Rich field of riders makes picking who'll blitz the champs a tough call, writes Andy McGechan
It combines horsepower with heroics, demands boldness and bravery, couples speed with stamina and mixes torque with technique ... it is the motorcycle community's annual New Zealand TT Championships.
TT racing is like superbike racing on soil instead of tarmac.
The racing is off-road and the competitors use dirt bikes but, unlike motocross, there are no steep hills nor jumps to slow things down - and a combination of icy grass, deep ruts and high speed should make for very close, exciting action on the flat, natural terrain course near Kuratau, at the southern tip of Lake Taupo, this Saturday and Sunday.
The entry list includes the stars of motocross, cross-country, enduro and even road-racing, all terrain vehicles (ATV) and super motards. They will hit eye-watering speeds at this 14th annual national TT championships.
Wairarapa's Mason Wilkie dominated this event last season, winning five from five starts in the premier bike class, but he has since moved from Masterton to Christchurch and work commitments will keep him from making the trip north.
Wilkie was pushed all the way last season by Waitakere's Ethan Martens, while Taupo's former national TT champion, Brad Groombridge, and Paraparaumu's Jesse Donnelly also featured and it's likely to be the same group of riders who battle it out at the Bike Torque-sponsored event this time as well.
Former motocross world champion Ben Townley, of Tauranga, will rate as a fresh favourite, despite this being his first crack at the event.
Overseas commitments kept 2012 national MX1 champion Townley away from the TT champs in the past, but, after recently announcing his retirement from international motocross, he is now free to make his TT debut.
Other top national-level riders such as BikesportNZ.com's Scotty Canham, of Rotorua, Otorohanga's Hayden Kanters, Auckland's James Ainsworth, Upper Hutt's Jayden Jessup, New Plymouth's Mitch Rowe, Ngatea's Luke Temple, Atiamuri's Dion Picard, Ohaupo's Campbell Bailey, Masterton's Sam Pottinger and Whanganui super motard hero Glen Haden should also feature among the leaders.
In the premier ATV class, Amberley's Ian Ffitch was the big winner last season.
Although he was pushed all the way, a cool head under pressure gave the vastly experienced 43-year-old the advantage where it counted and he won the final race of the weekend to snatch the title ahead of Rotorua's Jason Jepson and Stratford's Camo Keegan.
"I'm determined to win again, although I'll be on a different bike this time around," says Ffitch.
"It's a $45,000 custom-built bike, basically a Honda TRX250R two-stroke with an after-market chassis. It was a weapon in its day, back in 1999, but, to be honest, it probably won't be competitive against the 450cc bikes in the open class.
"I'm not planning on coming up from the South Island to run around in 10th place but I may have to settle for second or third. We'll just have to wait and see how it works out."
Organised by Taumarunui Motorcycle Club, the venue will be signposted from the Western Bay Rd turn-off, Kuratau Junction, State Highway 41 and State Highway 32.