November 16, 1998 TRADITIONAL Holden versus Ford rivalry fires up in this weekend's opening round of the CRC Motor Race Series at Manfield, with the national championship debut of two Ford Falcons in the V8 Touring Cars - a class formerly restricted to Holden Commodores.
And already this battle of the marques is creating controversy - with Holden drivers in the Dunlop-sponsored class worried that the Fords will ruin the evenness of what was a one-make class for virtually identical Commodores.
The controversy has prompted Auckland driver Mark Pedersen to drop plans to drive the Falcon designed and built for the class by his father Garry - because "of talk that Dad developed the rules around getting me to win the championship.
"So now the plan is to prove that we can win it in the Commodore I raced last season. We're well and truly out to win the title now."
That Falcon will now be raced by its owner, class stalwart Dennis Running, with young Christchurch driver Gary Ridden - a Formula Ford front-runner two seasons ago - debuting another Ford.
Holden campaigners, including Dunlop Winter Series winner Paul Pedersen and one of last summer's race-winners, Ashley Stichbury, believe that motorsport authorities need to set up a parity review committee with the power to quickly order changes to the V8 Touring Car rules if the Commodores and Falcons are not even in performance.
Even Running supports the idea - "for the good of the class."
Paul Pedersen, starting only his fourth full season, admits "it's quite a challenge to come up against some of these top drivers." But he still hopes to repeat his impressive 100% top-three finish record in the winter series - the kind of consistency he reckons will be necessary to win the championship.
And he's concerned that the Falcons will make that difficult - 'specially since Running's Falcon was a race-winner on its first outing a month or so ago, in the hands of international touring car star Craig Baird.
Although he concedes that Baird's driving abilities may have flattered the car, he says the Commodores are "at the end of their development" in their current form, whereas the Falcons are brand-new - with heaps of potential.
Says Stichbury: "I think having the Fords and the Holdens is fantastic for the crowd - I'm just a bit concerned about the Falcon. It's wider and longer and has a better aero package. So it's going to be more stable in the turns."
Even in the absence of reigning champion Wayne Huxford (taking the summer off) and Pukekohe front-runner Chris Butler, the competition this weekend is expected to be intense, with the Pedersens, Ridden, Stichbury and Running joined by a last-minute addition, Wellington driver Greg Brinck.
Former touring car star Brinck, 40, is mounting a full campaign on the V8 Tourer title - although he points out that he hasn't driven for almost two years "so this first round will be just to get familiar with it."
Ridden is another making a comeback to the CRC championship series after time off: "I'm sick of sitting on the sidelines."
And now, after two months of devoting all his spare time to building the Falcon, Ridden is itching to get racing this weekend: "I can't wait."
Stichbury says he's also "definitely going for it" this championship: "But I've got to settle into a new car, so I'll be pretty much on the back foot this weekend. That means I'm in the same boat as last year."
Aucklander Michael Thom and Wellington's Andrew Fawcet are coming off some strong winter series performances that could also see them up front.
Racing in Manfeild's CRC Series opening round starts at 1.30pm on Saturday, with races for CRC Touring Cars, GTs, FF1600s, Formula First, HQ Holdens, Pre-65s, Mazda RX-7s and Super-Minis.
Sunday's 18-race programme starts at 10am.