National Championship 2011

The 2011 National Hot Rod National Championship
Haird’s compensation
Hednesford Hills, Saturday/Sunday July 30th/31st 2011
mkpics.netGraham Brown reports:  He may have lost his world title at Ipswich but Chris Haird gained some significant compensation at Hednesford by winning his first National title, picking up the lead after pre-event favourite Shane Murphy went out. The rest of the podium places had a distinctly Northern Irish look about them though, with Gary Woolsey following Chris home in second ahead of John Christie and Keith Martin.

Entry & Qualifying

At one time, the entry for this looked like it might hit the sixty mark (and was indeed limited to that) but in the end, it never happened, a couple of cancellations and a practice crash bringing the eventual attendance who actually raced to fifty two.

That is still a lot of cars for any one NHR event and nobody was too disappointed with the turn out. In fact, the Northern Irish entry was way more than they usually get for a local qualifying round and if you counted Tommy Maxwell, totalled up to fifteen. They included newcomers Stephen Nevin and Adams Maxwell and Heatrick, as well as the still new Tigra of Thomas Dilly. I had initially been under the impression that this was Tom’s Merc re-bodied, but in fact that is now in the hands of Ray Harris, and very smart it looks too. It is also unusual in utilising a Ford Duratec power plant.

The above may leave you wondering what has happened to the Harris Audi. You might be seeing that again before too long, in the hands of a comeback man who once introduced a totally new marque to the formula, back in the day.

Harris was one of twenty four truly English entrants, among them Danny Hunn with a new paint and sign job (it didn’t have any signs at all during Friday practice!) and Ricky Hunn in the immaculate “Retro Peugeot” 205 seen on display at the World Final, which had a few fans coming over all nostalgic. Ralph Sanders was another in new-to-him (and unfamiliar white coloured) machinery, in the shape of Graham Luscombe’s most recent Tigra, while Colin Gomm had plumped for his Peugeot over his SLK. The rest of them were all driving what you’d expect.

There were just three Scots – and one of them was Willie Hardie, almost an honorary Englishman – but it was good to see Billy Bonnar and Ronnie McKenzie south of the border once more.

The Irish Republic raised seven entries (including James O’Shea) and there was one apiece from Wales (Mike Oliver), Germany (Winnie Holtmanns) and the Netherlands (John vd Bosch). As I said, not a turn out you could be disappointed with.

I’ll admit, I set off for Hednesford fully expecting Shane Murphy to retain his title (and I wasn’t alone in that), so it came as no real surprise when he recorded FTD in Friday’s practice session (13.547s). He also had quite a bit in hand over the field too, as can be seen from the next best: Mark Paffey – 13.688, John Christie – 13.689, Chris Haird – 13.694, Gary Woolsey – 13.699. No-one else was under the 13.7 mark. So far, so much as expected. But, as you might recall, Matt Simpson had a similar provable pace advantage over the rest at Ipswich, but did he go on to win the race? Well, we all know the answer to that one. And as usual, it would almost certainly be what Murphy achieved from the furthest back grid position the draw handed him, that would really matter. That wasn’t just true for him of course, but that is what separates the merely very quick from those sitting on the front couple of rows come final time.

There was one sad footnote to Friday practice, and that was Jack Blood’s crash right near the close of proceedings. A tangle with Terry Maxwell saw the yellow Tigra ‘B’ in big trouble as something broke in the steering during the impact, meaning Jack speared off hard into the infield embankment just past the pit gate. Unfortunately, the crash caused enough damage to put him out for the weekend

Six fiercely contested heats were necessary to sort the qualifiers for the main event, and these were going to take place in blazing sunshine and some serious heat. Quite nice for the spectators who like that sort of thing but not necessarily so good for the cars and drivers. When Saturday morning started out pretty cool, I did think to myself that this could be the sort of day when lap records tumble, but all that changed once the sun got into its stride.

So: everything looked set fair for a great day’s racing. However, things didn’t actually start all that well, as it took no less than three attempts to even get the warm up laps done for heat one! It’s not often you hear Paul Gerrard using words like “disastrous” over the Raceceivers before anybody’s even turned a lap in anger…

Eventually, the warm ups were abandoned altogether and it was straight into the first race with a clutch start. Sanders made a very lively getaway from row two and very nearly managed to blitz past everybody from the get-go. It didn’t quite work out for him though, and at the end of lap one it was Dave Brooks who held the lead over Harris, Brendan O’Connell, Blackman and Haird. Brooks pulled away from the rest amazingly quickly while Des Cooney went spinning on the West bend after a punt by Oliver, the latter gaining a swift black flag for his trouble.

