By Jon Crowley
The road to the 2013 HCR King of the Hammers UTV Race was a tough journey for me. Although this was my 5th year racing, I have struggled most years and have questioned my sanity many times for coming back to race year after year. The first four years of the UTV race were more like a desert sprint with a few rock obstacles sprinkled in. This year rumors flew all over cyberspace that King of the Hammers organizer Dave Cole was going to step up the game. Those rumors proved to be oh so true and much more.
The choice of vehicle for me this year was simple. I raced a nearly stock Polaris RZR XP in the 2012 King of the Hammers UTV race and finished 4th overall and 3rd in the Production 1000 class. From that race I learned that the RZR XP is the best suited vehicle for this type of desert and rock race. Fast in the desert, yet nimble in the rocks. Plus great aftermarket parts availability to beef up areas susceptible to this extreme environment.
The journey for the 2013 race for me started right about the time of the 2012 Sand Sports Super Show. I had just received my 2013 Polaris RZR XP demo unit from Polaris and several new 30x10R14 tires were introduced at the show. That kicked my brain into high gear and the planning went into overdrive. It is strange when you start planning for the race and think you only really need a few upgrades. But then somewhere along the way things obviously go overboard. My plan was to keep the car as stock as possible because this was more of a play car than a true race build. I focused on durability and safety while keeping the stock suspension geometry.
Things progressed quickly on the car and I made a round trip in the Rubicon before the end of October (aka Rubicon Challenge). Soon after my RZR XP was used as a test mule for a full-tilt 30-inch tire shootout. This proved to me that the car was capable on running on 30-inch tires in the desert and rocks and I knew this would pay off big during the race.
Come December, the car was basically ready, but I had yet to decide on a co-dog. That all changed when I went on a trip to the Grand Canyon with UTVUnderground and Jagged X. After a long day on the trail, we were back at the Bar 10 Ranch having a few cocktails that I enlisted Blake Van de Loo and Jagged X. What started out as a few jokes became a cohesive and well-prepared team on race day that made all the difference in the race.
When race week finally came, Dave Cole announced the race course. My heart immediately started racing as I read about the 115 mile course. UTVs would follow an hour after 60 Every Man Challenge racers and do 50 miles of tough desert back to main pit. Then another 20 miles before climbing Aftershock, then up Highway 19/20 before heading into remote pit 2. From pit 2 we would climb Fissure Mountain, then down Jackhammer, up Chocolate Thunder, up Wrecking Ball, down Clawhammer, up Lower and Upper Big
Johnson and back down Boulderdash before heading back to remote pit 2a. Then off to a few more miles of desert before climbing Elvis. From there it was another 12 miles back to the finish line. The race wasn’t just a little bit harder than last year, it was easily ten times harder!
I hooked up with my buddy Dave and drove the 10 hours to Johnson Valley on Saturday. By Sunday night, Bill Schueler and Blake Van de Loo had arrived and we came up with a plan for the week. Blake and Bill both had very capable rock buggies, and Blake brought his 2011 RZR XP. The decision was made to take just the three vehicles so we could keep a faster pace. We swapped tires on Blake’s RZR to a set of 30″ tires from Dave’s RZR so it would be closer to the race car and off we went to run the rock trails. Our plan was to run all of the rock trails and skip most of the desert.
We started off on the course at mile 70 and quickly made it to Aftershock. On the first day, we made it up Aftershock, up Highway 19/20, around Fissure Mountain, down Jackhammer and up Chocolate Thunder. The second day we tackled Wrecking Ball, Clawhammer, Lower and Upper Big Johnson Boulderdash and Elvis. While we didn’t really get on the trail until about 10AM, we did work at it all day. Not at race pace, but the number of tough rock trails were going to make this race almost impossible to finish in eight hours. Blake’s RZR XP did awesome. Other than the 30″ tires, it had a set of Jagged X stock width arms on it but that was it. Still had the original belt with 2,000 miles on it. The only issue we had was one blown valve stem in two days of serious rock crawling.
