In the late 1960s and early 1970s, there were few bigger names in New Zealand speedway than "Big Bad" Charlie Berntsen.

His career began in Palmerston North with the advent of Stockcar racing there in 1963, and he made an immediate impact.

A natural entertainer, he quickly became a crowd favourite.

The "Big Bad" nickname came after an incident in Palmerston North, involving the-then promoter of speedway there in Ray New.

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Charlie was ordered to leave the track for some mysterious indiscretion, and proceeded to chase New, who was driving the start jeep.

Berntsen was initially banned from the sport, but the shrewd New understood the entertainment business he was in, and Charlie was free to race again.

When Ray Eaton and Paul Carrick were building Oceanview Speedway, it was Berntsen, a blocklayer by trade, who was there building the toilet block.

He won the first ever race at Oceanview in October 1972, and the following season contracted to Whanganui, becoming the first captain of the Wanganui Warriors.

"Big Bad" Charlie retired from racing after a serious accident in Rotorua, but one day found an old Stockcar sitting in a paddock near Foxton, bought it, and resumed his career.

The iconic 432V Car carried him to his greatest triumph when he won the New Zealand Stockcar Championship in Whanganui in 1982, the first time the event had been held at Oceanview.

After his second retirement from racing, Charlie became a mentor to young racers, and at the time of his death in 2015, was patron of the Wanganui Stockcar and Speedway Club.

Sunday afternoon, stockcar drivers from around the North Island will gather to race for the Charlie Berntsen Trophy, or as it is known locally, 'The Charlie'.

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Although the trophy, built from engine parts, was first contested while Charlie was still alive, it has taken on more significance since Berntsen passed away.

The late Charlie Berntsen, with the trophy that bears his name.
The late Charlie Berntsen, with the trophy that bears his name.

Winners in that time include multiple New Zealand stockcar champion Peter Rees, and local drivers Dion Mooney and Francis Potaka, all of whom were admirers of Charlie Berntsen.

Mooney won the event last year, and will be keen to repeat the dose this season and claim the $1000 winner-take-all prize.

He was dominant in a strong invitation field at Huntly Speedway last weekend, winning two of his races and finishing second in the other to take the spoils.

But before Sunday, he has two nights of racing in Palmerston North at the lucrative King of the Arena Stockcar meeting.

A regular competitor in The Charlie is Huntly driver Les Hepworth (22H).

Berntsen was his inspiration to get involved in the sport, and Hepworth runs the same number Charlie did early in his career in 22.

Hepworth will be accompanied by his son, Hayden.

Another local driver for whom this event is special is Berntsen's grandson Jack Purcell (5V).

Whanganui drivers don't like to see The Charlie leave town, so if a visiting driver is up on points, he should expect some extra attention.

Palmerston North driver Luke Miers can attest to that.

He won the first heat last season, but was taken out in the next by local rookie Mizaan Lees (58V).

With only this meeting and one more before the Elite Mechanical New Zealand Superstock Championship at Fast Lane Spares Oceanview Family Speedway in four weeks' time, more out-of-town Superstock drivers are expected on Sunday

The three car Red Waka team of Wayne Hemi (591P), Jordan Dare (581P) and Jayme Hemi (571P) make their season debut in Palmerston North this weekend, and intend to compete at Oceanview on Sunday and next weekend.

Hemi and Dare's start to the season has been delayed by the late arrival of their Cornette Ford engines from the USA.

Father and son duo Scott (8P) and Jack Miers (88P) will be there on Sunday, as will fellow Palmerston North driver Shane Mellsop (71P).

Stratford drivers Carl Shearer (75s) and Darryl Roper (19S) have entered, along with the Gisborne trio of Mark Cromarty (432G), Bradley Kendall (12G) and Brayden Robinson (41G).

A full contingent of local superstocks will be on hand to do battle with visitors.

Unfortunately, that won't include Darryl Taylor (5V), who after a lengthy absence has not been able to finish his car for Sunday.

Taylor, who came 3NZ when the championship was last held in Whanganui in 2008, hopes to make his long-awaited return to the track next week.

A late flurry of entries had taken the total for the New Zealand Championship to 84 cars by Thursday night, and the organising committee expect the final total to go well past the hundred mark.

Another feature of Sunday's meeting will be the first appearance of the Classic Stockcars at Oceanview this season.

These cars have been lovingly rebuild or restored, and many are cars that Charlie Berntsen would have rubbed bumpers with during the latter stage of his career.

The Classic Stockcars are always a popular addition to the Oceanview programme.

Youth and Adult Ministocks and Production Saloons complete the line-up on Sunday.

The 20-race programme starts at 5pm, with the pit gates opening at 2pm, and the public gates open from 3.30pm.

"Big Bad" Charlie Berntsen understood that entertainment was a key part of speedway, and there will be plenty of drivers living that out on Sunday.