Blair Cunningham has identified the essence of a good superstock teams racer ... it's the ears and what is between them.
The 23-year-old Nelson bushman has bounced in and out of the Nelson Tigers in past seasons but this year his name is one of the first selected.
So what has made the difference?
"My ears aren't painted on any more," he said.
The knock on Cunningham in the past was that he would abandon his role mid-race and stray from the Tigers' game plan. Simply listening and putting his instructions into action helped earn the Accessman Tank driver a guaranteed trip to Palmerston North and the ENZED Superstock Teams Championships this weekend.
The Manawatu meeting is the biggest of its kind. Thirteen provincial teams race over two nights before a sellout crowd of more than 15,000, with many thousands more keeping up through the internet.
Cunningham will join captain Dale Ewers, Jared Gray, Shane Harwood, Brett Nicholls and Dale McKenzie in representing Nelson, last year's second-placed team and the champions in 2010.
"Racing for the Tigers in Palmy is the biggest buzz," he said. "Even with your helmet on, the noise is huge, and the atmosphere is just wicked."
The Tigers have raced four times already this season, for a three-win, one-loss record. Cunningham was in the lineup for a pair of wins over Wellington and a damaging loss to national champions the Palmerston North Panthers.
Two laps into that race, Cunningham's car was spun against the wall in turn one when it was slammed from behind by team-mate Carey Harwood's Rees-Nissan V8, which was travelling at high speed in the wrong direction with the driver unconscious in the cockpit.
Cunningham glanced in his mirrors a split-second before Harwood's car made contact, with both Tigers drivers suffering injuries. Harwood still has not made it back to racing after fracturing an elbow and some ribs and taking a sickening blow to the head. Cunningham's lower back was injured, and his Tank superstock also took a battering.
"If I had known what was happening, I would have started moving so Carey could run into a car with momentum, but there wasn't even a moment to brace myself. It was just, boom!"
He was stood down for the away race against Wellington the following week but played a significant role in subsequent wins over the Christchurch Glen Eagles and the Wildcats when the capital team made a return visit to Nelson.
Since then, Cunningham qualified for the finals of the New Zealand Home Loans NZ Superstocks Championship on his home track and even won a couple of races at Nelson's most recent club night.
"It's unusual for me to win and a bit unusual to not have a lot of damage to fix," he said. "It's been a good week, just going over the car and getting everything in order for this weekend."
His Tank-style car is backed by Accessman and powered by a Toyota V8 built by highly regarded Blenheim engineer Graeme Morrison.
"There's nothing flash, it is just a stage-one engine, but we try to stay on top of our maintenance and keep good parts on the car."
The Tigers have drawn Christchurch and Hawke's Bay in qualifying tomorrow but Cunningham will not read anything into what appears to be a paw in the door for Saturday's finals night. The nature of superstock teams racing means that one well-timed hit can turn a race inside out.
And that's where the ears - and intelligence - aspect comes in. A team will generally have a plan revolving around one or two block cars trying to shield a run car to the chequered flag, with the fourth car in a roving role. But a crash can see responsibilities change on the fly.
Cunningham admits that in the past he might have got lost in the moment.
"We have a couple of the best in the business advising us, with Hig [Brendan Higgins] and Daryl Peterson. As a younger guy I needed to learn to listen."
He has some sympathy for team-mate McKenzie, runnerup in the New Zealand championships but the Tigers' sixth driver, meaning he is unlikely to see any action unless there are two Nelson drivers unable to front for a race.
"I've been where he is and you feel a bit pissed off, but that's a good thing because it means you care and you really want to be there," Cunningham said.
"He's a part of our team, it isn't four guys in the race, it is a whole group.
"We really want to be in a position to bring a championship home again on Saturday and that takes the total team getting in behind each other."
The Nelson Tigers are backed by Bays Brewery, Discover New Zealand Motorhomes, the Stables Restaurant and Bar, Mark Walford Engineering, ProKarts, the Collision Centre (Richmond), the McCall family and the Nelson Speedway Association.
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