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Jesse Haines' Pro Mod Buggy - Rockcrawling Resurgence

Posted in Features on November 3, 2014
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Photographers: Courtesy of Trail Gear

Just a decade ago SCORE International was struggling to get a dozen Trophy Truck entries, and King of the Hammers hadn’t been born yet. Rockcrawling competition was in its heyday though, with big purses, technology advancing by leaps and bounds, and events held in conjunction with the SEMA Show. Times change though, and today SCORE is holding qualifying for the Baja 1000 at the SEMA Show, and King of the Hammers is flourishing. Meanwhile competition rockcrawling is on life support, but Jesse Haines wants to change all of that. And he is willing to put his money where his mouth is.

Jesse Haines is putting his money where his mouth is.

Starting At The Beginning
A native of Michigan, Jesse started fourwheeling in a Toyota pickup at a young age. He wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty or try new things, traits that still serve him well to this day. In 2002 Jesse competed in FourWheeler’s Top Truck Challenge in his Toyota with a V-8 engine and 44-inch Super Swamper Boggers. “I started building the truck at the age of 19, before you there were online four-link calculators and fabrication forums,” Jesse recalls. Top Truck was inspirational for Jesse in a number of ways. “It definitely whet my appetite for competition,” he reflects, “and John Reynold’s Fat City Bronco exposed me to a level of fabrication I had never seen before.”

Jesse Haines doesn’t have the biggest budget in motorsports, but what he lacks in dollars he makes up for in fabrication skills and determination. Jesse built his innovative new Pro Mod rockcrawler at home in his garage.

At this time rockcrawling competition was still in its infancy, and Jesse knew that he wanted to be a part of it. He took a job with Troy Meyers at the Badlands Off Road Park, and just a few weeks later Jesse was spotting as part of an EROCC competition. The next season he was behind the wheel, competing in his Willys flatfender.

In 2007 Jesse moved to Nevada to work with rockcrawling pioneer Mike Shaffer. At Shaffer’s shop, Jesse built an innovative Pro Mod buggy for Bill Kunz. Kunz’s name should be familiar as the former owner of Torchmate Cutting Systems who raced a 7S truck in the desert in addition to rockcrawling. He recruited Jesse to work at Torchmate, where Jesse remained until the company was sold to Lincoln Electric. All the time Jesse was exploring the canyons of Nevada and competing in WE Rock, winning all four events in the Unlimited Class in 2008 in his single seat, rear steer buggy.

At Torchmate, Jesse was the lead designer on an innovative twin traction beam buggy designed for King of the Hammers. It was a no-expenses-spared vehicle that Robby Gordon later campaigned in KOH. The buggy was barely finished in time for the race, with Jesse and the entire team working nonstop to make their deadline. This has been a reoccurring theme for Jesse every year leading up to King of the Hammers. This year, in the weeks prior to KOH while building a customer’s Jeep for the race, Jesse posted up the following on Facebook as the frustration and lack of sleep mounted.

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Rockcrawling on the Decline
“I remember not that long ago when guys started dropping out of rockcrawling comps because it was too expensive. Now there are a ton of guys racing Ultra 4 where most winning cars cost $100K to $200K. Some of the most capable rockcrawling comp buggies of all time were built for less than $20K-$30K. That’s what some U4 guys are spending on their motors these days. After KOH I’m planning to start on a new buggy dedicated to comp crawling, and get back to the sport I really enjoy. I’m hoping some others teams will come back to the roots of rock sports and make 2014 the year that the rockcrawling scene starts its comeback!” The post got over 600 likes and nearly 250 comments from others who shared his sentiments. This acted as motivation for Jesse, who realized how many people were still interested in rockcrawling competition, whether as competitors or just fans.

Jesse is quick to note that he does not blame King of the Hammers for the decline of competition rockcrawling. “I love KOH and hope that I can race in it every year,” Jesse says, “but there is no denying that the costs can be daunting if you want to be competitive.” Rather than citing KOH, Jesse believes that a variety of factors are responsible for the decline in rockcrawling competitors and spectators. And he believes that these factors can be reversed, at least in part. “I don’t know if we are going to see rockcrawling toys at Wal-Mart or 100 competitors again, but growth is possible.”

Yukon third members are used with 6.50 gears front and rear, along with Branik axleshafts. The front uses a Yukon spool and the rear diff has an ARB Air Locker to allow Jesse to turn though tight courses. While high-pinion third members would have provided increased driveline clearance, they were not in the budget. (Yes, this is a competition vehicle and it had a budget!)

