Big thanks to Polaris RZR and HCR Racing for stepping up to sponsor the UTV race this year!
By Jon Crowley, UTVGuide.net
My name is Jon, and I have a KOH addiction. I have a long history racing UTVs at King of the Hammers, and it has always been a love-hate relationship. Since 2009, I have either driven or co-dogged for this race. All, but last year in one of my vehicles. The idea of building the perfect UTV for the race is always the candy that gets me started. Then about a month before the race, the countless hours of preparation and stress of letting someone down tests my sanity. Every year I say that I will never do this again, then somehow the lure of building something better triggers something in my brain and I cannot help myself. There must be a twelve step program to help me quit, but I haven’t figured it out yet. All those people I beg to help me stop, let me jump right into the slippery slope the following year. They all must enjoy seeing me suffer.
2013 King of the Hammers UTV Race
Two years ago, Dave Cole raised the bar significantly and created a course that was ten times harder than anything we had ever done in previous years. Thankfully I had teamed up with Jagged X for pit support and Blake Van de Loo was my co-dog. We finished in second that year, just 16 seconds behind first place and only minutes before the official close of the race. The course had changed from a quick desert sprint with a few rocks to a full-tilt King of the Hammers race with huge whoops and gnarly rock trails. It was a huge accomplishment to even finish the race, but the taste of the podium was even sweeter.
2014 King of the Hammers UTV Race
Last year, I joined up with Blake Van del Loo to make a run as co-dog. I thought it was only fair since the year before he did the same for me. While the preparation was less stressful, I still built up a XP 1000 that was used as a back-up / pre-run car. And I worked out like a mad dog to ensure I wouldn’t bonk during the race an let the team down. While Blake and I had great chemistry the year before, I felt I was not as good picking lines outside the car as I was from the driver’s seat. Plus the Jagged X team has tons of race experience at a level far above my pay grade and I felt like I wasn’t quite up to par during the race. We still finished the race in 5th with quite a bit of adversity thrown at us, so I was proud to be part of that comeback.
After the 2014 race, I really didn’t give racing much more thought. I figured that Blake would be better off with someone he was closer to, plus I knew that racing without Jagged X pit support would be a huge commitment that I would not even contemplate. Plus I was looking to lower my expectation level in hopes of easing my stress levels.
That all changed after I got behind the wheel of the new Polaris RZR S 900 at the press intro in September (see RZR S 900 review). With the rear a-arm design, I knew it would be a solid rock crawler. But compared to a RZR XP 1000, it has 30+ less horsepower, 11-inch shorter wheelbase and 4-5 inches less wheel travel. I thought it would be challenging to race a RZR S 900 knowing that I wouldn’t have the pressure on me to win the race. Just getting it across the finish line against more capable vehicles would be a great accomplishment.
I checked with Bill Schueler over at Jagged X to see what he thought about supporting two cars at #KOH2015 and he said they were up to the task. The folks at Polaris weren’t quite as easy to convince. Why wouldn’t I want to race a RZR XP 1000 as it is much more well suited for conquering desert and rocks? I pitched the marketing angle and they finally agreed. It was game on!
In my excitement to get going, I forgot to calculate into the preparation timeline that this was a brand new vehicle and some necessary aftermarket parts were going to take some time to get through R&D and into production. For a less-stress environment, it is always easier to pick a platform that is more mature since the the aftermarket has had time to build and refine products for the vehicle. The other issue I ran into was spare parts for pit support. Jagged X is fully stocked to deal with just about anything on a RZR XP 1000, but a RZR S 900 has a bunch of different parts, that could break during a race like KOH. Everything from clutch to brake calipers to a-arms and axles are different.
Testing our new RZR S 900 in the rocks after the press intro
After I got my demo unit home from the Polaris media event, I started the build. There are certain items you have to add for safety like 6-point cage, fire extinguishers, suspension seats and 5-point harnesses. Then there are some things like that are a necessity to add like radios and GPS. Plus a few that help add durability to the car to help you get across the finish line. My goal was to keep it as simple as possible.
