The flyer reads: "You know how much you have invested in this sport. What if you had no place to go?"
CORVA's (California Off-Road Vehicle Association) recruitment literature asks a piercing question that hints at a very real possibility. The United States of America has been settled and subdivided for well over a century. If land remains open and accessible to off-roading, it is not by coincidence -- some governing body or private interest has made a deliberate decree.
As off-roaders, much of the land that we are privileged to play on is public land. Public land is owned by everyone, or at least it's supposed to be that way. One such area is the Stoddard Wells Off-Highway Vehicle Area which hosts many off-road events throughout the year, including the MDR Wild Wash 250. Stoddard Wells isn't particularly scenic or particularly remote and tranquil. Instead, Stoddard's claims to off-road fame are its convenient location and some of the gnarliest desert terrain ever to be trod by knobby tires. The Stoddard Wells OHV area is a two-hour drive from the major off-roading populations in Los Angeles and Orange counties. In addition to the off-roaders from L.A. and O.C., Stoddard also draws visitors from farther-away places like Bakersfield, San Diego, and Las Vegas. Las Vegas? Yeah, Vegas has a big off-road racing scene, but the aforementioned gnarly terrain is a perfect place to wring out a newly prepped Trophy Truck to see if it's ready for Baja. Show up at Stoddard on the right day and you just might see the Best Bad Guy in the West: Terrible Herbst Motorsports.
Trophy Trucks, Terrible Herbst Red, and Baja aside, most of the trucks that roll up to Stoddard Wells via the Hodge, Wild Wash, Outlet Center, and Lenwood exits off of Interstate 15 are loaded with gear and people looking for good clean fun in the dirt. They're after a good time, not a trophy or entry fee payback. "That's me," you say. "I'm never gonna go racing, and none of my friends race either. Who cares?" We care. So should you. Why does a racing series on public land help keep the area open for play riding? Organized events, from races to trail rides, demonstrate to the powers that be (the BLM in this case) that the OHV area is being used by legitimate, organized, distinct groups of users. Organized events add legitimacy to the use of an OHV area. Mojave Desert Racing (MDR) runs a seven-race California Championship Series set in the Stoddard Wells, Lucerne Valley, and Ridgecrest areas, as well as a five-race Superstition Series set in the Plaster City area close to the Mexican border. It would seem that a race promoter would naturally have been a racer, as are SCORE's Sal Fish and Best in the Desert's Casey Folks. MDR is an exception.
"We're horse people," MDR President Patricia Williams told this writer last season. "We saw the need to put on organized events in the desert to keep the land open so people could have a place to recreate."
We don't know if Patricia and her family take their horses to the desert or not, but we do know that she recognized a need and spent time and energy to fill that need. We tip our collective helmets to Patricia and the rest of the MDR crew who put on not one, but two racing series
Why thank the racers? The first reason is a no-brainer. Races don't happen without racers. Dig a little deeper than the superficial, however, and racing's effect on local communities comes to light. Racers' crew members are usually made of family and friends -- people who need lodging, food, and other goods and services during their OHV area visit. All that purchasing puts money into local communities. Local communities want the OHV areas kept open. There's yet another reason to thank the racers: "Racing improves the breed." It's an old, overused saying, but it's true. Today's cutting-edge racing technology trickles onto our everyday trucks in the form of better, more durable suspension kits, superior-quality shocks, stronger wheels and tires, and a whole host of off-road products originally conceived and born under a racing banner.
MDR's 2006 season kicked off with the Wild Wash 250. The main pit/start/finish area was in the usual spot off of Outlet Center Drive. Instead of the normally used Barstow "B" course, racers were treated to a different route through the "A" course. Several fast trucks showed up, but at the end of the race, everyone had to bow to Kash Vessels who drove a Class 1 buggy to a blistering-fast 49.4-mph average over (you guessed it) some of the gnarliest terrain ever trod upon by knobbies.
"I saw Kash blow by me, just flying," 2005 MDR Class 8 champ, Matt Towery, recalls. "I wanted to go after him and catch him, but my truck couldn't go any faster. It made me all the more anxious to get my new truck."
Matt is counting down the hours (so are we) as C&D Fabworks completes his new Class 8 F-150, which will feature a lower center of gravity, lightweight fiberglass bodywork, a Cone 10-inch full-floating rearend, King shocks, and the superior craftsmanship that we've seen time and again from C&D Fabworks.
Towery wasn't the only truck pilot passed by Vessels. Class 7 Open winner Shawn St. George, Class 1400 winner Steve Herrera, and Class 1450 winner Dustyn Loppnow all had good days at Wild Wash, but none was faster than Vessels.
