The season was the closest ever.
It became North vs South
Craig Boote made the most amazing season turnaround to win the Group 1a Championship.
Many of you would fully understand how difficult it is to try and punch 900 horsepower through a drivetrain, onto some rubber, and then down to the ground. It’s part of the joy of having a V8. But when you are attempting to do it under pressure, repetitively, with others around you trying to do the same thing right beside you - well when things go wrong, the wrong can be very hard to stomach.
This is what the teams and drivers deal with each time they head to the track to compete in the NAPA Central Muscle Cars, and during the final two rounds of the 2021 season some felt the pain more than others, but at the same time, some also received the most amazing feeling you can get from Motorsport.
The Group 1A car pilots were so close in regards to results and points, that it had become impossible to determine who had the leading form. Across the season the Group 1B and Group 2 mobs had sorted themselves out with Shane Johnson and Andrew Sinclair only needing to remain consistent. Their job was relatively simple, stay on the track, stay out of trouble, and finish races. Both did that, and both received the applicable Championship rewards for their efforts - but in Group 1A things were slightly different, and they also had a new edge to them.
This is because the Southerners Michael Wallace, Andy Knight and Craig Boote were leading the Championship. The top 3 spots of a North Island based category were held by those who dwell down below. It was to be fair a fantastic thing, it added some spice to the Championship, it added superb rivalry, and of course it added tension and pressure.
Wallace was on top due to his superb consistency across earlier rounds, he had the ‘simple’ task of finishing the final 8 races of the season and from that would receive the plaudits, but when his engine let go during the opening stanza of Round 5 the entire Championship was turned upside down.
Then there was another smack. Andy Knight had a front suspension failure and he too was suddenly out of contention. Now it was Craig Boote leading the way with the 2020 Champion Dean Hansen in hot pursuit - and of course - Angus Fogg now had his name appearing near the top of the leaderboard.
Let’s take a moment to recap here though, Round 1, Race 3, a massive crash between Boote and Fogg. Both cars looked in dire shape and their Championship runs seemed over before they had really begun, but neither wanted to end it there and both cars were repaired and ready to go for Round 2. They were both on the back foot but they knew that while misfortune happened to them, it could also happen to others - and it did. Of course don’t forget that Fogg had also lost an engine in Round 1 so his season was even more messed up at the start than anyones.
Plenty of big names were falling away as the season continued, engines, gearboxes, diffs, and while that happened Boote and Fogg were clocking steady points. To be realistic, at Round 2 both of those drivers were probably there to simply enjoy themselves, but as the season progressed they could see that there was a small light at the end of the Motorsport tunnel.
Skip back to the final two rounds, Fogg had clocked up massive points by this stage but was theoretically still too far away to launch a full campaign for the top spots, while somehow and in some way, the Motorsport gods had smiled on Craig Boote and he was now leading the Championship. It was the most topsy-turvy situation ever seen in the category.
So aside from the breakdowns that turned Round 5 on its head, the outing at Pukekohe was as normal as ever - that being high risk, nerves, and high speed excitement. It was however Round 6 that made the grade to become something special.
It was no longer a top 3 held by the Southerners, Boote was ahead, Hansen had somehow found himself 2nd, while Andy Knight was now 3rd. It therefore came down to math, the points differential between the drivers.
To make sense of it all you need to understand that the NAPA Central Muscle Cars has a brutal penalty regime. If you touch another car and cause damage - even minor - you are penalised 50 points and that hurts you massively. So if you add that to the potential of not starting or not finishing a race, you can see the dilemma the drivers face.
It does however have a minor downside, while it protects cars, it does at times stop the potentially risky but rewarding and entertaining passing maneuvers - however equally, given that it is not us paying for damage repairs, you can’t go around saying its a bad rule.
A driver gets 50 points for winning a race, 49 for 2nd, 48 for 3rd and so on. What made this more exciting than normal was that points differential. Only 10 separated Boote from Hansen, and while there was clear air of sorts back to Knight in 3rd, he was only 36 off Hansen so mathematically, if Hansen had any issues Knight could pounce.
Then there was Fogg. He was only 11 points away from Knight and all of this made things highly entertaining. But wait there's more.
Michael Wallace had made the return after his 82 year old father worked around the clock to rebuild the engine. Now while the team were out of the Championship hunt, they had the potential to steal points, and get in between other drivers and therefore affecting the outcome.
Also, don’t discount the other drivers who while not fighting for a Championship they were still looking for their own good results and just like Wallace would take points, and also have an overall effect.