I addedFactory UTV skid plate and rock sliders, then 30-inch GMZ Kahuna tires stuffed with Tire Blocks and mounted on HiPer Fusion beadlock wheels. Then I brought the car down to IMG Motorsports where Bruce and Tommy Scranton built a lightweight six-point cage and bumpers. We installed a Polaris 4500 lbs winch, Pro Armor seats, harnesses, steering wheel and doors. A Muzzys Performance dual exhaust and Hunterworks clutch kit would be our only performance products. 60+ MPH would have to suffice for top speed, but we added FOX 2.5 RC2 shocks to help smooth out the super rough desert. I also added HCR Racing stock geometry a-arms for additional strength and ground clearance.
Axia Alloys mirrors and fire extinguishers were added to the roll cage, plus a UTV Inc. horn kit and Autotrend EFI fuse block under the hood. Inside the cab we added Rugged Radios MAC helmet ventilation system, radios, intercom and even a bluetooth wireless kit that allowed driver and co-dog to talk hands-free while the co-dog is outside the vehicle.
My co-dog for the race was Tommy Scranton. He not only races a RZR in different short course series, but is also a fabricator at IMG Motorsports and knows how to turn a wrench on a UTV. While not an experienced rock crawler, he fit the bill for youth, lightweight and RZR experience. We did make one trip to Johnson Valley to pre-run some of the trails over two days, but other than that, we had no wheeling experience together.
Somewhere along the line, I decided finishing the race wouldn’t be exciting enough (more crack for my addiction) and decided to make two different side bets for $100 each. The first was against Dean Bulloch. He is an Arctic Cat dealer out of Cedar City (D&P Performance) and is racing a Wildcat Sport. Since the RZR S 900 and Wildcat Sport are new 60-inch units for 2015 so we figured it would be fun to have a race within a race – Arctic Cat vs. Polaris and Bulloch vs. Crowley. The second was against BC Vaught. He was going to race an XP 1000 and I really figured it would be an easy $100 in my pocket since he probably wouldn’t even show up!
End of January came quickly, and we hit Johnson Valley on Friday night before the race. The course was announced on Thursday, and at first glance it looked longer but the tough rock sections looked about the same. Boy was I wrong. We were still going up Aftershock, up Hwy 19/20, up Chocolate Thunder, up Wrecking Ball, but now we also had to go down Sledgehammer and up Jackhammer! Jackhammer has a tough gatekeeper obstacle that probably 80% of the the big Ultra4 cars would have to winch up. For UTVs, it meant we would have to winch at least two if not three times. The length of the race was also increased to 127 miles and a new trail called Crowbar was added along with miles of ugly whoops that we would have to tackle twice.
We pre-ran the first 44 miles that took us around the new loop out to Crowbar, over to the sand hill and back to main pit. The desert sections were really rough and Crowbar was just over 23 miles from the start. The downhill trek through this canyon wasn’t difficult for us at all during our pre-run, but there were some choke spots with no alternate lines. My concern was a backup on race day and I did not have a car that was fast in the desert.
To help us out in the rough terrain, I worked with FOX to help fine tune our Podium RC2 shocks. This was a big help, but there is only so much they can accomplish during race week. This comes back to the whole new model with short time for R&D / production of new parts. Sure would have been easier to run a RZR XP 1000 that had been out in the market for 1 1/2 years….
We also got help from Rugged Radios on the lakebed for our wireless intercom. In my opinion having the ability to talk to your co-dog while he is out of the car is priceless. We saw it several times throughout the race. Hand signals and yelling that just don’t cut it. With the Rugged Radios bluetooth, I could talk to Tommy hands-free while he was winching or spotting just like we did when he was in the car. Having Rugged Radios on the scene for support is huge, and it made a big impact on race day for us.
Off the line at the 2015 King of the Hammers UTV Race
I drew a great start position for the race and would start in the fourth row. We started two at a time every thirty seconds. The RZR S 900 has a tall low gear and we can go 40 MPH. We had pre-run the start of the course and determined that we should start in low and stay there for the first few miles. Then shift into high at the saddle before heading down to Melville dry lake. We got the whole shot on the XP 1000 next to us, but then he got in front after I let off a bit on the last jump. I really didn’t want to nose dive and take the car out within the first mile, so I let him have it. I knew that we would be passed by a lot of cars before we got to the first rocks at Crowbar. I also knew that Tommy would be getting concerned so I briefed him that we would not be winning in the desert and I just needed to get to the rocks. This mantra had worked well for me two years ago, and it was even more important to remember racing our little RZR S 900 against a field of fast XP 1000s.
