Pickens has experienced success in the USA, including a feature win in 2011's Indiana Midget week. He has an enviable record of making the A-main in each and every visit to the Chili Bowl, where his best finish was third behind the two Swindell's. Does racing against the world's best on home turf prepare him for the competition?
"It definitely gives you a good benchmark and a good idea as to where you are at," Pickens adds. "Put it this way, it definitely helps. You definitely push harder against them. Normally I try to leave a bit in reserve to keep comfy and not tear up equipment, but with those guys (the Americans) you are running at 100-percent all the time."
As racing continues at Western Springs, the history continues to be made, and one of the most spectacular finishes to an International Midget Series occurred as recently as the 2010/2011 season in the biggest race of the series, the World 50 lap classic. From early on, it was obvious that the race of the night would be between Pickens and Coons. Pickens held a slim advantage throughout the majority of the race, but being baulked by a lapped car on the final turn, Coons took the opportunity and as the pair crossed the line, the transponder system could not separate the pair to the thousandth of a second, resulting in a now infamous dead heat. Both drivers claim the event is one they will never forget, although neither rate it as a highlight of their International Series career, both preferring the outright victories they have picked up in the same race.
There was yet more history made this year when Kyle Larson completed the first ever clean-sweep of all four rounds of the International Midget Series in a display that left seasoned speedway fans, drivers, and experts speechless. The achievement was all the more impressive when you consider that as well as New Zealand's best, Larson bested seven other Americans including Bryan Clauson, Jerry Coons Jr., Dave Darland, Cory Kruseman, Ricky Logan, Alex Bright, and Steve Buckwalter, plus top Australian Nathan Smee.
Starting with the 25-lap classic, which normally runs on Boxing night, but was run on the 27th due to rain, Larson, who was driving a local Aggressor chassis for Bill Buckley's BSL Racing, dominated heat racing and the pole shuffle to start alongside his teammate Pickens. That was not such a surprise, but Clauson spinning out of the B-Main and not starting the feature was.
When the race got underway, Larson was in a different league and walked away, while a local battle between Pickens and Brad Mosen battled over second place. Pickens won that battle, defeating Mosen, Coons, and another local, Brock Maskovich.
The second round on December 29 saw the World 30 Lap Derby and plenty of action-packed heat racing with Dave Darland and Michael Pickens coming together, putting Pickens in the fence heavily. Darland then had problems of his own, hitting a spinning car in his second heat, forcing both, plus Alex Bright through the B-Main.
Larson had a lucky break, avoiding two incidents on two attempts to start the race. Luckily, local rules allowing restarts on first lap incidents gave him the opportunity to again dominated the pole shuffle to start from the front, a position he never even came close to losing throughout the course of the race.
Behind him, Clauson held a comfortable second and likewise Mosen for third on a slick track, while a consistent Coons came home fourth and Hayden Williams fifth.
The New Year bought more action with the 40-lap "King of the Springs" race on New Year's day. But what the New Year did not bring was any less dominance from Larson, who again would start the feature race from pole position with Clauson alongside.
Larson again made the best of the early running, but in lapped traffic Clauson was able to close right up onto the back of Larson. Although a strong break meant Larson again moved forward, while Clauson began to drop back into the clutches of Pickens, although the podium positions didn't change. Scott Buckley, son of promoter Bill, took home fourth and Steve Buckwalter's rise up the ranks took him to fifth.
So the final round of the International Midget Series, the 50-lap classic, was full of anticipation. Could Larson do what no one had done before, or would someone finally be able to trump the young master?
The meeting saw a different format with hot-laps complemented by a semi-main, B-Dash, and A-Dash. After topping the hot laps, Larson topped the A-Dash ahead of Pickens, Clauson, and Mosen.
Larson put in his most impressive performance of the series to date and skipped away from the field, while Mosen and Pickens battled over second place. Mosen got the upper hand, only to suffer a major engine failure. That bought out a caution and on the restart it was Darland who was next to give Pickens a hard time, but he fried his rear tires. That left a fast-closing Clauson to close up on the NZ champ, but like Mosen, shortly after getting past Pickens suffered a major engine blow-up. That left Williams in third and Coons in fourth. With two laps remaining, Coons had an inner wheel break that put him upside down.
This was the best chance for anyone to beat Larson, but he made the best restart and led home Pickens and Williams, with the trio also taking the respective places in the series.
During a recent trip to Western Springs, World of Outlaws champion Donny Schatz suggested that New Zealand Speedway fans take the opportunity to check out Larson while they can. The good news is that the 20-year-old Californian is doing all he can to be back for a third straight season in 2013/2014, in what could very well be the first ever POWRi Midget World Championships.