After the dust settles on the SCORE Baja 1000 in November, racers get a little time to breathe. Major repairs are made to race-weary trucks. Suspensions are rebuilt. Shocks are revalved. Engines are bored, blueprinted, and balanced. Then, the holidays are enjoyed.
Not long after the New Year's ball drops in Times Square, the SCORE season kicks off once again. SCORE's season begins mid-January in Laughlin, Nevada. Laughlin is named after U.S. Postal Inspector Don Laughlin, who transformed a boarded-up 12- room hotel into a major attraction by installing a dozen slot machines and five gaming tables. Since its small beginning in 1966, Laughlin has sprouted a swath of hotels and casinos, which line the western shore of the Colorado River below Davis Dam. The valley is ringed by craggy red mountain ridges, which hint at the rugged terrain lining the outskirts of town.
2004 marked SCORE's tenth year in Laughlin. We anticipate many more years of SCORE racing in Laughlin, and we're hoping that more desert racing events use the Laughlin Desert Challenge as a template for success.
Why is the Laughlin Desert Challenge unique? The event follows a format that's logistically easy on racing teams and attractive to race fans. The race starts and finishes at the Laughlin Events Park, an arena tucked behind the Ramada Express Hotel and Casino. Grandstands await eager fans, along with amenities such as rest rooms, concession stands, a theatre-sized LCD monitor screen, and a race announcer to make sense of the action on the track. The course follows turns and jumps inside the Events Park, then heads out into the open desert, where deep whoops, abundant boulders, and blinding dust combine to make the Laughlin course a true desert challenge. Is Laughlin a 1,000-mile race? Nope. Instead, the Laughlin Desert Challenge is a little like a can of juice concentrate; lots of desert racing action is condensed into 12 short, brutal miles.
Another unique aspect of Laughlin's format is that not all the classes are on the track at once. Each racing class is part of a racing group. Racing groups take turns on the track, trying to complete a specified lap count within a specified time limit. This makes vehicle preparation just as critical as in a long-course event. Why? Because there's no time to fix major breakdowns -- anything more severe than a flat tire will take too long to fix, causing a DNF.
Laughlin is a four-day happening, kicking off with the Laughlin Leap long-jump contest Thursday night. For 2004, Riviera Racing's Jerry Whelchel sailed the Riviera Trophy Truck a phenomenal 160 feet 6 inches to set a new event record. Racers do not have to enter the Laughlin Leap Contest to sail over the huge jump -- it's left untouched and is part of the racecourse. Friday is set aside for tech inspection and contingency. Racers can take a reconnaissance lap on the course and pit crews can square off in the $10,000 SCORE Pit Crew Showdown. The racing begins three minutes after the crack of dawn Saturday, and follows the same schedule on Sunday. Want to sleep in? No problem -- the printed schedule allows fans to plan their schedules around their favorite racing classes. After a day's racing, racers and fans alike can relax and wash off the dust in Laughlin's hotels, or burn up a few paychecks in Laughlin's casinos.
So, who won? Gary Dircks of Dircks and Porter Racing piloted his yellow Ford F-150 both days, completing eight total laps for a combined 94.4 miles covered. The victory was especially sweet because Laughlin was only the fourth race for Dircks in SCORE's marquee Trophy Truck division. The Trophy Truck field is deep with talent, and Dircks admitted, "I couldn't look at the entry list for SCORE Trophy Truck because it was too intimidating for me to handle." Instead, the Anthem, Arizona, resident concentrated on handling the terrain and staying on the gas pedal. Dircks and Porter's Geiser Brothers-built Trophy Truck "never even sputtered once." What were the opinions about the Laughlin event? Dircks offered, "The format of the Laughlin race is a great way to ease into a new season and keep everybody excited about the next race." Thanks, Gary -- we couldn't have said it any better.
The Laughlin Desert Challenge kicked off Thursday night with the Laughlin Leap contest. Racers had the option of entering the long-jump showdown, which carried a $16,000 purse. Despite the chilly air, fans packed the stands, wondering who would break the old record of 140 feet.
Brian Collins offered something rarely seen in a Trophy Truck -- a third seat. Why? "Family is what racing is all about," commented Collins. For the 2004 season, Brian will be joined by daughter Courtney and son Brian Jr. The two will take turns in Trophy Truck No. 12's third seat. Brian Collins is also giving his children a taste of the pilot's seat; Courtney and Brian Collins Jr. will contest the SNORE series in their Lothringer 1-2/1600 VW-powered buggy. At Laughlin, Brian Collins shared driving duties with Baja great Larry Ragland.