Sure enough, we got passed by probably a dozen cars by the time we hit Crowbar. We did make two passes on cars that had mechanical failures though, so we may have been about 18th heading into the rocks. We got to a backup where there were probably 10 cars waiting to get through the toughest stretch. This is where having a fast car in the desert is key. Get to the rocks in the top five and you won’t waste time waiting in line while your competitors are sprinting ahead. And this was the case with frontrunners Sims, Guthrie, Miller and Duckworth. If you want to win, I am convinced you need to be in the top five at the first rock sections. There are too many people that race KOH that don’t have enough experience in the rocks or have mechanicals in tight spots and create traffic jams.
We probably spent an 15-20 minutes more in Crowbar than the front runners, but I didn’t really consider we had a chance at a win so I was happy the delay wasn’t much longer. On return to pit 1after RM 31 (we had skipped it on the way through at RM 14), we decided to swing in real quick for a visual at our Jagged X pits. We had lots of spare parts at this pit and some great pit support in Brandon Schueler so I thought 30 seconds was worth it. They took a quick look at the car and we were gone with no issues.
At Race Mile 35
From there we headed over some old MDR race course with lots more whoops and some tight technical desert. Then at RM 41 we decided to take the alternate line instead of the sand hill, just to play it safe. We got to the pits at RM 44 about 12th place. We finished the first lap 27 minutes slower than Guthrie and Sims. After grabbing fuel we headed off to lap two and the toughest part of the course. At this point Bulloch was still ahead of us by a few minutes and BC Vaught was behind with a flat tire.
We had about 20 miles of desert before we got to Aftershock. In the wash before hitting the rocks we came upon a XP 1000 on its side with driver and co-dog out of the car. They had their winch line out and there was absolutely nothing around to winch to. I swung in and told them to hook up to our little RZR and we’d help pull them back over. Funny thing was it was Burt Jenner who had took himself out of the race two years ago by rear-ending my RZR XP 900 (seeKing of the Hammers 2013). Burt and I have talked since then and everything is cool, and he was very appreciative that we stopped to help them back over. I figured it would give us some karma points the rest of the day as well.
Traffic in Aftershock
Once in Aftershock we ran into quite a few competitors. I think we passed one or two more before topping out and heading back down to run the next tough rock trail. Hwy 19/20 is longer and harder than Aftershock, and has taken out its fair share of competitors. I broke a front axle at the bottom of Hwy 19/20 two years ago, and Blake and I worked our asses off to get to the pit 2 at the top. The good part about this trail though is there are more alternate lines and therefore opportunities to make passes.
Tommy was on his game when we hit a few obstacles and spotted a lines where we made good passes. I think we probably gained 2-3 positions including my team mate Blake who was struggling to get to the top with two broken front axles. I asked if he wanted our help and he refused. We did have to winch up one spot in a bypass that was super steep with loose rocks everywhere.
At the top, I called into the pits and talked to Bill Schueler. I had figured on stopping here for sure to at least have them check the vehicle over, but he made the wise suggestion that if we didn’t have any known issues that we should push on. In retrospect we probably gained a few more spots with guys that were in the pits at the time and this advantage would pay off later when we hit Jackhammer.
We trekked up Fissure Mountain then down Sledgehammer without any issues, then made the turn at the bottom to head up Jackhammer. Jackhammer is a trail we have never done before in the UTV race, and it would require several winch points.
Chasing down BC after his pass at the bottom of Jackhammer
The crowd at the bottom was pretty good and I saw a traffic jam ahead with probably 5 UTVs lined up. I made a rookie move and stopped for a second to plug my helmet wire back in and BC Vaught made a pass on me! I hadn’t even seen him behind us and was completely shocked that he was back in the race and now in front of us. Crap!
Traffic Jam on Jackhammer
We approached the gatekeeper obstacle and waited for our turn. John Duckworth had broken something in his transmission and was watching the mayhem. Bulloch was two cars in front of us, with Cody Currie (sportsman) ahead of him. It took some time for us to get our turn and the obstacle was tough going on the winch. That is when I started to panic. While winching under heavy load, the winch would pop into free spool and throw us backwards. Crap! It took us several attempts to get up gatekeeper and then we had problems over the next obstacle right on top of that. Cars were backing up behind us and I thought our day was quickly going to end since we had another two spots that we had to winch over, plus Wrecking Ball past that. If we couldn’t winch, we were done.