Brooks continued to maintain a clear lead but it looked like he was going to face some stiff opposition sooner or later once Blackman and Haird were through to second and third. They were having quite a dice too, the outcome of which, even at this early stage, looked as though it might be vital in the final analysis. Malcolm got a bit of a bump from Chris as they headed into the West bend, a touch that put Haird in front by the time they got to the other end. With Brooks now in traffic, it wasn’t long before his pursuers were on him. Blackman snuck past Haird again before Chris was able to reverse the situation once more and get down Brooks’ outside along the home straight to hit the front. 

Despite the fact that Haird had got by (and pulled out nearly a quarter of a lap lead by the end) the Brooks Puma was proving far from ‘easy meat’, Dave putting up a spirited defence of second against Blackman, and Stewart Doak and Glenn Bell once they’d caught up too. In fact, Brooks seemed quite capable of holding them all off to the finish until a last minute tangle with the backmarking Nevin saw the #67 go spinning on the East bend, leaving him a lowly 20th instead of second.

Les Compelli set the early heat two pace for a couple of laps until suddenly slowing into retirement. That put Danny Hunn into the hot seat, until he shed a wheel and went spinning, bringing out the yellows. The main beneficiary of that was Tom Casey, who now assumed the lead. But with Mark Paffey quickly up from third to second at Tim Pullen’s expense once they were back under the green, it was obvious Tom was going to have to work hard to stay in front. 

And work he did, as Paffey went straight for the outside pass once he was with the leader and spent two whole laps out there trying to make it stick. Unfortunately, Shaun Taylor had spun earlier, his car sitting down on the edge of the inside line on the exit from turn two. This was not helping Paffey’s cause, as Casey was forced to go wider than usual at that point, although whether Tom needed to go quite as wide as he did was debatable! He did get black crossed with less than two laps to go (presumably for blocking) but in the end managed to both stay in front and remain un-penalised.

Remember what I was saying earlier about how it would be what Murphy achieved from his furthest back grid position that would really matter? It certainly looked like it was going to, as he started three cars from the back and only managed to get home 13th, commenting later that, “The car just never really got going”. It would certainly need to get going better than that if the title was to be retained, but there was damage done here for sure.

Heat three started less than well, particularly for Colin Smith, who really seems to have upset the racing gods lately. With an outside front row start, he obviously meant to make it count and tried very hard to go around pole sitter Dilly from the off. Dilly nearly pushed on into him rounding the West bend on lap one and actually did so second time around, sending Smiffy hard into the wall and attracting the Ulsterman an immediate black flag.

All of that left Gavin Murray out front ahead of the impressive Adam Maxwell, Ricky Hunn and a whole gang of others spearheaded by Jason Kew, Woolsey, Blackman and Haird. Woolsey was the one to break through this mob, darting past Hunn into the West bend shortly before the latter retired and Kewy went spinning at the same spot. There was some kind of coming together involving Hardie, Tim Pullen and Dickie Burtenshaw between turns one-two and then Brooks rotated at the other end, at which point the yellows got an airing.

When the race resumed, Murray had some breathing space created by the back-marking Kew sitting between himself, Maxwell and Woolsey. The two NI drivers were hard at it for second as soon as the green was back out, with some small contact between the pair putting Woolsey up to second as they left turn three. Gary wasted no time lapping Kew and setting about wresting the lead away from Murray either, but Gavin was having none of that and instead actually managed to put a bit of space between them again by flag fall. Haird and Blackman weren’t far behind them at the death either, two more significant places recorded there.

Heat four turned into the race of the day up to that point and kicked off with Gomm leading but immediately under pressure from Christie. Christie got on the outside trip and took over the lead going into the West bend. But there was a likely-to-be-significant scrap going on right behind him too, Gomm now having to square up to Murphy and a very handy looking Kym Weaver. Weaver managed to box Murphy in and overtake Gomm, which meant that Murphy had to devote a bit of time to passing Gomm too. The ease with which Murphy raced past Weaver (who wasn’t exactly hanging about himself) suggested Christie was going to have a fight on his hands sooner rather than later.