After our experience over the two days in the rocks, our game plan solidified. The race would be won in the rocks. I knew many would over drive their UTVs in the desert trying to get out front, and this would help weed out the field. “Just get to the rocks” was my motto. Then drive smart and winch more than normal to keep from beating up the car (thankfully our Warn winch never let us down, because we used it probably 20+ times).
On race day, we lined up in the 5th or 6th row behind Mitch Guthrie. It was a two-by-two start every 30 seconds, and your adrenaline kicks into gear big time as you line up. I got the green flag and with our outside lane did not get the holeshot. The next 38 miles to the first pit were a dusty and rough ride through monster whoops. We passed a few racers, but got passed by more than that. It was hard to stay calm, but I kept repeating “just get to the rocks” in my head. At one point, we were tapped by another racer. We were in an area with a few optional lines running across whooped out desert. I thought it was strange to get tapped when there were alternate lines but figured we would look for a spot to move over soon. Before we had a chance to do anything, boom! We were hit real hard. Our car seemed to be running just fine so we kept going, but we never did see the car that hit us.
It wasn’t until after the race that we found this in-car video. So glad that his impatience did not take us out of the race.
At the first pit, the car was running good so we opted to fly right by and made up several places at that point.
The next obstacle would be mile 48 1/2 where there are two choices. The left side is up a rock trail with a few tough rock obstacles. The right side was a steep sand hill with a rock pinch point. Most of the EMC racers were opting for the rock trail so we went for the sand hill. Brandon Simms had a broken rear axle and was trying to winch up. Casey Currie was next then me. Casey tried to go high around Brandon and got entangled in his winch line, but got through. I didn’t want to follow that line so I waited for the right moment where I could try to the left. Meanwhile, UTVs began stacking up behind. This is the most nerve racking part of the race. If you wait too long, someone will cut you off and make a run at it. Go too early and you might be stuck winching as well. I picked my moment, stuck it in low gear and mashed the throttle. We passed Simms, hit the rock pinch point and caught some air and bounced over. With our momentum all but gone, it was all about traction and power. The additional power from the Muzzys dual exhaust, Digitune, K&N air filter, EPI clutch and Benchmark head work were turning our 30″ GBC Mongrel tires hard enough to fling sand and keep us moving. We made it to the top and out which took us up to I think 4th overall. It turned out to be a huge move for us since many after us had to winch up the sand hill or wait in a long line on the rock trail.
We pulled into the main pit and the Jagged X pit crew flew into action. They added fuel and checked the car over, and we were back in the desert. There was about 20 miles to go before Aftershock, so we settled into a comfortable pace. I think we were in third place at this point with Casey Currie in front of us and Mitch Guthrie ahead of that. By the time we reached the main waterfall on Aftershock, we had passed Currie and were behind Guthrie with EMC cars between and ahead of us. Currie opted for a bypass around this spot and saved probably half and hour. We could not remember whether this line was legal or not so we waited. Never did get confirmation but it was probably OK. It took long enough for us to get through that Jared from Destination Polaris was able to get an interview in from Blake and I. Very frustrating to wait, but I didn’t want to risk much at this point.
We finally got through and were quickly at the bottom of Highway 19/20. That is where we experienced our only mechanical failure of the day. We broke a front axle. The next pit was at the top of the hill. We could either hike to the top, get and axle and fix it on the trail, or struggle to the top and have our pit crew do it. Blake and I both opted for the drive to the top. It took quite a bit longer that it should have, and we had to winch more than normal but we made it. On the ascent, we did pass Casey Currie who was broken, but were also passed by Matt Enochs and Kelly Kaiser in their RZR XP.
We finally made it to remote pit 2A and the Jagged X crew went to work on the axle. Blake and I got out of the car to rest and eat. It was brutal on Blake and I was pretty spent as well. Remind me to get in better shape if I am ever crazy enough to attempt this race again. It turns out that we had made the right decision to limp to the pit instead of trying to swap the axle in the field because the inner shaft did not want to come out of the differential. It too a while, but we finally left the pit with Guthrie over an hour out front of us. At this point I really did not think we would be able to finish in time, but we were going to give it our best.
