Turakina's former 4x4 national champion and truck building guru Dan Cowper showed no signs of rust as he took a borrowed C-Class truck straight onto the podium at the third round of the national series in Hawke's Bay on Saturday.
Despite a year and half away from national competition, Cowper got behind the wheel of the Zook-Sport 4WD Rally Team truck as a favour to Tauranga driver Nathan Fogden, who did not attend the round due to his mother passing away.
Although having less power than the D-Class trucks, Cowper had an excellent day on the sun-baked course at Tangoio, near Tutira, as he completed the 30 hazards with only 474.66 penalty points, dominating C Grade and finishing second overall.
Auckland's D-Class driver Scott Biggs won his second overall round in a row with 416.69 penalty points, beating out 40 other truck entries.
Dargaville's Aaron Guest, who won the opening round but was off the pace at December's Huntly round, was back in form by finishing second in D-Class and third overall with 641.69 points.
Whanganui's defending D-Class champion Hamish Auret now unofficially leads the series after overcoming mishaps on the morning hazzards to have a very good second half of the day with only a handful of faults – finishing third in class and fourth overall with 676.9 points.
The previous leader in Manukau's Phil Walton had a horror day after a big roll caused engine trouble, leaving him with a DNF.
Having been asked by Fogden earlier in the week to take his place so his co-driver could get more experience, Cowper did not get behind the wheel until 7am on the morning of the event.
"I'd only driven it up the driveway when I built it," he said.
"It felt the same as the other trucks I've built, the only difference was the engine – 2.4 turbo Evo 9."
Normally competing with LS3 V8 engines, Cowper just had to get used to the "turbo lag".
"You put your foot to the floor and it doesn't have that same response.
"It does have a good hop, it was a very well built engine."
Despite less power, Cowper was leading overall by 20 points at the halfway mark, raising the possibility of becoming the first C-Class driver to win a national round outright ahead of the bigger D-Class trucks.
"Just straight back into it, really felt really comfortable right from the get go," he said.
"We had a good draw to start."
"It was the kind of truck you could win the outright title in. Definitely those Biggs boys are on fire."
Despite his comeback, Auret admitted it was Biggs and Cowper who were the form drivers, followed by daylight.
"Very hot and dry. It was just so rock hard and rock's caused damage," he said.
"The hazards were really hazards, I enjoyed it.
"Scott was in real good form again. Dan doesn't seem to forget how to drive."
Auret and co-driver Paul Barnes had accumulated over 476 penalty points from their morning session alone.
"Sometimes you get away with [engine] breakages, but where ours broke was at the 80 [points] mark.
"Just bad luck where it happened. We thought we were pretty much gone for the day."
Auret has been the most consistent driver again so far this campaign as the only one to finish in the top five of every round.
However, drivers can drop their worst round from the six round series from their final tally, so technically Biggs, Guest and Walton would be ahead of him currently under that premise.
"We're the only ones up there that have three results we can use," he said.
"They're not brilliant, but usable.
"I think we do need to put a couple of wins on the board."
Cowper could well be the spoiler on the points table, as he confirmed he is looking to enter at least two other rounds in his own D-Class truck, looking to contest the Central Zone section of the series.
"Got to keep those other Cowper Trucks on their game. There's a lot of variables, it's hard get a good run each time."
Auret said Cowper's return was good for the sport.
"It does help throw a spanner in the mix.
"It's all good, the more big trucks up there, the better."
Among the other Whanganui connections at Tangoio, Mike Gee-Taylor finished 12th in D-Class and 14th overall with 882.65 penalty points, while Grant Harrison was fifth in C-Class and 27th overall with 1198.55.