Five short years ago, Josh Klenske was watching the racing action from the sidelines. "I'm going to do this," Josh told his brother. "Yeah, right!" came the reply. Josh paid no heed to the lukewarm response and signed up for a five-week welding class. Upon completing the class, Josh purchased a Millermatic 210 MIG welder and began laying down beads on chassis tubing. "I'm a budget racer," he added. "I still sweat the house payment, just like everybody else." Josh bought his Kawasaki-Green Ford F-150 already fabricated, but has changed "nearly everything" to suit his need for Class 8 speed and success. At the end of the Laughlin Desert Challenge, Josh laid claim to Class 8's Second Place. Anything else, Josh? "I'm the success story for all these prerunner guys." Congratulations, Josh, on a truck that's well built and well driven.
Where there's dirt and horsepower, you can bet Herbst Motorsports is nearby. The Red Team brought out the full armada, including Troy Herbst's shark-motif Class 1 "Truggy." Ed and Tim Herbst alternate in their F-150 Trophy Truck. The Laughlin Leap netted steering box damage, so they pulled into the pits for a quick repair. Red-shirt crew members were a blur of mechanical activity and got the repairs completed in a matter of minutes. The call was given for onlookers to "Back away!," and throngs of spectators, including this writer, had to scurry to the sidelines as Trophy Truck No. 1 throttled its way back into the battle.
The rear view of Miggie's Trophy Truck shows fabrication on par with the rest of the truck. The upper links are a departure from familiar four-link construction methods. The upper links converge at the frame instead of the top of the rear differential. Why? One word: packaging. The layout of the frame and rollcage lent itself more readily to this upper-link configuration.
The battle raged on as to whether or not four-wheel drive is an advantage in the desert. This photo seeks not to end the debate, but to supply additional fodder. Yes, Team Herbst's Trophy Truck has four-wheel drive. Yes, it's long on travel. Yes, it's durable. No, it's not available at an off-road shop near you. Mike Smith's fabricating talents created this frontend. The front differential is center-mounted, making for equal CV shaft lengths and minimal CV-joint binding. Mike Smith also makes his own shocks, which use solid pistons to force every drop of suspension fluid through the external bypass tubes. The CVs and shocks combine to control the monster 39-inch BFG T/As.
Espanol is Hector Salazar's tongue of choice, so he lets his driving do the talking when surrounded by English-speaking racers. Last season, Salazar's bright-red Blue Oval received an infusion of suspension trickery courtesy of Mexicali, Baja California's Curry Fabrications. Located in off-road racing's premier peninsula, Curry Fabrications attached new trailing arms to the rear suspension, and new radius arms were fitted to the equal-length I-beams up front. King bumpstops and dampers control the Goodyear MT/Rs. Salazar and his Class 7 Ranger are fluent in the international language of speed.
The SCORE rulebook is the document that fabricators live and die by as they morph stock vehicles into bump-swallowing wonder trucks. Anyone considering a competition venture in the desert would do well to pick up a copy of the SCORE rulebook, since many other sanctioning bodies use SCORE's rules as a baseline for their own. SCORE's rules prohibit Craig Turner's front suspension from cycling more than 16 inches. Why? Class 7 rules dictate that "no removal of material is allowed from framerail." That phrase means that Craig's truck must retain the frame's outward bulge at the coil spring. The bulge, which is found only on '00 Ford Rangers, prevents the upper control arms from drooping further. Aaaargh! A frame change is planned for the future; no doubt the new chassis will be constructed with the same high-quality TIG-welds seen here.
Longtime OFF-ROAD readers may remember Miggie Motorsports' custom-fabbed Bronco prerunner from the June '01 issue. That truck is still with the racing team and has since been joined by the Miggie Motorsports Trophy Truck. Michael Jakobson and crew bought their F-150 Trophy Truck from Walker Evans, although major changes have taken place since that transaction. The motor has been relocated 9 inches rearward, and only a few feet of stock framerail were left intact. The stock 'rails gave the Miggie crew accurate reference points to measure from. As with the Bronco prerunner, fabrication quality is topnotch and no expense was spared. A full two weeks went into getting the frontend set up just right. Trophy Truck No. 10 showed speed and consistency at Laughlin, averaging nearly 50 mph over the ever-deepening ruts and whoops of the course.
Peering through the wheelwell of Pflueger's Porter Trophy Truck revealed the purpose-built nature of a winning Trophy Truck. Suspension and steering components occupy space normally reserved for the engine. In a departure from most designs, Porter Trophy Trucks have a backward-mounted engine that feeds power to a V-drive. The V-drive turns the power 180 degrees to the rear, making its final connection to an offset rear differential. Why go to the trouble of a backward-mounted mid-engine configuration? Better weight distribution and more room for suspension up front are two good answers. The best and final answer? It's off the scale in the trick department.
