At six o’clock on Saturday night, Dale McKenzie was driving for survival. The 19 year old had only managed seventh place in his New Zealand Home Loans NZ Superstock Championship heat and had to rely on a repercharge just to qualify through to the last stage. An hour later, he was being interviewed by Dave Birdling in the centre of the track as one of two drivers that were added to the 24 already qualified finalists – the proudest moment of his young career, as it finally sunk in that he had made it. But by 10pm, Dale had a new highlight and some silverware to show for it. The 85n driver was the new 2NZ, being pipped by just one point as Palmerston North’s Shane Penn and 23 year old club-mate Thomas Stanaway made up the rest of the podium spots.
Reflecting on the night of his life, Dale Junior’s emotions had come full circle in just 24 hours. “I knew the car was going fast enough, that it was on the home track and if there was enough Nelson boys in the final then winning was definitely possible. But I was hoping to have a clean run in the qualifying and get straight through and it definitely didn’t work out that way,” he says. “It feels pretty good now but I’d say once it sinks in that I’m 2NZ it will be even better.”
All eyes were on three-time winner Craig Boote as the superstocks spilled out onto the track for the third and final heat of the championship. The 7n driver was sitting pretty in third place and was handed fifth on the grid, giving fans hope he could become the most decorated driver the class has ever seen. But in a matter of laps ‘The Boss’ was gone. Targeted by two Palmy tanks, Craig was battered, bruised and thrown into the wall at every turn. He ended the night in 11th position, much lower than he deserved after showing vintage Boote form all weekend. Nick Fowler, the South Island champion driving Craig’s old car, was leading the points tally going into the final race but also couldn’t survive the wreckage. He finished tenth. Shane Harwood did survive but a poor first race, which saw him collect just three points before his second race win, denied him the chance to challenge for a podium spot. He finished a very credible eighth. Brett Nicholls was said to be a dark horse at this event but the end of the night he would be better known as ‘Mr Consistent’ collecting 17, 15 and 19 points to finish sixth place overall. So it was left up to the two young guns to do the business as Dale and Thomas avoided trouble to finish second and sixth in the final heat, giving them their first ever podium finishes at a national championship. In some of the other local results, Blair Cunningham finished 19th, Jared Gray finished 21st and Ian Clayworth was 25th.
Dale knew he would be a target in the final but didn’t let it get to him before the race. There were times he had to weave and push his way past other superstocks but he admits he was barely touched. “It’s not scary but you don’t know who is going to do what. You have to watch out.”
He felt for Craig and Nick, who came so close to victory. “Everyone works so hard for it. You go into that final heat and it only takes one person to stuff your whole night up and that is your title hopes gone. I’m definitely gutted for those guys but at the same time I got on the podium because of that.”
Nelson Speedway president Kris Carpenter says it was “an awesome” result for the club to have two of the top three in the country. She also says it was not surprising that some of the early favourites were targeted in the final race as it occurs at every national championship. “It’s not over until the last race. It was basically teams racing out there. I’m gutted for some of the guys but also rapt for the young boys, that was one of the best results we could have got.”
All of the Nelson drivers will head to Christchurch this weekend for the New Zealand Superstock Grand Prix in Woodford Glen. For some it will be a chance at redemption, for others it could be chance to prove why they are now the country’s best.