MDR Don Griffith Memorial - Opportunity Comes Knocking
Riding Along At The MDR 400
We'd watched it take shape at C&D Fabworks, checked it out at the Off-Road Expo, and finally photographed it on its maiden Mojave voyage. "It" is none other than Matt Towery's Class 8 F-150. We'd hoped for a stint in the codriver's seat during the maiden voyage, but that day was dedicated to suspension tuning and general shakedown. The shakedown day was still a day well spent: We got plenty of photos for a full-length feature story ("Standard of Excellence," July '07), and the suspension tuning helped Matt take the overall win at the MDR Don Griffith Memorial 250 two weeks later, a race Matt sponsored in honor of a dear friend and crewmember.
Longtime Photographer, First-time CodriverI know quite a few women who would be scared out of their wits strapped inside the rocket of a race truck. This is a sport where roughly half the competitors DNF; after all, driving off the beaten path at somewhere around 100 mph isn't exactly something that should be taken lightly.
I, however, am not one of those women. I don't have as much of that healthy fear you should probably have when you get as close to zooming trucks as I do with my camera. Fortunately, I do have a healthy dose of sensibility, and that tends to ward off stupidity. Still, being in the race is a whole different animal than what I'm used to.
The weather on race day was hovering close to 100 degrees F, and while other women at the race were in shorts and a tank top, I had zero chance of sunburn in a fire suit, neck roll, and helmet.
After a short discussion on the etiquette of proper helmet vomiting (we decided the best thing might be to pull down the helmet and aim down, if possible), I got strapped in and awaited those first few minutes of sheer terror before getting used to the controlled chaos that is off-road racing. Funny thing is, it never happened. The terror, I mean. Sure, we were racing through the desert at a speed that will remain nameless (mostly because I couldn't see the gauges to save my life), and I could barely make out the rearview camera to see if someone was looking to nerf us, but I felt a lot like I used to when my family drove cross-country on vacations when I was growing up: comfortable. That's not to say that it was boring - far from it! I wanted to yell, rollercoaster-style, the entire time. Matt kept apologizing for the terrain being "squirrely," which I didn't understand at all, since it never felt like we were driving over hundreds of bushy-tailed rodents or having them flung repeatedly through the windshield like a cheesy horror flick. I suppose it helped that my inaugural off-roading experiences had been in a stock '81 Toyota, basically sans suspension.
Sitting in the codriver's seat, I understood why racers spend months (or in Kevin's case, years) building and prepping their trucks for the privilege of roaming across the rocky, silty, muddy terrain, sitting at the helm of that powerful machine. You might not think the middle of an off-road race would be a likely moment for a philosophical realization such as this, but in that 50-minute lap, gazing shakily through the dusty shield of my helmet, I felt I could truly appreciate the symphony of horsepower alongside the gorgeous desert panorama.
I have to hand it to everyone who puts in the kind of effort, time, and devotion to racing and is still willing and able to maintain his or her relationships with loved ones. I have a feeling when we get our race truck finished, the payoff will be worth the effort - for both of us. After all, the list of female off-road racers over the years still pales in comparison to that of their counterparts.
We'll have to remedy that.
Opportunity for seat time came knocking with the MDR McKenzie's 400. Held in the heat of the Mojave in late June, the team turnout for the 400 is historically light. The light turnout is owed to the length of the race (most MDR rounds are 250-milers) and the mercury level (90s to 100-plus). Placing well in a long, hot race takes a dedicated crew, a talented driver, and a well-built truck. This set of requirements meant that Towery Off-Road Racing was primed and ready for a strong showing. An overall win would be tough, as several Class 1 unlimited buggies were on the starting grid, but it wasn't out of the question.
Lucerne's racecourse is both well-worn and well-liked. Even though the Johnson Valley OHV area (home to the Lucerne 400) is an open-travel OHV area, the BLM has restricted race promoters' options for courses. Vast valleys alternate with tight, whooped-out sections. Deep sand is thrown in for good measure. Lucerne also has several wide-open pin-it-to-win-it sections where every racing class gets a chance to wind out to maximum velocity. The pine-clothed San Bernardino Mountains in the distance add tremendous scenic value to the Lucerne experience.
Prerace testing had gone well for Matt and his crew. The truck was handling well, and there was abundant power on tap under the hood. One thing was cause for concern: This was the truck's first race in the heat, and the temperature gauge hinted at hot times inside the engine block. The culprit was one of three things: not enough airflow, not enough radiator surface area, or ignition timing that was too far advanced. C&D had selected a large aluminum radiator during the build and had provided extensive ducting to channel as much air as possible directly through the aluminum core. The team decided to try the easiest possible solution first: They removed the grille-mounted lights. Airflow increased - problem solved. The truck and the team were both ready for the starting line.
Matt is quick to share his hard-earned Class 8 experience with others. He arranged for a codriver change each lap. Eight lucky souls would have a chance to experience Lucerne from Matt's spectacular vantage point. Final codriver breakdown: six team members and two journalists. Collette would ride Lap 5, and I would ride Lap 7.
In a nutshell, the standard of excellence has been upheld. Matt's truck worked as beautifully as it looked. It was great to be ready when opportunity came knocking.