At the end of the day, the 2006 MDR Wild Wash 250 produced an overall winner, several class winners, and lots of camaraderie and adventure as the teams fought to keep their trucks on the course. Ultimately, though, play riders and weekend warriors won the biggest. The Wild Wash 250 helped keep the Stoddard Wells OHV area open.
Engage Off-Road and driver-of-record Jerry Allen showed up at Wild Wash and were among the minority of 1450/Sportsman Prerunner class to officially finish the race. After running consistent lap times for three laps, the team ran into trouble and struggled to complete the final lap but successfully crossed the finish line under the time limit. This truck is also used to prerun in Baja and sports a back-halved tail section. The rear 'cage configuration allows for maximum compression travel, but the leaf packs are prevented from going into too much negative arch by a pair of King bumpstops. A completely custom front end rounds out the package.
We've been anticipating the first run of the Thing Motorsports/McNeil Off-Road Trophy Truck for a while. The TT was on display at the Off-Road Expo, but its dirt debut was at the Wild Wash 250. Trophy Trucks run with the Class 1 Unlimited buggies at MDR. Frank Thing's Chevy 383 propelled the TT for a few glorious minutes and then stopped abruptly, the victim of internal engine parts that didn't get along. The cam and distributor drivegears chewed against each other, with the distributor gear losing the scuffle. Frank Thing and Chad McNeil were understandably bummed about the short-lived lap but were still happy about the truck's overall performance. "I don't know how much faster I'd want it to be," Chad says. "That truck just hauls!"
Matt Towery has taken MDR's Class 8 championship two years running and got off to a great start for the '06 season at Wild Wash. At sign-up, Towery found out he was the lone Class 8 entry, and he had the option of running his F-150 in Class 1400/Pro Prerunner. "It was either stubbornness or pride that made me run in Class 8. Since I was the lone truck in my class, I was able to change codrivers each lap and give more people rides in the truck. At each pit stop, we were able to take our time and check the truck thoroughly to make sure everything was OK." Lone entry or one of many, Barstow is still Barstow, and the terrain still holds surprises for even the most prepared. "We were out shaking the truck down the afternoon before the race," Matt says. "We came into a corner and stuffed the right front wheel hard into a dip. We bent the wheel, flattened the tire, and broke a tie rod." The flat was easily replaced with a spare, and the team had a spare tie rod back in the main pit. "I had to climb up to the top of a hill to get cell phone reception and then wait awhile for the chase crew to bring the tie rod to the truck." Spare tie rod and tire in place, Matt started the race the next day and made the required six laps to not only win Class 8, but to take 9th overall.
Racers like to win, but they'd rather win by outracing their competition than by being the last truck running or the only truck in their class. "Last season at Lucerne, I battled with Josh Klenske, and finally DNF'd when my rear suspension's upper wishbone failed. I loved that race; it's probably the most fun I've had racing until the rear suspension broke." Matt feels that his seasons in MDR have him well prepared to jump into the SCORE wars. "When I learned to ski, I spent a lot of time on the easier slopes, making sure I had my technique down before I tried the steeper runs. I didn't want to look stupid by going for the tougher slopes and crashing all over the place. I'm enjoying MDR, but I want to race with SCORE and especially get back to Baja." The Bakersfield, California-based team makes frequent trips to Stoddard Wells for testing but reports that most Bakersfield off-roaders flock to Oceano Dunes (Pismo) to play in the sand. Although we love the challenge of Barstow's terrain, we can't blame people for liking Pismo. Right on the ocean, Pismo's temperatures are more pleasant, and the town of Pismo Beach offers comforts and amenities that are much harder to come by in the heart of the Mojave.
Shawn St. George took the green flag hoping for a finish but ended the day with a Class 7 win. "Last year was our first full season. It was a rough year. We worked through overheating problems, broke a rear trailing arm, rolled the truck at Ridgecrest, and rolled it again at the following race in Barstow. So, when we raced Wild Wash, we just wanted to be consistent. The win just fell into our hands," Shawn tells us. St. George Motorsports' day was free of big mechanical problems, but the team did need to change a front end ball joint and a fuel filter to finish the race. "I liked the Wild Wash course -- it had rough, slow areas and fast and smooth sections too. It was a good way to test your skill." Shawn, along with his brother Nick and father Larry, shares the driving and pitting duties. Number 707 began as Shawn's daily driver while still in high school. Shawn began his buildup by first reworking the front end and adding longer-travel I-beams and coilovers. That stage of the truck stayed the same for a while until he was able to buy a second vehicle for transportation and rip the Ranger apart in his shop. The St. George Motorsports long-travel I-beam front and linked rear suspensions were built in-house and are damped by two King shocks per corner. For motivation, the truck uses Ford's potent SOHC 4.0 V-6 coupled to a C4 three-speed automatic with a manual valve body. "That motor pulls really hard. It's got a definite powerband. It doesn't pull hard off of the bottom, but as soon it hits the high rpm it hits hard. We've stepped up to 3-inch bypass shocks recently. When the course is really rough, the bigger shocks won't heat up as much." The team frequents Stoddard Wells even when not racing: "Going to play in places like Dove Springs, Jawbone Canyon, and California City is fun, but our schedule is so hectic that we really don't have time to just play, so we go testing in Barstow because that's where the racecourse is." Future racing plans? "We'll still race MDR; we started with MDR and we like the reasonable entry fees. When we're ready, we really want to branch out into Best in the Desert and maybe SCORE, but the entry fees there are much higher."
