Having drifting return to Pukekohe Park Raceway has been a dream for many drifters and fans alike for the past four years. So it was with much hype and anticipation that the Demon Energy D1NZ National Drifting Championship made its way to Pukekohe Park Raceway to end the season. What they didn't pre-empt was the weather bomb that would hit the region.
As it transpired, Friday's media day would be the only time we saw dry track conditions. So those in attendance were rewarded with some awesome high-speed, smoke-filled runs all mixed in with a few lump-in-the-throat moments as drivers adapted to the increase in speed. Think of it like threading a needle at 180kph with only one eye open.
Saturday, which usually comprises of ample test sessions for the Pros, Pro-Am qualifying, and then their battles through to the top four, would all be thrown out the window and only a handful of wet laps for the Pros and Pro-Am qualifying took place. For the first time in D1NZ's history, MotorSport New Zealand (MSNZ) was forced to halt proceedings due to safety concern, with many drivers speaking of the insane feeling while aquaplaning at a high rate upon entry to the sweeper. But thanks to the valiant efforts of Cam Vernon and some D1NZ volunteers, who worked through the night building drainage around the sweeper, both the Pro-Am and Pro battles could play out on a revised Sunday format.
Pro-Am top 16 would see the TJM (Team Jenkins Motorsport) boys going head-to-head first up. With Troy Jenkins sitting in the box seat for the championship many thought his hopes were dashed after going OMT, and younger brother Ben taking the win.
Troy explained, “I was battling with a lack of grip and just couldn't get it right, whereas Ben had it right all the time. He drove really well, so hands down to him, he won it fair and square. To come away with the championship, and Ben the round win, it's a dream weekend for us really. It has been a hard season losing our main sponsor halfway through and managing to get through with Brian Roberts coming on board.”
Troy went on to mention that he thought it would have been really close in the championship, and he wasn't wrong. Checking the final rankings, Troy took it out by only one point over C's Garage's Joel Hedges. Joel's weekend didn't go to plan either after colliding with the wall on Saturday to avoid Troy, the C's Garage S13 was repaired overnight, but the spare steering rack lasted only a few runs before blowing a seal. Coming in third for the season was Joel Patterson in his AE85.
Championship points aside, the round actually delivered a Pro-Am round result with three fresh podium faces. Perhaps this is a nod to the new guard who will be the ones battling for the championship in Pro-Am next season. Ben Jenkins taking first, Chad McKenzie second, and Bex Bennett in third.
With the Pro-Am top 16 pushed to Sunday it meant that the Pro field had no test runs to really come to grips with the track; not that it would have mattered as the grip on offer was constantly evolving throughout the day. Most drivers commented afterwards that they just felt it out each run, although I'm sure the spotters played a big role. It was, in my opinion, the messiest and scariest qualifying session I have ever seen. Although the highlights were certainly amazing. The first run out of the gate was by Vincent Langhorn with a 83.5, which looked to have been good enough to secure him P1 right until the dying stages.
That was until Curt Whittaker, a driver who looked solid right from the first lap of media day, decided to throw in a ‘win it or bin it’ run. “I thought I was gone, but with the new TDP steering set-up in there it was on lock and I just pinned it, thinking it was either going to spin or I will pull it off. Once I got three quarters the way around I thought, ‘mate I got this’ and managed to get back onto line and hit all the clips,” explained Curt. His run scored an 84.5.
With eight drivers failing to lay down any scores during qualifying, it meant the top 32 only played host to two battles, and then in the top 16 two drivers would be unable to run due to mechanicals giving Curt Whittaker and Andrew Redward, both, at that stage, championship contenders, another easy walk — this time directly to the top eight.
For the other two championship contenders, Gaz Whiter and Darren Kelly, there were still a few hard-fought battles to be won. No one would do more battle miles over the weekend than Darren Kelly, who went to three sudden death OMTs first in the top 16 and then in the top four — and both against each of the ATJ entries from Kerikeri.
For Gaz Whiter, having missed round one meant a fifth title was out of his reach this season, but he was still putting on one hell of a show, not letting up despite the track conditions. Gaz would take out two championship contenders on his way to the final; first Andrew Redward and then Curt Whittaker.
After overcooking his lead run, and going off the track at 190kp handing Darren a 10–0 advantage, Gaz had nothing to lose. This photo shows the proximity that he kept the entire section, with Gaz actually rubbing the R34 throughout the run.
“The conditions were terrible, the boys sorted it out on Saturday after doing four laps and then just left the car the same for the entire weekend and drove around it. I'm pretty stoked to come away with third place in the championship, we didn't expect that right up until when I was called on stage,” Gaz said.
This sealed the deal for Darren, who walked away with a round win as a sweet little bonus to his 2014–’15 Demon Energy D1NZ DK title.
Darren, the first Pro-Am champ to win both titles, said, “It still hasn't sunk in. Even though we knew we had a good chance of taking the championship coming into the round with a lead, you just never know what is going to happen, right up until the last battle.”
Although, it was touch and go whether or not he would even be able to qualify after binning it on his first pass.
“After that first qualifying run I thought I could lose it all right there if I failed to run a second pass, so it came down to bagging a safe run, keeping the car in third and driving on the limiter,” he said.
This wraps up the 2014–’15 Demon Energy D1NZ National Drifting Championship for another season. With Darren sitting in first place, Curt Whittaker in second, Gaz Whiter in third, and Andrew Redward fourth. A big shout out must go to all the brave fans who came out on Sunday to share in the action. The stands stayed packed all the way to the end, despite the bitter cold. Who says drift fans are the most loyal and hardy of all!