Super-veteran and racecar king Kenny Smith proved there's a hell of a lot of life left in the old dog yet. Smith began his 56th consecutive season in motor racing over the weekend at the 40th anniversary meet at the Manfeild circuit, where he competed when it was first established.
Smith owned the meeting by setting pole and taking three wins from three and setting a lap record to boot. You think he would have been satisfied with his performance at the opening round of the latest F5000 Tasman Cup Revival Series, but no.
One of the reasons Smith has had such a highly successful motor sport career is the drive he has to go faster. And at 72 there's no sign he's ready to take the easy road just yet. By setting the lap record he's finally beaten the time lifelong friend and original rival Graeme Lawrence set in 1976.
While chuffed with getting one over his old mate, Smith reckons if and when the conditions are right again, he could go even quicker.
"I said on the night of the Manfeild 40-year anniversary dinner that I could beat the record and now I have," said Smith.
Smith says Lawrence's original F5000 category benchmark of a 1.01.900 was set in his then new Lola T332 at the third Manfeild International meeting (a round of the Peter Stuyvesant Series Smith went on to win) in 1976 and was the benchmark for all classes at the 3.033km Feilding circuit until Simon Wills bettered it with 1.01.457) in a Reynard Formula Holden in 2000.
By recording a 1.01.770 in the second MSC Series race of the weekend on Sunday morning, however, Smith finally bettered Lawrence's long-standing category benchmark and was bullish about his prospects of going even quicker.
"I think there is a minute flat in that car. It was just magic today and the track was nice and grippy this morning. If it had stayed that way we might have been able to do it in the afternoon, but it didn't so that's a job for another day," said Smith.
Although both Smith and Jonny Reid have gone considerably quicker during demo runs (Smith has done a 57 second lap in the Leyton House March Formula 1 car he owned and Reid went under the minute in a demo behind the wheel of A1 Team New Zealand's A1GP car), neither time has been recognised, meaning Wills' ultimate record is safe for now.
Smith and the ex-Danny Ongais' Lola T332, rebuilt and run by a crew headed by Smith's long-time crew chief Barry Miller, was the class of the 13-strong field with Andrew Higgins qualifying second quickest and following his mentor home in each race in his ex-Vel's Parnelli Jones team-owned Lola T400.
Each race followed a broadly similar pattern with Smith getting the jump on Higgins before establishing and maintaining a sizeable gap. Higgins, who at early rounds of the Australian series this year has matched and at times been able to better Smith's race pace, in turn had the edge over third quickest qualifier Ian Clements and his fellow Lola T332 drivers Roger Williams and Russell Greer.
In the first two races Williams got the jump on Clements with the order at the flag Smith, Higgins, Williams, Clements and Brett Willis.
Russell Greer, driving the Lola T332 in which Graeme Lawrence set the original class lap record in 1976, was running with Williams and Clements early in the first race before stopping with gear selection issues while Sefton Gibb (Lola T332) had to work his way from the back row of the grid in the first race after breaking a half-shaft when qualifying.
Gibb then worked his way from the back row of the grid to eighth in the first race, finished seventh in the second, then parlayed a strong start in the 12-lap feature final to cross the line in a weekend-best fourth place behind Smith, Higgins and Roger Williams.
The feature race was the best from a spectator's point of view with Williams, Gibb, Ian Clements and Russell Greer battling for third through seventh places until the final lap when, as Clements tried to find a way past Gibb for fourth, Greer ran into the back of Clements' car at the hairpin as he made a bid for fifth.
That put Clements' car off the track where it stayed, but Greer was able to continue and take the flag half a lap later, albeit back in seventh behind Gibb, Willis and Aaron Burson.
After a break of a month and a half, MSC NZ F5000 Tasman Cup Revival Series action will return at the two New Zealand Festival of Motor Racing meetings at Hampton Downs over consecutive weekends in late January.