His rivals made him work hard for it – but Tauranga’s Ben Thomasen has ‘done the double’, winning the punishing Polaris NZ 1000 in September and now the 2017 Polaris New Zealand Offroad Racing Championship.
“I didn’t really expect to be in the fight for the championship this year because it’s been such a tough championship and across the S class field the level of competition has increased hugely,” said the factory-backed Polaris racer.
The final round of the championship was held over two days in Nelson, with short course (stadium-style) heats on Saturday and a 225 km enduro on Sunday.
Thomasen said as the modified UTVs become more popular, they are drawing more and more fast drivers into offroad racing, making outright titles hard and harder to secure.
“Added to that there were massive fields in U class and the unlimited race car and truck classes,” he said.
The year-long championship battle came down to the UTV classes, but the weekend was a duel between Thomasen and Manukau racer Tony McCall. The pair scored equal points in Saturday’s spectacular short course racing with three second placings and a win each; Christchurch racer Daniel Powell taking top points in McCall’s class with local driver Greg Winn third and Joel Giddy ahead of Thomasen in JG Civil S class with Nathan Moore third.
The close result meant the title would be decided the following day’s 225 km farm/forest endurance race.
Grid positions for the enduro were decided by fastest laps set by each competitor. McCall had set a 47.745 sec lap (fastest of the day) to take pole, Powell alongside him on 48.354. Thomasen and Giddy were P3 and P4, separated by fractions of a second: 48.408 and 48.440 respectively. Because of the dry dusty conditions, the field were started in groups.
McCall had the upper hand in the early running, his pole start giving him clear air. He tangle briefly with Powell, the clash spinning the latter wide as McCall left the start-finish compound for the one kilometre straightline drag into the forest.
Ben Thomasen had meanwhile started P4 in his Polaris RZR 1000 XP and soon got past Giddy’s Yamaha despite the thick dust clouds now cloaking the course.
McCall was revelling in the challenge, powering up the steep firebreaks and along the ridgeline roads in the forest. His opening lap of the 15 km course took just 13 minutes.
After that first lap, the Manukau driver was lapping backmarkers in the field.
At middle distance Thomasen began to mount his fightback, drawing closer and closer to the flying BSL Chev of McCall. He was aided in his chase when McCall’s car developed a sticking rear brake.
The dust and traffic had added 30 seconds to McCall’s lap times, but Thomasen said he was having to push harder and harder to close in on the leader.
Crashes were the order of the day across all classes. On the second lap, Tyler Castle had a lucky escape when he crashed his class five car in a fast section of the forest, coming to rest upside down alongside a water pond. Taine Carrington in another class five followed him in on lap four, both cars stranded there for the remainder of the race.
Also on lap four, and just a few hundred metres before the pair, 4WD Bits class 8 front runner Bryan Chang flipped the GT Radial Tyres Ford Falcon.
“I was following something – couldn’t see what sort of car, just its tail-lights – and completely lost sight of the road. Next thing I know I’m up and bank and upside down!”
Similarly unsighted, 4WD Bits class six points leader Warren Adams had smashed into a tree on lap two in his V8 Nissan Safari, the uncharacteristic crash destroying the truck’s bullbar, puncturing a tyre and peeling the truck’s left front guard back.
Out the front of the field, McCall was putting in a masterclass display, even posting fastest lap late on the race.
On the same lap Wayne Moriarty overshot the turn-off back into the start-finish area and crashed deep into a stand of broom and gorse lining the road. Three more cars would follow him, spearing off up the escape road, before the Christchurch driver and his car could be extricated and resume racing.
McCall took the chequered flag in fine form, well clear of Thomasen in second place and John Morgan – winner of this year’s Woodhill 100 race – third.
Powell, second in unlimited class, had lost a lot of time in the opening laps but then fought back to finish sixth.
McCall set the course lap record, a 12:02.146. He finished the weekend with top points, 138 to Thomasen’s 136, but his points deficit going into the weekend meant he could not overcome Thomasen’s strong season-long race form. In the championship, Thomasen headed a UTV 1-2-3 finish.
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