Gary and Craig Turner discuss race prep while a crew member looks on. Gary, the namesake of GT bicycles, has a new BMX/freestyle venture called Alliant/Axxis bicycles. The Turner family shows gasoline-propelled speed, too, as Craig has won several Class 7 championships in his Fabtech-blue Ford Ranger. On Saturday, Craig diced with fellow Ford driver Rick Taylor, narrowly missing First Place by 18 seconds. Sunday's round had No. 700 running with its typical speed and finesse until a rock sliced the transmission into three chunks. Desert rocks make no distinctions -- they'll gladly thrash anyone's equipment.
Rick Taylor sailed through the night air to win the small-truck division of the Laughlin Leap. He was no less impressive during the sunny laps on Saturday and Sunday. While we sing the praises of extended-cab trucks, standard cabs hold their own set of advan-tages. Fewer square feet of sheetmetal means fewer pounds. Lighter weight equals less strain on drivetrain parts and less work for the motor. Generally, more standard cab trucks are produced. This makes for more plentiful replacement cabs in case you run out of talent and put your pride and joy on its lid. Taylor negotiated the Laughlin course with enough talent to spare.
There's no question that the phrase "so close, yet so far away" is overused, but nothing is a more fitting description for Marty Coyne's predicament after leading Saturday's Trophy Truck race in convincing style. Trophy Truck No. 5 simply ran out of gas. Racing rules prohibited Coyne from refueling or pushing the truck across the finish line. The checkered flag was tauntingly close, but still out of reach. Marty and crew shook it off and lined up again the next day. For their effort, Team Coyne took Trophy Truck's Seventh Place and racked up valuable points for the remaining season.
During last season's SCORE San Felipe 250, Rodd Fantelli's truck was bumped from behind ("nerfed"), flipped onto its side, and burned to the ground. Anyone who has invested paychecks and sweat into a truck, whether for racing or not, felt sympathy pains watching the Nissan go up in flames. Rodd showed resilience by building this sano Class 8 Ford F-150. The chassis was willing, but the powerplant was fresh from a buildup. So fresh, in fact, that the only time the motor had run was to pull the race truck onto Rodd's trailer. "(On Saturday) the motor was running too lean, so we pulled off the track," reported Rodd. "We're going to see how it runs today. We'll use the first lap as a pre-run, and continue with the race if things go well." Fantelli Motorsports had to park its Class 8 Ford with a DNF at Laughlin, but will be ready for San Felipe with a race-ready motor in the chassis.
Since Dave Westhem's Class 8 Chevy Silverado looks so pristine, unsuspect-ing onlookers might believe it's a freshly fabricated entry. Not so, however -- No. 800 has been in action several seasons to date. Stripped of its fiberglass facade, the guts of a winning Class 8 truck are revealed. Per SCORE rules, a stock grille assembly is retained as are the stock framerails, but it's all modifications from there. The driver and passenger are shrouded from flying rocks and smaller race vehicles inside a metal-skinned compartment. Custom headers snake their way around coilover and bypass shocks, past the door area, and finally exit through a notch in the fiberglass bedsides. High-tech hydraulic bumpstops are anchored above extended suspension control arms, and a low-tech shovel rests in custom mounts just in case two-wheel drive fails to provide forward locomotion. If you want to build a successful Class 8 truck, consider this your blueprint.
Take a close look at Fantelli Motor-sports' Class 8 rear suspension. The man can fabricate. Most teams use heavily boxed lower trailing arms to which coilover and bypass shocks are mounted. Rodd's rear suspension design is slightly left of center, but equally effective. Four tubular links extend from mid-chassis to the rear axle, locating the axle laterally and defining the axle's path as the suspension cycles. The vehicle weight is carried by these heavily boxed links, which extend from the rear bumper forward to the rear axle. The benefits are twofold: better ground clearance and more uniform weight distribution.
Yorba Linda, California's Bob Graham brought his Donahoe-sponsored Toyota to Laughlin in search of Class 7 honors. Of the four Class 7 contestants, Graham's 'Yota was the only entry credited with going the required six laps around the Laughlin course. This was not without incident, however. "I had to fight the truck the whole way yesterday," Graham commented before Sunday's laps commenced. "It feels like the sector shaft in the steering box is bent." Sunday after-noon's grandstands, seen behind Graham, were thinly populated compared to attendance during Thursday night's Laughlin Leap contest and Saturday's racing rounds. Still, the fans who stayed on to watch the full event were treated to racing action that remained intense until the final checkered flag waved.
Just how serious has Trophy Truck racing become? As if 18-wheeled transporters weren't enough, several teams also employ helicopter support. Eleven whirlybirds dotted the skies during the Trophy Truck race, accounting for nearly half of the 23-truck field.