Palmerston North is not often the best at anything.
It's a fairly civilised provincial city, the university generates a bit of a buzz and there are some wonderful wind turbines along the eastern fringes . . . but there's just not a lot that Palmerston North does better than anywhere else.
Except superstock team racing.
For one weekend a year, this weekend, Palmerston North's oval is the one ring that rules them all.
This Friday and Saturday, Robertson Holden International Speedway hosts the ENZED superstock teams championships in front of crowds of 37,000 feral fans. It's a two-day event that draws supporters from around the world, it's when internet sites set annual record numbers of hits, it's when 12 teams of five drivers front up knowing that their hobby could cost them their life savings, even their health.
And there is no place Jared (Boris) Gray would rather be.
Count the Nelson Tigers captain in the group who probably wouldn't bother with superstock racing if it wasn't for the chance to wear the black and orange to represent his home club.
"It's what drives me the most, anyone who has teams raced will tell you it's the top of the tree, the best thing you can do," Gray said.
An 11-season Tigers veteran, Gray was this season named team captain. Dale Ewers had signalled his intentions to step down, probably after this weekend, and the Tigers needed a succession plan. The articulate 31-year-old Gray was an easy choice.
"Dale's been in the group to help me make that transition more easily," Gray said. "I've been there a while and being a Tiger is what truly motivates me so I suppose I was the next in line."
Gray began his career under the tutelage of consummate teams racers Brendan Higgins and Jason Moir.
They taught him how to read a race, how to adapt on the fly between the blocking and running roles required to get one team car home ahead of four opposition cars.
Until recently, though, Gray was a little limited by the machinery around him.
"I'm not going to bag my old car, it was a horse, but building the new car has given me more opportunities to be useful to the team," he said. "Because it is faster, I can make that mid-race switch now where maybe I could only go out there and hit guys before."
An engine meltdown just after Christmas was a setback but Gray's crew have built a new Toyota V8 stronger than the one it replaces. Forty laps in Nelson last weekend were enough to run in the new powerplant.
Gray is joined this weekend by Ewers, Shane Harwood, Blair Cunningham, Dale McKenzie and reserve driver Ben Taylor. The Tigers drew group two yesterday and will need to head off Rotorua and Great Britain at Friday's qualifying meeting to progress to Saturday's semifinals and final.
The Palmerston North Panthers, Manawatu Mustangs and Baypark Busters are the other three seeded teams with Auckland, Stratford, Rotorua, Wanganui, Hawke's Bay, Wellington, Christchurch and the Brits making up the field.
The Tigers beat Christchurch earlier in the season but lost to the Panthers in a close one in Palmerston North.
"We've had two races together, which is two less than we expected after Wellington couldn't front, but any is better than none," Gray said.
"The thing is, this group has spent a lot of time together, on the track, socially, quite a few of us even work in the same area, so we have that understanding already."
Gray has never lacked motivation or dedication in his Tigers career but he admits to wanting to help Ewers put an exclamation mark on his career.
"Dale's done everything in superstocks, been a great club man and a massive icon in the Tigers. If this is the end, we aim to give him something special to take away."
The Nelson Tigers are supported this season by Heslops Engineering, Footie Signs, ProKarts, ELF Lubricants, Super Liquor Richmond and the Nelson Speedway Association.
- © Fairfax NZ News