The green flag drops and we are off in a flash, the LS3 engine pushing me back in my seat. "Man, this thing really moves!" I think to myself as Sam Cothrun and I hurtle through the desert at triple-digit speeds in our attempt to win the VORRA Yerington 300. The race took place last Memorial Day weekend, but the story starts further back—a year Earlier, my friend Sam asked me to co-drive for him at the Valley Off Road Racing Association (VORRA) USA 500 in his 7200 truck.
For those unfamiliar with the class designation, 7200 is essentially a "mini Trophy Truck" with the only class rules being that you must have an 85-inch maximum track width, 37-inch maximum tire diameter, and six-cylinder engine. Otherwise, anything goes. Sam built his 7200 truck himself at his shop, Samco Fabrication, and it runs an inline six-cylinder engine out of a Chevy TrailBlazer. Despite only producing 275 horsepower, we went on to win the USA 500 last summer—not just our class but the entire field! Success like that is hard to repeat, but the experience definitely got me hooked on racing trucks.
As long as I can remember, I have always been into trucks. Prerunning, rockcrawling, mud bogging, it didn't really matter. I had other friends into Volkswagens, but air-cooled cars never really captured my attention. Volkswagens didn't have small-blocks or 37-inch-tall tires. It was not until I was introduced to desert racing that Volkswagen Bugs and their buggy offspring started to earn my respect. The light weight meant that big horsepower was not necessary, and these little Davids are capable of slaying some pretty potent Goliaths with the proper suspension setup.
So they have my respect … but there is a long, long way between respect and desire. In fact, in the desert-racing community, there is a marked distinction between "truck guys" and "buggy dorks." I didn't choose to be a "truck guy"; I was born that way. So was Sam, but even more than being a truck guy he is a desert racer. So when his 7200 truck was in a million pieces just weeks before this year's VORRA Yerington 300, he started to look for other options. Our savior came in the form of Frank Maciel, who sold his awesome Land Cruiser (which was featured in the August '07 issue of Off-Road) to fund a Class 1 buggy build. The Class 1 car started with a Jimco chassis, and Samco Fabrication added Fox coilovers and bypass shocks, a Fortin transaxle, and an LS3 engine. It was potent, but it doesn't have a bed on the back or an engine in the front.
Beggars can't be choosers, so Sam and I signed up for the Yerington 300 and strapped into Frank's buggy. I put my helmet on quickly, hoping no one would recognize me and start chanting "buggy dork." The first thing I noticed was that, instead of sitting with the transmission between us and burning my leg on the exhaust, we were shoulder to shoulder with the entire drivetrain behind us. Hmm … I might like this after all. Soon, the only thing my helmet was hiding was an ear-to-ear grin. Frank's buggy was fast. Actually, weighing 1,500 pounds less than Sam's truck and churning out 150 more horsepower, it was violently fast. Other initial impressions while prerunning the course included the easy visibility to check for flat tires or fast-approaching traffic from the rear.
When race day came, getting passed proved to be the least of our concerns. Sam and I started third off the line, with vehicles leaving in one-minute intervals. Just 20 minutes into the race, we passed the first car off the line, and we were in the physical lead less than half an hour later. Yerington is a 300-mile race set up with a 60-mile loop and a 40-mile loop. Racers have to complete three of each loop, and after doing the 60-mile loop on their first lap, they can do the remainder in any order they wish. We set the fast lap for the race on our first lap, and with some passes and small errors I felt that we were still leaving time on the table.
From the driver seat, Sam said that the car drove totally different than his truck. "With the spool in the back of my truck, you can really steer with the throttle; not the case with Frank's Class 1 car though. The cutting brakes were great for tight maneuvering through the canyons on the Yerington course, but I am still getting accustomed to using them." On lap 2, we did a short lap to get in front of some traffic and were starting to find our rhythm. Yerington is not a particularly rough course, so it played to the strengths of the buggy—namely a great power-to-weight ratio. While the top speed was slightly better, the buggy got up to that top speed much faster. "Trucks tend to work better in the rough because they have more total wheel travel," Sam explained. "All the additional travel is in droop, so on whooped-out courses like San Felipe, they keep the tires on the ground more, making traction and propelling the trucks forward."
By lap 3, everything was clicking … right up until the point where we heard a loud clicking. "Oil pressure dropping fast!" I shouted into the intercom. The yelling was more a result of adrenaline than due to noise, as the rear-engine buggy was surprisingly quiet. Being only a mile out of our pit, Sam tried to nurse the car in, until he lost the power steering. "We're on fire!" he yelled as he exited the vehicle on the side of the course. "Get the extinguisher!" he added as his adrenaline rate increased to match mine. By the time I got the extinguisher and got my harness and window nets out of the way, Sam had smothered our engine fire in dirt.
