By Michael Lee
This past weekend kicked off the east coast UTV racing in just about every series this weekend. With GNCC no longer running a UTV class, a lot of racers have been hunting for new series to race this offseason. Luckily, Pro UTV Racing stepped up last year to start a new “Survival” series, consisting of 1-2 hour long endurance races through the toughest terrain on the East Coast. The courses are held at offroad parks throughout the southeast and are ran the majority on wide open fire roads or perimeter trails that cut abruptly into steep hill climbs, usually filled with nasty rocks, ledges, and ruts that almost seem impossible to climb if you were just out for leisure trail ride. Pro UTV always finds at least one good rock section to throw at the racers that will prove to bring problems to racers if they are not careful. With the advanced course selection that the race organizers pick out, the name “Survival” starts to make sense, with only an average of about 10% of racers finishing the race on the lead lap.
For 2019, Pro UTV Racing hit the ground running in the offseason and took all their information from racers and spectators to try and better the series for everyone. The big news from the offseason was having Polaris RZR come on board and support the series! With Polaris backing the series and offering a Polaris Athlete sponsorship to the points champion at the end of the year, a lot of racers knew where they needed to be racing and started making their plans to be at all 7 races throughout the year. Many other large companies in the industry, such as Walker Evans Racing, Super ATV, and RCV to name a few, came on board to back the Pro UTV series, with many of them offering large contingency offerings to racers finishing on top at the end of the year! The Pro UTV Racing crew did their homework in the offseason and the stage was set for an action packed season of racing, as racers from all over come to try and show their skills that they are the best in the business and deserve the factory sponsorships on the table!
This first race kicked off at the awesome Dirty Turtle Offroad Park in Bedford, Kentcuky. This park has held many large events over the years and is crowd favorite as the venue offers a great trail system, a park store stacked with spare parts,cabin rentals, RV hookups, and a spectacular short course for everyone to get a glimpse of the action. I arrived early Friday morning, at about 5:30 AM after a long night of driving from Alabama. I arrived to find a very wet and saturated Dirty Turtle Offroad Park and as I tried to find my RV site, I ended up getting stuck in my RV a couple of times. Luckily, we were able to unload my Polaris General 4 and hook it up to the 70ft long RV and Trailer combination and pull it out of the slick mud I had found my way into. Once into the RV site we went to help a few other racers out that were also stuck and after getting everyone settled in, I began unloading and setting up our pits. My co driver, Chris Armstrong, decided to take a nap so he can be well rested to do the final pre-race checks later that evening. I made my way into the warm trailer and did some final prep work on the RZR after completing a front half frame swap back home due to damages from King of the Hammers (see King of the Hammers Race Recap from Michael Lee). I had the race rig pretty much ready to go at this point, and I opted out of doing any pre running or testing in this rig due to the terribly muddy conditions on the race track!
Qualifying kicked off around 2pm on Friday and even with the muddy conditions, guys were laying down absolutely blistering times. I sat back and watched and had hopes that the track would start drying out as the day progressed. The track stayed nice and muddy, but it was tacking up and the traction was getting better and better. I finally decided to make my way down to qualifying with about 30 minutes left. I was lucky enough to swap from my 32” tires to a 27” tire, trying to gain some advantage on the extremely fast qualifying course. I started my lap and as I drove hard into the first corner a loud pop came from the front right and the RZR shot to the right, almost off the course. At this point I thought for sure we lost a tie rod, but the car turned back left and tracked straight. I came into the big table top jump with a little hesitation and thought if this right front is actually broken and it lets go on the landing, I am going to be in for a wild ride that will surely make the highlight reels. With a smooth landing off the jump the car just kept on going. I knew there was a significant problem in the right front still, so I backed off a bit and tried to focus on making it across the finish line for a decent time. Coming in to the final left-hand corner of the lap the car would not turn no matter what I did, and the right front caught some dirt and sent the RZR into a cartwheel. This was the worst-case scenario running through my head and it happened about 100 yards from the finish line. Upon coming to an abrupt stop, I made my way out to inspect the damage and find the worst thing imaginable, the entire lower control arm has ripped off and it took the frame tabs off with it. The staff quickly loaded my destroyed RZR on the skid steer and brought it back to the pits for us to start tearing it down for further inspection.
Once I calmed down from the wreck and popped a few Advil, I made my way out side to start assessing the damage and making plans to repair the damage. I make my way over to the RZR and find that Chris has been hard at work and already has stripped down the entire right front torn down, cleaned up, cut off and ready for a repair to get us back in the race. Chris gets me a list of items we need that we do not have in the trailer and I set out to find the needed items. I start making my way through pits and within 2 trailers I find everything I need. Phillip Poe hands me 2 ball joints to use, Justin Barth and Jason Welch head over with all their offerings of help and a welder, Cody Morris and his crew load up their welder, steel tabs, Sawzall, and head over to our trailer to start lending a helping hand. Cody’s crew was a life saver during this process. Between everyone lending a helping hand in this repair, we had a plan formed and in motion that would be stronger than factory, and an actual permanent repair with no question of it failing during the race.
These guys pushed me out of the way and started doing their best work, in the middle of a field in Kentucky. In a few short hours they had the RZR almost 100% race ready. I make my way over to check out their progress and almost drop my jaw on the floor with the work they did. They have welded on 4 new tabs for the lower control arm mount with gussets on top and bottom to guarantee a solid repair. I thank all these guys and offer to pay them for their work but they all kindly decline. It was a true blessing having these guys help us get this work done. These guys will likely not know how truly thankful I am for their work! We get all their tools cleaned up and myself, Chris, Justin, and Jason get the final assembly done and swap tires around. At about 12:30AM Saturday morning, I make my way into the driver seat to go test all the work we just did, and without any surprise, the RZR is perfect! I spend about 30 minutes driving around and breaking in the new belt we swapped in during the repair process and did my best to make sure there were no other hidden surprises that may arise on race day. Everything seems perfect during the test drive and I make my way back to the trailer to tuck away the RZR in the trailer. Chris stays up a little later and does some final checks and adjustments and I make my way to the RV to try and catch up on sleep, as I have had 2 hours of sleep in the last 48 hours.
After a much needed 5 hours of rest, we are up for the drivers meeting at 6:30AM and quickly back to the trailer to get suited up and ready to race. The Pro AM class was first and Chris and I decided to head down to the hills on course to see what kind of chaos may be happening and maybe try to find some new lines that I may of missed in pre running. We find a few new lines and spend some time strategizing since we know a push from last place to 1st place was going to be a difficult task, and we needed every advantage we could get. With a perfect plan in place, we head up to get the race car and get into staging. For me this is one of the most fun times of race day. I am quite the observer and always enjoy seeing everyone in their pre-race routines. Some guys are strapped in their cars and ready to race very early on and seclude themselves from the outside world. Others are out and about and mingling with other drivers and crew members as they laugh and joke about the night before, and some are getting their last friendly jabs in to their fellow racers before the big show starts. My routine is to always make my way around to the racers that are out and about and shake their hands and wish them a safe race. I then make my way to my RZR and stretch for a few minutes, do some jumping jacks, and some quick sprints just to get the blood flowing through the body and loosen up the muscles a bit. Chris and I make our way into the RZR and we are finally ready to put all our hard work to the test, as soon as 39 other cars start before us!
The race starts and the Pro UTV staff is sending racers off 2 at a time, with 10 second intervals. Cars are rolling out fast and it is clear everyone is out to prove their speed and aiming for the top spot. By the time I get underway, I assume the leaders are about half way through their first lap and I know I must keep a fast pace, but also a safe pace to be able to catch the leaders, and to avoid a DNF. By the time we get through the short course, I have already caught 3 drivers and with the tight trails we are racing on I am held up a little bit with no where to pass. The siren comes on and it pretty much will stay on for the entirety of the first lap as we try to push through the slower cars and make our way to the front. We come to the first hill climb section, where we have an entire mountain side to conquer, but about 15 different option lines. This is a huge passing point for me as we over take 3 cars in the bottom and about another 5-6 on the hill side itself.
With more traffic ahead the siren stays on, and some aggressive bumping starts happening. I am not usually one to bump a lot during a race, but with the short race time, and my terrible start position, I must be a little more aggressive in this race. Coming down in to the next valley 3 more cars let me by and as we come up to the next hill climb, we have hit our first bottleneck. In our immediate line of sight we see at least 10 cars attempting the hills or waiting in line. A long 4 minutes of sitting has gone by at this time I am irritated and find a new trail around the waiting line and shoot up the “easy line,” only to have a racer get stuck in front of me. I never even check up on this hill, with hopes that maybe a bump will help propel him to the top of the hill, but unfortunately it does not, and back down and try again. The stuck racer gets out of the way and a couple of racers shoot in front of me and I quickly jump in behind them and we all make it to the top with out issue. Moving along through the course we are limited on passing spots, but as we come to next set of hills, we have a zig zag easy option, and a much more difficult option that will bypass the long zig zag and send you straight to the top.
In the early morning pre running we did, we had found the perfect line through here and utilized it to perfection in the race, netting us valuable time every lap, and 3 more positions on this first lap. I make my way into the last rock trail which is a creek with a slight uphill climb, filled with ledges and jagged rocks and constant flow of water coming down the trail. I make a solid time through here but right at the end of the trail a car has stopped and is not moving. No one is out trying to recover it and there is a line of cars quickly forming behind us. Chris points left at the 10ft vertical creek bank and says, “hit that, it is our only shot,” and without hesitation I point straight at it and hold it to the floor and the RZR jumps right up and out of the creek bed and onto higher ground!
My adrenaline is pumping now and as I make the quick turn around the broken car and back in to the creek bed, I realized I turned in too soon and we were going right off this 10ft creek bank I just climbed out of. Once the front end dropped into the creek trail, the right front caught and bent the lower control arm. I did not know the exact problem until the race was over, but knew we had a failure and our race went from winning, to finishing, just to salvage points for the championship series. At this point I took the pace from a winning pace to a Sunday afternoon trail ride pace. The entire goal was to just cross the finish line and gain as many points as possible. After 2 laps of this pace our pit had informed us that only 12 cars were on the lead lap and we were one of them. Chris and I were a little shocked by this due to how slow we were moving, but we still had not been passed by anyone at this point. I started to think that maybe my trail riding pace was a little too fast and I need to slow it down even more to save a finish.
After 3 solid laps moving at a snail’s pace in comparison to my normal pace, we had finally been caught by the leaders and lost a lap to them. Our pit crew kept us updated and let us know that we were still in the top 15 cars and to just get to the finish line. On our 4th lap we started catching more cars that were limping along to the finish line, just as we were, and made a few more key passes for position. As I made it to the hills that had the bottleneck back on lap 1, we run into another bad clog. It is almost a replay of lap 1, but this time a car has broken on the side of the “easy line” and almost blocking the entire race course. James Cantrell and I both look at it and decide that’s the only way out of this valley and we have a race to finish. James leads the way and bounces off the broken car a few times and makes it to the top. I follow right behind him and have a little more conservative line and make it to the top, leaving the mass bottleneck in our rear view and get back in to the slow pace, which is hard after dealing with the wild line we had to take to make it to the top of the hill.
Chris does a really good job as a co-driver putting me back into the right mindset, which was a main reason of our strong finish at King of the Hammers. Now that Chris has whipped me back into shape, I notice the steering has gotten worse and assume the right front is about to let go at any moment and send us for another ride like qualifying. I bring the pace down even slower and right before the end of the lap the leader passes us again, which would bring out the checkered flag and the end to our race. My race did not go as planned and we only had 4 of the 6 laps completed, we still had a strong 12thplace finish after starting in the 40th position.
After the race was over, the majority of the drivers hung out around the finish line and we spent an hour or so swapping stories and telling each other about our race. Post-race interviews were being held by a few media outlets and everyone seemed to have smiles on their faces and in great spirits, which really shows how fun this race series is after racing a grueling race as the one we just finished.
I was extremely pleased with all the adjustments and repairs made since King of the Hammers and have high hopes for the remainder of the season. I am learning more and more as a driver every day, and with each race throwing you a new curveball when you show up, I am learning more to adapt and overcome and make the best out of each situation. I have taken many notes over the last 6 months and have made a lot of positive changes towards the progress of my Polaris RZR. I will be racing 1 car the entirety of 2019 and in many different formats and terrain. This will prove to be a hard task as the wear and tear will be much greater than the other racers we are competing against, but I am confident I have the right combination of parts and race prepmethods to continue to be a top contender at every race I attend. I look forward to the progression of this sport and the future of the Pro UTV Racing series. The entire staff has the racers in mind and will be doing their part to ensure the series flourishes. Be sure to check out www.prorockracing.com for the schedule of events and the latest updates for the 2019 series! This series is setting the standard for UTV Endurance racing, and it is a show you do not want to miss!
This demanding level of racing would not be possible with out the great support from Polaris RZR, Walker Evans Racing, Super ATV, Moto Race Tire, Gilbert Designs, RVS Performance, Bluefire Outdoors, 5zero3Desgigns, Come Up Winch, Desertcraft, Performance SXS Bushings, BCC Skid plates, Gear Grabber Shifters, and Competition LED!