Leading Kiwi speedway star Michael Pickens ushered in the new season with a superb performance on the opening night of the Springs Speedway season on Friday night.
In front of the largest opening night crowd in recent memory, Pickens won the sprint car feature in dominant fashion while he narrowly missed out on claiming a double with victory in the midget feature. He eventually dropped to third as the chequered flag came down.
Hayden Williams claimed a superb breakthrough win having snuck past Pickens for the lead late in the race as the pair battled lapped traffic. Williams' drive was classy and indicates he could be a real force this season.
After jumping out to a comfortable lead in the sprint car feature a late safety looked like it could give second-placed Dean Brindall and third-placed Jamie Larsen a chance of jumping Pickens at the re-start. But time delays and the need to start the fireworks display right on the stroke of 10.30pm meant the race was called a handful of laps short and ensured Pickens would be crowned Auckland champion.
"It went to plan for sure," the 36-year-old told the Herald. "The guys gave me a hell of a car – the thing was on rails tonight. It was a pretty tricky track tonight and you have to have a car right for that and fortunately ours was."
Having looked the car to beat all night Pickens entered the midget feature as overwhelming favourite. He jumped straight to the lead of the race and it seemed a foregone conclusion he would be the Auckland midget champion on opening night as well.
But late in the race, as lapped traffic became a factor, Pickens was a touch cautious and second-placed Williams made an aggressive but clean move for the lead.
Pickens threw everything into a last-ditch attempt to get to the lead and even managed to leave himself vulnerable to a dive on the line by Brock Maskovich, who pipped him for second.
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"You can blame everything else but at the end of the day we just got stuck behind some lapped traffic and it was super hard to pass – especially at [turns] three and four," Pickens said.
"I just took my time probably a bit too much with it and Hayden did a good job and saw a gap and went for it."
The track proved troublesome on opening night but all drivers were subject to the same conditions.
Pickens' experience and racing ability shone out like a beacon as he demonstrated how to master such challenging tracks.
"You have to have your car right and you just have to attack it the right way and sort of drive around the worst part of it. That is the key to it," he said.
Kenny Roberts won the F2 midget feature race while Scott Baker triumphed in the TQ feature.
The next meeting is the Summer Bash – North Island Midget Title and North Island Sprintcar Title event on November 30.