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Laughlin Desert Challenge - Laughlin Race

Posted in Events on January 28, 2008
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Photographers: Collette Blumer

How'd you like to ride in a 7-S truck at the SCORE Laughlin Desert Challenge?" The words rolled off OFF-ROAD Associate Editor Mike Finnegan's tongue and rang in my ears like unexpected music. I don't usually speak very quickly - the technical term is low verbal - but it only took 0.002 seconds for me to blurt out a resounding, "Oh, yeah!" It seemed that Bob Land had extended the offer to Mike, but a scheduling conflict prevented him from going. The deal got better. Since Harrah's is one of Land Racing's sponsors, I would also get a free room during the event.

Bob Land has been racing for a long time. He began filling his need for speed by racing drag boats. After flipping an 800hp Eliminator Tunnel boat, he left the water for the challenge of the desert. Bob has campaigned several different classes throughout the years. Beginning in a 1-2/1600 VW-powered buggy at the 1988 Barstow Fireworks 250,he moved to a Honda-powered Unlimited Buggy a few years later. Class 7 - open mini trucks - was added to his portfolio, after which he slid behind the wheel of an Isuzu VehiCross. Racing has taken Bob throughout the American Southwest, Baja California, and even down under to Australia. Anyone who has been involved with racing, even at a casual level, can attest to the monumental effort required to follow a racing series for a single season. Bob Land has been racing off-road successfully for more than a decade. The word phenomenal seems fitting.

Filling the codriver's seat during a race is much more than "get in, sit down, shut up, and hang on." A competent codriver keeps track of the navigating, engine vital signs, race traffic approaching from behind, and obstacles in front, while communicating with the pit crew. Simply stated, a good codriver allows the driver to go faster. Laughlin's short-course format put me somewhat at ease; both Bob Land and backup driver Jim Winovitch were already familiar with the Laughlin course. There was no need for a map or GPS reading on the fly. Still, between watching the gauges, keeping track of faster classes approaching from the rear, and radioing our position to the pit crew, precious few seconds were left to enjoy the view.

Our racing group included fullsize Class 8 trucks, Ivan Stewart's Protrucks, Stock Full trucks, Class 7 open trucks, and Class 3s. We were the slowest class on the track. Willing my normally slow tongue to speed up a few notches, I fed Bob and Jim the best race traffic information I could: "There's an 8 truck coming up on our right, stay left"; "Water temperature looks fine"; "Land Race to Land Pit, we're approaching Road Crossing One."

The weekend concluded all too soon. Bone-weary with a huge sleep deficiency, I still wanted more. The four laps I got to ride were an "F" ticket ride. Big thanks go to Bob Land, Jim Winovitch, and the rest of the Land Racing crew. I can only hope Mr. Finnegan has a scheduling conflict during the next race weekend.

Backup driver Jim Winovitch, Bob Land, and Cooper Tire Rep Carson Miller talk tires and racing as Bob's S-10 4x4 awaits desert action. You never thought of Cooper Tires as a competitive brand for off-roading? Perhaps you're familiar with the Pro Comp Xterrain or the Mickey Thompson Radial Baja Claw. Cooper manufactures both. "We're one of only two U.S. companies that have in-house molding capabilities," explained Miller. "That way, we can make changes more quickly. Off-road racing is one of the few niches in motorsports that the average person can get into." Throughout the event, Carson sought feedback about the performance of the Cooper Discoverer LTs mounted at the corners of Land Racing's Class 7-S Chevy. Cooper Tire has a 5-year-old test facility for off-road tires. The testing facility already includes a rockcrawling course and separate mud, sand, and gravel pits. Miller's chief task during the event was to observe the terrain on the Laughlin Desert Challenge course. Notable features will be included in a newly constructed desert terrain test course at Cooper's test facility.

As testament to Cooper Tire's commitment to desert performance, a special non-siped set of donuts was provided to Land Racing. While tire siping adds control in wet or icy conditions, the microgrooves make for more easily damaged tires on desert rocks and whoops. Guerrero and Garcia added a single 1/4-inch groove to every other shoulder lug to provide better lateral traction. Laughlin's course is a true test of desert tires. During the weekend, we encountered sandy whoops and ruts that became deeper with each passing vehicle. A healthy dose of sharp, basketball-sized rocks was sprinkled randomly on the course for good measure. Pinch flat resistance was tested as the front and rear of the S-10 were alternately slammed unmercifully into terra very firma. We're pleased to report zero tire trouble.

Land Racing team members Gabriel Guerrero and Eric Garcia put the tire grooving iron to work. Bob Land's crew is typical of most desert racing teams - a collection of dedicated enthusiasts who volunteer their time and talents to be a part of something they love. Eric, bracing the tire and trusting Gabriel not to slip with the red-hot iron, is building a 1-2/1600 VW-powered buggy in his backyard. Upon completion, expect the Garcia-built 1600 car to be in the thick of contention at future SCORE events.

