Craig Finnikin became the first driver since July 26, 2009 to win a meeting final and follow up by taking the Grand National from the one-lap handicap, when achieving the feat at Belle Vue on Easter Monday.
Finnikin had been in contention during the opening weeks of the season, with a couple of third-placed finishes in finals at King’s Lynn last month and Skegness on Good Friday.
But while the Diss driver’s afternoon appeared to start quietly enough at Belle Vue, with a third place behind James Morris and Stuart Smith Jnr in the 22-car opening heat, it was anything but a quiet day at the office.
“It was a busy afternoon, as it was a last-minute decision to go to Belle Vue, because of a bit of damage at Stoke on Saturday night in the last race,” said Finnikin. “We had a good place in the heat, but we decided to change the diff before the second race – it was just not running right and I couldn’t stop the car fast enough.”
Josh Gibson led the 21-car second heat until Smith Jnr, who had mistakenly believed he was leading the first heat and as result did not threaten winner Morris on the last bend, made sure of the victory by taking the lead at halfway. Gibson held on to second place, ahead of Dave Willis, having his first outing of the season, with Frankie Wainman Jnr, Finnikin and Danny Wainman rounding out the top six.
Finnikin suffered more problems during the race. “I bent the front axle, and all the steering arm – but it was that hectic a race I can’t remember how I did it!” he said. “I also did the clutch, so it was a hectic rush to put another clutch in and sort all the front end out ready for the final.”
The 19-car final was reduced to 18 when Smith Jnr was towed off the track before the start.
“We’d got everything ready and I was really confident,” he said. The cars were parked up ready to be lined up for their grid positions but that was a far as the Milnrow driver got. “They pointed to me to line up and I lifted the clutch and immediately the diff whacked me up the arse… And that normally means you’re not going anywhere!”
A rose joint on one of the trailing arms had broken, meaning as the clutch was released to move forward the axle twisted round and travelled upwards, hitting the underside of the car, transmitting the energy through the seat.
Once the green flag was dropped, the race set off on a slippery track. But very quickly Finnikin had made up ground on the leaders. “I seemed to get to the pile-ups in front of me and a gap would open up just before I got there and I managed to get through,” he said.
By the time of a race stoppage for fence repairs on lap three, Finnikin was already up into second place behind Richard Bryan. Ben Riley was third, followed by Ben Hurdman, Bob Griffin and Mat Newson.
I seemed to get to the pile-ups in front of me and a gap would open up just before I got there and I managed to get through
After the race restarted Finnikin initially struggled to pass Bryan. “To be fair, he drove away from me after the restart,” he said. “I struggled when it was wet and it was about another four laps before I caught and passed him. The track was quite slippery after they watered it, because the water just sat on the top of the track and didn’t soak in – it was that compact.”
Once he took the lead, the former World and National Points Shootout champion had a relatively straightforward run to the flag – until he came across backmarker Bobby Griffin. “He spun right in front of me,” recalled Finnikin. “I hit him flat out, t-boning him at the end of the home straight.”
Surviving that scare, Finnikin pulled away to win by half a lap ahead of Newson, with Wainman Jnr coming through late for third. Only eight cars finished.
In the Grand National, with Finnikin taking the one-lap handicap, Mark Poole and Jack France tangled into turn three and created a roadblock in which Smith Jnr hit. “As a result I damaged my steering and it was subsequently a bit hard to drive after that,” said Smith Jnr.
The race was stopped with William Fenwick leading from Chris Alderson and Smith Jnr. Finnikin was still at the back of the ten cars still running.
“We made a few alterations to the car prior to the Grand National,” said Finnikin, “which improved it a bit more.”
The stricken cars remained on the track for the restart and would play a part in the outcome of the race. It didn’t take long for Smith Jnr to take the lead, but a fast Finnikin had barged his way up to second and was able to make contact with the Smith Jnr car to take him wide. But heading down the back straight, where the parked cars were, they both slowed up.
“Craig had caught me up and he was clever, because he wouldn’t pass me,” said Smith Jnr. “Both of us were doing about five miles an hour going down the back straight – he wouldn’t pass me and I didn’t want to pass him, as we knew the other would be heading into the parked cars if we were in front.
“As I let him go and tried to tuck in behind him, Mat Newson arrived and put me wide into the shale.”
Newson had closed in on the front pair and shoved Smith Jnr wide, allowing Finnikin to get away and on to a famous victory. Smith Jnr held on for second, with Newson third.
Coincidentally, Finnikin had come close to completing a final/Grand National double a year earlier at the same track.
But it was a clutch issue, which luckily 12 months later was discovered before the final, that proved his undoing. And once again it was Smith Jnr who he was battling with for the win.
“I won the final then and caught Stuart up in the Grand National,” said Finnikin. “He half spun, and t-boned him, but because I didn’t have a clutch, I couldn’t set off again.”
Photos courtesy of Colin Casserley