For most people that migrate to Means Dry Lake in Johnson Valley, CA each winter, it is all about the buggy race on Friday. But now in its’ fourth year, UTVs are making a big statement. The 2012 Pit Bull Tires King of The Hammers UTV Race Presented by SXSPerformance.com made a move to International Side X Side Association (ISA) rules with five different classes of UTVs: Unlimited 4, Production 1000, Production 850, Production 700, and Beginner/Stock. Chatter on the internet was big and over 30 UTVs had pre-registered for the race with several others known to be racing that would sign up on the lake bed.
This year’s seventy-eight mile course would be a combination of desert trails and rock trails that take competitors around one lap of Johnson Valley. The rough desert along with a couple of the famous Hammer trails were sure to prove the durability of both the driver and machine.
We arrived at Johnson Valley on the Saturday before Thursday’s UTV race so that we would have plenty of time to pre-run the course, shake down the car a few more times, then get tech inspection all handled. This was to be my fourth year running the UTV race, and I had spent the last few months working on my Kawasaki Teryx to make sure we were ready. I felt more prepared and relaxed for this year’s race than I have ever been. Unfortunately, while testing the car on Monday afternoon, we blew a head gasket. Just my luck.
Not wanting to toss in the towel on the race, I started to formulate alternatives. I had brought along my Polaris RZR XP 900 for pre-running and use it quite a bit in the dunes.We already had Pro Armor doors and harnesses, Beard seats and several Race Pace products from DragonFire Racing (front/rear bumpers, back bones, tire carrier, replacement a-arms, V brace and radius arms) that made the jump to ISA rules a possibility. I took a drive down to Hammertown and talked to Mike Lasher who was handling tech for the race. He said I was pretty close, but would need window nets, and amber light and an aluminum roof. In addition to being a board member of the ISA, Mike also owns SXSPerformance.com and was selling UTV parts and accessories in Hammertown. It was great to have support from the UTV industry at the event for many of the last minute details and repairs. One of the cool products to come out in the last year is made by PRP Seats and geared towards RZR owners that have Pro Armor doors and want to race. PRP’s window nets mount right up to a stock cage with Pro Armor doors. The velcro in place and can be easily installed and removed so the weekend warrior can race one day and play the next. Thankfully Mike had a set in stock and made the path to race day much easier.
Tuesday morning came Dave, Rich, my co-dog Wally and I set about getting the car prepped. We added an aluminum piece under our plastic roof. We moved the GPS over from another car and swapped the billet centers on our OMF beadlocks so we could run the tall 27.5″ Pit Bull Rockers. Installed an amber light and mounted the IRC tracker. I already had PURE Polaris rock sliders and trailing arm guards helped protect the underside, but I did not have anything but the stock skid plate. If I had planned to race my XP, I would have had some 1/2″ UHMW skids under there from Factory UTV.
After getting everything installed, Wally and I headed out to see how it felt. I had a set of Stage III upgraded shocks from Fox Racing Shox and met up with Jerry Penhall (Penhall Racing) so he could help us tune the shocks. The front end looked great, and we added a few clicks of low-speed compression and slowed down the rebound quite a bit in the rear. We also added a little bit more pre-load to help us get through the rocks without dragging the skid plate everywhere.
The night before the race, we had a driver’s meeting down in Hammertown where they drew starting positions. I had been setup in the Unlimited 4 class with my Teryx, but now could fall into Production 1000 as well. Since our goal for the race had changed a bit and we were just looking to finish and have fun, I decided to move back to Production 1000. This would prove to be a key decision in our race. I knew that Unlimited 4’s were to start first, but it turned out that 18 UTVs had signed up for that class. Ugh! After drawing positions, we would start the race 25th off the line. The start was to be two at a time, every 30 seconds so we were going to be 12 minutes behind the first cars and well engulfed in the huge dust clouds created in Johnson Valley. Oh well, let’s just relax and have fun.
The morning of the race was very chilly and with the adrenaline pumping in full force, I was pretty jittery. I told Wally to remind me to just relax and have fun. Just have to finish. Unfortunately, Wally had been sick for the last few days and had almost lost his voice so I couldn’t really hear much of him through our Rugged Radios. There went that plan…
The jump off the start line looked like a kicker, and the dust was really thick. I really did not want to make any stupid mistakes early on, so I drove cautiously for the first 5 miles or so. Within the first few miles though, we started to pass other cars and felt pretty good. At first I counted them, but then got myself confused and gave up. But it felt good to have passed half a dozen by the time we hit the first lake bed. The car felt real solid and we had settled into a comfortable pace. We continued to pass a car here and there and saw Martel coming up. This was the first rock section, but was easy compared to what we had coming. At the first part of Martel, we came upon a RZR 4 that was setup for desert racing. They were stuck , and with the long wheelbase I knew we needed to get in front of them ASAP. Their co-dog was out of the car, and I yelled that we could give them a push. I got the thumbs up and put my DragonFire “Bash” bumper to the test. It took just a nudge and they were over the rock that had them high centered. They thankfully let us by and we were on our way.