Somewhat refreshed, we drove up and down Fissure Mountain, then down Jackhammer. At somewhere along the line we started to figure out that we may be able to complete the race. From there it was Chocolate Thunder. There was a huge crowd at the hill and a Jumobtron showing live coverage from all over the course. It was quite impressive. We arrived to a yellow flag signalling that there was a competitor in front of us that was in the process of getting over an obstacle and the co-driver was out of the vehicle. We approached the yellow EMC rig and waited at the gatekeeper for our turn. They winched over and we quickly did the same. Then we took a line to the left and got in front of them. The crowd went wild, but it was short lived because I couldn’t make a clean climb at the next obstacle. We winched up again and made it though without too much more effort. Blake got back in the car and he was fried at this point. Running up rock trails like a billy goat while in a fire suit and helmet all while pulling winch line has got to be like running a marathon. I told Blake we should switch for the next trail which was Wrecking Ball. Beyond having tons of rock crawling and desert experience, Blake has something else that you need in order to finish a race like King of the Hammers, drive. Blake simply said that he had it covered and I knew that I could not convince him otherwise.
We carried on to Wrecking Ball, which unfortunately for Blake was only a few minutes away. We picked through our lines just like our pre-run and were making good time. About half-way along the trail we spotted Guthrie’s yellow RZR XP ahead. Wow! We were still in this. We made it through Wrecking Ball and closed in slightly on Guthrie and as we descended Clawhammer we saw Enochs a bit in front of him. It was game on to the finish as we knew it was very possible that we could make it to the finish line in time.
We chased both cars from there up Lower and Upper Big Johnson and down Boulderdash. We decided to pass up on pit 2A and try to catch the front runners. Enochs and Guthrie made good time in the desert heading to Elvis, but when we arrived, we came up on Guthrie winching. Blake got out and helped them get through the obstacle after their winch line broke. We winched quickly then were hot on their heels. Across the desert we went in Guthrie’s dust. Just didn’t seem like we could catch him. About mile 107 we passed Enochs and Kaiser as they were finishing up on a tire change. Now we were in second place. Guthrie started 30 seconds in front of us so I pushed hard to reel him in a bit. We were in a nasty section of big whoops and I made a few mistakes that got us out of shape. It was at that point that I backed it off just a bit to make sure we didn’t yard sale it this close to the finish. We climbed the same sand hill as in lap one and chased Guthrie and the setting sun to the finish line. I could not catch him and when we crossed I had a feeling that we were passed the 30 seconds. Race officials brought us both up on the stage as they calculated official results and waited patiently. The word came down that Guthrie had us by 16 seconds! After almost 8 hours and 115 miles it came down to 16 seconds. What a race.
I was bummed we could not pull off a win, but thrilled that we accomplished a finish at all. Most everyone didn’t think it was possible. Three teams proved them wrong. The race was probably the hardest thing I have ever done. The physical and mental challenge is incredible. But one thing Dave Cole said during the driver’s meeting really struck a cord while sitting at the finish line. He said that the ideal scenario was that only three UTV finish the race. That way he would know the course was just tough enough to make it the hardest off-road race in the world. In the grand scheme of things, I don’t have that much race experience, but it sure made the results that much sweeter.
I could not have completed the race without my incredible co-dog Blake Van de Loo, the first-class pit support from Jagged X and great dinners all week prepared by my buddy Dave.
I would also like to thank these fine companies for their support:
Polaris, Axia Alloy, Cognito Motorsports, Desert Molding Concepts, EPI, Factory UTV, FOX, Fullerton Sand Sports, GBC Motorsports, HiPer Technology, High Lifter, K&N, Lonestar Racing, Magnum Offroad, Muzzys, Pro Armor, ProLine Wraps, PRP Seats, Rhino Parts & Performance, Rigid Industries, Rugged Radios, SDR Motorsports, SSV Works, Summers Brothers Racing, TMW Off-Road, UTV Inc., Warn, Yoshimura, SxSPerformance.com.
To view the complete RZR XP 900 build, please visit: 2013 Polaris RZR XP 900 EPS Orange Madness/Blue LE
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