Land Racing's '86 Chevy S-10 4x4 is the latest in a string of off-road racing vehicles campaigned by Bob Land. The midsize Bow Tie was originally fabricated and used by Team MacPherson, after which it rested in Chevy's Detroit museum for six years. Bob knew the truck still had potential and brought it back to its native habitat - the high-speed deserts of the Southwest. Although new Class 7-S standards were in place, the truck was raced as purchased to Second Place SCORE points during the 2003 season. Two tokens of the truck's older build date are the bushing-mounted rollcage - most current 'cages are welded directly to the framerails - and the bolt-on 'cage crossmembers. That the truck is still competitive is a testament to the high quality of the original buildup.

A key update to the Land Racing S-10 was the addition of Bilstein pneumatic bumpstops. These adjustable bumpers are a modern key to high-speed, no-damage desert assaults. Rodd Fantelli's fabricating talents were called on to fit the 'stops to the framerails.

SCORE's Class 7-S is for stock production mini or midsize pickup trucks. This limited class mandates use of stock upper and lower control arms, which may be reinforced. The number and mounting positions of shocks are open, although shocks may not protrude through the hood or be remotely mounted. Bob's suspension is designed and supplied by Bilstein. A 9100 and 7100 reservoir shock work in tandem at each front corner, while a trio of 7100s dampens each rear wheel. Bilstein also supplied the all-important pneumatic bumpstops, one per wheel. Limit straps attached to the upper control arm take the brunt of the suspension's droop when the tires leave the ground. Ball joints must be stock in design, but may be from any manufacturer. The truck is operated in two-wheel drive most of the time, but the front drive is called on in deep silt beds, such as those that lurk in Baja.

I'm short, what can I say? Since I don't own a driving suit yet, Bob lent me one of his. I thought I might drown in the expanse of fabric, but only the legs proved to be too long. Driving suits are required to be made of fire retardant materials, such as Nomex and Proban. Helmets are required, of course. Many racers use additional safety gear to make their ride less wearing. This includes kidney belts and cushioned neck supports.

"That's racing" is used in place of "stuff happens." Bob and I were nearly done with our first lap on Saturday when the driver's side upper ball joint suddenly said, "No mas." The wheel folded under, so we drifted off the course and coasted to a stop in deep Laughlin sand. Thinking we merely suffered a flat, we unclipped our safety harnesses to investigate. The sight of the tucked-under wheel made us wish we'd had a mere flat. Fortunately, a call on the radio had the crew scampering from the pits with a floor jack, a new upper ball joint, and tools. Since our racing group's time limit was 85 minutes, we were out for the count. The four-wheel-drive CV joints survived with no damage, as did the brake line; stretched, but not snapped. After the truck was patched back together, we drove off to the cheers of nearby onlookers.

With our official lap count at zero from Saturday's ball-joint failure, Sunday's three laps were mandatory. Our official finish at Laughlin would be DNF, but laps completed count in the SCORE-series points chase. As such, Jim rolled the truck over the Laughlin Leap instead of going for air time. The Chevy uses the oft-booed 2.8L V-6. While the horsepower numbers from this mill aren't impressive, the little motor never skipped a beat and faithfully responded to demands from Winovitch's right foot. Jim skillfully pushed the Quaker State S-10 along at a pace made possible by years of off-road racing experience - he's driven the course perhaps a dozen times. We finished Second Place in Class 7-S on Day Two. Since an automatic transmission is prone to overheating and soaks up engine power, a manual T-5 gearbox is bolted between the 2.8L and the stock NP 207 transfer case. What's the ride like in a limited-travel 7-S pickup truck? Rough, but controlled. The Bilstein dampers followed the terrain, allowing the 7-S to traverse the mayhem beneath at speeds unreachable by a stone-stock truck. I'm already a terminal off-road addict, but my experience with Land Racing has made the happy disease that much more incurable. I thank Bob Land, Jim Winovitch, and the Land Racing crew for an unforgettable ride.

With a set of new ball joints and CV boots on the driver's side, No. 721 lined up on Sunday. Since the previous day's laps were cut short, Bob offered me the codriver's seat again, which I gladly accepted. Sunday's laps were piloted by Land Racing's Jim Winovitch. Waiting on the starting line is a nerve-wracking experience for many, including yours truly. On Saturday, my helmet seemed to shrink on my head, and the cab walls appeared to follow suit. Bob allayed my fears: "If you're not nervous, you're not ready." In that case, I was more than ready. The claustrophobia faded as soon as the green flag fell in front of our hood.

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