2012 King of the Hammers lives up to its name and reputation

On the 5th of February the Petty Cash/Team NAXJA Jeep Cherokee lined up at the start line for the inaugural SmittyBilt Every Man Challenge leading up to the Griffin King of the Hammers. And we sat there while the rest of the field took off in an angry rush for position. In fact we sat there while our crew raced back to our pits and scavenged an alternator off an innocent Cherokee and installed it in the race car. In 13 minutes. It was that kind of week, full of New Car Blues, a term often muttered in the pits on Means Dry Lakebed where the event is held.

The whole team scrambling to install an alternator and jump start it to take the Green Flag.

Between parts shipments being delayed to family crises, every step of the way forward was after taking two back. As you learned in our last blog entry, we weren’t sure if the car would even make it to the start line. Through the hard work and perseverance of several key players, sponsors and scores of volunteers, somehow we made it.

Paint drying on the drive home from the paint shop.



Because the motor had never actually fired until the Sunday before the race, many other sub-systems from wiring to t-case plumbing were left until we got to the lakebed.

At least we passed tech and got our stinking badges.

A wind blown, dusty dry lakebed isn't the ideal place to add sponsor decals, but we were able to time the application with lulls in the gusts.

Getting our shocks optimized by the wizards at Bilstein.

Our Secret Weapon. For details, E-mail Joel.Ward@bilsteinUS.com

And this was before they shocks got dialed-in all the way.

While we were out shock tuning with Bilstein, we managed to shake the car loose and exposed a myriad of flaws. While putting some miles on the car and breaking in the motor, it was revealed our rear axle was drooping too far for the drive shaft and it came apart. With limit straps added, we went out and promptly broke another drive shaft. Somehow in the flailing to get the car built, the pinion angle was never really measured properly. A couple shims from Off Road Warehouse and we were back in business. Amazingly we were able to repair our extremely durable J.E. Reel shafts.

Too much droop and a wonky pinion angle cost us two rear drive shafts before we pin-pointed the problem and fixed it with limiting straps and shims.

One final shakedown and it was time to get to the drivers to bed as the crew clucked over final little details.

Up with the sun, everybody bundled up against the bone chilling desert cold, the team made its way down to the start line to get lined up in our spot. Hopes were high, and the mood was optimistic. Until Richard pushed the start button and nothing happened. Everybody sprung into action and only 13 minutes behind our assigned time, the Jeep lined and took the green flag.

The Cherokee finally leaing across the Start/Finish line, 13 minutes behind the rest of the field.

Making the first hill climb, the Yukon Grizzly locker providing power to both front tires to pull the car up the steep grade.

With the newly stolen requisitioned alternator in place of the faulty one, Richard and Cal took off, chasing the field into the Johnson Valley dust. By Mile 11 we had already caught our first competitor. By mile 13, three more were eating our dust. News from inside the race car was good, all systems go, and the Bishop-Buell Racing 4.7 liter engine was giving us a serious edge. The combination of Bilstein Shocks and Full-Traction suspension allowed us to keep the throttle pinned to the floor while others were forced to slow.

Richard on a tear to catch our competitors, the combination of a dialed-in suspension and lots of horsepower making it easy.

Richard and Cal continued to catch and pass other cars in our class (4600/Stock Class) and even cars from the next class in front of us (4500/Stock-Mod). The course took the racers across Emerson Dry Lakebed, a glass smooth surface perfect for letting the ponies loose. It also happens to parallel the border of 29 Palms Marine Corps Base, which is covetously eying all of Johnson Valley, the last, largest public OHV area in the country. They want it, and we’re not going to give it up without a fight. Our huge pluming rooster tails of dust 50 feet off the base boundaries was a constant reminder to the Corps that this is our land. Visit Save the Hammers to learn more and get involved in the fight to keep Public Land Open to the Public.

With room to really open up the Bishop-Buell race motor the GPS’ speed indicator climbed alarmingly quickly from 50 to 60, from to 70, to 80. With several thousand RPM and lots of horsepower left, Richard shifted into overdrive, and let the engine settle into a comfortable lope just shy of 90 mph. We were very glad to have the massive brakes built for us by Blaine at Black Magic.

Photo: Davd Taylor Photography

The Jeep makes it to the first real section at Mile 21, a trail called Martel. As Richard Gauthier describes it, “We bounce over a couple of rocks, but struggle to make it up a steep, loose grade. Now we’re sort of blocking the trail, the first car squeezes around us with some slight body damage. Cal gets out and we use the Warn 9.0RC and Viking winch rope to get out of the way. We have no front wheels engaging; our Ultra4 car is a not-so-Ultra2. All the cars we passed are now passing us. We replace both front locking hubs but don’t see anything wrong with the hubs we’re taking out. The hubs were new with 300m drive gears, but evidently are not working correctly.”

With that solved, Richard makes short work of the trail and is back to open desert. Again, we start passing people, other victims of the brutal race course and make our way back up the standings. The car continues to shine in the desert, making up time. It is however clear that we’re no longer in the hunt for the overall win, so the pace is reduced to save the car.

At Mile 35, the car comes into the first remote pits for a quick once over. Richard was complaining about the rear end being a little loose and asking for some more air pressure. It turns out it wasn’t air pressure that was making it handle oddly, but rather a bent axle housing. Still the decision was made to keep pushing on, at an albeit reduced pace.

Photo: Joel Moranton Photography

The car continued on for another 13 miles before pausing to inspect the rear axle housing. It wasn’t just slightly bent, it was grinning from tire to tire. While we had unparallelled traction from our Goodyear MT/R Kevlars and both the Solid Industries High Pinion D44 and Yukon Grizzly locker has been flawless, the decision was made to call the race. The last thing we wanted was to cause further damage or cause a bottleneck somewhere that would impact other racers.

By the time it got back to camp (under its own power), the rear axle wouldn't even engage. The decision to throw in the towel was the right one.

The car was blazingly fast and swallowed up rock sections easily, but of course, this is an endurance race, a race of attrition. Another oft spoken axiom among the veterans is, “To finish first, one must first finish.” Another is, “A lot of guys have won the Daytona 499 or the 23 Hours of LeMans, but that doesn’t mean squat.” We placed really strong in the 48 miles of the EMC…which, unfortunately for us is an 80 mile race.

It just wasn’t our week. Lady Luck was definitely not riding shot-gun But, as they say, that’s racing. The 2012 Griffin King of the Hammers certainly earned it’s moniker as the “Toughest One-Day Off Road Race in the World” in our books, but we can’t wait to get back and show that we’re up to the challenge.

The Epicness that is HammerTown.

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One Response to 2012 King of the Hammers lives up to its name and reputation

  1. Richard Gauthier says:

    Great write up Matt. Nothing like racing King of the Hammers as a shake down run for a new car!

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