The biannual 2013 ENZED Taupo 1000 was a race of extremes: the fastest, toughest, longest off-road race in the southern hemisphere. It was a weekend of cruelly dashed hopes and of records being set and broken.
On an all-new track some 13 km from the centre of Taupo, 125 hopefuls including two international teams and five former race champions lined up to test themselves over two days of punishing racing in mid-September.
The course ranged from flat-out logging roads where the top cars would exceed 220 km/h to slippery ‘firebreak’ downhills where speed would drop to 20 km/h.
For many competitors, simply finishing the first day was a challenge. The first three laps, in fact, saw many of the top teams in trouble or out of the race completely.
As the field headed out over the start-finish jump, pole man Hamish Lawlor had his tiny but mighty Suzuki Hayabusa-engined single-seat race car side by side with Butler’s Millennium Evo race car, Butler taking a wide line to challenge for the lead.
Albany racer Raana Horan was close behind the duelling pair. As the first lap developed, Horan’s massive Nissan Titan 4WD, freshly back from a season racing in Australia, tagged onto the rear of Lawlor’s 500 kg racer and then pushed through to lead.
Butler had gone down the order, as Tony McCall and Clim Lammers shouldered their way through going into the second lap.
At that point there were three former Taupo champions in the top five – two-time winner McCall, who had started outside the top ten, Lammers, who had three Taupo titles to his name, and Butler.
Nelson’s Ashley Kelly, in McCall’s old Cougar Evo, was on a charge. He had started 16th and pushed through to eighth at the second lap.
Then Horan was out, his steering smashed, and Lawlor was in the lead. McCall was up to second, Lammers right behind him, Butler next and then current unlimited class national champion Mal Langley next.
Former Taupo winner Clive Thornton had the biggest crash of his career, caught out by a fast left and flying into the trees at high speed, tearing corners and bodywork off his Desert Dynamics Chev race car.
One lap later, McCall too was gone, likewise crashing out at high speed and smashing suspension off the BSL Terra Chev. James Buchanan, winner of the 2013 Stihl Shop Woodhill 100, crashed at the same point.
The race was now between Lammers and Lawlor, with Lammers taking the lead as the Hayabusa pitted for fuel, then losing the lead on the following lap as Lawlor fought back.
The pair were pushing the pace, setting and resetting new lap records for the course. Behind them Kelly was a comfortable third, displaced on one lap by Otago’s Donald Preston but back in control and making sure of third for the first day.
At the flag, Lawlor had held off Lammers to be first to complete the ten laps. He set a new lap record at 34:15.596, taking six hours and seven minutes to race the 500 km. The attrition rate was high: only 41 of the 125 entries completed the full ten laps. Mal Langley was left to rue a pre-race comment that the Battery Town car had an enviable reliability record, its engine proving strong and fault free – he had blown the engine on lap seven and was out of the race.
The following day once more proved how cruel this race can be. Lawlor led out for the first lap on a drying track, but a lap later was swamped by the faster unlimited class cars. Lammers and Kelly flew into first and second, and Donald Preston’s Toyota Hilux was fourth and close behind Lawlor’s tiny race car. Canadian racer Rich backhand was sixth at the start, and was on a charge up to a potential podium.
Lammers pitted to fix a flat tyre, letting Ashley Kelly through to lead from Lawlor, but the fight was on: Lawlor’s rear suspension flew to bits on the start-finish straight, his stop for repairs pushing him down to 22nd place. Kelly took control, fending off the Eagle Nissan Turbo of Paul Smith for four laps until the Smith car’s turbo began to fail.
Lammers was charging back through the field. He flew past Kelly and into the lead on the seventh lap and was first across the finish line at the end of the day’s racing.
On timing count-back it was quickly apparent he had done enough to take a record fourth Taupo title, with Kelly a creditable second overall, just six minutes behind and Lawlor third overall, left to muse on what might have been.
Lammers set and now holds the Taupo lap record, having set a time of 31:59.163 for the 50.2 km lap.
The Taupo 1000 will return in 2015.