Battle of titans at Woodville

ANDY MCGECHAN
Last updated 12:00 24/01/2014

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Rotorua's Michael Phillips would like nothing better than to satisfy his sponsors, thrill his many fans and realise a life-long dream and he can do all three this weekend if he wins the New Zealand Motocross Grand Prix at Woodville.

The only trouble is, the two-time former New Zealand champion is going to have to muscle his way past the title favourite, fellow Honda star and reigning national MX1 champion Cody Cooper, as well as dozens of other fire-breathing superstars among the more than 500 entrants, many of them arriving from overseas for the event tomorrow and on Sunday.

This year celebrating its 53rd birthday, the big annual event has grown from humble beginnings in 1961 - the brainchild of former Grand Prix motocross ace and international enduro racer Tim Gibbes, of Palmerston North - to now rate as one of the biggest standalone motocross events in the southern hemisphere.

The two-day race meeting, set for the same familiar farmland track at the eastern end of the Manawatu Gorge that has hosted the racing every year since the inaugural running, has again enticed high-class entries the length and breadth of the country and also drawn in an impressive lineup of international stars.

With riders arriving from Australia, Britain, Japan and New Caledonia, Phillips' mission to win the main Woodville trophy has perhaps never been tougher, but it will probably be Kiwi rivals such as Cooper, Taupo's Brad Groombridge (Suzuki RM-Z450) and Christchurch's former national MX1 champion and 2010 Woodville winner Justin McDonald (Honda CRF450) who will rate among his biggest threats.

Waitakere's former national 125cc champion Ethan Martens (now on a 450cc Yamaha and racing in the MX1 class) and Paraparaumu's Jesse Donnelly (Kawasaki KX450F) have displayed exceptional form in recent months and they are also highly fancied this weekend.

Phillips has come very close in the past, finishing runner-up in the feature race at Woodville in 2011 behind Motueka's Josh Coppins.

He actually led the prestigious main race that year, right up until two corners from the end, when he then shockingly dropped his bike in a deep rut and gifted the victory to Coppins.

Phillips finished third equal in the MX1 class at Woodville last season, level with McDonald, but behind winner Ben Townley, of Tauranga, and Mt Maunganui's Cooper.

Phillips' buildup to this year's edition of Woodville has been going well.

The 27-year-old Phillips finished a close runner-up to Groombridge at last weekend's big King of the Mountain Motocross in Taranaki, so he knows he's on the pace, despite the fact that, before last weekend, he had not raced much at all since about June last year.

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"I've won at Woodville a couple of times in the MX2 [250cc] class, but never on the big bike," he said. "To win the MX1 class and the feature race at Woodville would be a dream come true. It's one of New Zealand's premier titles.

"It's doubly important for me to do well at Woodville this weekend because I need to try and impress a few race team bosses from Australia. I don't have a ride in Australian yet for 2014 and I need to put on a good show this weekend."

The River Race is always a popular feature of the Woodville event and, for this unique race, spectators can expect to see an exciting clash between Pahiatua's former United States cross-country champion Paul Whibley (Yamaha) and 2012 and 2013 Woodville GP motocross winner Townley (Honda).

Bay of Plenty's Townley, also a former world and United States champion, retired from fulltime professional racing last year but he will make a rare exception to debut in the River Race this coming weekend.

Racing extends over two days and caters for all ages and abilities and all bike sizes and types, with juniors and minis in action tomorrow and the seniors, women and veterans on the track on Sunday.

- Manawatu Standard

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