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GearHeads At King Of The Hammers 2016

Published February 20, 2016

The flapping sound of a tent stuck in the path of a cold wind awakens me and my eyes idly focused on the almost unnatural fiery red hues of clouds overhead, I laid still in a tent that started to resemble a litter box, thanks to the 50 mph winds pushing sand up under my tent’s rain fly for several of the prior nights. As I laid there, I refused to exit my warm fart sack sleeping bag even though last night’s beer and whiskey was knocking on my bladder. It was sunrise in the cold desolate desert of Johnson Valley CA and I knew making hot coffee and draining my nearly frozen grubworm would take some uncomfortable effort. That was about the time I heard and felt the rumble of a naturally aspirated American V8 as it roared to life, and like an adrenaline shot, I suddenly perked up ready to tackle the day. It seems the crew chief Trent was already awake and wrenching on the #49 Ultra4 racer, so that meant I needed to get my comfy warm @ss up and see if I could help out. Like right meow because it’s race day!

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For those that don’t know or have ever been to a King of the Hammers event, know that it is the SuperWorldStanleyBowlCup of Ultra4 off-road racing. And although we were with the 4400 Unlimited class of sky’s-the-limit power and drivetrain, there were old CJ’s, FJ’s, Broncos and Cherokees and various garage builds dominating the trails in the Legends and Everyman Challenge. This was a race that every GearHead could not only spectate alongside the racecourse but also put his or her money where their mouth was and compete in one of the hardest and most demanding off-road races in the world.

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Now sure this is no Dakar or Baja, this is those races condensed into a dangerous and almost laughable race course that strains every nut, bolt and weld on a vehicle as well as the sphincter strength of those racing. You have to find a fine line between being the tortoise or the hare.

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A race team has to not only build a vehicle for the ultra demanding rock crawling portions of the race but they have to setup the suspension of the vehicle for 70+ mph desert sections where some even hit 100+mph through whoops and turns that seem technical even for a low center of gravity rally car much less a 37-40in+ tire sized rock crawler that needs gobs of ground clearance for those 4×4 sections. And that is why I love this race, it is a testament to superior engineering and just like any racing, the technology trickles down to enthusiasts later on.

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Looking at the different setups, you see that there are your more common front-engine Jeep style buggies as well as you racecar setups that look like they’re on steroids. Then there are the mid-engine moon buggies that look as if Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos are entering Mars rovers in the race. And many of these racers have a lot of money dumped into them. A lot of money!

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Like any competitive sport, the highest class of racers always seem to outspend most other teams thanks to top sponsors, and you could deem this as an unfair advantage. When I spoke with the Co-Driver Troy Yoder of #49 Mistress Racing about the fact that their almost entirely personally funded race buggy lacked the latest and greatest “everything” on their vehicle, I was expecting a line about them not having the massive sponsors yet, and that they were at a severe disadvantage, but I was 100 percent wrong. Troy stated that being able to beat the expensive rigs and well funded teams was why he raced. It was the classic “David & Goliath” scenario and it made the victory taste that much sweeter. This was a race about overcoming all odds whether it be environment, mechanical, physical, financial, or simply moral, this was a race built upon problem solving and it tested everything you had to its limitations.

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The #49 Mistress Racing Team was made up of Matt Burkett, Troy Yoder and Trent Trennepohl as the main team but were backed by loads of family and friends all making the race possible. From supportive wives (that turned a blind eye to their men’s mistress, hence the name) to friends that would take 10 days off to drive across the states and help out whether it be wrenching, errands, finding parts, cooking and more. This was my first go around for this event and for the most part, I simply had a dumb and confused look on my face but tried to stay out of the way and help if need be. 

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When we weren’t assisting the race team in the days leading up to qualifying and race day, a group of buddies took our buggies out onto the racecourse to try out some of the famed technical sections that either shared Hammer in their name or they sounded like a sexual euphemism, like “backdoor” or Chocolate Thunder. I hitched a ride with Benjamin Moore who was a Co-Driver during the previous years race and had a LQ9 LS packed buggy sitting on 43’s. Along for the ride came Tim Hooper, Stan Oller and Clayton Harp who all have a following of sorts in the 4×4 community. It became clear when we entered the Hammer trails that these GearHeads knew their rigs and their capabilities and I just sat there with a $#!t eating grin and tried to remember to take some photos.

