Leading New Zealand speedway driver Michael Pickens has been sensationally banned from racing for manhandling an official and will miss the entire International Sprint Car Series in which he was likely to be New Zealand's leading driver.
The incident occurred on the Opening Night meeting on Friday November 1 in which Pickens was contesting both the midget and sprint car feature races – the final two races of the night.
As he jumped from his midget car, Pickens noticed his brakes were on fire and he approached a nearby marshal to ask for a fire extinguisher. He clearly placed a hand on the marshal as he yells for help.
Pickens was under time pressure to literally jump straight into his sprint car for the next race.
A Speedway New Zealand judicial panel found him guilty of manhandling an official and this week handed him a 22-day ban that will put him out of the upcoming International Sprint Car Series, which sees the best drivers from New Zealand take on international opponents from the United States and Australia. The International Sprint Car Series starts on December 7 with the final on December 14.
"I am blown away," Pickens told the Herald. "Speedway New Zealand have fixed penalties but it doesn't always fit the circumstances and I think it sure as hell doesn't fit this circumstance.
"My car was on fire and I was simply trying to get someone's attention to put it out and I tapped the guy's shoulder to say, "come on let's get moving here" and it has resulted in a 22-day stand down.
"It is surprising to say the least."
He first learned that he was in hot water on the night but had no idea it would blow up to such significant proportions.
"Directly after the meeting on the night the head official called me into the office and told me there had been a complaint made," Pickens said. "They all understood the situation and the circumstances of the night. I explained that it was heat of the moment and more of a come on let's get moving here rather than manhandling like the complaint had described.
"It wasn't handled properly by Speedway New Zealand on the night, which means it has now gone to a board meeting that happened yesterday. So that means my 22 days stand down started yesterday.
"I can make an appeal and I will make an appeal just out of principle.
"It is a cost of $2000 to me. Bill Buckley, the promoter of Western Springs, has very kindly offered to pay half of it, which is really neat to have his support.
"If that is the standard they are setting then I think we are in trouble. Doing what I did, it just seems unfair."
Pickens had an unlikely ally with Speedway New Zealand. The official he made contact with wrote a letter of support for the driver.
"He wrote a letter to support my case with Speedway New Zealand," Pickens explained. "He outlined that it wasn't a push or shove but rather a tap on the shoulder to get something sorted. He said in his letter that a 22-day stand down was too harsh for the crime as such.
"Unfortunately Speedway New Zealand have seen it a different way."
Speedway New Zealand said the penalty was in line with their regulations.
"The fixed penalty schedule was born from competitors seeking consistency in the application of penalties. The sport has the same expectations and standards on conduct for a 12 year old Ministock driver all the way through to a defending National Champion.
"Of importance, sport in NZ is struggling for volunteers. Regardless of the circumstances, it is not acceptable for the 3000 or more volunteers that enable Speedway racing to occur every weekend throughout the summer to be subjected to any form of physical or verbal abuse."
Pickens' absence will be felt by the whole speedway community. He is New Zealand's best driver and a major attraction for fans.
"It is absolutely gutting for me personally but not only that I have a crew of guys for both the midget and sprint car, we have corporate sponsors with CRC industries and other brands that help us out so to have the cars sitting on the side lines in really disappointing. And for the fans – I have a neat following and a lot of people come to support us and for them to miss out is gutting for everyone."
Pickens is currently racing in the United States – taking part in the famous Turkey Night Grand Prix in California.