CRC MOTOR RACE SERIES
NEAR-LEGENDARY Kiwi racing driver Kenny Smith - a prime mover behind the return of the New Zealand Grand Prix next month - has reluctantly decided that he won't be a starter in the 43rd running of the classic on December 6.
But his absence in the field for the Tasman Express GP doesn't mean the 57-year-old double GP winner is retiring.
Far from it: In Smith's version of acting his age, he's simply rationalising his racing - staying out of the physically-demanding Formula Holdens contesting the GP in favour of trying to beat a bunch of young-guns to an elusive FF1600 national title..
He starts that campaign this weekend at Manfeild, in the opening round of the CRC Motor Race Series.
"It will pee me off not doing it," the Manurewa veteran says about the prospect of spectating at the Tasman Express Grand Prix. He's only missed starting in one other GP in the past 36 years.
Smith is confident though that his Reynard Formula Holden will be a starter, even though he won't: He's negotiating with another driver to race the car at the two Tasman Express Formula Holden Series meetings, where he'll be driving his Van Diemen FF1600 car.
"I'd really love to be in the Holden myself. But I've got to wake my ideas up and stop trying to do two things at once. It's better to do one thing properly.
"Not only that - driving those Holdens demands some body strength. It's not as if I'm super-fit or anything. It's one thing having the mind of a 20-year-old - I need the body to go with it!"
So he's going into this weekend's Manfeild opening round of the CRC Motor Race Series with added fire - determined to make his Grand Prix sacrifice worthwhile and begin the FF1600 championship on a winning note, even against fierce opposition, including drivers four decades younger.
More than half of the 18 entrants shape up as possible front-runners, including karting stars LeRoy Stevenson (Southland) and Aucklanders Matthew Halliday and Nicholas Ross - making their national championship circuit racing debut..
Smith, now back driving a Van Diemen after an unhappy last season in a Swift, has tried for almost 10 years to win the FF1600 title but believes this is his season: "I might be wrong but I think it's there for the taking. Mind you there's half a dozen young-guns there who probably think the same thing."
Smith is "most worried" about fellow-Aucklander Phil Hellebrekers and his new Australian-built Spectrum chassis. Hellebrekers, a race-winner last season, has taken a gamble in giving the Spectrum its debut here - particularly since the car has had to be re-engineered to raise the engine position to meet NZ rules.
But Hellebrekers' race engineer Garry Pedersen believes that the car is "definitely a front-runner" regardless of the forced changes to meet the NZ rules - changes he agrees with: "The car, in its Australian race form, could have obsoleted virtually everything else here."
Other established FF1600 front-runners in the field include Aucklanders Daynom Templeman and Simon Gamble, Manawatu driver Brady Kennett and Glenn Clark - a former star in the class, returning after years away.
The meeting also features the first round of the CRC NZ Touring Car Championship, with young BMW driver Jason Richards - runner-up in last year's NZ Touring Car Championship - determined to go one better this time.
The small turnout of potentially front-running cars for Manfeild appears to make that look a lot easier than last year - but Richards, 22, is wary: "There's always competition out there. Look at what happened last year," he stresses.
A year ago he started the championship as hot favourite, but got his campaign off to a bad start with a qualifying crash and trailed team-mate (and eventual champion) Brett Riley in the points standings throughout the season.
That, Richards says, was "very disappointing" and he badly wants to make it his title this season.
Negotiations continue as to who will be Richards' team-mate in the other International Motorsport BMW 320i, but team owner Lyall Williamson confirms that the car will race. Aucklander Barrie Thomlinson and reigning champion Riley are rumoured to be in the frame.
Whoever takes the wheel will shape up as probably the biggest threat to a Richards title, although Hamilton racer Geoff Short is confident that he now has the package to beat the BMWs. His team is fielding just one of its two Ford Telstars this weekend - potential drivers for the second car surfacing too late to have it prepared for the CRC series opener.
"It is very possible to go out and beat these guys. If we've got the power even half-pie right from our car this weekend, I think we'll be up there," says Short.
He's certain that "our package is much better now than it's ever been" - and his aim is unwavering: "I want to win some races this series."
Former Pre-65 racer Peter Butler makes his class debut this weekend in a second Telstar and there's another BMW - a 325i in the hands of Aaron Harris. Wayne Johnson (Honda Integra), Les Brown (Nissan Primera) and Toyota Corolla veteran Ted Jarvis head the rest of the 15-strong field.
The Dunlop V8 Touring Car Championship opener shapes up as the big drawcard, with the first championship outing for two Ford Falcons sparking a Ford versus Holden rivalry. The Falcons of Gary Ridden and Dennis Running will be up against a dozen or more Commodores, the best of them driven by winter series winner Paul Pedersen, last season front-runners Ashley Stichbury and Mark Pedersen and ex-touring car star Greg Brinck. A variety of performance cars, ranging from Stu McCondach's Ferrari 308 GTB to a Group A Commodore and two Sierra Cosworth RS500s shouldn't pose a big threat to the dominant Porsches in the Grand Touring races - with team-mates Owen Evans and Bill Fulford heading the entry.
Racing in the CRC Series meeting starts at 1.30pm on Saturday, with eight races for Touring Cars, GTs, FF1600s, Formula First, HQ Holdens, Pre-65s, Mazda RX-7s and Super-Minis. Sunday's 18-race programme starts at 10am.