By Michael Lee
The prep for my journey to the Hammers for 2019 began as soon as my race was over in 2018. We timed out just shy of 110 miles last year after being lost for 2 hours due to GPS failures, and fighting part failures along the entire race day. At the end of that race day in 2018, most would have walked away extremely upset after all the problems, but for me it was the best thing that could happened. I learned so much that first year racing King of the Hammers and quickly understood the ins and outs of the race and knew all the needed adjustments to have a successful 2019 journey to the Hammers!
Once completed with the entirety of the 2018 Ultra 4 race season, I purchased a 2018 Polaris RZR XP Turbo and before the first test drive took place, me and my co driver, Chris Armstrong went to work and began the build of the new RZR. Chris and I both have had quite a bit of UTV endurance racing experience, and both had very similar ideas on the best way to build the right car to be the most competitive at KOH, and back on the east coast. The simple answer to that was light, fast, and durable. And that was the exact build we went forward with.
Once built, I did a shakedown with the freshly built RZR at the Pro UTV Race 2 Riches 3 and came out with a finish, and a lot of confidence in the machine. I brought the RZR back home and got busy putting the final touches on the RZR to get it ready for King of the Hammers. I was lucky enough to make a pre run trip to Johnson Valley right after Christmas 2018 and spent 3 quality days testing the RZR and running the trails all throughout Johnson Valley.
This trip was extremely helpful for me as I learned the trails better than ever and also had some great tips from a few seasoned desert racers who helped me sharpen my skills in the new to me desert terrain. A successful trip that truly proved to be a great help throughout race week success.
When it came down to final planning for our trip from Alabama to Southern California, I knew wanted to bring my entire family, who all have been very supportive during my racing career, to enjoy the race week and see the Country from coast to coast. We locked in our plans and we loaded up the RV with my 2 children (5 and 7 Years old), 3 dogs, and my lovely wife Maria, and started on the 36 hour drive to the lakebed! We arrived on the lakebed early Tuesday morning and we immediately started settling in and finishing the final prep on my Polaris RZR XPT for Sunday’s race. I woke up early Wednesday morning and grabbed my co driver, Chris Armstrong, and we headed out to the Desert for pre-running and testing. We had fuel mileage dialed up, the Walker Evans Racing Velocity shocks working good, and the RVS Performance clutch dialed in!
Thursday we started running lap 2 of the race course and picking our lines through the rock sections and really doing our homework to learn all we could as driver and co driver that have little desert racing experience, but a lot of rock racing experience! Friday we all took it slow and easy as we started closing in on race day. I took the RZR down to tech and had it Ultra 4 banded and through tech with a breeze. We then made a quick trip out to Outer Limits and Spooners and showed our pit crew the locations of the pits so they could familiarize themselves with the area. We spent 3 solid days running the course, picking out the right lines, taking notes, strategizing, planning, and running every scenario possible by the crew to give our team the best chance at winning.
Saturday morning jumped off with a thorough inspection and bolt check of the Polaris RZR to prepare for my 1pm qualifier. I was pleasantly surprised to see that all of the RZR was in excellent shape with not 1 loose bolt or any major problems after 250 miles of pre running and putting the RZR through its paces! I suited up and jumped in line to qualify to try and give myself the best starting position I could for Sunday’s race. I went into contingency without knowing any prior qualifying times or hearing any “secrets” of the qualifying course with the purpose of just going out and running my pace on the lines I had picked. The Ultra 4 staff did an excellent job getting race cars in and out of contingency and right out on the qualifying course! Before I could get strapped in, the staff was signaling me out to get in line for qualifying as they were running ahead of schedule. Once off the line I did my best to keep a fast and smooth pace without any mistakes, knowing that a mistake free run would land me a great starting position. I was surprised to see how rough the course had become and knew I was checking up in spots that was costing me precious time. After getting settled in I started picking up the pace and pushing a little too hard as I bicycled it coming through the “Jeep arch” trying to make up the lost time on the beginning of the course. I stayed in the throttle and came across the finish line without issue and dialed up a time of 2.36.08 which would land me a starting position of 21st for Sunday’s race. This starting position gave me a ton of confidence and really hyped me and the crew up for the big race! We all made our way back to the pits and began packing the chase trucks and putting our pit strategies into play.
