Tauranga’s Ben Thomasen wasn’t keen on crashing through 10mm-thick ice in his Polaris RZR 1000, but he did what was required at the two-day 2014 Total Lubricants New Zealand Endurance Championship held at Dovedale over the weekend.
The event is the toughest offroad race on the 2014 New Zealand competition calendar, and bitterly cold days with sub-zero overnight temperatures made things extra challenging for the majority of the drivers, whose vehicles are open to the elements.
Thomasen won in emphatic fashion, starting with pole position in qualifying on Saturday morning and following through into a determined drive when the flag dropped at 11.00 am that morning. Though the Polaris four wheel drives are light and agile and have excellent grip, Thomasen said the day-long near-zero temperatures with 120 km/h windchill and the tight, challenging hill course in pine forests made for a constant challenge.
“It was very, very cold out there in the wind and the ice in the valleys basically never went away, so I was ducking down behind the car’s single wind deflector a lot but the course was so tight I really had to work hard to stay on the road.”
A succession of icy water splashes and creek crossings soon soaked the drivers of all but the lone production-class race truck of Lucinda Maynard and Mike Hay and the challenge truck class Jeep of Wellington’s Don Morgan, which retain a windscreen and heater. The drivers in the nine-strong ‘UTV’ class entry – Thomasen going up against seasoned offroad racers – were completely exposed to the chunks of ice that flew up off the puddles as they completed each 42 km lap.
“I got a face-full on one lap and just about couldn’t breathe!”
Thomasen said his crew joked afterward that he had completed his own Ice Challenge, referring to the fundraising craze sweeping the internet over the past month.
Polaris, Can Am and Arctic Cat race cars are the latest class sanctioned for competition by the sport’s governing body. All-wheel-drive, engines that have excellent mid-range torque and car designs that are strong and light are their key advantages, though they are limited by their relatively short range and a top speed substantially less than the big unlimited class cars and trucks: 120 km/h vs up to 200 km/h.
The battle on the first day quickly became a David and Goliath affair with Thomasen fending off other UTV-class teams and the might of the unlimited class entries. Six of New Zealand’s fastest class one offroad race teams were entered in the event, three from the North Island and the others from Nelson. Only Nelsonians Nevil Basalaj and Ashley Kelly were able to bring the fight to Thomasen.
Behind Thomasen as the first day of racing reached middle distance, local driver Kelly was striving to chase down the flying Polaris, but was slowed by a flat tyre and then power steering problems.
Winton’s Roger McKay in another Polaris was battling Kelly for second on the road by the end of the first day, Kelly narrowly edging him out. Nevil Basalaj had recovered from an abysmal qualifying sprint that saw him start toward the rear of the field and was pushing the big Jimco Chev through to catch the leaders.
Aucklander Ernie Hogg was also looking to claw his way up through the field in The General, his two-seater Scorpion Chev race car, but found the tighter sections of the course a challenge. As did the race’s international entry, ex-pat Kiwi Mike Hughes. His massive V8 engined Ford F150 was up against the Nissan Safari V8 of Carter Strang and the V8 supercharged Toyota Hilux of Paul Preston. All three were keen to stay on the same lap as leader Thomasen, but Hughes’ unlimited-class challenge was not helped by two flat tyres and an off-track excursion late in the race. He was extricated from the trees by Lucinda Maynard in her production class Toyota Landcruiser.
By mid-afternoon the first day of racing belonged to an elated Thomasen, who had managed to fight off the big unlimited-class race cars and the throng of UTVs despite having to pit for fuel after three of the day’s six laps. He took the chequered flag after 250 km with the fuel warning light blinking on the dash of his Polaris.
At Sunday’s restart, Thomasen had Ashley Kelly, Roger McKay and another Nevil Basalaj, crowding his rear bumper. McKay started third and shot past Kelly but then the superior power of Kelly’s Cougar VW saw him regain second, while Basalaj’s massive Jimco was close behind McKay and the Nelson driver was looking for a way past.
Kelly then made a wild overtaking charge in the fast road sections, but slid wide and rolled the Cougar into the trees. It was the end of his race.
Roger McKay retook second and set off after Thomasen, who had stretched out a lead of almost a minute by the end of the lap. Basalaj was close behind but the battle for second between the pair meant Thomasen was able to preserve his lead and ease off the pace slightly, conserving fuel. He made his scheduled fuel stop and the third lap of the day and was out in front of Basalaj, who had pitted at the same time.
Many of the other drivers in the class were being slowed by punctures.
The sole Arctic Cat in the class, Donald Preston’s Wildcat, developed a misfire and he stopped on the track.
There were no such problems out the front as Thomasen continued to extend his lead and attrition reduced the field to ten cars or less.
“The second day was great because we knew we could do three laps okay, so I was watching the fuel consumption. But then in the final three Roger was closing in on me so I had to push a bit harder. That was a bit tricky, but I didn’t want him to get past,” he said.
The race was decided in Thomasen’s favour with one lap to run when McKay dropped back with a deflating rear tyre. He overshot the pit entrance and was forced to continue on the failing tyre, stopped and changed it and then had the opposite rear tyre also go flat.
Thomasen flew through the final lap and took the chequered flag to the obvious delight of his pit crew. At the pits, Thomasen was quietly confident he would have enough time advantage to take the event victory. The race is on accumulated time over the two 250 km legs.
McKay’s flat tyres had dropped him behind Nevil Basalaj on the road and Basalaj was second car through the finish line on the Sunday. The time deficit between Basalaj and McKay meant the local would have to be happy with a well-deserved third place while McKay was safely second overall.
Thomasen was the only driver to go under eight hours for the race distance of 500 km: he completed his winning run in 7 hours, 52 minutes. It is the first major endurance title won by UTVs in New Zealand offroad racing, though Thomasen served notice of the race-winning potential of the new class and the Polaris RZR when he won last year’s Gwavas 250.
A total of 30 drivers entered the 2014 Total Lubricants NZ Enduro Championship which was presented in association with Greg Winn Contracting.
Click the following link to view the final results from the 2014 Total Lubricants New Zealand Enduro Champs: