By Rob Arnold
Steve and Chris Cowling may have lacked the absolute pace displayed by some of their rivals, but a series of solid reliable drives earned them the right to annex two of the three spots on the podium at the end of two nights of hard fought competition at the Made In Metal NZ Super Saloon Championship at Huntly PlaceMakers Speedway on Jan 11 and 12.
Going into the championship such was the depth of talent in the 41 cars that sat in the infield on a searing hot Waikato summer’s evening prior to the first round of three qualifying heats on Friday night it would be a brave person to predict the final outcome.
Only when they hit the track we started to get some more concrete pointers on whom to watch out for in the winner take all 25 lap final 24 hours later. Steve Cowling in the 37M and brother Chris in the 27M were models of reliability, both posting top six finishes in all their heats but not really stealing the show. 2NZ Sam Waddell looked impressive in all his races, as did 21N Ian Burson, who was looking a real threat last time Huntly hosted this event in 2010 when a DNF in a early championship heat cruelly put him out of the running.
Others to look good on night one were 24P Martin Halcrow, who crashed out in a runoff for the championship with fellow Wellingtonian Geoff James when Huntly first hosted the NZ Championship in 1998 in his best effort for some time, likewise for 63A Nigel Mouat who really got the bit between the teeth to remind seasoned fans of some gusty efforts in the 2013-15 timeframe. 58C Richie Taylor and 5B Steve Flynn looked there or thereabouts as did 492T Campbell McManaway, 2000 NZ Champion 21W Donald Gregory and 6C Kane Lawson, while several more such as 3NZ Mark Osborne, 8H Craig Cardwell and 19M Matthew Smith while doing enough to collect enough points to be in the top 16 to directly qualify for the championship final, weren’t able to fully display their true ability.
Others such as defending NZ Champion Terry Corin, 124M Dan Corrin [no relation] 99A Shane McInteer, (performing very well for someone with a limited budget) and 17C Ryan Marsden, last year’s NZ Saloon Champion while able to post strong finishes from the front of the grid simply were not able to make any ground from their rear grid slots. The same could be said for 46E Paddy North and 26E Shane McIntyre, while fellow Blenheim trackmate 11E Peter Dickson and 23P Mick Quin, both former NZ Champions, simply had no luck at all.
The action on the Friday was fast and furious with the exception of one messy race, fairly clean with minimal cautions with a good amount of overtaking taking place. There was grip available on the outside lane but it was a difficult groove to master, some able to make it work for them, others didn’t.
Saturday was another scorching hot day that brought in a huge crowd in anticipation of an equally hot night of action on the track. Though technical problems outside of Huntly’s direct control saw the meeting start half an hour later than originally planned, that’s exactly what we got, aided immensely from the cut and thrust action from a full field of Stockcars, Youth Ministocks had a lot of hitting from what should be a non contact class and even the Superstocks which by and large had a quiet night in terms of aggression did have one big moment when 8H Stefan Roigard had a big rollover in the opening heat.
While the effects of 27 degree heat coupled with 41 big tyred Super Saloons two nights on the trot was a bit too much for the track surface to handle in that using the outside groove was extremely difficult it was a reflection of track preparer Red Wooton’s ability that it didn’t take rubber until the 25 lap final.
This meant a night of changing fortunes for some drivers, as they slipped down the point’s chart, unable to make ground from the rear, Halcrow the biggest loser to drop out of the top 20. Conversely others such as 6B Grant Flynn, struggling by his usual standards as too was 7M Brent Emerson who was nowhere near the pace that landed him the 1NZ the last time Huntly hosted NZ Champs in 2010, both pulled rabbits from the hat in their final heats to make the top 16. 8K Craig Korff and son Thomas in the 16K, both having a DNF each posted solid results to get high grid spots for their repercharges
Indeed this created a very congested points table prior to the fifth and final round of heats with several drivers tied at the bottom end of the top 20 which did create some protests and the use of fastest laps to break up ties, both of which took time, and is the only real flaw in the otherwise excellent 5 heat format used this weekend and the previous NZ titles.