With very little sleep Saturday night from excitement, being a little nervous, and just running the race course through in my head, Sunday finally came and off the staging we went. It was a brisk morning and the feeling of my toes had already disappeared by the time the interviews began. Chris and I jumped in the car and headed to the start line with big smiles on our faces and a lot of built up excitement. The green flag would drop and Cody Currie and I would swap it back and forth a few different times on the short course and off into the desert we went. I went ahead and let Cody by and planned to pace him for the entirety of the desert, as I am still learning the ropes of desert racing and knew following his pace would set us up for success by the time we arrived in the rocks. We passed a handful of cars broken in the desert in the first 20 miles and knew we were running a winning pace as we inched our way closer to the top 10 within the first 20 miles. I was staying calm and smooth and only allowed 1 car by us during this time. As we came to our first option line at around mile 27 we took the shorter, yet rocky line and planned to pick off a couple of positions as we could see 3 cars ahead taking the long way around. As I made the hard right turn off the hill, tragedy struck. I felt the left rear fall in to the sand and saw the left rear tire come rolling by us. My heart sank and I told Chris “we are done” as I feared the worst. We both quickly got out and assessed the damage and made plans to try and repair it. My decision to run no jack or spare tire on the RZR seemed like a terrible idea all the sudden. As I was beating myself up over that decision, I found a steep drop off, drug the RZR over to it, and put the right front wheel off the ledge, bringing the left rear up so we could work on the damaged corner. Upon inspection we found all 4 wheel studs to sheared off and knew we needed a pretty serious repair to get back going. Chris began removing the brake caliper with plans of removing the hub entirely and trying to do a full repair on the trail. I began loosening 1 lug nut on each corner of the RZR and knocked out 1 wheel stud per corner as well. I then told Chris to reinstall the brake caliper and we can just install the studs on the damaged corner to get us back going. We finally got the wheel studs through the severely damaged rotor and hub and the got wheel remounted to the RZR. I was paying attention the cars that were passing as we were stopped and remember seeing the RZR of Mike Faltz, who had started 91st, come by and knew we had major work to do to get back with the lead pack before we arrived to the rock trails. We strap back in and get back to a much slower race pace knowing the repair on the left rear was temporary and unlikely to get us back to pit 1b. I was very timid driving as we had to go about 50 miles on the temporary repair and had no immediate brakes due to the bent rotor on the left rear expanding the brake pads open. I was surprised that even at our slowed pace we were passing so many cars. I had probably gone from an 85% race pace to about a 50% pace at this point. We made our way into Cougar Buttes with a line of cars in front of us and knew we had to make up more ground or the rock trail traffic would just get worse. We had the perfect lines dialed up through this technical rock section and coming out the other side we had passed at least 6 cars in 100 yards and never once had to stop. Still limping the car along we made it in to pit 1B for fuel and a closer look at the left rear assembly. After trying to add another lug stud to the hub since we only had 2 studs remaining, the crew determined it was not repairable. I told them to go down the line and find a hub assembly and get us back in the race. Our crew thankfully found a hub assembly at the PRP Seats pit (Thank you!) and rushed to put it in. After sitting stationery in the RZR for 40 minutes while it was being repaired, we were finally able to get back on course. The car felt great, brakes were back, and my confidence was back. I turned my pace back up and started pushing hard. The Polaris RZR took the beating like a champ and kept asking for more. We came into the start/finish line for the beginning of lap 2 and never checked up as we knew the rocks were coming and it was my time to shine. The first rock trail we come to is “Boulderdash” and we make quick work and make passes on about 3-4 cars through this rock canyon. We came up to the next option line on the course and it was to either go the longer easier route up “Clawhammer” or take the shorter, much harder and technical rock climb up “Full of Hate.” Chris and I had already decided to take the shorter option before the race began and as we pulled up and saw cars coming from “Clawhammer” back to “Full of Hate” we knew we were making the correct decision. The only problem with our plan is that we had 2 cars in front of us and they were not getting up the climb easy. Robby Gordon was the