The Palmerston North Pumas begin tonight's New Zealand stockcar teams championships as the hottest of favourites.
However, the defending champs will need to overcome two major stumbling blocks – they've never been able to defend a title and have never won at their home, Robertson Holden Speedway.
Pumas captain Peter Rees said his team might be the strongest on paper and the record book may be against them but neither will count when they tackle 11 other teams from around the country tonight.
"What's gone in the past doesn't mean anything," Rees stated. "Sure, we've got a strong team but it's about delivering on the night and we've prepared as well as we possibly can."
Rees is joined in the Pumas by Ron Tye and Gavin Taniwha, also in Rees-built tanks, while Alec Wilson, Josh Prentice and Gary Davis were part of the lineup which won in Wellington last year.
He said the pressure was intense from other Palmerston North drivers not selected for the team.
"You could pick two other Palmerston North teams who would be in with a good show," he said.
"If we don't win, it could be the last teams champs for all of us; that's where the pressure is."
Rees said the bevy of young drivers coming through, such as Prentice, Jayden Ward, Jordan Dare, William Humphries, Mitchell Hill, Chevron Taniwha, Asher Rees and Taylor Lampp, were all destined to be the stars of tomorrow. "They're just teenagers but all of them have big futures and, as we've seen with the young team that raced at the stampede, they all want to teams race."
The TAB has the Pumas as hot favourites ($2) and Rees said though he's wary of all the teams, the Wellington Young Guns and the Auckland Alleycats (both at $5) will be tough to beat.
"The Young Guns may not have the team they have had in the past but there's plenty of talent still there and you don't dominate this title for the last 10 years and then write them off now."
The Young Guns should breeze through group three against the Kihikihi Crusaders and Blenheim's Eastern States Titans.
Although Dale Robertson and Richard Gaskin have gone from the Young Guns, they've still got Paul Gaskin, Josh Kahui, Kyle Lane and former Puma Scott McIntosh in their team.
The winners of group three will race the winners of group two which should be a close battle between the Gisborne Gladiators, Waikato Raiders and Wanganui Vulcans.
The Gladiators finished third last year and are one of the few teams who could match the Pumas' speed.
The Wanganui Vulcans can never be discounted, especially when led by hard-charging Dion Mooney and with Hilton Parker in the team.
The winner of the Pumas' group will face hardened group one winners with the Meeanee Maulers, the Alleycats and the Stratford Stormers all capable of winning a semifinal spot.
The Maulers are led by Regan O'Brien and Aaron Iremonger, while the Alleycats have new national No2 Bernie Fox, Gary Lonergan and Trevor Mason.
- Manawatu Standard