Christchurch unlimited-class offroad racer Owen Chang has become the youngest-ever national champion in the history of the sport.
Chang, 27, won his national class title with four class wins and one third placing over two days of racing at West Melton near Christchurch during the weekend. He survived a frightening near-rollover in the GT Radial Ford Falcon and completed seven laps of the 15 km endurance course before the organisers declared the race on safety grounds.
“Saturday was fantastic, the short course at West Melton is great to race on and the truck really handles the jumps very well.Sunday was quite scary because it was really dusty. You had to go as hard as you could but we really couldn’t see anything except when the wind dragged the dust away from the road. The organisers made the right decision when they pulled the pin,” he said afterward.
The year-long championship campaign has been supported by dad Bryan and a close-knit group of mates who have helped prepare the truck, which was the first to be built to American Prolite design blueprints and remains one of the few to retain a second seat for a navigator.
Competing against the fastest trucks in New Zealand, Chang first won the southern regional title across three rounds in April, June and August, which brought him to the final with a maximum 72 points and 20 bonus points for running in all three rounds.
Then in the short course racing on Saturday, Chang was up against the championship contenders from throughout New Zealand including Justin Leonard who won the northern regional title in his V8 Chev Silverado, Michael Cox of Rotorua in his American built ‘Prolite’ Toyota Hilux V8 and Gavin Storer of Christchurch in his 4.0-litre V6 engined four wheel drive Prolite Hilux.
The GT Radial truck but consistently beat the more powerful truck off the start, meaning Chang was able to simply drive away from his rivals over ensuing laps in each heat. His drop from first to third in one heat was after being tapped from behind by Mike Cox and spinning the Falcon ute across the dividing tyre wall.
“The truck tipped up on two wheels and could have gone over, but I just kept the accelerator on the floor and steered it through then spun her round to go back onto the track,” he said afterward.
Class nine Baja driver Maurice Bain had taken a clean sweep of his heats and would carry a points advantage through intoSunday’s racing. Chang said he was mainly focussed on his in-class standings and aiming to stay ahead of Cox, Leonard and Gavin Storer.
In Sunday’s enduro, Chang qualified far ahead of his rivals and rose to a podium finish despite the hazardous racing conditions. High winds had stripped the forest course of any hint of moisture and dried the silty soils to a flour-like consistency.
“The dust we kicked up was thicker than fog, and we had to hold off a bit but when it was blown away we were able to give the pace a push. When we started lapping slower cars it got very difficult. Tricky stuff but it was the most exciting drive of the year for sure.”
With Nevil Basalaj leading the race, there was no chance to go for the outright race win but Chang needed to stay well clear of his class rivals and make sure of a good finish. Both Mike Cox and Justin Leonard were watching for any sign of weakness from the GT Radial truck.
“Man it was tough out there. We even came up on Tony McCall in the dust and got past him – he’s an offroad racing legend!”
With the race stopped at half distance due to the dust hazard, Chang emerged national champion ahead of Polaris racer Ben Thomasen and Nelson unlimited class race car driver Ashley Kelly. Tony McCall was fourth. In the unlimited class trucks, Mike Cox followed Chang home and was sixth in the championship; Justin Leonard was ninth.
Chang’s win marks only the second time a truck-class competitor has been national champion. Andrew Thomasen was the first, taking the title in 2007 in his four wheel drive Toyota Tundra V8.