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Extreme Rock Crawling

Posted in Features on July 23, 2002
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I was fortunate enough to compete in the final 2001 ARCA event in Farmington -- not as a driver, but as that other mysterious team member, the spotter. Like offensive linemen in football, these individuals labor in relative anonymity, generally sweating more and receiving less attention than their drivers. More than once at previous events, I found myself thinking, "That spotter really blew it. If he had taken that vehicle just 6 inches to the right or thrown one small rock under that rear tire, that diff wouldn't have gotten caught!" It was time to put my thoughts on the line in front of a crowd. I spotted for Harold Off in his well-known pink and white "Extremely Off" Scrambler.

I quickly discovered that it is much easier to stand on the sidelines and heckle than it is to make the correct call. Spotters, like the drivers they support, are under tremendous competitive pressure during these events. It starts with the long and often dusty drive from the staging area to the competition course. Time works on your brain as you slowly bounce your way to a starting position. Will the course be driveable? Will the obstacles be so stupid that it is wiser to just pass and come back to 'wheel another day? Will I be smart enough to know the difference?

Once you reach the initial stage of your first course, the butterflies start to fly in earnest. This doesn't look so bad, does it? Gee, that side hill is awfully off-camber. That rock is really in the way. Will I be able to move it? That last downhill flag is going to be trouble. These thoughts and many others fly through your brain as you stand and examine the course, conferring with your driver, picking the best lines through the maze of flags and sandstone.Finally, it was our turn. Harold fired up the Jeep and slowly eased it forward until the front tires were just short of the starting gate. The stage judge explained the intricacies of his own little piece of this mineral puzzle and asked, "Are there any questions?"

Yeah! Why am I here? Who talked me into this? Where is the nearest bathroom? All of these thoughts flew through my head. I simply said no and gave Harold the nod to break the starting gate.

Left! Left! Left! Now straight! Slow down! Flag right here! Right! All you have! Now straight! Watch that flag below you! And suddenly we were done. Clean run! Zero points! I began to think that maybe this wasn't going to be so hard after all.

Yeah, right.

After running the first four stages with no penalty points at all, my confidence began to build. Again, my mind played games. Is this course just that easy or are we really doing that well? How are the other teams doing? Is the other course harder?

Our fifth stage of the day answered many of those questions. We walked forward, rounded the last corner, and were confronted with what could only be called The Wall of Doom. Again, my senses and common sense kicked in. You have to be kidding! Arrest Phil Collard right now. That man is a menace to the four-wheeling public. I studied the nearly vertical wall, and it looked to be at least 40 feet from top to bottom.

Hmm...If we can diagonal this thing from left to right, it just might go. But that hole is really big. If we drop a wheel in there, the Jeep is going to go upside-down in a heartbeat. Maybe if we can get the front tires up on that ledge all the way to the left and then hug the wall all the way up...

Sure enough, the vehicle we were watching tried the left side. It promptly dropped a tire in the hole and went belly up. The crowd roared. After clearing the course, another vehicle hit the hill, and after repeated attempts, it succumbed to the same fate with four tires pointing skyward. Watching repeated attempts end in similar carnage didn't do much for our confidence.

Oh, brother, my mind resounded. This is really stupid! Are we going to do any better?

Finally, the vehicle directly ahead of us not only climbed the hill, but climbed it on the line we were planning and made a clean run. The wall could be climbed.Then it was our turn. We held a quick conference and decided to throw the single available rock into the small hole at the base of the wall and give it a hard shot. We moved the tow strap to the front of the Jeep, and I quickly scrambled up the hill carrying the free end. It wouldn't help much with traction, but maybe, just maybe, it would keep the

Jeep from going over if things got sideways. As the spotter, my own vehicle was not at risk, but I felt a keen sense of responsibility to get the Jeep and its driver up the hill without mishap or mayhem.

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The Jeep leaped up the hill, and I strained mightily at the end of the strap. The front end jumped skyward, and the Jeep very nearly went shiny side down. We tried it again, with the same result. We worked the hill repeatedly, looking for that one little bit of traction that would make the difference. Every time the Jeep backed down, the strap pulled from my hands, and I would scramble back down the hill, pick up the free end, and reclaim my spot at the top of the wall.

Note to self: Get a longer strap. This is starting to be work! Each time the Jeep lunged forward, I scrambled for traction on the sand-covered surface at the top of the wall, slipping and sliding, leaning into the strap with all I had. The crowd, with all its noise and shouted comments, receded to a distant roar as I focused all of my energy and attention on getting nearly 2 tons of purpose-built rockcrawler on top of this impossible wall.

Suddenly, it happened! Somewhere, somehow, the elusive little bit of traction arrived, and the grasp of gravity loosened. The strap went limp in my hands, the engine revved at redline, and Harold lost me in a cloud of dust. I suddenly realized that I was about to become road kill. I turned and ran for my life, ensuring that the flailing strap didn't hit one of those precious flags. The Jeep leaped to the top of the wall, the crowd roared its approval, and we carefully made our way through the last gate to the top of the hill.

Total elation. We executed high-fives and grinned stupidly at each other. Only seven points in penalties. More importantly, we got to the top of the hill. The Jeep was still right-side up, and all was right with the world. We slowly calmed down, our thoughts tempered by the two remaining stages, and the thought of a whole other course still to conquer.

The next day brought competition disaster in the form of a broken tie rod on the first stage. Forty points. The rest of the day seemed to follow suit as flags were mashed and points accumulated. The wild elation of the first day was gone as we struggled through the A course. When the results were tallied up at the end of the weekend, those quick 40 points from the breakdown effectively kept us off of the sought-after Top 10 list. Maybe next time.

This is what a spotter is and does. He moves rocks like a serf, worries like a mother, sweats like a madman, and runs for his life. Am I going to do it again? You bet. I wouldn't miss it for the world.

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