Jesse Secret Weapon
Lack of innovation has caused rockcrawling to stagnate as well. In the early 2000s sticky tires and 50-degree steering were revolutionizing the sport. “Technology has been at a virtual standstill since John Nelson debuted Tiny a decade ago,” Jesse concedes. He is hoping to change that with his new Pro Mod buggy. He used amazing attention to detail while pushing the rules to the limit, but his buggy was built in the garage at his home with a modest budget. The buggy doesn’t have a fire-breathing V-8 or trailing arms and bypass shocks, and part of the appeal of rockcrawling competition is that you don’t need these components to be competitive.

Jesse used a 3.9L V-6 in his new car, dubbed “Pokey.” Its narrow 60-degree architecture means that it is very compact, and Jesse mounted the drivetrain offset to the passenger side of the chassis to improve visibility even further. Visibility and a low center of gravity were both themes that Jesse focused on throughout the build process. The WE Rock-mandated winch is mounted between the seats, and the fuel cell sits low in the chassis; essentially even with the rear axle.

Despite having zero seat time in Pokey, Jesse was able to win the Pro Mod class at WE Rock’s Goldendale event and take home the series championship in the process.

Pokey has a wheelbase of 103 inches and weighs under 2,900 pounds before adding water to the front tires. Sway-A-Way 2.5-inch air shocks and three-link geometry with Branik aluminum links are used to locate the Trail Gear Rock Assault9 axles.

How To Bring Crawling Back
Jesse is realistic enough to admit that it will take more than a new car to revive rockcrawling. He has some ideas for how to accomplish that though too. Jesse has been building buzz through social media and interacting with his followers through Throwback Thursday posts like “Top 5 Most Memorable Obstacles” and “Ten Most Unique Comp Buggies.” Below is the plan that Jesse laid out to help rockcrawling get its second wind.

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Established Schedule and Venues
No one has to look at a calendar to know when Fall Crandon or the Baja 1000 takes place. By contrast, rockcrawling competitions seem to be plagued by one-hit-wonder venues and unstable calendars. That needs to change in order to build a strong fan base. Visiting popular wheeling areas like Arizona and Utah once a year on the same weekend would be a start.

Natural Terrain
Perhaps the biggest rockcrawling event in history was the original Supercrawl event in Farmington, New Mexico, in 2002. Two years later the event was held on manmade terrain at Rocky Mountain Speedway outside of Salt Lake City. The premise was to bring the show to fans rather than make them drive to small towns like Cedar City and Jellico. The change, though, is akin to watching Hank Aaron hit home runs off a batting machine, and the fans never really materialized.

Educating Spectators
Dustin Webster did an excellent job announcing at WE Rock events, promoting the teams and their sponsors and building interest and rivalries. Currently, Tacoma White is behind the mic educating fans regarding what they are watching so they are more engaged in the event. Programs with driver bios, vehicle specifications, and class rules would be useful as well, and a scoreboard would allow spectators to know how close the action is. Can you imagine going to a basketball game with no scoreboard?

Rockcrawling competitions have seen big crowds in the past, but the past few years have been bleak. Jesse has some ideas on how to get spectators back cheering on their favorite rockcrawlers.

Exciting Courses
This seems obvious, but it is far from easy for the course designer. In a perfect world the courses would be hard enough to challenge the best drivers, passable for eager new teams, and entertaining to watch. And they would not destroy vehicles in the process, causing teams to pack up and go home for the season. Skilled course designers like Phil Collard and Lil Rich Klein could lay out courses that the average set of eyes would never even see.

Just like Best in the Desert and King of the Hammers, rockcrawling competitions rely heavily on volunteers to be successful. And unlike races where the fastest wins, judges in rockcrawling competitions need to be well versed in the rules so they can score the courses in a fair and consistent manner. There needs to be an incentive for people to do this though, whether in terms of money, other compensation, or some sort of recognition for their efforts. Getting local 4x4 clubs involved again would be a great start.

Sportsman Class
WE Rock has enjoyed strong numbers in their Sportsman Class, which allows recreational wheelers who are not interested in traveling for the entire series test their skills against the best in the business. Keeping the entry fee low and the rules simple has been the key for renewing interest from locals who typically bring plenty of family and friends to events.

Is rockcrawling about to experience another growth spurt? It will be if Jesse Haines has anything to say about it.

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