So it turned out, with John heading into traffic just as Shane managed to chase him down. Christie scythed through the backmarkers with Murphy matching every move but ultimately unable to find a way past.

The fifth encounter and first of the third round races brought the welcome sight of Smiffy’s BMW back on the grid, the damage not having been quite as bad as first thought.

Almost as soon as they were on the move, Phil Spinks passed fellow front row starter Taylor to head them around. Shaun was unable stay with this lead pack however, and it was soon Jason Cooper, Paffey and Doak who occupied the major places. Despite Spinks having pulled out a half decent lead, Cooper was able to close up and had just started to mount his challenge when an entirely unrelated incident went down on the home straight.

Sanders and O’Shea had had a bit of a get together, which led to them becoming involved with Bonnar, who went spinning on the East bend. This all happened just as the leaders were approaching, and Spinks was forced wide to avoid it all. Cooper was forced wide too, but managed to recover his composure slightly sooner than Spinks and therefore grab the lead. Phil fought back but before he could really try to redress the situation, Paffey was there too and down his inside.

Leaving Spinks to try and fend off another challenge, this time from Murray, Paffey got on with attacking Cooper’s lead but had failed to dislodge him by the finish.

The final heat adhered to the saving-the-best-till-last principle.

Pole man John Holtby managed to beat Hardie away but it was a somewhat scrappy opening, with David Casey spinning in the West bend and getting collected by Woolsey, Haird picking up a black cross and then Dilly smacking the wall coming onto the home straight. The impact knocked his wing off which was good grounds for a caution.

The green had only been back out for a second or two when Hardie sent Holtby spinning as they rushed the first corner. It got him an almost instant black cross, although this incident was not going to be uppermost in anybody’s mind for the next few minutes…

Hardie’s lead was immediately assaulted by Glenn Bell, Carl Waller-Barrett and Murphy, with Woolsey rushing to join in as well. Murphy zipped past Waller-Barrett at the West bend, Woolsey did the same half a lap later. Bell tried for an outside pass on Hardie but only succeeded in letting Murphy under him. Then it was Murphy’s turn to try the outside pass, which let Bell back under him! This was all getting really intense now as the first four finally managed to drop Waller-Barrett (who’d given a great account of himself) and get down to the end game. Murphy and Bell had been running side by side for several laps and, with the five lap board out, Bell finally managed to get himself properly ahead by about a fag paper. Murphy tried again to get past, Bell weaved about a bit causing Murphy to clout him. Murphy got by again anyway into the East bend, Woolsey followed him through (the Raceceiver was alive with warnings for Bell and Murphy but PG was wasting his breath, this was not the kind of race where they were going to be paying any attention!) and still somehow Hardie was clinging onto the lead.

With three laps to go, the battle raging behind had allowed Hardie to gain perhaps a car length on the others but they were coming back at him hard now. Two to go, one to go, and Murphy was in position and desperately looking for an outside pass, only to find the backmarking (but entirely blameless) Ronnie McKenzie right where Shane needed to be.

Maybe that fact saved Hardie’s win, maybe it didn’t, but in the end it wasn’t going to matter as it all ended controversially with Hardie disqualified for the early incident with Holtby, handing the win to Murphy from Woolsey and Bell.

Hardie protested the penalty and got nowhere with that, subsequently upgrading it to the full appeal on Sunday morning. This was heard by four independent drivers – one each from England, ROI, NI and Scotland – who then had a secret ballot, which was unanimous in supporting the steward’s original verdict. Although I can quite see why Willie argued the point (a win here would have got him into the race; his results without it wouldn’t), apparently the video evidence available to those dealing with the protest and appeal was pretty damning. 

So, with qualifying done and dusted, it all left Haird on pole with Blackman alongside, Woolsey and Murray on row two and Paffey and Bell right behind. Thanks to that thirteenth place, Murphy was back on grid seven and with Christie still another rank further back, an interesting race was definitely in prospect.

Just before we move on to that race though, I feel I should just touch on the good showings by a few drivers who haven’t had a mention yet. I did say that Adam Maxwell had looked impressive early on and he carried right on the same way throughout the day. Grid position fourteen in this company was no mean feat. And, on that same theme, check out the positions gained by John vd Bosch and Winnie Holtmanns, both of them earned the hard way and entirely on merit.


