Michael Pickens had to win twice – on the racetrack and in the protest room – before he secured victory in the World 50-lap Feature race at Western Springs last Saturday night, his second successive win in Midget Car racing’s champagne event.
The reigning New Zealand champion had crossed the line first in a tense and exciting race, run on a smooth, grippy and fast track. He had won a series of nail-biting restarts after yellow flag caution periods, fending off first American Jerry Coons Junior and then International Series individual points-winner, Brad Kuhn.
In fact, Kuhn came close to taking the honours on the final sprint to the line.
Pickens held on to take the win by 0.207 of a second, to the delight of a vocal Western Springs crowd who had been cheering him on in the closing laps as he fought to stay ahead of the two Americans.
Vocal? That’s an understatement. The stadium erupted when Pickens crossed the line; the crescendo continuing to soar as he turned a series of victory donuts.
And then the cheers turned to boos as track announcer Jamie McCarthy relayed the news that officials had relegated Pickens to third place because he had been judged to have used the grass to his advantage during the race.
As McCarthy led the podium prize-giving for individual classes and the series, a large crowd watched and waited as Pickens argued his case in the protest room.
And when McCarthy announced the “good news”, the place went wild again.
Pickens, who was never headed after passing pole qualifier Brad Mosen on lap two, said he’d been charged with driving on “a little bit of the grass” during the race.
“Other guys were doing the same. I wasn’t using it to my advantage. I didn’t use it to pass any car.”
The protest hearing was “one of the formalities of racing that you have to go through at times.”
He said the constant restarts during the second half of the race were nerve-wracking.
“At each restart, you just have to hope that the car hasn’t changed too much” as the tyres cool down during the caution laps.
“I was fortunate enough to hold on for the win. I had such a great car to drive.”
Mind you, the Little Rippers team had been day-nighting to even get the car to the track. The engine was only completed at 4.30am Saturday and fired-up mid-morning.
“We didn’t even have a crankshaft in the motor at 7.30 last night. But (in the race) it never missed a beat.”
Which is more than could be said for Mosen’s Dickies/Auto Trader Midget.
The young Aucklander has been in sensational late-season form, clearly the fastest Midget car driver.
He grabbed pole for the 50-lapper with a sizzling 13.896-second lap on Saturday, breaking his own one-lap record; only Pickens came close to matching him, gridding the Little Rippers car second with 13.981 seconds.
But Mosen struggled with a mystery electrical or fuel system ailment during the race night and dropped out of the Feature in the opening laps.
He had won the start but Pickens was soon past, though Mosen hung on to the #54 car in the early running.
Behind Mosen’s #13 race car, fellow Kiwi Bryce Townsend (HPM Midget) was driving an aggressive, hard-charging race to keep Coons at bay.
Coons got past and then closed in on Mosen, Pickens opening a gap as the two squabbled over second place. Coons swept into second place after a restart, and soon after Mosen parked the #13 on the infield.
Kuhn slipped past Townsend and began closing on Coons as Townsend fastened his yellow #91 on to Kuhn’s fuel tank.
The Americans shuffled places after restarts before Coons established himself in second place. The American pushed and probed, seeking a way past Pickens but the Kiwi ace hung on.
After another restart, Pickens opened a small gap and Coons – his car’s power steering broken – came under intense pressure from Kuhn, who made the pass stick in Town Bend and closed in on the lead. As they came off the final corner and hurtled for the line, the crowd roared with excitement as Pickens crossed the line first.
Coons finished third, ahead of a brave Shayne Alach who had driven much of the race without brakes in the #11 Midget.
Americans Scott Hatton and Brad Loyet finished fifth and sixth.
Coons said that when the power steering blew, it took his chances with it. “It was hard to steer with 15 laps to go; with five to go there was nothing. I had to throttle down to keep the car straight.
“Maybe I could have held on for second, but Michael Pickens drove a great race. I threw everything at him that I had. Nothing was going to work. He was in the line.”
Kuhn said that at the start of the race he didn’t have the best car, but “we hung in there and waited 20 laps and then came on strong.
“Maybe I waited a bit too long. I might have had a chance to get Pickens if I’d gone earlier.”
It had been a great race, an epic struggle among some of the world’s finest speedway drivers, and Michael Pickens had judged it to perfection.