Trying a little cowboy maneuver since our winch wasn’t working right
Jackhammer was tough on the UTV Class at #KOH2015
We had a slick cable actuated free/lock winch control on our dash, and it took some time to figure out, but I had actually pulled the dash off the mounts while actuating the cable. This in turn pulled the cable in about an inch and did not allow the cable to push the winch all the way back into lock mode. We cut off the cable connector and used the tried and hand method and that helped, but we had already spent way too long on these obstacles and in turn slowed everyone else behind us.
We did make a pass on BC after he broke an axle near the top of Jack Hammer, but we were moving and leaving Jackhammer in our wake. From there on, we didn’t see any other vehicles. Guthrie had crossed the finish line by the time we got to Chocolate Thunder and the time we lost on Jackhammer gave Bulloch a 20-30 minute lead on us.
We made pretty quick work of Chocolate Thunder. Winching in the tough spot just to play it safe. Then we headed to Wrecking Ball. Made quick work of the lower part of the trail. Winched the water fall without issue, but then got myself in a tough spot after that. I had to winch, but we were binding up and I really didn’t want to break anything after making it so far. I smoked the belt pretty good in the process, engulfing the cab with smoke. I hoped we could make it to pit 2A before dealing with it.
Winching up a tough spot on Chocolate Thunder
We came into pit 2A and Jagged X fueled us up. We talked about swapping belts, but then figured to risk it because time was short to make it to the finish line in time. The guys in the pit got us some water, fuel and fixed a latch problem on the driver door and we were on our way. We pushed it a bit harder in the desert and seemed to be making good time. We passed up stopping at pit 1 again and made our way around Fry Mountains and into Crowbar. Then back over to pit 1 where we blew through again. Over at the sand hill, we decided to take the shortest route to save time. We blasted up the hill like we owned the place and headed for the finish line. It was then we figured out we wouldn’t make it by the 4pm cutoff.
At the finish line
We rolled into Hammertown USA at 4:07 after 8:05:30 on course. After telling the story of our day on the stage and thanking our sponsor we rolled off to find Bulloch. He had come across 16:45 in front of us. I thought Guthrie and Sims where 1-2, but found out later that Sims had broke and that put us as 3rd place for Pro UTVs. Race officials gave racers until 5pm to finish and Chad Hughes crossed the line in a XP 1000 16 minutes before 5pm. Cody Currie had also finished the race in the Sportsman class. That is only five finishers out of more than 50 racers!
All smiles after the race
Mitch Guthrie had won his 6th KOH title. The guy is a machine! Dean Bulloch had started in front of me, and although I was within a few cars of him several times during the day, I was never able to make a pass on him. Congrats to these guys for a great race.
Crowley Congratulating Bulloch at the Finish Line
After looking back at the race, I am really proud of what we accomplished. Although we got beat in the desert, we did great in the rocks. There were seven pit stops and we only stopped three times. Twice for fuel and once for a quick visual. That is nothing short of incredible for a course this tough. It really proves the point that if your goal is the finish the race, you don’t have to be lightning fast in the desert. Prep your car well and drive smart.
Big thanks to Polaris for the opportunity to show off the capabilities of RZR S 900. To Jagged X once again for the professional pit support. To my co-dog Tommy for believing in my plan and learning the ropes so quickly. Paul Hart for the prep work on my car and Dave Lommori for the excellent dinners on the lakebed. And of course to all our sponsors who made the great parts that helped us get across the finish line.
- Polaris RZR
- IMG Motorsports – Cage, Bumpers
- HiPer Racing Wheels – Beadlock Wheels
- GMZ Race Products – Tires
- Pro Armor – Seats, Harnesses, Doors, Steering Wheel
- Rugged Radios – Radio, Intercom and mounting bracket, Wireless, Race Air
- Factory UTV – UHMW Skid Plate and Rock Sliders
- Tire Blocks – Run Flat System
- FOX – 2.5″ Podium RC2 Shocks
- HCR Racing – Stock Geometry A-Arms
- Autotrend EFI – Fuse/Relay Panel
- Axia Alloys – Fire Extinguisher Mount ,Panoramic Mirrors
- Diamond Wrap Factory – Graphics Wrap
- Muzzys Performance – Dual Exhaust + DigiTune
- Hunterworks – Clutch Kit
- Vision X – LED Rock Lights
Past King of the Hammers Coverage: