National Championship 2015

2015 National Championship, Hednesford Hills 1/2 Aug.

Woolsey’s generation game

Graham Brown.  After what may have been the most exciting race in the long history of the oldest title in Hot Rod racing Gary Woolsey became the first ever second generation winner, following his father Norman – victor in ’86 and ’91 – into the record books. In a race which became something of a war of attrition, the destiny of the title looked to be settled several times before it actually went Woolsey’s way, Gary only taking the lead three laps from the finish.

We didn’t actually get the hoped for fifty car entry in the end but I counted a jolly respectable forty-five competing over the weekend and I certainly didn’t hear anyone complain about lack of numbers. Most of them were out for what has become the now traditional Friday afternoon practice too, the three twenty-minute sessions giving everyone quite a bit of time to sort a decent set-up or confirm they already had one. Glenn Bell looked the quickest pretty much all afternoon, both by eye and by the clock, but right at the end of the day he was just pipped to FTD by a couple of thousandths of a second by Woolsey (13.867 versus 13.869). 

They were the only two with an actual 13.8-anything but basically, anyone not in the 13s had to regard themselves as still searching a bit of pace. Pleasingly, Carl Boardley (at the wheel of Bradley Dynes’ car) wasn’t one of them but at ‘only’ eighth quickest, Carl himself wasn’t exactly overjoyed and spent most of the afternoon trying to sort the brakes to his satisfaction. 

Carl’s problems were mere bagatelle compared to Dave York’s however, as a rod through the block unfortunately put a sudden and permanent end to his weekend.  Six heats were needed to sort the qualifiers and their eventual starting order.

It looked a highly competitive front two rows for the opening race, with John Christie (who hadn’t made Friday and hadn’t brought the threatened Fiesta either) drawn on pole and Shane Murphy alongside, with Rob McDonald and Bell right behind. But if the aficionados were licking their lips in anticipation of this one, the weather gods were just laughing and teasing, as drops of rain were definitely in the wind right as the cars were about to take the green flag!

It managed to stay dry however, and all the first four were definitely on a ‘launch party’ as the quartet absolutely blitzed away at the off. Christie took the lead with McDonald second, but Murphy got under the #117 at the East bend to attack Christie’s lead. It was a battle that lasted maybe half a lap as, when Murphy challenged for the lead, the pair tangled, bringing on a caution for an incident which was going to get Christie a rare disqualification. Somehow, Colin Smith had contrived to clobber Christie’s car on the way past (having already safely negotiated the obstruction once) putting himself out with a load of damage, and it was in fact this further crunch which got the yellows an airing. 

Bell took over the lead for the restart and ran out an easy winner over David Casey and Woolsey, the pair having finally got the best of a places scrap with McDonald. Boardley surely can’t have been too unhappy with fifth in this but the weekend certainly hadn’t started out the best way for either Christie or Murphy. The latter had got going again following the incident and had superficially appeared to be battling for a place, although he was in fact just trying to get his lost lap back.

So with ‘nil points’ for 962 and 970 the race had actually proved to be a good indicator of how the meeting was going to go, just not quite by way of the form guide we might have hoped. What it told us (although it would take a little longer to become totally clear) was that it was going to be very difficult for anyone to put together three half decent results. 

Heat two developed into a tight three-cornered fight for the lead between Jack Blood, Nigel McCauley and Adam Hylands. Prior to that however we saw spins from Jason Cooper (unaided) and then synchronised pirouettes by Adam Heatrick and Stewart Doak exiting the East bend. I’m not at all sure that Jason Kew started that incident, but he certainly finished them off and got the ‘reward’ you might expect from the stewards.

With the coming of half distance, McCauley and Hylands closed up with each other and the leader. Hylands got past fellow Ulsterman McCauley and then somehow squirmed between Blood and the backmarking Cooper to take the lead two laps from home in a passing move that was so cute and unexpected it almost amounted to sleight of hand. An intense study of the video in Race Control only proved he hadn’t actually touched anyone, let alone forced his way through. McCauley managed to hang onto his shirt tail to slip through to second as well and I got the distinct impression Jack Blood wasn’t that impressed with any of it….  Similarly unimpressed was Carl Waller-Barret, who was forced out when his prop shaft broke, smashing his gearbox and bell housing to bits.

Heat three was Adam Maxwell’s turn to record a no-score, when he non-started after his car suddenly quit with totally dead electrics on the way out to line-up. It was in fact, as he put it, something of a lucky break, as the panhard rod had broken, allowing the axle to move across the car which in turn had caused the prop to cut through the main earth lead. Adam said he wouldn’t have been keen on arriving in the first bend to find out he had an unlocated rear axle!

This was probably the least interesting heat, Shane Bland got away very fast indeed and was never seriously challenged at any point, although second man Colin Smith did manage to close up a little in the closing stages. However, there was an intriguing scrap over third spot involving at various times Carl Sloan, another welcome returnee, Gavin Murray (in Mikey Godfrey’s car), Hylands, Murphy (now needing a result badly), Bell and Jaimie McCurdy. I got the feeling Murray might have defended his spot more aggressively if he’d been in his own car but with McCurdy driving ‘old 95’ instead, Gavin was finally forced back to eighth with the other places resolved in the order Hylands (third), Murphy, Bell, Sloan and McCurdy. 

Heat four had rain peppering the track just before the start and at various other times. Billy Wood (with his windscreen in again) made the early running with Derek Martin and Kym Weaver keeping him honest until the leader was forced to pull up with a broken drive shaft. 

The uncertain track conditions were making things lively here from time to time, with John vd Bosch spinning at the start/finish, and then Aaron Dew taking a rotation at the West Bend and getting clouted by Blood.

Martin and Weaver carried on their lead dice until a confusing combination of factors curtailed proceedings.
First, McCauley went out at the East bend with what appeared to be an engine blow up but was actually just an electrical failure. Although he hadn’t scattered his motor, someone was definitely laying oil and the track was really dicey now as Wood’s derelict car got hit by Alistair Lowe and possibly by McDonald too, all at the same time as Chris Haird ran into Tommy Maxwell at the other end of the oval. The yellow flag which appeared as a result of all this was so late in the race that the result was finally called and taken from lap twenty two.

A heavy shower soaked the track and delayed heat five for ten minutes to enable tyre changes. Cooper set the early pace – hassled by Doak – after he’d passed the very ‘slidey’ Derek Whelan on the opening lap. However, it was the fast moving Bland who was the man to watch here, Shane saddled with a grid position even further back than halfway but also running on four wets and clearly loving it!  He passed anything that loomed up ahead seemingly at will (including Boardley, who was not happy on two and two and had a spin to prove it), finally catching up to the leading pair. His presence spurred Doak into passing Cooper, only for Bland to duck under the pair of them seconds later to claim win number two and with it, very likely pole position. 

The final heat (for which the rain had eased almost to a stop although the track was still fully wet) would be the clincher as to whether Bland got pole or not, with mid-grid starter Derek Martin needing to win in order to put it in any doubt. It seemed an unlikely scenario with Waller-Barrett, Haird, Danny Fiske and Kew all starting ahead of him, but Martin did manage to get through to finish second on the road. He was undoubtedly helped in this endeavour by a caution brought on by a clinch between Wood, Weaver and Smith which led to Smiffy being sent into the back straight barriers and getting hit head on and very hard by Andy Stewart. 

It was Adam Maxwell who was doing the leading meanwhile and Martin’s march towards that second spot was certainly not straightforward, as he had to tackle the places fight between Waller-Barrett, Haird and Fiske along the way. A three wide moment involving the trio saw Waller-Barrett smite the wall at the West bend, then Haird got baulked by a backmarker letting Fiske and, temporarily, Martin past. 

With five to go Murphy added to his joyous day by going a lap down. Then Haird managed to repass Fiske but this was all getting a bit desperate for this group on the now (at long last) drying track, and when Martin suddenly came round in second spot and Haird came round not at all, I figured there had been some sort of contretemps between them that I had missed. There had and, unfortunately, Martin was adjudged to have spun Haird off and thus got disqualified instead of collecting the points for second, an unhindered Maxwell taking the laurels from this one.

The Grid
42 54 261 994 304 629 20 76 41 970 962 4 174 82 115 966
9 940 209 117 199 996 72 369 217 162 75 95 92 23 482 152
Sunday brought a day of warm sunshine and not the rain Shane Bland had probably been fervently hoping for. He may have had pole but with Bell alongside and Hylands and Woolsey occupying row two, it was always going to be a huge challenge to lead the entire 75 lap distance. The pole sitter made a fair fist of it though and survived at the front despite spirited opening assaults by Bell (who actually broke first at the green, just not quite fast enough) and Hylands, who sneaked under Bell when Glenn stayed outside for too long – all the invitation the European champ needed!

There were early East bend spins for John Christie and Brett Walter, Casey managed to nip past Woolsey, and then the yellows flew for Walter, who was stopped in a dodgy spot.

Bland made another good start, as did Hylands and Bell, the first three going quickly clear but with nothing at all between them for pace at this stage. Bell tried for an outside pass on Hylands which didn’t come off and then they were all brought up short again under yellows after Murray, Tommy Maxwell, Haird and Cooper all got involved in some sort of fracas on the East bend exit. 

A lengthy hiatus ensued, with oil needing to be cleaned up and dusted down at the West bend, making it very dusty indeed for the opening couple of laps. Bland positively leapt away again, making that two virtual restarts he’d survived now, with Bell very nearly managing to jump Hylands at the end of the back straight. 
The running order of the top ten, with Bland slowly eking out some sort of lead, was Hylands, Bell, Casey, Woolsey, Weaver, McDonald, Doak, Maxwell and Fiske. Then Maxwell forced Doak wide into the West bend to get by, taking Fiske through in his wake.

Hylands sat back from Bland for bit but then Bell was suddenly out with a blown engine. With no immediate danger coming from behind anymore, this prompted Hylands to seize his chance to pile the pressure on Bland. Adam so nearly got by on the inside leaving the West bend, then immediately switched to the outside for another go, a move which took him very wide into the East bend at one point. It was a moment from which he soon recovered, but may well have had consequences later, as this was the spot where Bell’s motor had let go….

Hylands continued to press Bland without being able to pass, although it was a close run thing on the back stretch at one point, the two running into the West bend bumper to bumper before Hylands tried another desperate lunge up the outside. He knew full well he needed to get by soon, before Casey and the rest took advantage of their dice slowing the leaders up. And sure enough that was exactly what was happening as Casey closed in and very nearly managed to catch Hylands napping and still on Bland’s outside when he got there.

Once Woolsey, Weaver and Maxwell rushed up to join in as well, the first six were all in very close company indeed as they reached half distance. In fact, if the race had actually finished at this point, we’d still have had our moneys worth. But there was plenty more to come….

Right on that mid-distance point, Casey saw some daylight inside Hylands at the West bend and sneaked into second. Casey almost immediately attacked Bland’s position at the same place he’d passed Hylands and very nearly got by too, while for his part, Hylands clearly thought an outside pass on both of them was a possibility! Some savage in-fighting followed which eventually saw Casey run into Bland, the momentary loss of speed putting Hylands back into second and so very nearly let Woolsey through too. 

With the fifty lap mark being signalled by the starter, the first seven cars were pretty much tied together, with McDonald having now joined the party. He was able to take over sixth spot when Weaver abdicated the place with mechanical difficulties. Probably against the odds, Bland was still leading, but still under serious pressure as he had been every step of the way. One had the feeling something had to give sooner or later….

It finally happened as they exited the West bend and Hylands found the space inside Bland to snatch the lead. Casey tried to follow on only to have Bland shut the door firmly before Casey got him anyway down the inside at the East bend. Naturally, that little altercation had given Hylands just the chance to escape that he needed, his cause being further aided by Woolsey having a huge wide moment and Maxwell running hard into Bland at the West bend and garnering himself a black cross. 

With Hylands busy making a run for it, the order behind him was now Casey, Bland, Maxwell, McDonald, Woolsey, Doak and McCurdy. Indeed, at this point Hylands looked to have it won but suddenly slowed with puncture. Quite possibly the left front tyre had been damaged by debris from Bell’s engine when Adam had taken that very wide line on the East bend earlier. Now the placemen pounced en mass, everybody naturally seeing this as their moment to grab the glory. A rapid series of collisions followed, wiping out Hylands and Casey (both hit either the wall or each other), Bland – who went spinning – and the closely following McDonald.

All this brought a complete sea change to the race as well as a caution period to sort out the mess. Maxwell was now leading from Woolsey and Doak and, with only ten laps left and just twelve cars still running, it looked as though it was Maxwell’s for the taking, despite his left side door flapping gently in the breeze as they took the green flag for what was to be the final restart. The twelve became eleven when Fiske pulled up, his diff having let go at the green.

Woolsey undoubtedly saw his chance now and straight away launched a challenge on the leader. But Maxwell was not only equal to holding it off, he actually began to pull away. And soon the lap boards were out at the rostrum too…five to go…four…. surely Woolsey had something in reserve to throw at Maxwell….it seemed not. 

But this extraordinary race still had one final twist as the leader suddenly slowed, his arm out of the window, Adam’s gearbox having blown up just three laps from the end. Even now, it wasn’t just handed to Woolsey on a plate, as Doak zoomed in for an attempt at an even more last minute upset! But Gary wasn’t having any of that and calmly hung on to the lead to clinch his biggest ever title, despite Doak’s valiant last gasp attack. 

Only ten cars made it across the line and it is a fair indicator of ‘the state of the nation’ that eight of them were from Northern Ireland, including young Jaimie McCurdy, who completed an all-Ulster top three. 

The list of retirements filled far more of the results sheet than the result. Among the more interesting ones were Boardley (out after 43 laps with no brakes and a collision with the wall as a result) and Murphy, another who’d succumbed to a flat (left rear) probably caused by Bell’s engine wreckage. “I don’t really do very well for punctures round here”, Shane observed ruefully, recalling the National he lost after a valve blew out. 

Then there was Haird, who’d dislocated his thumb in his incident. It was sticking out at a bizarre angle when Gavin Murray (whose previous career in the forces gives him not only a pragmatic view of such things but also the knowledge to fix them) saw it and said, ‘Would you like me to sort that out?’ Chris apparently said, nervously, ‘If you know what you’re doing…’  It seems Gavin most certainly did know what he was doing, although I think Chris might still have preferred a large vodka prior to the necessary manipulation!

Naturally, Shane Bland wasn’t overjoyed with the outcome of the race. I wondered if he’d gone into the race expecting to win it.

“I don’t think you can ever “expect” to win any Hot Rod race,” he told me, adding, “Since the World Final, which was a total embarrassment in my view, everything that was in my head I decided to put on the car, rather than just taking baby steps. I went for one big step. And it worked at round one at Ipswich, it was fast, and then I did a bit more, came here, and actually wasn’t happy after Friday. But yesterday I had a storming day to be quickest in the dry in two races and then obviously having that wet race, I know I can drive in the wet….so today, I was fairly confident. I knew I’d have to be defensive, and I was. I felt like I did everything I could and at the end of the day, it just didn’t work out.”

I also caught up with Adam Maxwell who, to be fair, didn’t seem too downhearted by his last minute reversal. In fact, I did wonder if maybe he was considering an alternate career as a blues singer!