Fabtech's Barry Karakas is used to being in front of Class 7 but had a tough day at Wild Wash. "We had fuel pressure issues all day. We had to stop several times and reprime the fuel system. On lap four, we had to stop six times. When we pulled into the pit, we tore apart the whole fuel system and reassembled it to try to fix the problem. We later found pieces of the fuel cell in the fuel filter, so I've since built a new fuel cell to replace the old one." As for the course, Barry tells us, "It's really rough and rocky. That's the rockiest course I've run since the days of the Barstow Fireworks 250. I didn't have any tire trouble during the race, but by the end of the race, the tires were junked. The rocks were like little knife blades sticking out of the ground, and my tires had knobs with chunks ripped out of them." Just the same, "I liked the course, and I wish I could've had a clean run." Barry traded the lead with Shawn St. George several times. "Every time I had to stop, he would pass me, and when I got going again, I'd pass him back. If anybody beat me, I'm glad it was Shawn, because he's been working hard just to get a finish, so for him to not only finish but to beat three other trucks is cool. I'd like to have a clean run and dice it out with him, because I know that his truck is capable of being a fast truck."
Yucaipa, California's Dustyn and Brian Loppnow are part of the highly visible Giant squad. "Giant is a great group of people both to hang out and to race with," Dustyn tells OFF-ROAD. The father-and-son team's Wild Wash run was clean and fast enough to take First Place in the hotly contested 1450/Sportsman Prerunner class. Gaining speed and familiarity with the course as the race went on, each of Dustyn's lap times was about 5 minutes faster than the previous one. The early-'90s Ranger is propelled by a swapped-in, 351 small-block Ford V-8 backed up by the Blue Oval's durable C6 tranny. Like many MDR competitors, the drivetrain swapping and 'cage building took place in the family's garage. Last season, the team ran a rear-mounted radiator that plagued the truck with overheating problems. Air pockets would form and render the cooling system ineffective. After struggling with overheating issues for a season, they went back to a tried-and-true front-mounted radiator, and the overheating troubles vanished. "The only way to win a race against 20 or more other trucks is to run 85 to 90 percent with no problems," Loppnow reports. After struggling with a string of DNFs, the team won the first race it finished and smiled for weeks afterward. Way to go. The Loppnows have been regulars at Stoddard Wells, both to play and to compete, making the trip to Barstow two to three times a month for the past 22 years.
We're primarily a truck magazine, so it's no surprise when we cheer for the trucks, but there are times when we have to step back and be impressed with a buggy's performance and speed. The Wild Wash 250 is one of those times. Kash Vessels showed up on the starting line in an Alpha Cars Class 1 buggy and proceeded to blister the rest of the field to take the Overall and Class 1 wins. The round-roof car is filled with some of today's most advanced speed weaponry, including the latest of Chevy's LS powerplants and a Fortin five-speed sequential transaxle featuring a torque convertor in place of a clutch. BFG tires link the terrain to the King-shocked car. When not concentrating on four-wheeled speed, Kash concentrates on four-hoofed speed via the family business, Vessels Stallion Farms.
While every desert course we've ever seen has several noteworthy, nasty, gnarly obstacles, there are always one or two favorites that lend themselves readily to photos. Mike Ingalsbee found a primo photo op and snapped Mike Salter, Craig Reynolds, Jesse Ware, Lee Orr, and Mike Belcher as they bounced past. Since air time is usually inversely proportional to ground speed, these guys chose to fly low. Fabtech's Shawn Giordano had something different in mind...
Shawn Giordano had flown low and fast during previous laps, but this time around he suffered photography damage. Shawn knew Mike and camera were waiting at this spot, so he laid heavily into the throttle. "Our radio wasn't working, so we didn't know we were running in First," Shawn told us later. "Otherwise, we would've taken it easy over this jump to win the race." Re-entry and touchdown nixed some driveshaft parts and cost Shawn some time for repairs, but he still finished Fifth in the 1450 class. Look for a full feature on this truck in an upcoming issue of Off-Road. For his trouble, we hereby give Mr. Giordano maximum style points. Way to fly, sir.