Going Fast Without Going Broke - Crawl Magazine
Words by Dan Guyer, sponsored member of Team DEI
Trail riding isn’t the same anymore since the King came to town. I’m not sure if I love or hate Jeff Knoll and Dave Cole. I was perfectly content to have a middle of the road trail rig; nothing more than a run of the mill yj, with leaf springs and one tons. It was fun. It was mostly reliable. I logged 30 days of trail riding in 2008. Life was good.
Sure, we heard about the King of the Hammers Race, but it was 2,500 miles away. It didn’t have much to do with us on the Right Coast, other than a few threads on my club’s bulletin board. It wasn’t until the Right Coast Qualifier in 2009 that reality began to sink in. It was madness – over 30 trucks wallowed in the sloppy trails at the Rausch Creek Offroad Park. The King had me in his grip. I had to be a part of this.
I’d get my chance four months later – as the co-driver for my friend Alan Thomas in his TJ shod with 35” Swampers. It was a solid rig with an expert driver at the wheel. This was going to be fun. We’d go out and run it like a trail ride, just a little bit faster. We knew the part like the back of our hands. We’d show the guys with the V8s and sticky tires just how to do this racing thing. How hard can it be to trail ride with a helmet and neck roll?
We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. We struggled and clawed through the course, but we were determined to make a statement. We even passed two buggies that ended rubber side up. Success was short-lived. A broken Walker Evans beadlock wheel, a broken rear track bar, and a trashed body were more than the TJ could handle; all this in less than one glorious lap. We were defeated, but I wanted more. I wanted to do it with my own truck.
Making the jump from Recreational wheeler to competitor was going to be more than just a set of window nets. Try as you might, you won’t find “Building a Go Fast Rockcrawler for Dummies.” Where does a guy learn how to build such a truck? Where do you start? How in the world do you afford it?
I went to my friend, Doug Bigelow, for advice. He’s a “been there, done that” kinda guy. Neuroc, WE-Rock, Xrra, and King of the Hammers were just a few of the series on his resume. He shared one crucial piece of advice: “This sport is all about relationships. Build solid relationship with vendors, manufacturers, promoters, and your fellow racers. Shake their hands. Be sure they know who you are,” he said.
Taking Doug’s advice, I made a phone call to Randy Woods at Adventurous 4x4. I’ve had a good friendship with Randy through the years of recreational wheeling and trusted his advice. I gave him a description of what I was planning to do with the truck and what I wanted to do. “Whatever you need, you come to me. I will take care of you and make sure you get your money’s worth. We’ll make it happen,” was his reply I now had someone on my side, one very important piece of the puzzle.
Knowing I had a trim budget and no way to pay regular fabrication shop rates for a major project, I looked to the club that had been a part of my life for the past eight years, the Maryland Creepers. A fellow club member, Andy Statland, was up to the task. Over the course of an evening and a few barley pops, we had a plan. Andy would do the fabrication, and I’d handle the nuts and bolts. Andy’s 12’x23’ garage would be my home away from home for the next six months. We would make do with cutting wheels, a welder, and a lot of time.
Although it would stretch my budget, my pedestrian YJ would become a capable race machine with a linked suspension and coliovers. Randy assured me he would be able to get the parts when I needed them, so Andy and I started the teardown in mid-January, In a matter of hours, we had removed the interior, roll cage, and the tub. A few days later, the frame would be stripped of paint. Brackets, cartridge joints, and other assorted parts started to arrive at my door.
Even with the madness of building the truck, I still managed to convince my wife, MacKenzie, that a trip to the King of the Hammers race would be a cure for the winter blahs. Several Northeast teams would be at the race, and I’d tag along for the experience of helping in the pits. This would also give me the opportunity to meet the biggest names in the industry, look at new products, and see how the best built their trucks. I “camped” in Bigelow’s enclosed trailer to save money for parts. There would be no heated RV for me.
The vendor tent made it easy for me to introduce myself to industry representatives. Knowing I still had a lot of product decisions to make, I began to ask questions. I knew who had great products, but I wanted to know who was willing to work with the little guy. As I made my way around the tent, I was amazed at the willingness of everyone to just sit down and chew the fat. These guys embraced everything there is about wheeling and racing. I spent nearly an hour with Dan Frederickson of Ruff Stuff Specialties; I learned more about heim joints and brackets in an hour than I have in years of surfing the internet. I dropped by the Raceline Wheels booth, where Greg Mulkey convinced me that a set of Monster beadlocks would fit my budget and still survive racing. I even had the pleasure of meeting the one and only Blaine Johnson.
As a new person to the racing side of the sport, installation and tuning support would be a tremendous benefit. Nothing is as intimidating to me as setting up coilovers. Watching Lou Levy’s team re-valving his coilovers over and over to get the perfect combination made my head spin. When researching coilovers, I found that f-o-a was significantly less expensive than their mainstream counterparts, an important thing for a new guy racing on a tight budget. I sought out Chris Farrell to get the nitty gritty on f-o-a. He took the time to explain the ins and outs of their products, their support staff, and how he’d be able to help assist me in tuning. I felt comfortable in putting my hard-earned money into his hands.
I grudgingly headed home after the big race, but I was supercharged to get the truck on the race course. I ordered coilovers, wheels, bearings, heim joints, and safety items. MacKenzie was not so enthusiastic that her living room was be-ginning to look like a parts store. I had a set of beadlocks stashed away in the corner of our bedroom! I’d leave every afternoon after work and return filthy at midnight. She was, however, still supportive.
Andy and I would put in long hours to get the truck together, missing big trail events to put more time in the garage. My only “trail” time of the spring and early summer was spotting for Alan in the Rausch Creek rock crawling series. I knew the only way to make this happen was dedication to getting the truck complete. The big day finally came in mid July. We had just a few things to button up on the truck, and I would head to Rausch Creek for a shakedown run. Andy and I started wrenching at 3pm and finally loaded the Jeep on the trailer at 6am. Somehow, I wasn’t tired. I was wheeling my own truck.
The first Rausch Creek racing event is still a blur to me. Stu Wilkinson and I set out on Friday afternoon for a bit of pre-running. A mystery hole in a transmis-sion cooler line ended our day without even completing a lap. Discouraged, but undeterred, we fixed the cooler line and looked over the truck. Just finishing the race would be an accomplishment.
As we lined up for the green flag, my hands shook. I developed a twitch in my foot. “I’m really racing. By God, we did it.” Stu and I would bounce along the course, pitting after each lap for a quick look over the truck. Four hours after the start of the race, we crossed the finish line. We hadn’t seen another truck in two laps, but what we did see at the finish line will always stick with me. Bigelow, Murphy, Levy, crew chief Nick Smith, and my wife were waiting for me; each one with a grin big-ger than the other. I never knew 7th place could be so good.
To be continued...