The Race – 75 Laps

Sunday’s weather turned out to be every bit as hot as Saturday’s had been – at least to begin with – so it was going to be a fairly gruelling race for man and machine alike.

Following a pair of finely controlled pace laps, Haird was first to break at the green, but Blackman was wide awake too and hauled himself in front going down the back straight before Haird forged in front once more as they exited the West bend for the first time. Blackman, Woolsey and Murray settled in behind him, with Paffey, Murphy and Bell forming the next group a short way back. Tom Casey had a spin at the East bend and Ian McReynolds also went round at the other end, right in front of the leaders, though luckily without involving any of them.

Cooper had managed to nip past Murphy somewhere while Paffey had somehow got himself stuck on the outside line in his duel with Bell. They went at it until they touched, eliminating Glenn with a flat and allowing Christie to blast past the pair of them. Then Murphy re-passed Cooper under braking into the East bend, bringing the order to Haird, Blackman, Woolsey, Murray, Murphy, Cooper, Christie, Doak, Keith Martin, Paffey and Weaver. Haird was just starting to draw clear of them all when David Casey went spinning backwards into the barriers along the back straight, bringing out the yellows with eleven laps gone.

With the race back under the green, Haird went right back to pulling away at the front, while Murphy cut under Murray as they crossed the stripe to move up another spot. Christie took Cooper entering the East bend and suddenly Blackman was in trouble, smoke pouring from the left rear as a driveshaft bearing gave up the ghost.

Malcolm’s departure allowed Woolsey and Murphy to adopt second and third, but none of them were going much further at race speed, a West bend wall banger for Harris and Adam Maxwell and a back straight spin for Kew setting the yellows flying again.

With the cars sitting idling, a sudden scream of revs from Murray’s car signalled problems there. Shutting the motor off and getting out to have a look under the bonnet was enough to ensure Gavin’s disqualification, but he already knew it was all over, having discovered a broken throttle link which had dropped down and jammed the lot wide open. As he said, “It’s a good job that didn’t happen a minute earlier!”

Following the resumption of hostilities, Haird positively leapt away this time on sight of the green. Murphy was of course now able to pile the pressure on Woolsey, but initially it wasn’t getting him anywhere, as Gary was forced to defend mightily. The blue flag and an R/C warning didn’t shift him either, but Murphy simply took to the outside and went charging past. He was able to leave the other placemen behind pretty quickly, but Haird was doing the same to everyone.

Eventually the leader encountered traffic and a lengthy period of cat and mouse ensued, as Haird and Murphy cut through the backmarkers, each by turn losing a bit of ground then gaining a bit. When they were finally back on open road, there had been no nett loss or gain at all between the pair and Haird’s sizable lead remained intact. And then came the yellow Murphy so badly needed. Mark Heatrick’s bonnet had been flapping away at one edge for a long time, but then finally parted company with the car, debris on the course always an automatic caution these days.

So now it was going to be a straight fight, Haird against Murphy. There were three backmarkers between them and Woolsey and Christie, and to be frank, there really were only two drivers in it for the win now.

Coming back under the green flag for what was to be the final time, there were 25 laps remaining, giving rise to the usual queries. Whose car had liked/disliked the little ‘rest’ caused by the yellows the most? And whose tyres were in the best shape for the run to the finish? 

It certainly looked like Murphy had everything it took, as he moved tight up onto Haird’s bumper and simply pressed, and pressed and pressed until Chris basically just gave him the inside line going down the home straight. In a flash, Shane was in front going through the East bend. He clearly had plenty still in reserve too, as he pulled away fast. 

Trevor Hill photoWe had just reached the point where I was cursing myself for not taking a bet with somebody about Murphy still winning even from grid seven, when I heard a short, sharp scrape as 970 entered the West bend. It was caused by the front spoiler hitting the deck briefly as he turned in and I knew it signalled trouble. Murphy knew it better than me, and had to lift sharply to stop the car going straight for the wall. It took a few seconds for Haird to catch him but, by the time they came around again, it was obvious Shane’s right front tyre was down, the pop-off valve having er, popped off, so to speak.

