By 2005, the Chili Bowl pit area was already bursting at the seams. Accordingly, even the most knowledgeable fans could be excused for overlooking New Zealand racer Michael Pickens.
After a Rookie of the Year performance that saw the Kiwi rocket from the 19th starting position to a sixth-place finish on the big stage, however, some took notice.
Six years later, Pickens was already a USAC National Midget Series winner, and was poised to gain the respect of all those on hand once again at Tulsa. He raised an eyebrow or two when he finished second in his preliminary night to Bryan Clauson, and he would start on the inside of the second row for Saturday night’s finale.
Near the halfway point of the race, Michael was forced to go to the rear of the field after avoiding Shane Cottle, who had come to a stop in turn four. His race appeared to be over. However, there were still plenty of laps left and, given his experience on tight bullrings in his native land, Pickens just put the bit between his teeth and sallied forth.
He had reached the third position in the late stages of the feature, behind Kevin and
To the amazement of many, Pickens actually moved around Sammy to claim the second spot, but a caution negated the pass. Try as he might, he was unable to gain more ground, but had secured a spot on the podium with the potent father and son team.
The crowd, having been captivated by what they had witnessed, roared in approval. Even the modest Pickens admits that his third-place run was done “in pretty spectacular fashion.”
While it may have just dawned on some that Pickens was a rare talent, those “down under” had known this for years.
Born in January of 1983, Pickens is far from the first talented open-wheel driver to emerge from the Southern Hemisphere, nor will he be the last. As any wide-eyed American who has made the long flight in the dead of winter will tell you, racing is a serious and popular enterprise in Australia and New Zealand.
Thus, the fact that Pickens tugged a helmet on at an early age is, in itself, not terribly newsworthy.
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