I'm not the King of the Hammers, but for all the fun and laughs I had racing, I probably qualified to be the Jester of the Hammers. I spent the weeks prior to KOH buttoning up the Fun Buggy to transform it from a trail buggy to a race rig. I knew going into this race that crossing the finish line in front of some of the biggest names in rockcrawling/racing would be a long shot, but having always wanted to be a "professional" race truck driver I was going to give it my all.
I arrived in the desert three days prior to the race hoping to get a few shakedown runs in the buggy. But the first day was spent figuring out things like where to store tools, which tools to take along since no outside help would be allowed other than in the designated pits, and finally should we (my copilot Dave and I) take a spare tire or the ARB fridge freezer in the race since only one would fit. (We took the tire, but in the end, since we had no flats with the prototype 40x14.50R17 BFGoodrich Krawlers, we should have taken the cooler.)
Since the buggy was racing during the day I removed everything that wasn't needed, such as the windshield, roof rack, and extra off-road lights. I was given the course map a few days early, but since Dave, the owner of Poly Performance, wasn't there yet and I was busy final-prepping the Fun Buggy, I didn't get to prerun. Plus I figured if something broke during a prerun then I'd be scrambling to fix it before the actual race, and in the end this was a good choice. Apparently this is why real desert racers have a separate prerunner to go learn the course in, and a designated race truck that doesn't get beat up before the green flag drops.
LCQ And Tech Inspection
Thursday was the last-chance qualifiers (LCQ) competition, where drivers who hadn't qualified through other events during the year could race a short course. The drivers with the 14 best times were given spots in the main race on Friday. I had been given a Media Muckity Muck spot (meaning I was invited to race because I have a ready trail rig and I would be telling you all my escapades, not because I'm some superstar driver) and didn't need to qualify, so I shot some photos of the guys just hammering on their rigs while trying for the last few positions. There was a fair bit of carnage in that short course and I began to wonder if I was really ready to be out racing with these maniacs.
The end of Thursday was contingency and tech inspection. Contingency is where companies look for racers to run their logos, and in exchange they offer money or prizes if you win or come across the finish line in a particular spot. Some even had prizes for the first to break their car or the last team to actually cross the finish line. Tech inspection went pretty smooth as well. I had to have multiple fire extinguishers, first aid kits, both fuel and electrical shut-off switches-as well as catch cans so no fluids could heat up and overflow onto the trail-and safely nets to keep appendages inside the cage in case of a rollover.
Read To Race
Friday morning I was wide awake at 5:30 in anticipation of the 8 a.m. start of the race. I dressed up in my race suit and headed to the start line with my buggy. I had a great group of friends come from as far away as Texas and Colorado to be my pit crew, and everyone was ready to lend a hand and hopefully see Team Fun Buggy cross the finish line. We divvied up all the spare parts, tools, and tires amongst a couple different trucks and made sure everyone was on the same channel as my Rugged Race Products radio. Then we headed to the starting line.
The race had a total of 92 vehicles, with two leaving every 30 seconds. I had drawn position 80, far enough in the back of the pack not to get lost, but also setting ourselves up for possible traffic jams in the rocky portions of the race. I was lined up with Damen Jefferies, a Baja desert racer sponsored by K&N Air Filters who had borrowed a rock buggy to race in KOH. Luckily I had one of the company's filters under the hood of the Fun Buggy and was in the lead off the line with the Fun Buggy's ZZ383 screaming. (Damen passed me about 50 yards later, and I never saw him again.)
We Were Finally Racing!
Fun Buggy was working great. I was trying to keep it on the course, and Dave was jamming out to some music on his iPod. Yes, Dave had figured out how to wire his iPod into our race radio intercom so we had tunes for most of the race. Some racers might find this distracting, but then they don't drive a Fun Buggy with the emphasis on Fun.
Most stories about racing usually start with "I was in the lead until such-and-such happened," but I'm not sure I can even say that. I do know we only had to go 82 miles across some tough desert and insane rock trails to finish this race. But as they say, you have to finish to win, and I thought we would have no problem simply finishing. But to say I was ever in the lead is probably a bigger fish story than even I can spin. By mile 3 I had seen at least five cars broken down and I was getting nervous, and then the antennae for our race radio rolled across the hood and off the car into the dirt-the same antennae that had been attached to the back of the rollcage. That was going to be a problem.
I was trying to drive, watch the Lowrance GPS, follow the course, and figure out why the antennae had broken off when around mile 8 the buggy just shut off. We coasted to the side of the course and I cranked the ignition but got nothing. My first thought was a fuel issue, so I hopped out to examine the fuel cell. Now "hopped out" isn't really accurate because when racing we each had a helmet with race radio and fresh air hosed in, plus five-point harnesses and window nets for added safety. I felt safe, but getting in or out quickly is a bit of a Houdini trick. Upon inspection I found that the spare tire, which was just strapped in place in the rear, had bounced around and allowed one of the tool bags to slide down the rear radiator and shut off the fuel valve. The tire had also broken off the antennae, which was now lost in the desert around mile 3. I repacked all the gear, switched the fuel back on, put on all my safety gear, and had Dave find some different music, and we were back in the race.
