New game on for Astle
Most citizens would find the idea of standing in front of an angry man hurling a lump of cork and leather at them at 150kmh from close range a fairly harrowing prospect. But Nathan Astle thinks it's a walk in the park compared with his latest sporting challenge.
The former Black Caps cricketer, who played 81 tests and 223 one-day internationals for New Zealand, no longer has to worry about fast bowlers frothing at the mouth as they try to knock his block off or his stumps askew.
Instead, he is fully focused on finding his way in the sprintcar class. They are the fast bowlers of the speedway scene, 800 horsepower barely contained in a package that weighs little more than Astle's cricket gear bag used to before he retired from the international scene in 2007.
Astle is one of the entrants in the Tyre General South Island War of the Wings sprintcar series, a 10-meeting swing through Christchurch, Blenheim, Nelson, Cromwell, Ashburton, Greymouth, and Dunedin, which has a prize purse of $60,000 and is attracting fields of 15-20 of the barely guided missiles.
This weekend sees a double-header round as Eastern States Speedway near Blenheim hosts the series on Friday before Nelson's Tahuna Beach Holiday Park Speedway takes a turn this Saturday.
Astle is itching to have a go on Richmond's cozy oval.
"I've been to Nelson once and it looks like it will be a bit of a test for me. There aren't many straight bits and the corners will arrive pretty quickly," said the 41-year-old pre-school operator and father of Liam, 8, and Alyssa, 6.
Astle had been a closet speedway fan throughout his long cricket career. He would duck out to Ruapuna or Woodford Glen when his summer schedule allowed, despite regular ragging from some of his team-mates.
"Not everyone gets speedway but you only have to spend a little bit of time in the sport to see how passionate these guys are and how serious they are about what they do," Astle said.
He started in the modified sprint class at Ruapuna and raced there for two seasons before stepping up the grades this year to a Triple XXX chassis sprintcar sporting a fuel injected 410 cubic inch aluminium engine gulping methanol fuel.
While the modified sprints were a great place to start, the Challenge Fuels 10C sprintcar has caught Astle's attention.
"It's the ultimate, it's a frightening piece of machinery . . . actually, not frightening so much as it gets your attention and keeps it," he said.
"The moment you relax in a car that accelerates as hard and handles as aggressively, something nasty can happen very quickly."
Astle made a solid start to his sprintcar career in round one of the series at Ruapuna last weekend. Despite failing to finish his third heat after incurring some cosmetic damage, he started the final 20-lapper ninth on the grid and made his way up to sixth overall on debut.
"I'm stoked with that, considering that was the first night I had gridded up in this class," he said. "The quality of the cars and drivers was as good as we have seen in the South Island in a long time so to get sixth, hey, I loved every minute of it."
The series is seen as a show of faith in the class in the South Island, where individual clubs have often struggled to draw the competitor numbers to put on a show. With at least 15 drivers committing to the five-month travelling roadshow, sprintcars are looking in good health.
"Four cars isn't a race, it's an exhibition," Astle said. "If we can carry good numbers through 10 meetings, sponsors and spectators will take us seriously."
Astle is happy to trade on his cricket career, too, if it helps. He has an exclusive sponsorship package with Challenge, which was looking for a marketing opportunity. As the holder of a world record for the fewest number of balls faced to score a test double century, Astle had instant name recognition.
"Speedway doesn't get the respect it deserves in the wider sporting arena," he said. "The people I have met in the last three seasons have been totally goal-focused; they just don't get enough credit for how good they are at what they do.
"I'm happy to be the angle for a story or the name that people might know if it helps raise speedway's profile. I actually want the sport to trade off that, if there's some value there."
Astle's aware that he's still finding his way in a sprintcar but he said his cricketing past helped him prepare.
"If you're not quite on top of it, both sports happen at 100 miles an hour but, when you are feeling good, everything slows down and you reach a calmer place.
"At the moment, strapping into the car puts the fear up me more than facing a fast bowler did but, hopefully, I'll find it gets easier, the more races I get."
Tyre General War of the Wings, backed by Rattle and Hum Bar in Nelson, Tahuna Beach Holiday Park Speedway, Saturday.