The driving ability that has earned two national titles, a fast new car and a sharp racing brain to read a changing track surface allowed Mt Maunganui's Brent Emerson to take control of the Pro Dirt Super Saloon Car Series event at Baypark Speedway on Saturday night.
Emerson backed up his recent third round win in Auckland to deliver a home track victory in his new Shelby Mustang and take a provisional lead in the seven round touring series.
"We've got a handle on this new car now," said Emerson.
"The car really likes a drier track and while we were okay in the first race the car got better as the night went on."
Emerson upgraded to the Shelby Mustang during the winter, buying the car he'd raced for Canterbury chassis builder John Lovelady at several events in the South Island last season.
"We changed it from a Falcon to a Mustang in the off-season and decided to keep it all Ford with a Cornett Ford engine we bought from Tony Cardwell," said Emerson.
"It has about 100 horsepower more than my old engine and it runs a carburettor and Avgas so you can carry less fuel [than methanol fuelled cars] and there's less weight transfer."
There was a 24-car grid for the Super Saloon races and it was Emerson and Aucklander Craig Cardwell who emerged from some exciting heat races and pole-shuffle as the front row starters.
"The first heat was okay and I started fourth and finished third," said Emerson.
Setting up the car to run the outside line in heat two positioned Emerson perfectly as he raced from grid 20 to sixth spot.
"There were a couple of moments when I got squeezed right out to the wall but I got through okay," he said.
Emerson's only error came in the final pole-shuffle duel against Cardwell.
"I stuffed up and ran wide and he got past me. But if I'd won I might have chosen to start on the outside anyway."
Emerson decided a car set-up for the lower line would be the best option in the 20-lap feature race and took the lead away from Cardwell on the third lap. His choice of line was confirmed when Ben Harding used the high line to charge up from grid seven to third spot but by mid-race the outside line wore away and Harding was no longer making progress.
Tauranga's Karl Hanlon was in contention early on and Wellington's Mark Pitcher was always in the leading bunch while US racer Jared Hawkins eventually battled through traffic from grid nine to reach second place on his final Baypark appearance.
"The car is showing its potential but I couldn't have caught him [Emerson]. He was too good," said Hawkins.
Pitcher was impressive on just his second outing in a new HyperMac chassis, qualifying third and racing wheel-to-wheel with Harding and Hawkins to finish third. Harding was fourth with national champ Steve Flynn (Napier) passing Hanlon for fifth on the final lap.
There was an impressive drive in the opening heat race by Tauranga's Kristin Vermeulen. Chased by national champs Flynn, Emerson and Steve Williams the 20-year-old was cool under pressure to deliver her best-ever Baypark drive.
Vermeulen was also making progress in the second heat when a cut left rear tyre ended her race. Otherwise it's likely she would have been securely into the hot competition of the top-six pole shuffle. She came home eighth in the feature race.
For racing quality the excitement of the feature race for saloon cars was at least a match for the more powerful super saloons with most of the 17-lapper being a four-way battle between the Cowling brothers, Michelle Wymer and Brent McClymont.
It was Steve Cowling who prevailed with a smartly judged drive. Fifth in the early going he passed McClymont, Wymer, Daniel Corrin and his younger brother Chris to claim his first Baypark feature race win.
It was an overdue win for Cowling who had come close a week earlier finishing second to McClymont in the 30-lapper and had some good efforts earlier in the season thwarted by overheating issues.
"I was a little bit annoyed last week because I led for 25 laps before Brent passed me," said Cowling.
"But I did it the harder way tonight starting sixth and passing Brent, Dan, Michelle and Chris. It's a good boost with the national champs [Cromwell] coming up next month."
Bradley Tyrrell (Mt Maunganui) made no contest of the sprint car feature race, taking the lead on the opening lap, setting the fastest lap and taking a commanding win from Colin Entwisle.
New Zealand Midget car champ Michael Pickens (Auckland) settled into his new sprint car campaign after an engine oil fire in the first heat. He started the feature from the back of the pack and drove through to fourth, which then became third when Greg Pickerill (Hamilton) was relegated one spot.