After all of the miles traveled, dollars spent, wrenches turned, and the fuel burned, the conclusion to another wild year of Ultra4 racing was third place in the Ultra4 National Championship for the second consecutive year!
Finishing fourth place in the Western Championship was also very hard-fought. The gap to third was only 5 points out of 3000, effectively one position at any one of the races.
The final race of the year at the Crossbar ranch in Oklahoma was a perfect test of the new powertrain and 35″ tires. This test was critical for my plans to race the 2022 King of the Hammers in this configuration. The short version is, I was racing for a podium position on the last lap when a suspension bolt came loose, and the front passenger wheel tucked under the car. I was able to limp it back to the pits for a 10th place finish. Here is the whole story:
After Sturgis, I was quick to pull out the transmission to get it re-geared and rebuilt by cryoheat with plenty of time to test the new 35s. After the first day of CVT tuning, I was disheartened. The car was slower than I expected, and so much doubt crept into my mind. Maybe these big tires were just too much for these little cars. It turns out, with a little speedometer calibration and larger changes with the CVT… interia be damned, this thing is FAST! I’m excited to tune more and make it even better this winter, but it’s raceable as is, and my confidence was high.
During the week between tests, I had been prepping the rest of the car to nearly KOH level freshness. Just about every bolt and bearing was replaced, axles and driveshaft rebuilt, new hubs, brakes, and uprights. Not only was this important for the race, but KOH prerunning in the months following.
The last test weekend before scheduled departure was spent fine-tuning the shocks and springs in the desert. The car was fast, suspension smooth, and I was feeling very confident. I just needed to test in 4 Low a bit before heading home. In the steep, sandy mud washes, I crawled out the top of a chute, the tires started to dig and hop as the car bellied out, then SNAP, 4WD was gone, and the car was stuck.
A hike back to the truck, quick recovery before the sun went down, then return to the garage to figure out if I could, or even should, get everything back to race-ready in under a week. As always, Cryoheat and RCV were awesome. Same-day service and priority overnight shipping kept my dreams alive. The car was back on its wheels in just a couple of days, and the final prep could continue. Nerves and uncertainty were very present while I packed and finished the last few projects. Still, everything I could realistically do was already done, and making sure the spares, tools, truck, and trailer were ready to go were the obvious priority.
A Sunday night departure was followed by a slow and steady trek across the country. 1400 miles later, I arrived in the paddock at 2 am Wednesday morning. The next day, off and on, wind and rain made setting up a challenge, but I managed and finished my errands to be ready for pre-running the next day. The track was still a bit soaked Thursday morning when a pit neighbor and I went out to see the rock “B” loop. Once into the actual trails, it dried out a bit except for some large puddles. The rocks trails are technical and unrelenting, mixed with muddy trails and high ridgelines. It looked to be a real driver’s course and brutal test on the machine. In the long, slow technical sections, my engine started running strangely and would shut off. Eventually, stumbling back to the pits, I diagnosed and tested for a few hours without great results. By now, it was getting dark, and I still had to go see the faster “A” loop. With only my bumper light to show the path, I learned the loop as best I could.
Friday was a long day, as the final pre-running in the morning was followed by qualifying, then the race in the evening. I spent hours figuring out why the engine would run fine one minute then poorly in certain situations but would always fire back up and run fine afterward. This was frustrating and difficult to replicate. Running out of time, I convinced myself it was a heat-soak issue that I could race around. I took it pretty easy in qualifying as the course was easy to overdrive, and I didn’t have that much practice on it. 12th off the line with the people I needed to keep an eye on just in front of me was just fine for me. I was here for a championship podium, race pace testing, and not a race win. The couple hours between qualifying and race start went quickly, and soon I was in staging. At this point, everything was going to play out, and there was nothing you could do but enjoy it and focus on the race.
Roll up to the line, and the green flag drops, “keep that motor spinning happily, but not too fast” was on my mind the entire first lap. Slower than I could have been in the fast sections and much faster than I wanted to be in the slower ones. What a fun course, wide-open speed, tree-lined ridges, Muddy washes, and driving up a running river bed. You can’t ask for a more diverse race course! My pit strategy was to fuel every lap, uncertain on the fuel range and to have the car looked over made that an easy decision. After the first lap, I was up to fifth or sixth, and both of my direct competitors had reported issues. I went out on my second lap with the sun going down, slowing down a bit to save the car and see if I needed to pick up any time in the end.
Successfully slowing the pace but gaining positions from attrition, I came across the line in 4th with a large gap to 5th and lap to go. Passing Shannon Cambell in the pits put me 3rd on the road, which was amazing, but I wasn’t sure if the car would stay together for another lap. Slowing down even more to a “cruise” pace, I let Shannon go and followed him around another car before he took off on a mission. I was starting to feel a shake in the front right corner that concerned me, but with just a few miles to the pits, I hoped it would hold together enough to get looked at by the support crew.
Unfortunately, it did not. In some of the tight, winding grass corners, something in the suspension let go and the tire tucked under the car. It was still movable, so I shifted into 4Low to make it back to the pits. A couple of miles of “surfing” with nearly no steering ability, I reached a rock section that required a change of some kind, or the vehicle would surely roll over. I removed the tire, steering, and brakes, then tied the remaining suspension up. Fully prepared to absolutely smash this car until it wouldn’t move anymore, I drove the car through the last mile of rocks and short course. My only concern was tipping over, which was very challenging and oddly fun. Crossing the finish line before the lead group came around, I knew I would be scored as starting but not finishing the final loop of the third lap (6 of 6 loops). Out of time and the car badly damaged, I parked it and awaited the results.
I crossed the line 9th and only one person made it further, which pushed me to tenth. However, the mission was accomplished, and I secured my second national championship podium in 2 years. Not a smooth season by any means, and I fell short of my own expectations plenty of times but begrudged persistence does eventually pay dividends. I’m so thankful to my sponsors for coming along for this wild ride. Hopefully, you are seeing the evolution towards an even more competitive program and wish to be more involved. I have big plans for 2022 (full race chassis) and would love to have you by my side for another year and beyond.
After the finish, congratulatory beverages were had, then quickly followed by many hours of sleep. The following day was nice to watch the other race classes, record a podcast, and pack up before the awards banquet. Many thanks and handshakes later, I was headed back West and already thinking about the 2022 season. Another two and a half days on the road before I was unloaded in San Diego and picking up the pieces of my “normal” life.