PLACERVILLE, Calif. – Saturday night’s battle for the lead between Kyle Larson and Michael Pickens during the November Classic was familiar for both combatants, evoking memories of their duels in New Zealand through the years.
Larson and Pickens have put on many a show for the fans at Western Springs Speedway, slicing and dicing for victories at the quarter-mile stadium track in Auckland and building immense respect for one another along the way.
This time, that respect was on display at the third-mile, black-dirt Bakersfield oval as the pair fought for supremacy on American soil.
Pickens had the upper hand early, firing off from the pole and leading the first 10 laps as Larson was mired back in traffic, having to come from sixth on the grid to challenge for the top spot.
Larson got there by the sixth round, but twice had passes for the race lead negated by cautions. Staying patient and focused, he finally drove around Pickens down the backstretch on lap 11 and pulled away.
Though Pickens used a pair of late-race restarts to try and get back past the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series star, Larson powered to a nearly two-second margin in the end for his second-straight NOS Energy Drink USAC National Midget Series victory.
After the race, smiles and a handshake on the frontstretch were exchanged between the two, with both quick to acknowledge the other’s driving prowess and both stoked about their entertaining battle.
“He doesn’t get to race a whole bunch, and certainly not in the States, but he’s one of the top five midget drivers in the world in my eyes,” Larson said of Pickens. “It’s always fun to get to see him and race him when he comes out to the States, and when I get to go to New Zealand and race him it’s always a blast. He’s aggressive, but I can trust him and when you get us out there we usually put on a show.”
“I gave it everything; I left nothing on the table, and you can’t when you’re racing Kyle,” Pickens added. “I came back to the pits and told my guys, ‘There was nothing left from my end.’ I’ll always drive the hell out of it. It was just a tough deal. Kyle runs every lap perfect, and you have to do the same to beat him. … Just to be racing with someone of his stature, he’s a superhero in the motorsport world and to race alongside him is pretty cool. I’ve beat him a few times, but he’s winning a lot out west right now.”
Larson, when reminded of his many duels with Pickens at Western Springs, lit up as he talked about the New Zealand track and his memories of racing there through the years.
“I was sitting there under red thinking about it, and even the grandstands (at Bakersfield) kind of reminded me of Western Springs, with the way they kind of wrap around the track,” Larson said. “It’s a cool place … a different surface, but a similar size to Western Springs and it races pretty similar.
“Battling Michael, who’s from New Zealand, made it really feel like what it probably will a month from now when we’re down there racing him. It was fun.”
For Pickens, his joy came from helping RMS Racing – owned by Dave and Matt Estep – build their program from “virtually nothing” to a contending operation in barely a year’s time.
And yes, going toe to toe with a driver he called “one of the best in the world” was part of it, too.
“I think this time last year, the Esteps didn’t own a single car, a trailer … nothing, and now there’s a hell of a lot of potential here,” Pickens noted. “From where they were to where they are now is a credit to them. They’ve worked their asses off and that win for them is coming, we can feel it, but to take a team like this that’s fought so hard to get here and race a guy like Kyle is incredibly gratifying.
“We’re really proud of this one and hope to get one spot more here sooner than later.”
Larson and Pickens will have one more chance to battle it out in the United States this year during Thursday’s 79th running of the Turkey Night Grand Prix at Ventura (Calif.) Raceway.
It’s a race Larson has won twice, in 2012 and 2016, while Pickens is seeking his first Turkey Night crown.
And chances are, if that battle does materialize again, fans will see the same respect and passion on display at the beachside oval that they’ve seen multiple times previously.
“It’s just a product of knowing how we can race each other and trusting each other’s moves,” Larson noted. “It’s really enjoyable to be able to race other drivers that way.”