There was a hole in the side of the block I could fit my fist in, and the piston and rod were in a million little pieces. As a result, all of the oil came out the side of the engine and started the fire when it hit the hot exhaust headers. The power steering let go when the fire melted the belts on the engine. Hero to zero in the blink of an eye; my day was over … or was it?
Back at the pits, I peeled myself out of my race suit and washed off the dust before devouring a cheeseburger. I was on the last bite when Sam asked if I wanted to get back in the race. "Huh?!" was all I could manage with a mouth full of burger. Friend and fellow racer Jeff Parsons, who was pitting with us, hadn't slept in three days. Like most of us, he is a working stiff who puts all of his free time and resources into his truck, and he was going to do anything to make it to Yerington. Apparently "anything" included multiple all-nighters in a row.
Jeff had completed the first two laps of the race, but between the lack of sleep and exhaust fumes leaking into the cab, he could not keep his eyes open. To make matters worse, his starter wouldn't engage and he couldn't shut off the truck. The team ripped out the windshield to solve the exhaust issue as Sam jumped into the driver seat. Like I said, Sam is a desert racer before all else. Someone else on Jeff's team volunteered to co-drive, recognizing that I was having a hard time choosing between the cheeseburger and the race seat. Sam wheeled the truck for two laps before handing it back to a rested Jeff to finish out the race.
And Frank's buggy? "That's racing," he said without emotion. "We'll build it even stronger now." Before the car was even unloaded from the trailer, there was a dry sump and forged pistons to go in the extra block in the back of Samco's shop. Frank's buggy will be back, and I just might be back in the passenger seat. I am starting to think that being a buggy dork isn't so bad after all.
Trucks and Buggies: What's the Difference?
Race "trucks" are really tube-frame creations that have a fiberglass body on them. Other than the body, what are the differences between trucks and buggies? Trucks traditionally have the engine in the front (there are some exceptions, like Robby Gordon's Trophy Truck) with a solid axle in the rear running a spool. By comparison, buggies have the engine in the back with a transaxle to route power through an open differential. Cutting brakes are often used on buggies to turn more sharply and make up for the lack of a locking differential when traction is limited.
The name "buggy" is derived from Volkswagen Bugs, as are many of the buggy parts. Volkswagens use air-cooled four-cylinder engines mated to a transmission and axle all-in-one (a transaxle) that uses constant velocity joints to power the rear wheels and a beam axle in the front. Many racing classes (Class 1/2-1600, Class 5, Class 9, Class 11) still use this basic design. Other buggy race classes (Class 10, for example) mount the engine in the rear, but they don't necessarily use VW engines or beam front axles. Class 1 cars, such as those built by Jimco, Racer Engineering, Penhall Fabrication, Raceco, and others, are the pinnacles of buggies. These vehicles don't use any parts from Volkswagens, but they share their basic layout with the iconic Bug, with the engine in the rear mated to a transaxle.
What The Heck Does the Co-Driver Do, Anyway?
When telling friends and families who are not into the off-road scene about my recent racing, they usually reply, "So, you get to ride along? That's nice," in a patronizing tone. In reality, the co-driver has an important job and is busy from before the green flag drops until well after the race is over. To start, you need to have your own safety gear, including an SFI-approved race suit and a helmet that is plumbed for air and wired for the intercom. A HANS device, racing gloves, and driving shoes are all optional but highly recommended. Safety is not the place to cut corners.
After making that financial commitment, get to know the vehicle you will be racing in if you plan to co-drive. The most important factors will be the location of the fire extinguishers and how to change a tire, but general knowledge of the car and how to wrench on it are definitely beneficial skills. Sam Cothrun and I spent time going over these details prior to the race as well as practicing getting in and out of the car—from harnesses tight and the window net up to all the way out in case of a tire change or emergency. Once that was second nature, we discussed the assortment of switches and gauges in the car and the function of each switch and normal operating range for each gauge.
We ran the course the day before the race, marking cautions on the GPS for any dangerous locations like large rocks or hidden ditches. Every co-driver will have his own preferences for the GPS, but knowing how to process the information on the screen and efficiently relay that information to the driver is critical once the green flag drops. You will also be monitoring the gauges, watching the mirrors for faster cars behind you, and getting on the horn for any traffic you are approaching. Don't forget to look up every once in a while, either, or you might find yourself getting queasy! Being a co-driver is far from a ride-along, but if this all sounds appealing to you then you might just have what it takes to race.