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On The Rock

Posted in Events on December 6, 2002
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Rock Crawlers Association of America (RCAA), formally ARCA, held its third event for 2002 in the Three Peaks Recreational Area near Cedar City, Utah. Just when you thought a rockcrawling event could not be any tougher, Cedar City moved the bar up another level. Most competitors at the RCAA event in Cedar City agreed this course was the toughest ever laid out across rocks.

It was 14 rock-buggy smashing, Jeep-eating obstacles designed to challenge the top competitors and their vehicles. "Only the strong survive," says Ranch Pratt, president of RCAA.

For a driver to win a rockcrawling championship, he or she must have a light but strong vehicle built with a finely tuned suspension system. The days when you could drive a trail-ready Jeep on an RCAA rockcrawling course have long disappeared.

The vehicles today are specially designed for rockcrawling competition much like motorcycles are built for the obstacles they navigate. Now, not only must the driver be skilled, but he or she must also have a skilled spotter and a support team to obtain parts and provide moral support and advice.

In the early days of rockcrawling competition, participants simply thrashed their trail vehicles. In addition to the broken axles, wracked suspensions, and severe tire damage, there was the inevitable body damage -- a lot of body damage. Many great trail rigs were reduced to scrap because of rollovers and nearly impossible obstacles.

During the first year, some disenchanted competitors walked away from the competition while others began redesigning their vehicles to be more competitive. For example, competitors began modifying their brake system to lock up the front and rear independently.

With a modified factory transfer case or an Atlas transfer case, the front and rear axles can receive power independently. By locking the brakes on the nonpowered axle and spinning the tires on the other end of the vehicle, gravity pushes the spinning tires downhill, thus moving one end of the vehicle sideways. This provides competitors with a way to negotiate sharp corners and align their vehicles with the gates without losing back-up points. Of course, vehicles with rear steer can now accomplish the same effect with greater ease and agility.

During the second year of RCAA competition, competitors began dialing in their suspensions with amazing effectiveness. We were soon watching vehicles climb up vertical walls and drive through terrain never thought possible. Also, more rock buggies entered the scene, and virtually overnight, the Goodyear MT/R became the tire of choice. During that second year, the difficulty of the courses was stepped up a notch. There were higher walls to climb and tighter turns to negotiate. In short, the obstacles became more technical and the vehicles more capable.

The RCAA series is finishing its third year of competition. Top competitors are now running second-generation vehicles. Many of the competition 4x4s have exchanged framerails for tube structures and body metal for easy-to-replace molded panels. In many cases, a modified Jeep tub rests on a tube frame.

Weight has become the most important issue when building a competition vehicle because a spotter and driver must be able to flip the vehicle back onto its wheels if it turns over. Drivers who use rear steering in an obstacle are now penalized, which has made it a last resort, and strategy has replaced pedal pressure.

It may be better to take out a gate (minus 10 points) on purpose than risk taking out three gates by accident or rolling over. Extra-credit areas within an obstacle provide an opportunity to gain more points or remove you from the competition. The playing field is competitive.

At the end of the two-day competiton in Cedar City, Ken Shupe and his spotter Kevin Nalley (Moose) won the event. The RCAA series winner will be determined at the next event in Johnson Valley, California. Mike Shaffer and his spotter Lance Clifford trailed Shupe by only two points.

John Currie and Jeff Waggoner were another two points behind Shaffer. This win puts Shupe only 14 points behind Mike Shaffer in the 2002 RCAA series. Next year will undoubtedly bring even lighter vehicles and new, more effective strategies.

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