Following two nights of international open wheel racing in December it was the local stars of Baypark Speedway who turned on the best wheel-to-wheel excitement of the summer on Saturday night.
The Tauranga duo of Chris Cowling and Sam Waddell were the front runners in the annual 30-lap South Pacific Gold Cup super saloon car feature, a race that has been staged under multiple titles since its inception at the original Baypark track in the 1970s.
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Chris Cowling took the victory ahead of defending champ Waddell in a 30-lapper that saw the duelling pair trading moves and positions.
Waddell led the early laps while Cowling played a longer game and waited to challenge. The middle stages of the race delivered superb super saloon racing with the front runners either door-to-door or nose-to-tail and at one point they split either side of a lapped car entering the first turn.
After two caution periods at mid-distance Cowling gained control to edge away from Waddell who came under pressure in the closing laps from Tauranga's Scott Hayward.
Throughout their duel there was just enough racing room between the leaders.
"Battling with Sam, racing side-by side was really cool. He's a class act and two boys battling it out on their home track was pretty neat," Cowling said.
"I was biding my time thinking we would be better later on in the race. He was good for quite a while and I just had to be patient because 30 laps is a long race. The car was good at the end and we were able to sneak away a little bit."
Both searched the high and low lines on a patchy track but Cowling settled on the shorter way around the oval and made some well-judged moves through the lapped cars to win by 3.2s.
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"The top of the race rack definitely went away but Chris is an ace in those conditions and he's the one to beat in those last few laps," Waddell said.
"We have started the last three features on the front row together. We know we will give each other room and the respect is there so you can always run hard and clean."
Hayward moved up from grid seven and was close enough to threaten Waddell in the closing laps while national champion Steve Cowling, Dan Corrin and Bodie Abrahamson completed the top six.
The event attracted a 22-car field and there were highlights in the heat races including Corrin making an outside pass around Waddell to win the first heat and strong pace from Matt Smith (Thames) to win heat two.
There was a side-by-side lead battle between Waddell and Steve Cowling in heat three and a strong run from Caitlin Hayward, who came within a couple of laps of winning heat four before Chris Cowling powered past.
The sprint car feature saw Tauranga's Rodney Wood in control for the first part of the 15 laps but Auckland racer Daniel Rodgers never gave up the chase and made an inside pass that turned out to be the winning move.
There's a big fortnight ahead for the sprint car drivers with the NZ Championship on Saturday January 11 at Palmerston North while Baypark hosts the NZ Grand Prix on January 18.
The other Saturday night feature race winners were Rotorua's Regan Tyler and Mike Herbert in the Youth Mini Stocks and Stock Cars respectively while Boyd Westbury claimed his second Six Shooter feature win of the season at Baypark.