Hammerking productions announced a 2010 four event Grand Slam of Offroad series for the US west coast for Ultra 4 cars which would include the King of the Hammers rock and desert race, Silver State "300" Best in the Desert (BITD) race, Lands End Hillclimb put on by the Colorado Hill Climb Association, and WE Rocks Put Up or Shut Up Rockcrawl. The Flying Zucchini Brothers competed in the latter two events in 2009 as well as pre-ran the KOH event for Clay Kraatz of Evolution Machine. So, when the series was announced, we thought, "why not travel to Nevada and do a little desert racing as well?" Our team name pays tribute to our affinity for speed and horsepower, of which there is no shortage in a desert race. The 4400 BITD class was developed for "rockcrawlers" to take their buggies and race in any event of the BITD race series. There are a number of guys running all the BITD events in their modified rockcrawler chassis. A few tweaks for increased suspension up-travel, the addition of bypass shocks for high speed smoothness, and finding places to build mounts for tools, etc. to be carried on the buggy while competing, is more or less all that is needed to go desert racing with your rockcrawler. The BITD organization is based out of Las Vegas, Nevada, and holds various desert racing events such as the famous Vegas to Reno race and attracts notable desert racers such as BJ Baldwin and Andy McMillan.
History of Area
The Silver State "300" starts in Alamo, Nevada, and does a 300 mile loop through the desert, passing through Caliente before finishing a couple miles south of town. This area of Nevada is rich in history and natural scenery. The BITD pre race package explains:
What can be more exciting than to race on some of the most scenic desert land in our country? The Bilek Racing Silver State "300" offers you not only scenic value, but a great race course. The course will have a mixture of high desert mountains, sand-washes, and some of the most awesome panoramic views that will make you want to stop your race vehicle and just take it all in. You will race through the Pahroc Summit area where you will see unbelievable rock formations, the Dalamar Valley, where the ghost town of Dalamar was located and where gold was discovered in 1890, the Cathedral Gorge area where you will see eroded spires, towers and columns of tan bentonite clay and Pioche, which in 1870 was considered to be one of the wildest mining camps in the West. Pit #5 is in Caliente, at the Railroad yard, dating back to the late 1800's!
Not only does the Bilek Racing Silver State "300" offer a race rich in desert beauty but this part of Eastern Nevada is rich in American History. The race will start in the Alamo area, a town established in 1901 and was an important area for cattle ranching, and still is today. You will see the cattle ranching alive and well in the deep green pastures of Pahranagat Valley. You will then travel north through Caliente, a town where in 1901 the Union Pacific Railroad and the Oregon Short Line claimed the same territory and the same set of tracks. The course takes you to the Caselton area where silver was discovered in 1868 at the Prince Mine. The entire area is rich in history and the Bilek Silver State "300" will give you the opportunity to go back in time and experience what it must have been like to live as a cattle rancher, a miner or a railroad man.
Don't tell Curtis but every so often I'd find myself daydreaming and enjoying the scenery as well as wondering who may have travelled these parts in the past. We finished the 300 mile race in one day; imagine how long it would have taken those early settlers. I'd love to come back and explore sometime when we aren't trying to race to a finish line.
It never seems to fail that we run into issues before we even get on the road for a race. It is amazing we were even able to make it down to the race between rolling the buggy while testing the rebuilt coilovers, sitting in traffic on Highway 99 for hours while half of it was closed, and having the border guards literally search every little container and dump our clothes on the ground. The initial plan had been for me to pick up Chris in Hope and drive to Vernon to pick up Curtis and his buggy. Justin from Sportsman 4x4 in Kamloops had stepped up and decided to provide the pits for the race. He, along with Jeremy and Timber, were to meet us in Vernon for the trek down. I ended up a couple of hours behind with the accident on Highway 99. At which point I called Curtis and told him to have Justin tow his trailer and buggy to Grand Forks where we would meet them. The timing would have been perfect except for Justin being late to pick up Curtis. Chris and I grabbed a beer in Grand Forks and waited for them to show up. The problem was the border crossing was closing at midnight and it was fast approaching. After the bar closed Chris and I drove around town to kill time. At one point I said "knowing Curtis he's going to call me at the last minute saying they are making a run for the border and to hurry up." Well, I don't think it was even 5 minutes later when it happened. By the time we caught Curtis and the crew at the border they were already tearing their truck apart. It is kind of funny to meet a bunch of crew members for the first time while someone is grilling you with questions and searching your stuff. Finally at about 1:00 am we cleared the border and started the rest of our drive to Vegas.
