Round five of the Demon Energy D1NZ National Drifting Championship is billed as the ‘Royal Rumble’ for good reason — it is a hugely taxing adventure for all involved given most teams head south from bases in the upper North Island, only to be confronted with a section that is known to be a car killer.

At 600-plus metres and around 30 seconds of full-throttle application, just coming away from Mike Pero Motorsport Park undamaged is viewed as success by many, while there is no way to escape a large tyre bill with brand-new rubber lasting only two laps at best.

This year, the championship has largely been themed around the turbo vs V8 rivalry, but for the first time this season it didn’t appear that either camp had any form of advantage. Drivers were able to simply open up the cars on the lengthy section and drive with as much commitment and flow as they could muster.

The one name that was on everyone’s lips after practice was ‘Philthy’ Phil Sutherland, the ever-smiling Southerner who achieved notable fame this season for rolling his car at Mt Smart, had fitted his monster 800hp 2JZ engine to his R34, and at one point was doing a single lap to a set of tyres without lifting off the gas at all. Sadly for Phil, an $8-part failure robbed him of the chance to use his own car in competition, but without his efforts, and use of his workshop, the event itself would have been missing a number of competitors.

As with all D1NZ events, day one would play host to pro-series practice and the pro am development series, with the pro ams qualifying and battling their way down to a top four, who then go on to complete their event on the second day.

All the competitors who travelled to get to the event need to be commended for their efforts as it is a major undertaking for what is almost a completely privateer field without sponsors.

With results tabled, it was the regular names appearing at the top of the tree with Adam Davies, Troy Jenkins, and the Joels (Paterson and Hedges) making their way into the final four, interestingly enough also making themselves the top four on points heading into the final round. The equation was simple — win and you’d take the series lead heading for the final.

If you talk to any of the pro am drivers, they tell you that one of the big benefits of making top four is practising on day two with the pro field and being forced to drive faster and harder.

This always leads to a step up in performances, and once the semi-finals were complete it would be Joel Paterson and Adam Davies going head-to-head for third and fourth. Troy Jenkins and Joel Hedges would line up their respective S-chassis in the final.

Paterson and Davies put on a fantastic display, with the judges struggling to separate them and asking for an OMT, which Paterson would eventually win leaving only the final to run.

Tragically for Joel Hedges, he began his scrub and broke both axles, which created an interesting situation where Troy, knowing that it was his friend he was battling, also chose to call a five-minute mechanical to give the C’s Garage team time to make repairs.

Both cars would make the grid, however they never battled as the replaced parts weren’t quite right and Joel chose to shut down for safety reasons with Troy later saying on the podium, “I didn’t want to win it like that at all, we are mates and love battling each other, we were ready to put on a show.” 

Jenkins now leads the series and will be looking over his shoulder knowing that only 26 points separates the top four drivers.

Focus then moved to the pro series, and in particular the five drivers in with a shot at the title. Darren Kelly entered the event with a solid lead, no doubt well aware that he had three drivers who have already been drift kings and perennial contender Andrew Redward all within striking range.

It was notable when talking to all of the drivers that a ‘safe’ qualifying pass had been the strategy for the first run as no driver was prepared to risk missing the battle part of the event.

Running in the traditional reverse order it would be Kelly who threw the gauntlet down to his challengers, with a 94-point run that would not be headed, landing him the number-one qualifier spot. Although reigning-champ Gaz Whiter came close with a 93, that included a wheel right on the edge of the track and small puff of dirt, which marked him down. Daniel Woolhouse and Daynom Templeman had to go to second-score countback to sort the third qualifying position, while Curt Whittaker placed himself in fifth ahead of Andrew Redward. All five of the series contenders were still alive heading for battles.

With the top-eight qualifiers getting bye runs to the top 16, it was Fenix driver Gaz Whiter who faltered first. The defending champion was perhaps rueing his decision to conserve tires as he made a couple of big mistakes against Nico Reid, and effectively beat himself on his chase by curb jumping and making it unlikely that he will retain the title this year.

Andrew Redward, in the Club Auto V8 RX-7, entered the event sitting second in points, and would have had high hopes of moving himself closer with the flowing-fast track suited to his nimble car, which has plenty of lock. Andrew is one driver who never seems to get a favourable draw, and after beating Drew Donovan had to go OMT twice with ‘Fanga’ Dan Woolhouse, which ended in a win for Fanga after a video review.

Fanga Dan and his Century Batteries team hadn’t had the easiest day, with the early morning spent removing the drive shaft from a spectator car in the pits just to get him out on track. It has been notable this season just how much faster this combination gets each and every event, and most see him as being the real danger man at Pukekohe. Fanga was beaten in his semi-final by Nico Reid before lining up with Bruce Tannock for the third/fourth battle.

Darren Kelly could have sealed the title at this event, and on qualifying form would have been at good odds. Kelly was looking like he was on his way to another top four when he hit the battery switch in his car in the top eight battles, killing all on the last corner versing Bruce Tannock.

For long-time campaigner Tannock in the Achilles S13, this event was reward for hard work and perservation. Bruce has been crewing and driving since the series started in New Zealand, however this event would be the first time he has stood on a D1NZ podium.

Bruce has often shown glimpses of what he can do, only to overthink the situation. By getting wins over Kelly and Woolhouse, he will have gained huge confidence.

He said of the event, “I felt like I needed a result to save my season, and the car felt good with the new set-up. I tried to put less pressure on myself and just let things happen, Driving with Darren and Fanga I could just go 100 per cent and be confident in what they were going to do.”

Fan-favourite Nico Reid would have felt like Ruapuna was his bogey track until the weekend, and may still have some thoughts of this nature. The GVI machine just doesn’t seem to like the trip south and has always seemed to have issues with a 15th in qualifying, perhaps having the always-vocal team fearing the worst.

Nico however worked around all of the problems and proved his skills by earning a place in the finals against Curt Whittaker, having beaten Fanga Dan for the spot.

Tragically for the team, as both cars entered the section for the final time, both third and fourth gears let go and left Nico to roll through the section handing over a 10–0 advantage that was unlikely to ever be overcome.

So for the second time this season Autosure/Rattla Motorsport–driver Curt Whittaker stood atop the podium and, in his own words, “Had wanted this one bad.” He has his eyes set on trying to reclaim the crown he held in 2012.

“We’ve been learning and developing this car every round since moving to the V8, and it’s awesome to reward my team again for everything they put into getting us to every event,” Curt said. “It’s not over yet, no one knows what Puke [Pukekohe] is gonna be like and these young fullas haven’t driven on it before.”

Curt received a new Link Display dash from round sponsors Link ECU and, with 100 points for first place, now moves into second place in the Demon Energy D1NZ series.

Tickets for the grand final at Pukekohe, held May 23–24, are already selling fast.