first car in line and seemed to be having belt problems. His co driver was out and winching him up and out of the way. Cody Currie was the second driver in line and once Robby was out of the way, Cody shot up the first obstacle but got hung up on the next ledge. Knowing the lines through this trail I was a little frustrated as I knew I was being held up through here. Thankfully Cody and Robby both waved me by and with a little help from their co drivers and Knox Griffin’s co driver Colby Wilson we took an extremely hard bypass to the right and got around both cars and never looked back. We came out of there in good position, even with the delay! Our next trail was the famous “Chocolate Thunder” which we were running down hill this year. We crested the hill and dropped in and found about a half dozen or so cars on a Sunday drive through the rocks. Lucky for me I have ran up this trail upwards of 50 times in my visits to Johnson Valley and once I saw everyone cut left on the trail, I dipped off to the right side ledge and got to smooth ground and shot around all of the slower moving cars. It must have been a good move because over the race car, the intercom noise, and all the other noises we both heard the crowd erupt with cheers. This move landed me some key positions as the next few trails were very serious rock trails and we needed the slower cars out of our way to make up as much time as possible! We eased our way down the next rock trail and flopped the car on the passenger side. Luckily some quick thinking and my Gear Grabber shifter backed us down and somehow back on all 4 tires again with out any assistance and lined us up for a much better exit out of the rock trail. Another loud cheer from the crowd had as pumped up and ready for more! We were trying very hard to get my 2 slower cars before we got to “Jackhammer” and with sirens blaring and a few friendly bumps, the cars never moved and we were stuck behind the traffic. The first car gets stuck and has the winch quickly in motion to get out of the way, the second car breaks their front differential and holds me up for some time, which was extremely frustrating after not letting me pass prior to the entrance of the rocks. Once those cars are winched out of the way we pass both of them on the ledge they broke on and kept on towards “Jack North” where we encountered more traffic, but luckily the co drivers were already out and winching and making passable lines for traffic to get by. Our East coast buddy Matt Zeiler was having some difficulties and his co driver motioned for us to push him out of the way, so a little “love tap” to get him unstuck and out of the way and then we were back on our way! We were traffic free from that point and made our way right into the pit 2a check point without issue. We make it in to “Hwy 19/20” and miss the first VCP checkpoint. Once we realized we were on the “DQ Line” we turned into the canyon to make sure we do not incur any further time penalties. We are making quick work of the extremely difficult rock trail and then all of the sudden the RZR slams to the right and we are laying on our passenger side, initially thinking we need to get out and start recovering, I put the Gear Grabber shifter back to use and turn right and mash the throttle and the car magically uprights itself and we are back moving and up and out of the canyon! A quick stop at Pit 2b for fuel and a quick check over the RZR and we were on our way to our hardest challenge yet, “Outer Limits.” I have been up this rock trail a few times now and have yet to have to pull winch cable up this trail, so I know as long as lines are open, we are going to get through here in record time. At the bottom of the trail we make a couple of quick moves on some slower moving cars. As we get to the upper side of the trail we run into Travis Zollinger and Anthony Yount who are both fighting their way up to the top. Travis has cable pulled and Anthony’s winch is not working so they have Anthony hooked to Travis, pulling them both up the trail. Anthony’s belt then began having some issues so he unhooked from Travis, backed down and let me by, a very nice showing of sportsmanship from both Travis and Anthony. Travis was up and out of the way as well so we were lucky that this was a very short delay. We come into the very last obstacle of the trail and have a few broken cars scattered, but thankfully out of the way. The trail is pretty dug out by the time we arrived here so after a few attempts on the ledge, we decided to pull cable to get through here without fault. Quick winch work from Chris had us back moving in record time and up and out of the canyon without issue. We start heading down the final rock trail “Spooners” and having run this a few times we had high hopes of being in the clear of any further trouble past this point. We pass 2 cars coming down the trail and know we are on a good pace to finish in well under 6 hours even with the left rear hub failure earlier on in the race. As we