Contingency and Tech inspection for the Silver State "300" were held in the parking lot of the Aliante Station Casino and Hotel in Las Vegas on the Friday before the race. Contingency is essentially a line of all the sponsors for the event and each truck drives down the line while waiting to make it to Tech inspection. It's pretty cool to talk with some of the vendors about their products while waiting in line as well as see a lot of old friends from the various companies that support our sport. We spent a lot of time with one of the suspension companies discussing the future suspension design on our buggy. While in line we stopped by IRC to pick up our Iritrack real-time satellite tracking system. This allows for BITD to ensure you stay within 50 feet of the course, allows a person to track you over the net while you race and provides a measure of safety should you breakdown way out in the desert. Hammerking productions put on a pre-tech inspection of the 4400 class buggies while in line to make sure all the little details were covered. In the BITD tech inspection the only item we had to fix was to modify our number plates so they had black lettering with white back ground. Our set up was a beautifully cut aluminum panel by Aqualu. Sadly our pre-race modification to this piece of art work ended up being some white paint, a paint brush and some black electrical tape. After tech we received out transponder to mount for timing and scoring and were on our way.
Friday night at 6:30 pm everyone was to attend a mandatory drivers meeting at the hotel. Casey Folks, owner of BITD, started the meeting off with a trailer of the 2009 BITD season in review. It was quite awe inspiring to sit with a few hundred other racers and watch the high adrenaline video. Casey then reviewed the starting orders, information on how the race was going to be started and the hazards along the course. The one that stuck in our mind was the fact that one of last years racers hit one of the power lines that run along the course, knocking out the electricity to some of the power company's customers. The racer stepped up and paid for the power pole as well as the inconvenience to the power company's customers. I wouldn't want to see that bill!
After the meeting we went looking for dinner and our pit crew. Turned out that the crew had gone to the Strip in downtown Vegas and we started to receive text messages of their shenanigans. At least they were having a good time. We just prayed that they didn't forget to bring the entire crew back for the race the next day. Curtis and I took it easy and talked strategy over dinner then watched a movie in the room and went to bed early.
Saturday morning everyone left the Aliante station to travel the hour and a half to Alamo for the start of the race. The road from Las Vegas to Alamo was a solid train of tow rigs and chase vehicles all the way to the course. The staging area was held at a truck stop on the side of the highway where almost 200 entries tried to prepare themselves for the race. Each class was lined up and lead through the first 6 miles of the course as the area is home to the endangered desert tortoise. The vehicles then waited at race mile 6 where the race speed start was held and each entrant was sent off at one minute intervals.
Curtis and I discussed our strategy for the race as we waited for our turn to start. The suspension in our buggy was never designed to compete in an event anywhere near the level of a 300 mile desert race. The buggy runs 2.0 Fox Coilovers with 4" travel Fox Air Bumps, which we had designed for rockcrawling and rock racing. During the February King of the Hammers race we had found out that we could not keep up with a lot of the other buggies and their suspension set ups so we had planned on stepping up to a better design before the Silver State race but were unable to do so within our timeframe. Additionally, Curtis and I were rookies to competing in any sort of desert race. The closest we had ever come to desert racing was watching it on TV. With this in mind we had decided to take it easy and try and hold the buggy together to complete the race. We even joked that as long as we surpassed 36 miles (our completed distance at KOH) we would be improving and the event would have been a success.
