CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand – Michael Pickens thought that, perhaps, his quest for victory at Ruapuna Speedway on Saturday was off to a bad start before it had ever begun.
“Before (the race), I couldn’t even get the tennis ball over the fence (to the fans),” said Pickens of his plight during driver introductions. “I had to try three times to get it across!”
As it turned out, that was the worst problem he’d have all night long.
Pickens charged from fifth on the grid to take his ninth Accessman NZ Midget Car Championship victory in the 30-lapper, passing Zach Daum with 12 to go and driving away down the stretch to extend his record as the greatest New Zealand midget driver in history.
American Tyler Courtney started from the pole, but lost the lead on the initial start to Brad Mosen for the first half-lap before Mosen drifted wide in turn four and let Courtney back through.
By lap two, however, it was Friday high-point man Kaidon Brown surging up the inside to take control, all while Pickens surveyed the scrapping ahead of him from fifth place.
After dropping back as far as seventh, Pickens slowly but surely began his quest forward, but toward the front it was Daum who was on the move, taking second from Courtney on the fourth lap as he set his sights on the leading car of Brown out in front.
Undeterred, however, Brown opened up a 2.3-second margin over his nearest pursuer in Daum before a spinning Hayden Guptill forced the first caution flag of the feature with eight laps scored.
At that point, Zeb Wise had cracked the top five, while Pickens had clawed back to sixth in his effort to make tracks toward the front of the order.
Coming back to green, Brown led Daum, Courtney, Mosen, Wise and Pickens, but that order didn’t remain for long.
Pickens shot from sixth to fourth in less than a lap, then slid Courtney for third in turns one and two on the 10th rotation, moving into a podium slot behind Brown and Daum.
Brown looked untouchable in the lead before heartbreak struck with 13 laps complete, as his United Truck Parts No. 21 slowed at the end of the backstretch with terminal mechanical issues and coasted to a stop in the fourth corner, its quest for victory thwarted.
That put Daum into the lead over Pickens, and Pickens wasted no time once he could see the front of the field in sight. He tailed Daum on the restart, and at halfway it was Daum leading Pickens, Courtney and Mosen, with a gaggle of cars fighting for fifth behind them.
Three laps later, the fight was over, as Pickens put his nose underneath Daum down the backstretch and used a textbook turn-three slider to wrest away the lead at lap 18.
From there, the die was cast and Pickens was well on his way to victory.
It wasn’t quite that simple, as a four-car melee that saw Jeremy Webb get upside down in turn one after climbing from 18th to ninth bunched the field back up, but Pickens was not to be denied in any event.
Pickens pulled away from Daum over the final 12-lap run to the finish, with the show coming for the final podium spot between Courtney, Mosen and a charging Wise.
Wise found the top groove inside the final 10 circuits and used it to charge all the way to third, taking the spot for good coming to two to go and nearly having a run at Daum on the final lap.
But out front, the celebration was all Pickens’, as he celebrated his ninth career New Zealand midget championship victory and third in the last four years.
“Nine times, wow. That’s pretty special,” Pickens noted. “I thought eight was special, getting the record (for New Zealand championships), but nine feels amazing. It’s just a credit to everyone that’s around me and all those who work on this race car week in and week out. They make it possible. Justin Insley built a bad-ass weapon of a race car.
“The thing was spot on tonight; it was absolutely perfect,” Pickens added. “Once we got past Daum I knew we could hold on, and we pulled away there at the end. Just a great night.”
Brad Mosen and Logan Seavey completed the top five, followed by Hayden Williams, Courtney, Brett Morris Jr., Brock Maskovich and Ryan O’Connor.
1. Michael Pickens, 2. Zach Daum, 3. Zeb Wise, 4. Brad Mosen, 5. Logan Seavey, 6. Hayden Williams, 7. Tyler Courtney, 8. Brett Morris Jr., 9. Brock Maskovich, 10. Ryan O’Connor, 11. Aaron Hodgson, 12. Duane Hickman, 13. Peter Hunnibell, 14. Max Guilford, 15. Tom Lumsden, 16. Michael Kendall, 17. Jeremy Webb, 18. Hayden Guptill, 19. Dave Kerr, 20. Kaidon Brown.