continued through the trail, we get to the bottom of the canyon the RZR starts to overheat. Chris hops out to check it out and find the radiator fan plug had come disconnected. Sweet! A huge sigh of relief! Easy fix, out of the canyon and into the final stretch of desert! We are about 7 miles out from the finish and just cruising along when we start noticing excessive noise coming from the rear of the RZR. A quick look back and we see the rear chase bar had broken off and was bouncing around, but we decided to keep pushing with it bouncing around. About 2 miles later the noise was getting worse and the temperature spiked again. I pulled off and Chris hops out to check it out and finds the fan plug disconnected again. Another sigh of relief! He is about to hop back in and realized the radiator was broken off the mounts and our problems were much worse than a disconnected plug. Chris spends some time securing the radiator with some zip ties and adds the water from our camelback to the radiator, as the majority of the coolant has leaked out. We get back moving and temps are good for about 3 miles. Just about 2 miles out from the finish line the temperature spikes again and I shut the car down and we take another look at the problem. We use more zip ties and reposition the radiator better to keep it more secured than before. The radiator is well secured now but lost the remaining water and the car is not cooling down. We ask a course marshall for a bottle of water and he informed us that if he gives us anything then we will be disqualified. After being a little upset and realizing that we may not finish, just 2 miles from the finish, I decided that I would pee in the water bladder we had and fill the radiator with that. Crazy to even attempt it, but I was determined to cross the line, and once it was in and cranked up, the car cooled down and we were on our way! I put it in low and limped it back to the finish line, giving up 3 more spots in that short time. We finally made that final turn and crossed the finish line with the biggest sigh of relief after 7 hours of racing!
The first to greet me after the finish are my wife, Maria, and my 2 children and they are all extremely ecstatic and I look over and see my 7 year old has tears in her eyes! My whole family tries to make it to the races with me as often as possible, but have never been able to make a race of this magnitude. Both of my kids know the hard work and endless time I put into making this race possible and giving myself the best chance possible a top finish, and their reactions at the finish line showed that they are watching my every move and were extremely proud of my accomplishment of finishing. This feeling was one that I honestly could not describe if I tried. All the hard work, long nights, extreme planning, and the money spent to make this a reality all the sudden became worth it. A 19th place finish at the 2019 King of the Hammers after a day filled with problems and struggles! A quick drive up on the stage and an interview full of laughs and smiles between Chris and I was a great way to finish our race day!
The race this year overall was an absolute blast. Dave Cole and the Ultra 4 staff picked out a great race course this year that included the perfect amount of desert and rocks that made all the teams work very hard to outlast and overcome the race course and the other racers. With 113 racers starting the race, just 28 finishers would cross the finish line in the allotted time. At the end of this race, everyone walks away with wild stories to tell all of their friends back home and memories that will last a lifetime.
This year, I walk away from King of the Hammers with my own stories and memories, but also with a whole new perspective of what it actually takes to be a top finisher. My 19th place finish is nothing to be discouraged of, but my hats are off to the podium finishers – 1st- Mitch Guthrie Jr. 2nd -Wayland Campbell and 3rd – Branden Sims. All of these racers have top level teams and their hard work and prep to have the least trouble free race is what lands them on top, and has proven itself year after year. If any racer can keep a solid pace and can finish this race without any issue, they are almost guaranteed a top spot at the end of the day. That task is way easier to talk about than it is to accomplish. It takes years of experience to conquer that success, and their recipes for success are by far a leading example of the UTV industry. I want to say Congratulations to everyone who finished this year! The amount of finishers this year is a true testament for the UTV industry, as we watch the cars become faster, stronger, and more reliable every year. I look forward to the future of the UTV market as new cars are released that will continuously push the envelope of what a UTV is capable of.
I thank every single person and company that has supported me through this journey and plan to take this momentum from KOH to have a successful remaining 2019 race season.