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We creaked and slammed into rocks and nearly had a few rollover accidents but it was a mass of good times and comradery and we returned every evening with all our limbs and digits intact and our buggies operational. I simply shut up and took mental notes from these seasoned vets as I watched their approaches, asked them about their rigs and why they chose what they did and it made for a unique and enjoyable learning experience.

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When race day finally came time, there was a tension and excitement arising and we all had our duties to fulfill. I headed north the the Remote Pit 1 with Anne Burkett and Dusty. We had to leave early and set up the pit which was no more than a tarp, spare, fuel tank and fire extinguisher as well as some performance enhancing banana nut bread. And we sat and waited as we would see two passes of each racer as the plan was to refuel on the second pass and change a tire if needed. #49 qualified in the top 25 after a time saving maneuver of driving off a cliff under the Nitto Tire (seen in video below) was performed, so we expected them soon.

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In the distance you could see dirt trail arising from the valley floor, it was a racer and they were hauling @ss, and then a chopper came up hovering, it was the leader and the race was on. We stood and watched as the racers would slam on their brakes for the pit zone 25 mph limit and painfully resist the temptation to haul through, one after another passed and sure enough #49 was looking good and gaining ground. We gave a visual inspection during the pass by and wished them well. Then after watching as some vehicles already had mechanical issues, our team was returning soon. But they were also in need of a rear tire as they had already had a flat. So in an instant they stopped and we rushed the fuel out and began. As soon as the nozzle was in I started to inspect weak points where I could see and Dusty started to jack the rear up. Before I was even done dumping in 7 gallons, there was already another crews pit team over helping Dusty get the car up and the tire replaced. This was mutual respect between crews and it was much appreciated. Before the racers were even ready, the buggy was dropped and ready to rock and they gave a thumbs up and hauled out in a plume of dust and exhaust.

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I was dropped off at the main pit at the sponsor Falken Tires where we would wait to assist if needed. This also gave me a great photo vantage point as cars would enter their second and third laps here, I sat and watched as the main sponsored pit team had a mass of matching uniforms and hats and we looked like the cast of King of the Hill sitting there trying to hook a race radio up to a 12v battery. We were the underdogs and we really didn’t give a $#!t because the race was going smooth and our boys were continuing to gain positions in the field without major mishap.

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We checked the GPS tracking stats from the Falken Team and waited for a visual on #49, then sure enough they motored on by without needing anything. They were sure close to being in the top 10 now.

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Since that was their 3rd lap start we wouldn’t see them until the finish as only remote pit teams at 2A and 2B were left. So we watched as they made their way effortlessly through Chocolate Thunder and then zoomed over to watch them descend through the Wrecking Ball and Jackhammer. As we waited to cheer on Mistress Racing once more, we noticed that we were seeing cars pass that were behind our team at Chocolate Thunder meaning that they were either passed, stuck or broken down yet we had no way to communicate at that time. Then we got back to camp only to hear the team had broken a front right axle and limiter strap and were pretty much dead in the rocks. This meant that unless we could get a replacement part onto another racecar, we were toast. And we were.

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What would have been a truly amazing underdog story of the only Ford powered 4400 Unlimited buggy finishing top 10 in a race where a simple finish alone gets you praise, the team would have to take a DNF. It was a dose of reality that is far too common in racing, it is a tough sport in every aspect and although the roots and camaraderie are prevalent, the path to becoming victorious is based on a cacophony of variables. If this race was easy, nobody would spectate and this sport wouldn’t grow the way it currently does. And that is why for every racer and team that takes on this race, we at GearHeads and certainly this writer salutes you.

Check out Mistress Racing’s Qualifying:

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Uriah Nazario
About Uriah Nazario

If you are easily offended and like to comment about how your feelings are hurt then you won't like my style of writing. I speak my mind (which is deranged) and yes it is often offensive. I am open for debate but not whining. I appreciate all my readers and hope my articles put a smile on your face.

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