At the end of the five heats the pacesetters on night one remained at the top with Steve and Chris Cowling on the front row with Burson and Mouat, on row two. Taylor and Steve Flynn were next, followed by McManaway and Waddell, who lost a bit of ground on night two, with Osborne and Lawson, another unable to live up to his Friday night form completing the top ten. Cardwell and Gregory, unable to keep his mojo in the early heats were next, followed by Emerson and 34T Ray Stewart, who drove solidly if somewhat invisible with Steve Flynn and Smith completing the top 16, Smith claiming his spot at the eleventh hour at the expense of Terry Corin after a late adjustment of final points.
The first of two repercharges, the first two in each qualifying for the final was one of high drama which lasted around 25 minutes. Much of the time was taken sorting out the aftermath of a collision between 9W Mark Pitcher, who showed flashes of brilliance but unable to string it together for the whole weekend careened into 92M Scott Hayward at the first corner.
124M Dan Corin led from flag to flag to claim his spot in the final while North couldn’t capitalise on his P2 grid spot and slipped out of contention, likewise for Thomas Korff from P4 when an experimental setup failed to fly while 96A Lance Jennings having not had the rub of the green in qualifying simply flew from the third row in an inspired effort to secure the second berth ahead of a really switched on Shane McIntyre who finally showed us why he is a double NZ Champion to be within Jennings‘ back bumper at the end of the race. Sadly it bought no reward and had he shown that kind of pace much earlier, the double NZ Champion would have easily made the final 20.
In the second repercharge 24A Ben Harding led from pole position to make the finals grid along with Craig Korff who made a little history to become the first Kihikihi car to make a NZ Championship final since Dunedin 1996.
This set the scene for the 25 lap final, a race that promised much but in terms of wheel to wheel combat fell a little flat, but this is from the perspective of a seasoned fan, those in the crowd that don’t normally go to speedway still found it every enjoyable.
Steve Cowling from pole position led from flagfall with Brother Chris giving chase, shadowing him looking to make a move later, Burson several car lengths behind having the same idea.
The real action was further down the order as Harding from the very rear was really flying making several impressive outside passes to be around 14th and at that kind of pace a top five finish was definitely a possibility. Conversely Mouat, his stablemate in his racing team had a horror run, going backwards from the start to retire, and his first real shot of an NZ title turned to dust.
Harding wasn’t able to maintain that pace as the outside groove got very hard to use and lost the ground he made and crashed out which created the first caution after a long spell under green from the start, just as the leaders were about to lap a whole gaggle of cars which was to make things very interesting.
The race lost some of its sparkle after that, not helped by another caution not long after when Gregory and Cardwell tangled. Chris Cowling simply not having quite the pace to take the fight to his brother, Burson unable to challenge, and in fact was coming under heavy pressure from Steve Flynn in the final laps, the only one of the leaders able to make a serious attempt to pass, but the Nelsonian held on to take a well earned 3NZ. For Steve Cowling it was the icing on the cake to a near perfect weekend and after seeing him win the NZ Saloon Champion in the past, it only seemed a matter of time before he replicated this in these beasts, and the way Chris drove, it will surely come his way sooner rather than later.
Flynn was a solid fourth followed by Taylor, Osborne making up for a relatively poor run in qualifying to finish a strong fifth. Waddell faded over the race to be a slightly disappointing sixth ahead of Lawson. Korff drove strongly along with take advantage of the moderately high attrition rate to finish a career high eighth from the very back the best finish for a Kihikihi car since Dean Waddell’s 2NZ in 1996 at with McManaway and Emerson completing the top ten.
Smith, Steve Flynn and Stewart completed the list of finishers, the rest on the DNF list.
While the Made In Metals 2019 Super Saloons may not have quite seen the spectacle expected at the business end of the weekend, it certainly has signalled that after a couple of seasons getting to speed, the Cowling brothers have achieved the success they had had in saloons that seemed just a matter of time replicated in this class. With time on their side, what more could they achieve in the years ahead?