Chris Rattue is a sports columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

Speedway ace Michael Pickens reflects on highs and lows behind the wheel

It has been a year of triumph and tragedy for Michael Pickens, the 33-year-old star of Auckland speedway. Photo / Dean Purcell.
It has been a year of triumph and tragedy for Michael Pickens, the 33-year-old star of Auckland speedway. Photo / Dean Purcell.

It has been a year of triumph and tragedy for Michael Pickens, the 33-year-old star of Auckland speedway.

The six-time national midget car champion finally grabbed the Australian title he coveted with victory at Parramatta. But in August, former team mate Bryan Clauson - the outstanding and versatile American who had tremendous success on frequent visits downunder - died after a race accident in Kansas. Clauson, among opponents Pickens loved to race most, was due to return to Auckland this summer to compete in midget and sprint cars.

With the latest Western Springs speedway programme underway, the Herald visited Pickens at his day job - the Avondale pipeline firm where he works in sales - to talk about his career past and present.

The highlight last season?
Winning the Australian midget car title. I was the first Kiwi to do it, a race I've been trying to win for a long time. We were actually leading in 2011 (at Lismore, NSW) with one lap to go and blew a right rear tyre.

That was gut wrenching. You've flown all that way, the build up, qualifying the previous night...a lot goes into getting into that position. To defend that title this season would be really great but I take it one race at a time. We go into a season trying to win as many races as we can.

How has your driving style changed over the years?
You get wiser, pick and choose the passes, rather than be a typical gung-ho young man. A lot of it is about slowing down and not making mistakes. From early on I had reasonable speed and was fortunate to be around the right people who could teach me the right things.

What gives a driver natural speed?
Trust me...I've tried to work it out and I can't. You either have it or you don't. There's a young American guy who came out here, Kyle Larson, who is now in NASCAR. He is one in a million, an absolute natural whatever he gets into - speedway, NASCAR, Supercars, whatever. And he couldn't tell you why. It's a tenth of a second a lap or something crazy, but at a level where everyone is good that's all it takes.

Your career highlight?
Testing for Roush Fenway in a NASCAR Craftsman truck. It was part of a 2005 TV series called The Gong Show on the Discovery Channel. There were about 1600 applicants, 25 made the cut and it finished with 12 drivers at Arlington. Unfortunately I had zero pavement experience before that. In a dirt car, you slide it, slipping the tyres most of the time. Asphalt is the direct opposite. I was able to beat people I should not have and finished fifth, but Roush Fenway didn't want to invest in someone with no pavement experience. I got a development deal but it didn't lead to anything.

How did you get into racing?
There was no history in my family. I grew up on a farm in Coatesville (near Albany) and rode dirt bikes. When we moved to Auckland I pestered my parents for a go-kart which I raced at Rosebank Rd. There is a little speedway there and one day they had the quarter midgets, I had a few laps...

What is your major aim?
It was always to drive in NASCAR but I'm too old now. I was too old even when I tested for Roush. I needed to be in my teens. I tried to turn it into a career...I still race in America but it's an enjoyable hobby these days.

Bryan Clauson.
I always looked forward to racing him. I knew him well and we were reasonably good friends. It is super sad to lose a friend...on the personal side it is soul destroying. On the professional side, you can't let it affect you. Bryan was really professional, and he did it for a living. He did a lot for others off the track with charity work and that sort of thing. That was pretty inspirational - motorsport is quite a selfish sport.

Top speedway driver Michael Pickens with his race car at their workshop in Avondale. Photo / Dean Purcell.
Top speedway driver Michael Pickens with his race car at their workshop in Avondale. Photo / Dean Purcell.

Have you ever been scared?
I've had big crashes but you've got to get back on the horse again. As soon as you are scared, you are done. I've had no major injuries - it is more the G forces that knock you around. My first big crash probably sticks out, made it seem more real. It gave me red eye, when the blood vessels burst in the white part of your eye. I was young and dumb - we were comfortably leading the feature but back then it was always hammer down, 100 per cent or nothing.

Have you ever used a sports psychologist?
Some guys do but I never have. If you need that, you are in the wrong game. You can teach speed to a certain extent maybe, but you can't teach winning. I love winning. It's like the biggest shot of adrenaline imaginable. It's not just about the driver, but for everyone else involved in the team. It's an incredible feeling crossing the line, probably like when an addict takes a shot of heroin I'd imagine. When you beat the best in the business, say in the international series, it is even more satisfying.

The Western Springs track has been re-laid to remove the dust issues...
And the shape of the track has also been changed to create progressive banking (where the higher line through turns has more banking) in line with overseas. It should make the racing more interesting for the fans. The thing with dirt racing is it is changing all the time anyway, which is what makes it so neat to watch. The moisture content, how they prepare the track, how many cars are running...there are a lot of variables.

Is noise/neighbours still an issue at Western Springs?
Essentially, it's about what muffler we have to run. It's about as quiet as you can get without affecting the performance. We've done it for 10 years now...your lawnmower would be louder. I don't think the neighbours are ever happy though. We had 12,000 people at the first meeting this season so there is public support for the stadium. Very few speedways in the world have the history of Western Springs, and nowhere would you get that many people at a dirt track. It would be hard for them to shift it. We're limited to 12 meetings a season there - I wish there were more.

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