As we pulled up to the starting line I told Curtis "I don't even want to hear you spin the tires as we leave. This is all about taking a nice Sunday drive in the country to hold the car together." Surprisingly, he listened to me as we left the line and proceed to get a feel for how the buggy was working. Within the first few miles it was evident that something was wrong with the second gear in the transmission. Curtis stated "WE LOST SECOND GEAR!!" and all I could think of was that I was feeling too lazy to swap a tranny at the first pit. We chatted back and forth over the next few miles and found that the problem occurred mainly be when Curtis would downshift to second so we decided to run the entire course in third gear with no shifting. It would make us a little slower accelerating out of the corners, but would ensure that we didn't shock load the drivetrain, potentially causing breakage. Around race mile 15 Roger Lovell and Kevin Scalas came screaming up on us so we pulled over. As they flew by us it looked like Kevin was glued to the back of Roger. Within a few hundred feet Kevin short-cutted a corner and got by Roger. After few more miles we came across Barry Beadle rolled over. We told him to get his strap out and we'd pull him over onto all fours again. In desert racing it is common courtesy to help out other racers and we had almost rolled ourselves a few miles earlier, so may have required the favor returned later. We got back on course and were passed by one of the smaller trucks who left a blinding dust cloud in front of us. Curtis didn't let off the throttle until the dust cloud disappeared and we were shocked to find a small tree directly in front of us as we flew off the road. After we finished laughing hysterically we gathered ourselves up and got back on the course.
A little ways farther down the course we found Ben Napier rolled over as well, but his strap was stuck under his buggy and he was trying to hi-lift the buggy over. However, he was only able to get it halfway back over and was stuck there. We told Ben we'd nudge him with the nose of our buggy to get him righted and then proceed to Pit 1. With only a 12 gallon fuel cell we planned to stop at every pit to make sure that we would not run out of fuel on the course. The Silver State "300" is a non-chase race so you have to perform fueling and any assisted repairs in one of 6 pits located at race miles 42, 97, 138, 165, 208, and 240. The section of the course from Pit 1 to Pit 2 had a few high speed sections along lakebeds where we were able to hit 95 mph. With no front sway bar the buggy seemed to wander around a bit, but otherwise seemed fairly stable. I told Curtis to try and keep in the middle of the road as we flew in and out of dust clouds left by other racers. We flew through one dust cloud at 91.5 mph and were surprised to come across a fence with a cattle guard in it immediately after the cloud. Curtis didn't even have enough time to finish saying "OH MY!" as we flew through the opening. Neither of us talked for the next few miles as we didn't want to discuss the fact that had we been 1 foot left or right we would have hit the fence at 91 mph. The only thing I can compare this feeling to is to imagine yourself driving down the highway at 100 mph then closing your eyes.
The next section of the course got back into the rough whoops and really started to fatigue the two of us and evidently the buggy as well as new creaks and groans were popping up. At Pit 2 we had the crew check the entire suspension twice for loose bolts because we were positive that one of the noises was a loose suspension bolt. After tightening a few link bolts we were off again. We immediately heard the same noise as we pounded through some more rough sections. At Pit 3 we gave the buggy another check but could not find anything causing the noise until Timber suggested the front driveshaft. When we checked we found the bolts holding the driveshaft to the transfer case all loose and one nut missing. We did not have another nut so sent one of the crew guys to the BFGoodrich trailer a little ways away from us. The first question they asked was what tires we were running to which we replied Toyo's. They groaned and ribbed us about our tire choice but were willing to lend us the nut anyway. With the bolts tightened our noise went away and we proceeded along the course. There are many areas along the race course that consist of silt beds. The silt is like driving through flour. When you drive into it the silt it explodes into a cloud and really bogs down the vehicle. With 4wd you can drive out of it, but the majority of desert trucks run 2wd for suspension travel and these guys require momentum to clear the silt patches. In one section we came upon 2 Pro Trucks stuck in the silt looking for help. We strapped up to the first guy and pulled him out then went back for the next. By the time we got back there were 5 other Pro Trucks stuck. We pulled out the second truck because we already told him we would, but told the other guys we needed to get on with our race.
