video by: Jonathan Mill
It has to be one of the most difficult tasks explaining to someone what King of the Hammers really is; especially for those who have no idea why people drive off-road, what true endurance and determination is, what the race cars can physically drive over or off of, what speeds can be reached with 37" tires and a solid front axle, how the car is a Jeep but not really, how a full blown [Hammer]town is built in the middle of nowhere, or how difficult the race actually is to finish... sometimes saying the words "considered to be the most brutal one-day desert race in the world" or "80% attrition rate" just does not compute to the innocent eye.
If I haven't competed 6 times, DNF'd 4 times, hosted live production twice and actually won twice now, I would agree with you that I didn't know what I'm talking about when it comes to racing King of the Hammers (KOH). Thankfully, I have had the "luxury" of experiencing almost everything from behind the scenes, to the podium, and can honestly say I am addicted to this event.
After pitting next to Gerald Lee and John Currie who were winning in the Savvy car for 3 years while we were all racing with Falken, not only did I learn a lot from them and their many years of experience, I learned a bit about what it takes to be a winning team. Granted they have some serious skills behind the wheel, yet they also built the best car in the class continuously taking the 1st place finish. So when Gerald Lee (team owner) asked if I wanted to drive that car for the 2016 KOH EveryMan Challenge (EMC) for the 5th attempt at winning, I'm pretty sure it was the only car/team I would not say no to.
We began testing sessions the day after racing the Baja 1000 (finishing 2nd place in class 7) so my head was already in race pace. Refamiliarizing myself with the Hammers, every single corner of the car was pushed to its limits and tuned to within an inch of its life. We would go out on the trails, come back to the pits, talk about how the car felt, how it was behaving, how it could be improved, and what the next action was to execute our needs. I truly believe that this constant communication between myself, Martin Castro (co-driver and GM of Savvy Off Road), John Rocha (crew chief) and Gerald was one of our biggest enablers to success.
Long before race week, we clocked well over 800 miles of testing the car throughout a scattered 14 days. With the course maps not released until one week before the race, we didn't know anything of what the course actually looked like; so our time testing was getting familiar with the car and allowing me to learn it's limits. Knowing how it (and myself) would react in a number of situations was priceless. Plus we able to seriously dial in the car for my driving style, so it fit like a glove.
One month before the green flag dropped, the car was completely torn apart and fully race prepped. Like Gerald said: "there is no secret to success. It just takes a lot of hard work." and that is exactly how everyone on this team works. It's all about preparation.
We set up the pits on the lakebed just in time for the map release Friday morning, giving us 5 days to pre-run and become familiar with the course. With 116 miles marked out for the EMC race, we had a lot of miles to take notes on and mark in our GPS, especially the first 40 miles. In order to stay ahead of the pack and avoid any traffic jams, the first 40 miles are the most crucial to know. We ran that section about 9 times in total, just to be sure we had it memorized.
Clocking in another 300 miles, we were pleased to end up with only a few minor issues. There was a steering mis-hap, along with some over-heating issues, though our team handled these problems so fast it was like they never happened. Honestly, the guys on our team did an epic job. We couldn't have done it without your expertise: John, Martin, Jeff, Jose, Taylor, Devin..... thank you guys!
Before we knew it - it was race day. All our hard work was coming down to this one day and the 116 miles of desert and rocks that lay ahead of us. With well over 1,000 miles of pre-running, we were ready. We were so ready.
The air was crisp and spirits were high when Martin and I took our place at the start line - the car who pulled 1st position in the random qualifying draw didn't show up, so we were alone on the front line. The first car to take off and no one to race against. No dust trails to deal with. We had a clean getaway and knew this was a huge advantage.
"Five, four, three, two, one!", and off we went... it was requested to not jump off the lift just after the first turn, so I took it easy for about the first 5 seconds, and then I hardly lifted off the throttle for the next 20 miles. It was one of those times when we were hauling ass until we weren't. The first flat was the hardest one to deal with as I watched two cars pass by. First was Mitch Funk and then Jordan Townsend. We quickly passed Jordan (he was having issues with his fuel pump and ended up not finishing) and it soon became a chase for 1st place again. Just before we passed through the remote pit, we somehow got another flat and had to drive on it until we could reach our pit crew who were carrying another spare. We felt good clipping off the miles and closing the gap until we hit the infamous sand hill. A place where giant boulders like to hide under the sandy hillside and attack my front left corner. While we made it up the hill in good timing, the hit was so hard, the steering was squealing for the duration of the race.