The first 23 miles are mostly desert racing, and we quickly decided that the Fun Buggy needs more shock tuning. The Fox shocks and air bumps were doing the best they could, but stay tuned for a "how to tune your coilover shocks" story, as the Fun Buggy just wasn't fast enough in the rough stuff. By mile 11 I glanced in the rearview mirror just in time to see the spare fall out the back of the car; time to stop and get out again.
Near race mile 19 I had everything triple-tied down (except my small hammer, which had jumped out somewhere before race mile 11, the smashed amber rear light, the busted radio, and the GPS antennaes), and I was hot on the tail of car No. 96 when we both came to a steep climb. The hillclimb had two options: a technical rockcrawling climb and a high-horsepower sandy climb. The technical climb was a traffic jam of buggies, so we went over to the sand climb with No. 96 in front of me. I stopped and waited for him to make the climb. After two tries he backed up for a good run. I started honking my horn as he was lining up, and when he looked my way I took off, drove around him, and throttled up the climb with no problems. At that moment we were cheering in the Fun Buggy! We really felt like a race team and had the power to pass people; this was starting to be an awesome battle.
We're Up, We're Down
When your head's in the clouds, you don't always notice the big rocks ahead. I quickly smacked a tire hard going a bit too fast, and for some reason the steering wheel was half a turn off-center. An eventual inspection revealed that I had bent the heat-treated chromoly front track bar.
At race mile 23 there was a checkpoint where the promoter records the number of each vehicle, and then you can pit if you need fuel, parts, a cup of coffee, or whatever. I decided that a pit stop would be prudent to check over the car.
Pit stops are organized chaos. One person stands in front of the buggy and watches everything and two people refuel while a third has a fire extinguisher at the ready, another gives food or drink to the driver and copilot, and a couple others check the car for damage. My team of friends was awesome! I can't thank them enough, as they made sure everything was in tip-top shape (or slightly banged up and bent but good enough) and quickly had us back on the course.
By now we were in a rhythm. The buggy seemed happy, Dave had found some groovy tunes to listen to, and I was sure that scouts from the major racing teams (SCORE, NASCAR, Indy Car, Formula One) were scoping me out along the course, considering me for their next superstar rookie driver.
Eventually the wide-open desert racing was closing up and we were headed to some rocky canyons. I was excited to finally get where the Fun Buggy should shine. When we caught up to the main pack of racers and we couldn't use the standard lines, I soon figured out that these trails, which should have been no problem, were a bit more complicated. In fact we weren't even into the second rock trail when we had to winch up something that should have been easy because I couldn't get the buggy to climb. I quickly discovered I only had three-wheel drive, as one of the rear drive slugs had come loose and wouldn't transfer power to the wheel. But I was getting pretty good with the rear steer and was able to weave through big boulders and wounded rigs.
Speaking of wounded rigs, we saw everything from broken axles to buggies that had caught on fire and burnt to the ground. But even when we came across broken wheelers they always rooted us on or gave us spotting tips. This brings up a weird aspect of the King of the Hammers race: Since you are not allowed outside help, it wasn't unusual to see racers helping other racers. Of course this wasn't the case with everyone, but we can see future races being run by teams of buggies carrying spare parts for each other, or a sportsmanship award for the team voted most helpful by the other racers.
At around race mile 38 we came to a rocky obstacle with a sandy hillclimb bypass, but unfortunately there was a broken buggy in the run up to the climb so we weaved around him but couldn't get a good hole shot at the loose climb. Then I pointed the buggy back toward the rocks, but the three-wheel drive wasn't going to get us up that way, so I returned to the hill climb for another shot. I backed up the opposite hill for as much of a run as possible, but three-quarters of the way up the sandy climb at full throttle there was a small pop! and the tires stopped spinning. I checked all the shifters and levers, and the engine still ran, but it was an NGS (No Go Situation).
I looked at Dave and wracked my brain for a solution. The only possible explanation: I had broken the output shaft on the transmission. We were dead in the desert. (After getting home and tearing it apart I found that my deduction had been correct. A stronger transmission is in the works.) As we rolled slowly back to the bottom of the hill I knew our race was over, but I was still smiling like a silly clown. I was having the best day of wheeling in a long time.
It took a few more hours to get out of the trail and back to our main camp, and in that time I got to use my onboard Premier Power welder to fix the other guy's broken buggy at the bottom of that sandy climb, and my rear driveshaft U-joint to get some other racers down the trail. By then my pit crew showed up and drug the busted Fun Buggy back to the trailer, and we finally busted into that ARB fridge freezer for a few celebratory beverages.
I'm not sure I'll try again next year, but if you think you can afford it you should definitely give it a try because, even making it less than half-way, I had a great time.
In the end Jason Schere was crowned the new King of the Hammers, and only a third of the field finished the race before the sun set. I'd like to congratulate them and all the racers on their hard work.
Monday after the race I called my mom and dad and told them to sell the farm because I'm going to need a lot more money for my desert rock racing career. Team Fun Buggy needs a prerunner, chase trucks, a helicopter, a few semis full of spare parts, and a bigger stereo system in the Fun Buggy for Dave.