cloud cover didn’t move and either did the water. Once rolled in the track was a totally different beast to what it had been on night one, and it produced some great racing from the pole line right up to the wall.

The first heat of the night in Super Saloons saw Greene stop early causing a caution, while Steve Cowling would also retire with mechanical dramas hurting his points tally for the event.

This race would be dominated by Osborne who needed to bank some solid results after suffering two DNF’s on night one. Osborne’s new car never missed a beat and he raced off to a commanding win over Boulton in second and Johnston in third place. Johnston would then face a two spot relegation handing third to Australian Wayne Belk.

Heat eleven for Super Saloons saw some action mid pack early, Sneddon was looking fast and just clipped the back of Lawson on the exit of turn four, causing Lawson to spin then Ngatai and Lister to make solid contact, the pair continuing on at the restart but Lawson out. While this was unfolding Chris Cowling caught the attention of the track crew and they removed his bonnet to attend to a fire, or suspected fire, a nervous moment for the defending champion but he would continue on at the race restart.

The big talking point in this race was the performance of Burson, finally the Nelson driver looked complete, and like the Ian Burson of old, clearing away from the pack and absolutely spanking his rivals in the process to claim a popular win, second home was Cowling with Stewart third.

Heat twelve saw Hayward add to his already impressive points haul banking a solid second behind Marsden who despite being a little down on power, got his car hooked up to bank an emotional win, Hayward who as I mentioned placed second would go to the top of the points table after the fourth round of racing, but would start well down the grid in his final heat while Shearing again impressed in third.

The final round of heat racing got underway with Lister tearing off to a handy start, leading early before Johnston would reel him in and make a pass, Lawson and Belk came to a halt in turn four adding to an already frustrating weekend for Lawson. Johnston would race on to take a popular win at his home track while Chris Cowling would take second with Lister third.

The next heat had some big names involved, Osborne, Boulton, Waddell, Cardwell and Steve Cowling and with a couple of these drivers not finishing all the races points were crucial as far as setting a strong place in the thirty four lap final.

This was a fantastic race to watch as Osborne and Waddell went toe to toe at the front of the pack, Osborne would double up on his earlier heat win taking the race from Waddell while Steve Cowling looked fast, holding onto third place.

The very final heat race of the championship saw Abrahamson show his class, Abrahamson would pull away from Taylor early and despite Taylor fighting back Abrahamson was fast, showing glimpses of what he could produce in the final.

Abrahamson took the win with Taylor second and Shearing third.

With these points all calated twenty four cars would now battle it out for the New Zealand Super Saloon Championship over thirty four laps, the top ten qualifiers from first to ten were Waddell, Chris Cowling, Taylor, Hayward, Boulton, Johnston, Ngatai, Osborne, Burson and Shearing, meaning some of the big names such as Cardwell, Steve Cowling, Abrahamson and McIntyre having to work their way through the field.

The anticipation was building for this race, the online negativity about entry numbers and differences in cars was gone, we now had the best drivers in the country ready to go to war, and it was fitting that the cars all parked up facing turn three where a monument for two time Champion Peter Dickson has been erected, Dicksons family all trackside to cheer on his mates.

The huge crowd rose to their feet as the national anthem was played, the fireworks lit up the skies above Central Motor Speedway and as the green flag dropped it was Waddell who raced off to an early lead, pulling away from Chris Cowling with relative ease.

The pace was intense, Waddell would keep stretching his lead while Cowling, Boulton, Taylor, Ngatai, Hayward and Osborne would all battle each other, slowly pulling away from the pack also.

The first caution came out after Marsden was sent out to the wall in turn three, his front tyre flat and an animated Marsden showing his frustrations having to park up infield, obviously annoyed at whatever car it was that had caused the damage.

The next caution fell when Osborne and Taylor both spun coming out of turn four, this incident would rare its head later in the night, at this stage of the race Chris Cowling had pulled valuable meters away from Waddell and was threatening for the lead of the race.

The race would get underway once more, this time around Hayward got turned going into turn two, Boulton, Johnston and Sneddon had nowhere to go, all making contact, Haywards car suffering solid front end damage but he would continue on. 

All cars were stopped on track at this point, and upon the cars lining up to go green once more, leader Waddell was still parked on the main straight, some nervous moments for his team but Waddell managed to get a push start to grab his spot back at the front of the pack.

At the restart one of the race favorites Taylor would retire to the infield with dramas, Waddell was still leading while Osborne and Chris Cowling were racing hard for the other two podium spots, at this stage you also could not discount Boulton who was looking fast, but contending with Hayward, the title battle really on for all.

The race would run about another three laps at a furious pace before Stewart would spin in turn four causing another yellow flag, this would also be the last we would se of Steve Cowling who would head infield with major front end damage, Hayward would join him soon afterwards.

The race would start once more and this time around Waddell was a sitting duck, Chris Cowling would take a dive in turn two and sneak past the leader, Waddell then got swamped by Osborne, Osborne then sneaking up the inside of Cowling but Cowling was smart, pulling back but then getting the undercut and a big run back up the inside of Osborne, Waddell soon after snatching second back also.

Behind the leaders Boulton and Ngatai were at it, and should anything happen up front, these two were ready to pounce, but as the race proceeded and the arena become a dust bowl Cowling would power off and snatch victory to take the New Zealand Super Saloon Championship for the second year in a row, Waddell second, Osborne third and joining them in victory lane would be Boulton and Ngatai, fourth and fifth respectively.

Cowling stepped out of his car and made a very emotional speech, stating “this title meant so much to him, more satisfying than his first one as his good mate Peter Dickson was here, and this is where he won his first title”. Cowling struggled to get the words out, but the arena cheered for Cowling and the masterclass he showed in this final, and his rivals who all put on a fantastic couple of days speedway action.

Unfortunately it wasn’t all celebrations when the drivers returned to the pit area for vehicle inspections, Osborne was called to a meeting with Speedway New Zealand and relegated two placings for contact during the race.

This turned the atmosphere in the pit area from celebrations to tension, with word spreading fast that there was also technical protests going on as well, leaving the results all in limbo.

Nothing seemed to come of the technical dramas and Osborne successfully overturned the relegation to see Cowling crowned champion ahead of Waddell in second and Osborne third.

Waddell was also awarded the fasted lap award, Lawson the Sportsmanship award and Trevor Elliot the Hard Charger award for the feature. 

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