You may have never heard of Western Springs Speedway in Auckland, New Zealand, but it might just be the best-kept secret in the racing world. Stationed in the heart of New Zealand's main city, Western Spring Speedway is a quarter-mile dirt track in a beautiful park-like atmosphere. The track has hosted some of the most prestigious names in racing from Jeff Gordon to Stan Fox to Sleepy Tripp, and even AJ Foyt. Western Springs Speedway has been hosting American drivers since 1937, when Swede Lindskog, Duane Carter, Paul Swedburg, Rollie Beale, and Jeff Simmons ventured Down Under to race Midgets. The tradition of Americans, Australians, and New Zealanders battling it out on this racetrack has endured for nearly 70 years.
Western Springs Speedway
The current format for the International Midget Series begins on Boxing Day (Dec. 26) and features four races over the course of two weeks—a 25-lapper, 30-lapper, 40-lapper, and the famed 50-lapper. During this two-week series you see some of the most action-packed racing on the planet with three-wide racing, flips, and First and Second place finishes down to 0.01 of a second of each other. This year there were nearly 50 cars including one Australian; Nathan Smee, and six Americans; Corey Kruseman, Dave Darland, Steve Buckwater, Jerry Coons Jr., Alex Bright, and Kyle Larson, who recently signed with Chip Ganassi Racing to run the NASCAR Nationwide Series. Larson fought hard to make history by being the only driver to win all four consecutive international races in a row. (Ed Note. Larson, you may remember, as the young racer who ran and won in multiple cars during Florida Speedweeks.)
Race promotion of the International Midget Series has fluctuated over the years, but in 2002 a successful New Zealand entrepreneur, Bill Buckley, took over operations at Western Springs Speedway. Buckley spent many years racing at the "Springs" on solo motorcycles, sidecar motorcycles, and in midgets. His passion for the speedway is second to none when it comes to promotions. Since Bill has taken over Western Springs Promotions, the track and oval track racing has seen steady growth in New Zealand and the International Midget Series has become one to add to the American and Australian "bucket list."
The International Midget Series is a magnificent event with more than 14,000 spectators, media and television coverage, and a hefty purse that truly gives the sport the exposure and respect it deserves. Although the series has been quite successful, Buckley is still not content. He is a man who feels there is room to go bigger and better. It is Buckley's dream to make Midget racing a true international sport. Buckley feels this can be done by establishing a systematic point system within the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand, which will allow top-point earners from each country to race one another at venues in all three countries and possibly other tracks around the world.
One issue that impedes his vision is that current rules vary drastically from country to country. To resolve this issue, Buckley approached several U.S. based open wheel sanctions but none bit on the idea until he called Kenny Brown, owner of the flourishing Lucas Oil POWRi Midget series. Buckley, Brown, and Australian business owner and race advocate Mark Cooper, opened up dialogue and got the ball rolling.
"I'm just keen on making the sport bigger and better," explains Buckley." I want to do it for the sport, not just for me. I want to try and get international rules so we are playing in the same ball-park in speedways around the world."
Recently, POWRi has expanded its brand across the hemisphere. This has turned Buckley's dream into reality, and the 2012-2013 International Midget Series in New Zealand carried the title of the POWRi International Series and the paramount Australian Super Series is now the POWRi Australian Super Series. A point system is in the process of being formatted, which will allow drivers to compete around the world. Drivers from both Australia and New Zealand will be in the U.S. for the Lucas Oil POWRi Midget week in June 2013.
Although there has been much progress in a short period of time the international series is still in its infancy. It is currently in the process of seeking a title sponsor for the POWRi International Midget Series.
Current New Zealand Midget champion, Michael Pickens is excited by the changes, "It is something that has needed to happen for a few years," Pickens explains. "Not only a sanctioning body, but also the rules that run, it will just tidy everything up not only here, but in Australia. That makes it better for the competitors and all the cars that come down from the States will be entirely legal. It will also make it a lot easier to compete overseas because all the cars won't need to be changed."
Current Western Springs Speedway rules are similar to those of the Chili Bowl, where almost anything goes. In addition to the usual 161ci Esslinger and Mopar engines, cars at Western Springs have run with 166ci pushrod Esslinger engines, rotaries, and most recently the Synergy V-8—two motorcycle engines that are joined together to create a 2.4L (146ci) monster capable of producing 450-plus horsepower. There will be a two-year grace period at Western Springs, whereby competitors with car not compliant with POWRi rules will be able to run, but not score points during that time.
POWRi started eight years ago in Illinois when the longtime Midget club MARRA split apart. Kenny Brown is a determined racer/promoter and could not just sit by the wayside, leaving these racers with no organization to race under. He pulled up his bootstraps and with help from his family started POWRi—Performance Open Wheel Racing Inc.
"Our goal is to grow midget racing internationally and increase its prestige, purses and participation across the board," Brown tells us. "With our opposite seasons, we can race year-round. We hope to foster increased international competition, with American drivers going to New Zealand and Australia and New Zealand and Australian drivers coming to America. We have already seen some of that the past two years with Michael Pickens (New Zealand) and Nathan Smee (Australia) racing in POWRi and other premier events."