Motorsport: New challenges lie ahead

By Colin Smith

Saturday night's speedway meeting at Baypark will bring a change of focus for New Zealand's top international speedway racer.

Aucklander Michael Pickens - the reigning four-time New Zealand midget car champion - will race a sprint car for the first time since a brief campaign during the 2006-07 season.

"The car is the one that Jonathan Allard started this season in and it's basically his spare car," said Pickens.

"We've only got three more meetings left at Western Springs this season and the New Zealand midget car title at Christchurch, so this is a new challenge for me.

"The plan is to run a sprint car full-time next season and only race a midget during the international series and New Zealand champs," he said.

Pickens, who just turned 30, completed his international midget car campaign at Auckland's Western Springs last week, finishing runner-up in the four-round World Series to young American star Kyle Larson. The last time Pickens raced a sprint car was for Ashburton's Gerard Ness during the 2006-07 season.

"I think I drove it three or four times at Baypark and also twice at Western Springs," said Pickens. "They are totally different to drive.

"The wing on the sprint car is the biggest difference and it means you drive them much straighter. You also use the brakes a lot more."

Pickens' appearance in a sprint car adds another element of interest to a meeting that is shaping up as one of the highlights of the Baypark calendar, with a strong field assembled for the fourth of seven rounds in the touring Burger King Pro-Dirt super saloon car series.

The three rounds completed so far have seen Wellington's Donald Gregory taking a home track victory at the opening round, while defending champ Ben Harding (Auckland) won at Rotorua in December and Tauranga's Brent Emerson won the the most recent round at Auckland's Waikaraka Park.

Official point standings after round three are yet to be posted but the results from the Auckland round saw the top of the leaderboard close up, with Gregory leading from national champ Steve Flynn (Napier), and Emerson moving up into third place ahead of Aucklander Nigel Mouat and Tauranga's Kristin Vermeulen.

Other top contenders include Auckland's Ben Harding - who missed the opening round - along with Craig Cardwell (Auckland), Steve Williams (Kumeu), Grant Flynn (Napier) and Martin Halcrow (Wellington).

The addition of local drivers, including the in-form Gavin Dyer (Tauranga) and Mark Hutchins (Waihi), boosts the Pro-Dirt field for Saturday and US visitor Jared Hawkins will make his final appearance, driving the late-model style super saloon of Tauranga's Maurice Cowling.

Hawkins' campaign has been literally up and down and saw a heavy crash on December 29, followed by a major rebuild of the chassis and front suspension, before a winning return to the track when he claimed feature race honours at Baypark last Saturday night.

- Bay of Plenty Times

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