THOMASEN LEADS POLARIS TO VICTORY, WRITES COLIN SMITH
They are called UTVs or Side-by-Sides and sometimes the uncharitable description “weedsprayer” is still used.
Now, the new breed of competition UTVs has reinforced a growing “giantkiller” reputation, with Ben Thomasen driving a 1000cc Polaris RZ-R XP to victory in New Zealand’s longest off-road endurance race at the weekend.
The Tauranga driver not only won the 1000km Polaris-sponsored NZ1000 — he dominated. Consistently fast laps of the 54km forestry course and some slick pit work put Thomasen a full lap clear of much larger and more powerful machines during Saturday’s 500km of competition.
On Sunday, Thomasen retained that lead. When he did strike trouble, a slice of racing luck minimised the delay.
The NZ 1000 is the successor to the two-yearly Taupo 1000 and found a new home in the Ngatira Forest near Lichfield, South Waikato. The first UTV entries appeared at the 2011 Taupo 1000 and raised eyebrows.
Two years later, there were more UTV entries. Thomasen and rally driver Phil Campbell shared a 900cc Polaris and threatened a podium finish before taking fourth overall. In 2015, the 1000cc RZ-R with larger wheels, more suspension travel and a wider track became outright contender.
On a tight qualifying track, Thomasen earned pole position on Friday and after trailing 2013 Taupo 1000 winner Clim Lammers (Hikurangi) — driving his Nissan V6 turbo-engined single-seat buggy — on the opening lap, Thomasen gained a lead he never lost.
Thomasen put himself in a commanding position by being the only driver in the 88-car field to complete the full 10 laps of racing on Saturday. He moved to first on the road again during the third lap of Sunday’s racing to maintain his one-lap advantage.
The only time his pace stumbled was when he picked up a left rear puncture soon after beginning Sunday’s sixth lap.
He found another Polaris competitor who had stopped with clutch problems and was able to borrow a spare wheel to make a fast roadside change.
With his one-lap advantage, Thomasen had been happy to settle in behind Sunday fast starters Raana Horan (Red Beach), Tony McCall (Manukau) and Lammers in the opening laps.
But Lammers was delayed by damaged suspension, McCall slowed with a fuel pump problem and Horan was halted by broken steering. Thomasen’s steady pace also pushed him to the front of Sunday’s standings.
“Today was mainly risk management,” he said at the finish. “It was about getting past the traffic quickly and safely and keeping up a good pace without hurting the car.”
While he’s enjoyed success in motocross, rallying and off-roading, Thomasen said the NZ 1000 win was his biggest motorsport accomplishment.
He said challenges of more than 15 hours are as much mental as physical and said Phil Campbell again played an important role in the campaign by providing radio communication from the pits. “There were times when I felt I had fallen off the pace and was going too slow. Other times I was pushing too hard but Phil helped me to keep track of the race, concentrate and stay consistent.”
James Buchanan (Auckland) in his Mitsubishi Evo-powered Class 1 car secured runner-up.
Off-road racing rookie Steve Rowe (Putaruru) drove another 1000cc Polaris to third place and McCall salvaged a fourth-place finish in his BSL Terra-Chev.
Dyson Delahunty’s drive to fifth place in another Polaris RZ-R 1000 was a significant achievement for the Papamoa College student who has yet to gain a driver’s licence for the road.