Hotbed of talent on show at Pukekohe

| Photographer Credit: Bruce Jenkins

Recently retired Toyota Motorsport Manager Steve Boyce could never have imagined the runaway success of his home-grown 86 championship, nor the role it would play in honing the abilities of four seasons’ worth of young driver talent.

As the championship begins its fifth season this weekend, both Boyce and category manager Geoff Short deserve praise for their vision and their unflagging support of rising race talent.

We would also have to acknowledge the work of the TRNZ team headed at the time by Barrie and Louise Thomlinson and of course Neil Allport for creating a true race car from the stripped out RC spec 86 road car. The advent of the series basically double the workload for Barrie, Louise and the team, and they responded admirably – even if at times the project seemed something of an orphan in following years!

But who could have foreseen that a single make series for a co-developed sports coupe would prove so influential?

In its first season, the 86 series kicked off at the inaugural Highlands 101, sharing the billing with exotica old and new as Tony Quinn’s vision of a gentleman’s facility that would also host his Aussie GT series came to fruition. Numbers at that first race were decent, though they fade in the New Year as the cost of racing took its toll on the hopefuls.

Over the following years, though, the series has propelled racers into motorsport careers both on and off the track.

Richard Oxton, son of multi-talented racer David, competed in between university engineering studies and is now working in 3D scanning for aeronautical and automotive companies in the UK and works weekends as number three mechanic in the West Surrey Racing BTCC team owned by Kiwi Dick Bennetts – which just won the 2018 championship.

Ash Blewett, 2016 Toyota 86 Champion, is now working in the UK as well. He is a race engineer for Double R Racing, attached to the British F4 Championship winning car of Linus Lundquist.

And Toyota Racing Series and Toyota 86 Series veteran Michael Scott is working as a race engineer with Lyall Williamson’s International Motorsport operation.

Michael Scott TR86
Michael Scott TR86

Speaking of the open-wheeler Toyota Racing Series, isn’t it more traditional for rising race stars to plot a career path up from karting, through single seaters and then back to tintops? Apparently not in New Zealand. This year, all the Kiwis in TRS had raced at least one season in the 86s. That includes the man himself, Kenny Smith, who joined the TRS field to notch up yet another NZ Grand Prix start.

The status quo with the 86s is that the series starts with – say – 15, 16 or 17 cars, some of them drivers who are drawn by the prospect of running at the annual V8 Supercar event at Pukekohe (this coming weekend).

Some of them fade away when the cameras are switched off, to be replaced by others clustered around a core of more serious racers who go wheel to wheel in battle for the title through all six rounds.

This year, Hamilton-based Geoff Short is a happy man as he looks over the entry list. Short can rightly claim the 2018-2019 iteration of the 86 Championship as his own.

In its fifth year the entry list is the strongest yet in both numbers and talent. Drivers were committing three months out from the first round. There are currently 11 confirmed with another five known to be ready to enter.

Some stand-outs:

· There are three drivers from this year’s MotorSport New Zealand Elite Academy: Christchurch 16-year-old Jayden Ransley, 18-year-old Aucklander Peter Vodanovich and 15-year-old Callum Hedge, who is the current Formula 1600 Champion.

· The previous two winners of the Elite Academy, 20-year-old Jordan Baldwin from Auckland and 19-year-old Jacob Smith from St Heliers have also entered.

· Horsepower isn’t everything. Australian-based Kiwi Tony Austin competed in Super GT in a turbocharged Mazda in 2009 before heading over to the UK to head up web giant Ebay’s UK automotive sales marketing effort. Taranaki 18 year old Campbell Stewart is crossing over from speedway where he raced Ministocks for three years and then stepped up to a 400 horsepower Midget at the age of 15.

· At 13, Cambridge’s Connor Davison is the youngest driver to compete in the history of the Toyota 86 Championship.

· Late entries to the field include Australian Jake Klein who took three wins, six podiums and two fastest laps in this year’s Australian Toyota 86 Racing Series.

Mark Baker

Mark Baker has been working in automotive PR and communications for more than two decades. For much longer than that he has been a motorsport journalist, photographer and competitor, witness to most of the most exciting and significant motorsport trends and events of the mid-late 20th Century. His earliest memories of motorsport were trips to races at Ohakea in the early 1960s, and later of annual summer pilgrimages to watch Shellsport racers and Mini 7s at Bay Park and winter sorties into forests around Kawerau and Rotorua to see the likes of Russell Brookes, Ari Vatanen and Mike Marshall ply their trade in group 4 Escorts. Together with Murray Taylor and TV producer/director Dave Hedge he has been responsible for helping to build New Zealand’s unique Toyota Racing Series into a globally recognized event brand under category managers Barrie and Louise Thomlinson. Now working for a variety of automotive and mainstream commercial clients, Mark has a unique perspective on recent motor racing history and the future career paths of our best and brightest young racers.

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