Somewhere between Pit 4 and Pit 5 the truck started to handle a little funny. As we progressed we determined that the passenger side rear tire was loosing air. With Pit 5 only a few miles away we decided we'd just try to get the buggy to the pit for a tire change. We crossed a couple of deep water crossings making us feel like we were wheeling in BC rather than the Nevada desert, then rolled into Pit 5 for the tire change. Pit 5 is located right in Caliente so a mandatory 25 mph no passing speed zone was established for 2 miles in order to get the permits to race through the area. Beyond Pit 5 until the finish lines there are power poles lining the course in high speed sections. It is a little unnerving doing 60 mph or more and passing the power poles by only a few feet, especially when the course zig zags through them in some areas. The latter part of the course reaches elevations of 7400 feet in the high desert and the course becomes tight and technical as you weave through the trees. A couple of the hairpin corners were very tight and left me wondering how the large trophy trucks make it through compared to our smaller buggy. As we entered Pit 6 we were starting to chase the sunset. The crew made the decision not to install our Vision X HID lights as they figured we would be able to beat the sunset, and we did have the Rigid Industries LED light bar provided by Sportsman 4x4 already installed as backup. This turned out to be a poor decision because within the first mile after leaving Pit 6 we got a flat tire. By the time we got the tire changed the sun was already dropping behind the mountains. In the trees the Rigid LED worked really well, however in the high speed sections we quickly found out that at anything over 50 mph we were out running the lights. Curtis kept trying to push the speeds up to 75 mph and I kept yelling at him to slow down to 55 mph so we compromised and averaged 65 mph in the section. A few times we flew into silt beds and washes that we didn't see and I kept reminding Curtis to take it slow as the miles slowly ticked off to the 300 mile mark.
At mile marker 290 we pretty much stopped talking from the fatigue of the race combined with the fact that we were both scared to say anything that might jinx our finish. At this point we both were focusing on using our willpower to make the truck finish. The fatigue really seemed to get the better of me over the last 10 miles as I caught myself directing Curtis to turn right when it was actually a left. Good thing he hardly listens to me! We both breathed a sigh of relief when the finish line was in site and the excitement started getting to us. Casey Folks was at the finish line to great all the racers so we talked with him for a bit then drove to the mesa where the announcer interviewed Curtis. Our crew met us at our trailer as Curtis shut down the buggy and we all congratulated each other. Words cannot describe the feeling of finishing a race like this. An epic adventure with a ton of hard work is all that comes to mind. I have a completely new found respect for desert racers. I have always followed the Baja 1000, Dakar, and other races on TV but can truly say that television does not do it justice. Desert racers must fight unknown and changing courses, blind corners, pushing full throttle through dust clouds that blind you, mechanical difficulties, the logistics of having your pit crew chase you around the course and the fatigue that attacks your body. After the race it seemed that even our buggy could not go one more mile, because when we went to pull it onto the trailer the LED light bar wouldn't work anymore and once we got it up on the trailer we found one front coilover seal blown and both diffs leaking oil everywhere. Good thing the race wasn't 301 miles long!
The Flying Zucchini Brothers would like to thank Hammerking Productions and Best in the Desert for the opportunity to race in this event. The race was truly a highlight of our racing and offroading careers. We placed 9th in our class of 16 buggies and 83rd overall of 199 entries. We must have really been lollygagging out there on the course because Ben Napier and Barry Beadle, the two trucks we rolled back over, both passed us later and finish ahead of us. However, we stuck to our plan of taking it easy and keeping the truck together. When talking to the other racers from the other classes they expressed their awe at how each 4400 class team would help each other out in the pits and on the course. Our pit crew was asked in the pits by another classed crew if all of us were on one big team. Curtis and I would also like to send out our gratitude to our pit crew for all their hard work. Jeremy and Timber had been recruited by Justin of Sportsman 4x4 and had actually never even laid eyes on the buggy prior to meeting for the trip down. Chris had been with us at KOH and had put more in than his fair share of work on the buggy. The Flying Zucchini Brothers would also like to thank our sponsors The Gear Centre Group, Evolution Machine and Fabrication, Mastercraft, Toyo Tires Canada, BC4x4.COM and Hard Bodies by Aqualu. Without their support and superior products I do not believe we would have finished the race. Special thanks goes out to Baja North for using their knowledge and time in order to get the most out of our inadequate suspension set up prior to the race.
Watch a slideshow of the race photos:
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