National midget car champion Michael Pickens was just a handful of laps short of total domination at the opening night of Baypark's 2012-13 speedway season on Saturday night.
With a clear lead in the closing stages of the 30-lap Top Half Midget Series feature race, Pickens detected an engine fault with his Aggressor-Esslinger and pulled the car off the racing line to park on the infield.
It handed the win to young Aucklander Chris Gwilliam, who had raced strongly into second place on his debut outing in a midget car and his first speedway race in two years.
Gwilliam, 23, had led early in the race and took over again after Pickens' exit. Driving a fast and consistent line, he was able to defend his lead on a final restart and build a buffer over three-time national champion Graham Standring, who finished second ahead of Alastair Wootten.
"I've had two years off from racing getting the money and sponsors together to race a midget," said Gwilliam, who previously raced in the TQ Midget class.
"This is my first meeting racing a midget and it's the perfect start. As I got more comfortable with the car I pushed harder and I felt like the car and the track came to me.
"The track was fast and smooth. It was everything you could ask for."
The display of driving by Auckland-based Pickens was world-class and among the most impressive seen in the 11-year history of the Baypark track.
His full-throttle commitment delivered two heat race wins - the first from the fourth row of the grid and heat two from deeper in the pack - and it took him seven laps to race from last in the 17-car field to the lead in the main event.
It's a shame the electronic lap scoring system packed up early in the night as Pickens would almost certainly have a lap record as some consolation.
For the fourth consecutive year - and the sixth time in nine years - the Baypark opening night sprint car honours were claimed by former national champ Jamie McDonald (Auckland).
"This car is all-new with a freshened engine and it's working. It feels stable and forgiving," said McDonald after his win.
"First night out it's about getting a bit of trust in the car and in the track as well.
"The track was fast and smooth but there was a pretty big kerb up on the high line. The last thing I wanted to do was run up into the kerb and put the car into the fence first time out."
McDonald led home New Plymouth racer Skinny Colson, with an excellent drive coming from Tauranga's Greg Kilworth, the best effort from the Baypark drivers.
Kilworth led in the early laps and held on to a podium finish ahead of Tokoroa's James Dahm.
The Tauranga-built Pro-X chassis Corvettes continue to be an emerging force in the saloon car ranks and smooth-driving Chris Cowling was able to lead home Steve Muir for a Pro-X quinella in the feature, with Brent McClymont chasing in third place.
Bryan Fraser and McClymont each won a heat race, while Muir was the most consistent driver in a tightly matched saloon field with two third placings before his runner-up finish in the feature.
Two races for the super saloons produced a first-up win for a spectacular Karl Hanlon, who fought past national champ Steve Flynn (Napier) in the opener, while Auckland's Craig Cardwell won the second race from Flynn and Hanlon. Also extending a record of early-season success at Baypark was Rotorua stock car driver Damian Orr, who claimed opening night feature race honours.