“Well, I woke up this morning thinking it was going to be a hard day. But we came through from fifteenth (on the grid)….”

I gently pointed out that he had got a couple of black crosses along the way….

“Yes I know, but coming from fifteenth, you’re going to have to be quite aggressive; you’re not going to get through being Mr Nice Guy. It was just a wee bit gutting (to go out like that).  I’m happy that the car’s good. But we blew second gear out of it on the restart. She was like a bag of bolts then and I thought maybe she would keep going but it wasn’t gonna happen and with a couple laps to go it just blew the whole gearbox out of her. It’s just one of those things; that’s racing.”

Perhaps the last word should go to Gary Woolsey. Had he gone into it thinking he was going to win?

“I went into it thinking I had a chance. But I knew, the way it started, I knew I had to dodge away from things happening at the front. I just wanted to get into the inside of the track, which I eventually did, and then sit tight for a while. And it fell into my lap really.”

I offered the opinion that he’d sat back when he should have sat back – for once!

“I don’t do that too often; it’s took me a long time to learn to do that! My father is so happy….I think that’s the first father and son to win that. When I lost that race here, three years ago, that has been a nightmare of mine for a long time, you know?  This has finally put that to bed so I’m pleased about that!”

The last race on the agenda was the recently revived NHRPA Championship title. To be fair, whatever followed that National was going to suffer by comparison and, with only eighteen cars fit to come to the grid, and the new National champ having drawn the outside front row grid position, the outcome always looked fairly certain.

Pole sitter and initial leader John vd Bosch did his best to make life difficult for Woolsey over the opening couple of laps, but Gary was nevertheless already in front when the field was depleted still further after an East Bend incident brought out the yellows and robbed us of Christie, Shaun Taylor, Waller-Barrett and Jason Kew. 

John Sibbald was swiftly under vd Bosch and onto Woolsey’s tail following the restart, but the leader had asserted his authority once more by the time the yellows were out again, this time for Ivan Grayson’s car stopped in a dangerous spot.

By the time they got going again there was no doubt it had become a rather “bitty” race, but there was equally no doubt that Woolsey was on his way to adding another title to his tally, which he duly did. It was good to see Sibbald collect a bit of silverware for second though, with Doak once again on the podium with a good value third.  GB
Heat one: 9,261,940,117,41,629,217,76,304,72,82,369,31,66,152,970,467,888,136,55. NOF
Heat two: 54,4,92,199,115,994,20,42,966(-2),75,23,305,996,H66,209,95,960,482. NOF
Heat three: 42,491,54,970,9,75,199,95,629,82,217,996,994,304,482,152,966,467,669. NOF
Heat four: 20,209,369,72,962,31,261,162,940,174,115,41,117,342,136,66,H66,23,888,871,55. NOF
Heat five: 42,996,994,940,117,962,261,54(-2),482,95,41,960,199,72,369,55,75,966,888. NOF
Heat six: 76,(20),304,162,174,9,209,305,629,23,217,970,4,92,82,152,H66. NOF
National Championship Final:  940,996,199,174,962,75,82,4,966,23. NOF
NHRPA Championship: 940,629,996,41,95,966,4,82,H66,55. NOF
Penalties:  962 disqualified from heat one for causing crash involving himself and 970.  82 dropped two places in heat one for ignoring Raceceiver warnings and not holding a proper racing line.  966 dropped two places in heat two for ignoring Raceceiver warnings and not holding a proper racing line.  174 disqualified from heat two for spinning 342 and 996.  54 dropped two places in heat five for contact with 960.  20 disqualified from heat six after incident with 115 which caused 115’s retirement.  76 disqualified from NHRPA Championship for passing under yellow flag.  All results & penalties subject to official confirmation. 

Martin Kingston, Ed Fahey, Phillip Cornish & Steve Weston‘s great weekend photos in the GALLERY