After Martel, we were back to more open desert and clicked off more miles until the first pit. We passed a few more cars then made the u-turn at the pit area and headed to Elvis. We had not setup anything for the first pit, and thankfully we did not need it. I was feeling real good about our race at the 30-mile mark, but was a little nervous about Elvis in 15 more miles. I could see a few cars in front of me, so we pushed a little harder than I had been to see if we could get ahead of anyone. Although we gained some time, we came into the canyon without passing any more cars. Once we got into the last part of Elvis where the big rocks are, we saw a big line of cars in front of us. Just what I had feared.
We approached the line of cars and tried to be patient. The easiest line plus another that did not look so good were blocked by cars in front of us and 3 or 4 cars were in line as well. One other looked to be beating his car up pretty hard on a third line. Figuring it was just a matter of time before the “easy” line freed up, we sat and waited. Besides UHMW skids, the other piece of equipment I did not have that I would have had if I had prepared for racing my RZR XP was a Warn winch. Without it, I really did not want to take too many chances on a tough alternate line in Elvis. We waited a bit more, then Wally prodded me to make a move. I was just starting to get into position when Jarred Newman #2346 jumped in front of me on the alternate line. That hesitation would most likely cost me third place at the finish line. They got down the first obstacle and then we followed and got a bit stuck. Wally hopped out and gave me a little push and down we went. We worked our way through and then Adam Woodlee #262 was able to sneak down from his spot in line to right in front of us. Adam got stuck in a tough spot and ended up breaking something on his front end. Now things looked even worse! I yelled at my co-dog Wally to tell them that I would push them forward with my bumper. I guess I jumped the gun a bit because they weren’t quite ready for me. I settled down and waited for Wally’s sign then pushed them forward. Whew, they were free and limped the rest of the way down Elvis in 2 wheel drive.
We were back in the desert and feeling pretty good. We had passed about 6 or so cars in Elvis, but had lost 20+ minutes doing so. Me made our way through some tough cross-grain sections and a ton of up and down where you really have to watch your speed before reaching Pit 2. Dave and Rich were waiting for us and made quick work of adding fuel and checking over the car. All looked good and there was one car not too far in front of us. Just before leaving, our pit crew said there were only four cars in front of us. That didn’t seem possible to me, but we set our sights on the car that went through the pits a few minutes ahead of us.
We found Johnny Ford #120 up on Fissure Mountain where they had stopped to fix something. With no one else in sight, we headed down Jack North. This rock trail is easier than the Elvis alternate line we took, but much longer. We picked our way through the rocks until finally we reached the desert floor again. We had less than 15 miles to go to the finish and everything was running great. We clicked off miles until the dry lake bed just a few miles from the start/finish line. Wally and I were getting excited.
Now just a mile from the finish, we passed a good crowd just below Back Door and then made our way up a steep hill with real loose footing. I was struggling a bit more than I should have been when I noticed we were in 2 wheel drive. Doh! I shifted to 4WD and tossed it into low for good measure and worked our way to the top. The finish line was just ahead and I set my sights on it, when we hit a big dip that through us up in the air. Oops! I can’t believe I missed that! I slowed and rolled across the finish line. In front of us were just three cars – Mitch Guthrie #55 raced Unlimited 4 in his Polaris RZR XP, Todd Stephensen #1944 raced Production 1000 in his Arctic Cat Wildcat, and Jarred Newman #2436 who raced Production 1000 in his RZR XP. Wow! We were really 4th overall.
It wasn’t until a few days later that I saw that #2346 were the guys that had sneaked in front of us at Elvis. Damn! That is what I get for hesitating….
At the end of the day, only 17 of 39 cars (43%) actually finished. Wally and I had zero issues all day long (no flats, no broken bolts, nothing!) and accomplished what we set out to do – finish the race and have fun doing it. The RZR XP and all the aftermarket parts we added exceeded our expectations.
The next day, I took the nets off and tore around Johnson Valley watching the buggy race. Race one day and play the next. Nice.
Days like this make racing fun, and I sure hope to be back at it again next year. Crossing my fingers for more rocks though!
For more coverage of the UTV race, please check out: Pit Bull Tires King of the Hammers UTV Race
Our Polaris RZR XP Sponsors:
- PURE Polaris – Rock Sliders and Trailing Arm Guards
- SSVWorks.com – Side Mirrors
- ProArmor.com – Doors with graphics and Harnesses
- Muzzys.com – Dual Exhaust & Digitune
- WickedBilt.com – Power Steering
- FoxRacingShox.com – Stage III shock upgrade
- DragonFireRacing.com – Front & Rear Bumper, OE replacement A-arms, Spare Tire Carrier, High Rise Rear Links
- KoronisParts.com– Fuel Seats
- BajaDesigns.com– LED Lights
- prpseats.com and sxsperformance.com– Window Nets
- Pit Bull – 27.5″ Rocker Tires
- OMF Performance – Billet Center Wheels
- Rugged Radios – Radio and Intercom