Seven years after he last raced, and ten years into the competition life of his American built race car, Nelson’s Nevil Basalaj has made a triumphant return to offroad racing.
An accomplished speedway racer in the midget class since the 1990s, 50 year old Basalaj has not raced at the top level in offroad racing since 2007. His race car is a 2003 Jimco Chev which was brought to New Zealand by another Nelson racer, Kevin Charles, and which has won the national championship. The car has since been extensively updated by offroad racing guru Andrew Thomason and its pedigree shone through as Basalaj won one class heat, was second in two others and then on Sunday forged through to win the punishing Twizel 250 endurance race, 27 high speed laps of a course set out on a glacial plain west of the township.
The Nelson driver did not have the event all his way. He was racing one of the most competitive unlimited-class fields in the championship, with Nelson’s Ashley Kelly, former Nelsonian Blake McDonald, Christchurch drivers Geoff Densem and Vinnie Harvey and Aucklander Ernie Hogg, who made a 2600 km round trip to race at Twizel in his locally-built Scorpion Chev V8. With Kelly showing strong pace on the first day but damaging his engine, the Sunday battle was between pole man Basalaj, Vinnie Harvey and Geoff Densem.
Harvey, in a Ryan single-seater with Mitsubishi Evo 10 power, snatched an early lead but was out after a lap with mechanicalissues, enabling Basalaj to take the lead and setting Densem and Hogg off in hot pursuit. The top cars reached speeds of up to 200 km/h on the wide open plains of the race course as Hogg pushed through to second overall. Basalaj’s opening lap of the nine km course was a 6:15, he quickly edged that down under six minutes as he became familiar with the course. “This course was just made for our car, it was magic. Our only worry was making sure we were safe passing slower cars once we got into lapped traffic. Andrew Thomasen has done a fantastic job of updating the car, it’s a winner,” he said afterward.
As the race continued, a flat tyre for Basalaj on the sharp glacier-cracked river stones embedded in the soils of the race course forced a quick pit stop and narrowed the gap between first and second. Ernie Hogg was putting in a tenacious drive in the Scoprion Chev but Basalaj was back on the course before his Auckland rival could take the lead. Hogg also suffered two flat tyres which slowed his challenge, bringing Densem in range of second place – though the Christchurch driver was then slowed by a misfire and unable to complete the overtake he dearly wanted.
With five laps of the 250 km race to run, Basalaj was once more slowed when the Jimco’s ‘nerf’ side intrusion protection bar broke and began dragging on the course, causing a safety hazard for other racers. He pitted, removed the remaining parts of the bar and was once more on the course. His lead once more stretched out to a minute or more, and he preserved his advantage to the chequered flag. Another Nelson driver, Neville Taylor, won the unlimited truck class for the weekend. With outright victory over two days of racing at the 2014 Twizel 250, Basalaj has taken the early lead in his class and many are tipping him to be a force to reckon with for the outright title.