Walker Evans Racing provided me with a set of their Velocity Series shocks and Legend wheels this year. The Velocity Series shocks that Walker Evans Racing has developed are the smoothest riding shock I have driven on and take up the big hits so well and keep taking the beating after 170 miles of racing. The Legend wheels are an amazing piece of art and take hard hit after hard hit and never deform, crack or break. A truly amazing combination that Walker Evans Racing has created.
Moto Race Tire ( MRT ) has answered the request of racers and have built an extremely tough line of tires that are perfect in any terrain. I ran the new 32” Crawler XG tire this year and had zero failures the entire duration of KOH week. Their kevlar lined sidewalls provide the extra confidence needed to push hard through the toughest terrain.
Super ATV has been a true leader in the UTV industry for many years now and this year I went back to their Rhino 2.0 axle shafts and was able to try out their newly released driveshaft kits. The axles have led me to many great finishes over the last 3 years and with zero failures along the way, I was confident in their new driveshaft kits. Both the axles and driveshaft performed flawlessly and the same units will be in the RZR for the entirety of the race season, without hesitation.
Bluefire and David Uptain have been behind me since the beginning and this year more than ever. David let me catch a 36 hour ride with him to Johnson Valley during Christmas and has always been there when I need the parts to get back to racing, no matter what they are. From radio kits, seats, tires, belts, harnesses, etc, David has been there to support my race program from day 1 and has been a key ingredient in my recipe for success.
Gilbert Designs has been behind me since the beginning and built me some very nice doors this year that keep the sleek lines of the RZR and also provide the extra protection needed while racing. I also ran their high quality 7075 tie rods that have served me without failure for 3 years now. Joey Gilbert helped make the journey to the lake bed with me and was a key to our success this year.
RVS Performance delivered the perfect tuning and clutch setup again this year. I am all about keeping it simple and Ryan took that into consideration when handling my needs for 2019. Ryan dialed up a stage 1 tune and a set of STM clutches that performed perfectly across the desert and into the rocks.
5Zero3 Designs made me up a set of window nets in record time and when they arrived I was blown away by the quality of the product. The fitment was perfect and helped us breeze through tech without a hiccup. The testing they have done with their product provides great confidence that we will be safe in the unfortunate time of an accident.
ComeUP Winch sent me over their Cub 4s winch this year and when the time came to use it, we were up and over the obstacle in record time and back on course. This is my second year running their products and they get the job done fast and reliably!
Desertcraft provided me with all the extra filtration and belt cooling I could ask for this year. Their new line of air filters have been tested and tested and now proven that they are the real deal. I ran the new engine air filter and had great success with this filter they are now offering. The belt cooling is done through an extra intake with a high volume fan and also an added exhaust to help the hot air escape the belt box faster. We were one of the few teams to not face belt issues and the Desertcraft setup was a great contributor to this success.
Performance SXS Bushings sent me over their bushing kit for 2019 and after a quick and simple install, these bushings are ready for a year of racing with no worries of premature failure.
Gear Grabber Shifters has been making shifters for a few years now and once I had the chance to run one, I was ecstatic. The lock outs this shifter has will save you from a roll over situation if you can react quick enough. This shifter saved me countless times during the race and need to be in everyone’s machine!
Competition LED sent me a set of their new Desert Vision lights to replace my factory headlights for 2019. Mark has done countless hours of testing all types of different light configurations to provide the best light output for his customers. I was able to pre run into the night with the light setup he provided and without worry. Luckily, we did not have to use the lights in race day, but we will be using them in the night races we have in 2019!
BCC Skids invited me up to their Tennessee location and got me set up with their 1/2″ skid plate. This skid plate provides total coverage front to back and side to side and has many extra attachment points to ensure it will not come loose as it takes a beating on the rocks. This skid proved itself as I slid over the rocks with ease and never had a bolt fail or come loose.
Other notable mentions of support include Murrah Motorsports, Sinister Fabworx, All Thingz UTV, Savage Wrapz, Mick Henson from Busted Knuckle Offroad, and Judson Weaver for his pit support. It takes an army of people to build and compete at this level of racing, and I am extremely grateful for everyone’s help and support. See you on the lakebed in 2020!