This cruel luck obviously handed the initiative back to Haird, just as fifth man – Doak – also departed in a cloud of smoke from a thoroughly blown up transmission.

Murphy tried to limp on and was in fact still second not far short of the five lap board, but was eventually forced to park it. That left Haird with nearly half a lap over Woolsey and it was effectively all over. Chris carried his advantage all the way to the flag, with Woolsey second, Christie third and Martin fourth, just as a little reminder that Northern Ireland is as powerful as ever in the world of NHR racing. But it was Haird’s win, his first ever National title, and if he’d needed a bit of luck to get it, so be it. As the great Richard Petty once famously remarked, “If ah could be lucky or good, ah’d rather be lucky”. It’s a brave man who’d argue with anything Petty has to say about racing.

That just left the Grand National to round off proceedings. Non-National championship qualifiers got ‘first dibs’ in drawn order at the front of the grid, with ‘Nationalists’ at the back. 

Mikey Godfrey probably didn’t need to pop into his local chemist for some laxatives when he got home, after his car bogged down and failed to go when the green flag came out, the entire field rushing down on him in a way that’s guaranteed to get your attention! To add to the fun, ‘Smiffy’ lost a wheel during all this, due to some weakened components previously unnoticed after his earlier shunt.

With order restored, they set off again, this time with Taylor leading and clearly ready to try and get some sort of trophy out of his weekend. He was being pressed by Danny Hunn from the outset though, Danny going by into the West bend shortly before Les Compelli also found a way through to claim second.

Then James O’Shea went spinning along the bank stretch and cannoned backwards and hard into the infield embankment John Holtby found last year. This was certainly good for a bout of yellow flags while James was attended by the medics, although he did get out and walk to the ambulance under his own steam, I’m pleased to say.

They’d barely got going again, with just enough time for Dick Hillard to relegate Taylor a further spot, when the yellows were back out for Taylor, who’d spun and ended up in a T-bone with Kew. This hadn’t turned out to be one of Jason’s better weekends…

With the race restarted again and Murphy now up to fourth, this looked like a foregone conclusion. He immediately got on the outside trip, dived past Hillard crossing the start/finish, Compelli down the back straight and then Hunn rounding the East bend. That was very much that as far as the lead went, but there was a fair old dice going on for second as they neared the finish, where Hunn just managed to hold on to it from Murray, Hillard and Bell.  Graham Brown

Personal footnote: I’d like to thank everybody who said such pleasant things to Angie and me at Hednesford, and indeed beforehand, via text, e-mail, etc. If I named everybody here this article would stretch a lot further than it has already, so my apologies to all those I’ve left out. But I should mention David Haird, Steve and Lorna Burgess, and Andy Godfrey (and Mikey via his blog) for all being particularly kind. Thanks also to Mick Reece for welcoming us at the gate, Chris Earl for the results sheets and Brian and Chris for keeping us ‘in the loop’ whenever possible. And of course, many thanks to DW for the permanent free passes. It was all much appreciated and made what could have been an awkward first meeting as ‘just spectators’, so much better. GB  Martin Kingston and Trevor Hill’s photos
Heat one: 115,911,996,9,224,39,734,72,940,14,162,962,844,960,369,977,27,966,74,67,952.  57 Disqualified for contact with 921.
Heat two: 961,60,482,500,467,66,994,95,190,6,31,491,970,943,76,174,261,209,278,100,187.
Heat three: 95,940,115,911,76,9,467,977,57,60,482,369,(339),174,500,67,100,152. 339 Disqualified for contact. 966 Disqualified for contact with 491.
Heat four: 962,970,209,844,994,261,961,278,960,943,31,27,734,14,224,996,6,66,74,7,963,187,952,39.
Heat five: 482,60,14,95,996,76,174,962,190,960,491,152,100,963,734,467,224,74,39,844.
Heat six: (72),970,940,9,162,66,911,209,115,994,961,67,777,278,943,6,761,977,187. 72 Disqualified for contact with 6.
National Championship: 115,940,962,994,14,60,209,482,6,66. NOF.  844 Disqualified for passing under yellow flag.
Grand National: 970,339,95,31,9,777,14,482,115,962,66,39,943,174,152,187.
As I no longer have access to steward’s reports, it should be noted that this is not a definitive list of penalties and there were probably others not detailed here. Apologies in advance for any mistakes relating to this area of the results.