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."
Brown made Midgets his main focus. He also created a very successful Micro Sprint feeder series to run under the Midgets. He has put his heart and soul into his series and the car counts prove it. Every year his car count grows and his series expands. Now in its ninth season, he has 39 events planned, started the POWRi West series, and with support from Bill Buckley, has taken over promotions at the legendary Midget track, Angle Park Raceway in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.
Brown's philosophies are well liked by the racers and focus on three main areas. First is to treat the racers with respect and kindness, second is to race twice and travel once per weekend, which helps bring down fuel costs and travel expenses, and third is to race on smaller tracks. POWRi primarily runs on quarter-mile tracks, which helps takes cost out of a racer's engine program. You can be competitive without the need for the higher priced engines on the market, and it puts less fatigue on the engine itself.
The Lucas Oil POWRi series, unlike a lot of race series at moment, is progressing for the better, taking on more races with rising car counts, and being the first Midget sanctioning body to reach international status.
Brown adds, "We are working on a plan for a series of races in Australia, New Zealand, and the United States that would form a world championship series with the winner becoming world champion."
I think I can speak for the race community when I say that I am excited to see the shape of things to come.
International Midget Series
Both New Zealand and Australia are no strangers to hosting international drivers in Midget racing, and Western Springs has a superb history of bringing some of the biggest names in the sport down under.
Although having hosted Midget races since Christmas day in 1937, with international drivers seen just a year later, international action really came alive in 1962, with the introduction of an International Series. Back then it was nothing more than a three-car shootout with a representative from New Zealand, the USA, and Australia. But as years went on, the International Series would blossom with fields reaching 12 cars with huge amounts of pride for the four drivers representing their country in the series. Soon, the series moved to the current format of four feature races of 25, 30, 40, and 50 laps across four nights.
Known as "Mr. 100 percent," Graham Standring has tasted more success than anyone at Western Springs, having won 100 feature races on New Zealand's premier speedway. Now the track's expert commentator, Standring, periodically comes out of retirement for a meeting or two each season. He explained just what the International series did to him and his teammates.
"It didn't so much change the way I drive," explains Standring. "I drove flat out every race, hence the Mr. 100 percent nick-name, but a lot of my teammates always said they would be trying that much harder to beat the overseas drivers."
And it was quite a line-up of overseas drivers that Standring and his fellow Kiwis raced against. He rates some of the best he drove against as Jimmy Sills, Ron "Sleepy" Trip, Dave Darland, and more recently Jerry Coons Jr., while other big names such as Bob Tattersall, AJ Foyt, Mel Kenyon, and Stan Fox were regular visitors throughout the '70s and '80s. Even a young Jeff Gordon drove at Western Springs early in his career, albeit in a Sprint Car. More recently, the series has attracted a rare Midget appearance from Sammy Swindell, plus his now four-time Chili Bowl–winning son, Kevin. Young guns Bryan Clauson and Kyle Larson have also become regular visitors.
So what is it about a tight quarter-mile oval jammed in the bottom of a volcano that blew its top long ago in the middle of New Zealand's biggest city, that keeps some of the greatest names in dirt oval racing coming back, including a record eight American drivers for 2012/2013?
"The facility here is just tremendous," says Jerry Coons Jr., who recently completed his sixth tour. "It's honestly probably the best place we race. In the United States, we've got some fun racetracks, but when it comes to the facility here, the stadium, the amount of fans that we get here, there's really nothing else like it."
Kyle Larson adds; "There's not much else to do in The States this time of year, but more than anything just coming down here and getting to race in front of huge crowds—it's a lot of fun to do that. The people are really welcoming, and you also get to explore the country and go do other stuff on off days—the whole trip is a lot of fun.
But it is not just the American drivers who enjoy coming to New Zealand, and for a lot of other drivers, getting to compete against the best drivers in the world is equally tantalizing.
Australian Nathan Smee is rated by none other than Graham Standring as one of the best Australian drivers ever to compete at Western Springs, and he rates the competition at the Springs as good as anywhere.
"Western Springs is such a good facility, and with all the Americans and the local blokes, it makes for tough racing compared to home. It's tough in Australia too, but this place is tough! When you are racing here and you make a mistake, you pay for it. Sometimes at home you can get away with it, there might only be 15-20 cars, over here there are 40 good cars so it is tough just to make the A-main."
Meanwhile Pickens feels that the Americans help him up his game; "They are the best drivers in the world without a doubt, the promoters do a great job to get them here and it is a privilege to put ourselves up against them."
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.