Stopping at the main pits in Hammertown for a quick look-over around the car and a splash of fuel, we were out of the hot pits once again for lap 2 heading into the rock sections. Our pace was fast, our lines were nearly perfect, and we heard over the radio that 1st place was having mechanical issues. It was when we came around a bend in the Wrecking Ball rock canyon and saw Mitch's car with the hood up. I couldn't help but smile in this moment, though I had to remain calm and focused. No more room for errors. Shortly thereafter, a tube popped off the power steering reservoir and was spraying power steering fluid all over the engine. Fire hazard! It became so hot under the hood, the shiny gold vinyl wrap started to bubble up directly in front of my eyes. Martin hopped out of the car and fixed it, although we suddenly were not getting anything in 4-wheel high, so we assumed the belts were slipping on the pulleys. Either way, we still had 4 low and were able to carry on.
What seemed like a gagillion rock trails later, we had just finished driving down Jack Hammer to the next checkpoint and the course official told us to not drive up the hill; the only way we know how to go. At that very same moment, our GPS started going all sorts of whacky on us. We drove forward, couldn't see what he was talking about and had to back up for clearer directions. Not being able to drive the course we were familiar with and no little black line to follow on our map, that's when the Lovell brothers passed us. And they did so with a vengeance. I had no choice but to follow them so we could get back on track. They told us after the race that no matter what they tried, they could not shake me for the next 10 miles.
The 3rd flat tire going into Sunbonnet had me a tad on the upset side. I could not grasp why we had zero flats pre-running over 300 miles on the new BFGoodrich KX tries, and now I have 3 flats in the first 75 miles of the race. Imagine my thoughts when the 4th flat happened at the end of that same Sunbonnet rock trail. It had to be too low of tire pressure, cus those tires are amazing. This is where skills and determination come into play. We only carry one spare tire on the car, so I had to drive the next two rock sections with a front right flat. Not the ideal way of trying to catch back up, tho somehow I was able to drop in behind the Lovell's after they were hung up in Highway 19/20 rock garden. They still had all four tires inflated and were able to haul ass out of there, we had to make another pit stop to rid of our fire hazard aka: the hood, and make certain the belt and pulleys on the engine were clean... and change the last flat of the race.
From there, it was a reasonably short dash back to Hammertown. Though, what we thought was a slipping belt ended up being no rear high gears. We only had front high and four low. Doesn't seem all that bad, but driving at high speeds through the desert in FWD with an already compromised steering situation is kinda sketchy. Not gonna lie, it was pucker factor trying to keep it steady at anything over 45 mph. I was able to hold it over 70 mph for a while through the final fast section, yet found myself fully relieved when a terrain that required a slower speed and 4WD came along. Top speed to the finish line, 39 mph. Oh yeah! It was incredibly frustrating as I knew we were losing a lot of time. We simply had to focus on our aim; win the EMC stock mod class. Keep it together. No whammies.
There is nothing like the sweet sight of Hammertown! Anyone who has finished KOH will agree. Coming over a crest and seeing all the RV's and trailers brings a sense of clarity and confirmation that hard work and determination really do pay off. That our team kicked some serious Savvy ass. That we did it again. That I just want to hug and kiss the car for holding together. That I couldn't have done it without Martin's strength and motivation. That I'm not ready for it to be over. That there is a God.
Not only did we finish, we finished 1st in class! Technically we were the second car to cross the line. The Lovell's took the overall win and 1st in the Legends class. Randy Slawson had caught up so much time on us that he finished second and we took third overall. What was surprising, is that Jordan Pelligrino finished only 1.5 minutes behind us, and neither of us knew how how close we were to each other. A huge congratulations to the Lovell brothers for hammering down and all the other teams who podiumed and of course those who finished. I am honored to consider you all friends and true competitors. Be proud of yourselves. I look forward to racing with you again.
With everything I stand for, I must take this opportunity and make a quick shoutout to all the brave and talented ladies out there racing. Lindsay and Shelby Gilstrap, Makenzie Townsend, Beverly Croy - I love that you are vying for your passions. Bailey Cambell, you are my little hero. Words cannot express how magical your skills and determination are to others. All of you are making a difference in this world in such a rad way, I commend you. Hopefully I will be racing with you in the very near future ;)
We cannot forget to send a ginormous THANK YOU to Dave Cole, Shannon Welch, and the rest of the crew at Hammerking Productions, Emily Miller and her Souldside Network, Dan Campbell from Matchstick Productions with the entire live production team... hats off to you for creating, growing and sharing such an epic race with the rest of the world.
Another historical KOH event. 2017 can't come soon enough!! Would you like to see me race next year? If so, what would you like to see me drive?
P.S. You can see the rest of my #KOH2016 photo gallery here.