Knowing all this, it was a shocking start for Boote and Knight. Boote was 9th and 4th in practice and was highly concerned about his fortunes for the rest of the weekend. His team would need to work out why the Mustang was not performing as it should, and they only had a small window to sort it.
Knight was in even more trouble. His engine let go during the opening practice, they immediately set to removing it and then had to wait for one to arrive from Palmerston North. It would be a weekend of no practice and an untested power plant.
When qualifying arrived everyone was glued to the live timing - and immediately things went crazy.
Fogg took pole as expected, but Hansen made the biggest statement of all claiming 2nd fastest which put him on the front row for Race 1. Meanwhile his closest rival and points leader Boote was in big trouble - 8th.
Boote wasn’t helping his own cause, and with the likes of Porter, Wallace, Teki, Spratt, Coker starting the first race in front of him he had plenty of issues to deal with. But what about Knight? Well he was still dealing with the engine issues, he would start at the back of the grid with his run for the Championship seemingly gone.
So now everyone could see how the Championship was doing flips and spins before the first race - and by the end of that opening stanza, it had become even more insane.
It wasn’t because Fogg won, nor was it because Hansen and Boote finished within 2 places of each other, it was because Andy Knight came from 18th to finish 2nd. It was arguably the most outstanding drive of the season for two reasons, firstly because it was just awesome, and secondly because it kept him well in the hunt.
As Race 2 appeared, and to add pressure and drama, the points were shown to the drivers and it was simply incredible. Boote’s lead had gone from 10 to 2, while Knight and Fogg were now even in 3rd overall with 3 races remaining in the season.
Now another interesting part of the NAPA Central Muscle Cars is the reverse handicap grid for Races 2 and 3. It adds drama, it adds entertainment, but to be fair it was the last thing that the top 4 drivers wanted - and it didn’t disappoint.
When the race finished, there were problems afoot. Race control had found drivers with false starts, and Boote - who finished 2nd the race - was deemed to have ‘broken out’. This is a rule within the club in regards to your qualifying and opening race pace to ensure you don’t sandbag for a better result in the handicaps.
Boote’s problem, albeit a good one, was that his team had finally given him a good car and because of the extra speed he would be punished.
It wasn’t until Sunday morning that the results could be presented. The officials had to study the footage to work out who did false starts and also calculate Boote’s misfortune - and when the news came through, well it was Hollywood script stuff.
Boote’s penalty dropped him from 2nd outright to 14th, however he was in a way slightly lucky as due to Hansen running on old rubber his results were average, this meant that coming into the final two races of the season, Boote and Hansen were even stevens. That’s correct, after 5 rounds, and 22 races the top two drivers were equal on points.
To add to the excitement, Fogg and Knight were only 1 point apart with Fogg gingerly holding the lead.
It’s here that you remind yourself of all the issues these drivers had across the season. The engine and component failures along with spins and that massive Boote/Fogg crash in Round 1 and you think how on earth after all of that can these drivers be in this position. It is simply staggering.
So the season would be wrapped up with a single handicap reverse race and a standard grid race.
Race 3 was juicy to say the least. Fogg made a rare but crucial error allowing Knight to pass and it put them back on even points. Boote beat Hansen by 2 places, which meant he was leading the Championship again going into the final outing - by only 2 points.
To add more flame to the Championship fire, both Knight and Fogg were starting on the front row and they had enough points to finish in 1st and 2nd - if Hansen and Boote had crashes or didn’t finish. It’s at this point in time that you run out of superlatives to describe the situation.
It’s difficult to describe the feeling coming out of the final race of the 2021 season. Two things happened that nobody ever wants to happen - but it is Motorsport after all.
Halfway through the race Rodney Heads lost a wheel from his stunning Torana. It sent him off the track, and when he hit the grass he spun, the car dug in and they went airborne. It was scary, and it was messy. Thankfully he was able to walk away, but his car will require a significant rebuild. This however caused issue number two - the safety car.
When the incident happened, Fogg was leading Knight, with Boote in 3rd. Hansen, needing to finish 3 spots ahead of Boote, was down in 5th. It took a long time to recover the Torana, and this meant laps were chewed up. The chequered flag fell under safety car circulation.
No it wasn’t the ideal finish, but it wasn’t entirely bad either. It was just another segment that added to the incredible season long drama.
Craig Boote had made an incredible comeback. From an almost written off car to winning the Championship. The stories up and down the garages are full of heartbreaks and jubilation, and the spoils are well deserved for all.
Will we ever see a season like this again? Well one can only hope so.