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by Ray Alexander
The coastal weather was unsettled, but desert races and fights to the death are not cancelled. Why wait? As I drove north, the mountain tops were obscured with clouds, but the pass did an end run on the clouds. Over the pass it was bright and sunny with a wind. I arrived in Henderson about three in the afternoon; the wind was still there and the temperature had dropped several degrees.
The downtown area was blocked off for technical inspection; vendors were set up along the street giving competitors a last chance for contingency stickers or a first chance at buying something for the 2014 season. People were being interviewed by local television reporters. Other media were there as well, collecting information for articles to be published later. It had a carnival atmosphere for a specific population; those that liked big wheels, big shocks, and differentials.
The race is billed as 250 miles, or 3 laps over an 80 plus mile course, but the slower classes run only two laps. The two laps can be shortened to one lap if you are lapped by the class leader. There is also a quite lenient time restriction. From what I have seen, most will be lapped before the time restriction comes into play.
Race day almost dawned, there were clouds, the temperature was a small number, and, I almost forgot, there was WIND. Before the day was over I had sand in my ears, my eyes, my mouth, my nose, — and there was enough sand in my hair for a child’s sandbox. Fortunately, I had on enough clothes to prevent contamination of any other orifice.
The temperature continued to drop, and I made the best investment of my life: I bought a hooded sweat shirt. The day also showed us rain, sleet, snow, and more wind. Enough about the weather; I am sure I have seen worse, it was just so long ago my memory has cleared it.
I took some photos of the inside of Todd Jackson’s machine. This one was from the passenger’s door. Jeepspeed is supposedly about racing on a budget. Take a look; do you see anything that says Cheapspeed?
Several people had their rear wheels in the air, driven by the engine and spinning without restriction, to warm up the differential fluid and the axle clutches.
This was the final race of the 2013 season and in both Jeepspeed classes, champions were yet to be decided. In the 1700 Class the field was fairly open, but two entries controlled their destiny; the 1717 with driver Eric Heiden and co-driver Joshua Reiter, and the 1712 with driver Todd Jackson and co-driver Michael Slater. I had a visual image of Eric carrying his Jeep.
The equation to decide the winner was complex with a lot of ifs, ors, and buts. The 3700 Class has had only two competitors; the 3777 with driver Brandon Berge and co-driver Reyes and the 3704 with driver Bob Mamer and Mark Cowan co-driver. That equation was much simpler, if Mamer finished the race he was champ.
Here is a shot of the start area. The lanes are cut or worn into the desert. The left lane has the shorter distance to a 180° left turn and the longer distance to about a 100° turn to the right. The left lane was the predominant winner to the main trail.
The starting line was very patriotic. I was also happy to see the Canadian and Mexican flags displayed. The two trucks in the background were headed north on I-15. By the way, there was no starch in those flags, have I mentioned it was windy?
Megan McCloud bought a used machine set up for the 1700 Class. This was a shakedown test for the vehicle. She employed a veteran driver and took the co-driver seat. I spoke with the driver immediately prior to the start and he commented, “This is going to be interesting, I have zero at-speed driving time with this vehicle.” The number was 1730 and it got an excellent start. Later on the course a broken shock went through a tire and that slowed them down.
George Mortis in the 1721 also brought in a “ringer” to drive. They were running toward the front until a mechanical failure grabbed them.
At the back side pit the 3777 of Brandon Berge was leading and the 3704 was nowhere to be seen. Skyler Gambrell was driving Clive Skilton’s twenty year old Grand Cherokee and Clive was not the co-driver. I had heard Perry Coan say, “For both prepping and driving Skyler is the real deal,” The only time I can remember him driving he had a mountain of mechanical issues.
Skyler came to pit #9 first in the 1700 Class with a raw seven minute lead. His radio was off and he wasn’t stopping. Can he and the machine hang together for another 120 miles? Stay tuned.
There is an off-road hall-of-fame and Clive’s Jeep needs to be in it. It has run an untold number of race miles.
Brian Davidson in the 1718 had high hopes going in. When I was in pit #9 for the second lap Brian was there with a blown engine. I came to understand that this was the fourth blown engine in four races. This is very uncharacteristic of the 4.0L six-cylinder engine. Have all the failure modes been the same?
Brian is going to move to the 3700 Class next year with a 6.1L Hemi. That engine has two well known failure modes. The first ring land is very close to the top of the piston, under heavy load the piston can eject chunks. Changing to forged pistons fixes that problem. If the engine is overheated, it can drop a valve seat at any time. A new set of CNC ported heads is a wonderful fix. I am running “Modern Muscle” heads.
We went back to the starting line. Clive wanted to do a preventive check on his Jeep. He had new wheels and wanted to check the torque on the lugs. The weather was nice in the cab of Clive’s 2500 Dodge Ram. These events have a large percentage of Dodge tow vehicles, but almost none in competition.
The 3777 was still leading and Skyler still had a substantial lead. Tim Martin, the rocket scientist from Utah, was running well in the 1772. The 1717 already had major trouble and Todd Jackson was running easy.
Back to Pit #9. We went out to where the mandatory stop was before entering the pit. The lead positions had not changed but, the 1712 was creeping up.
Every vehicle in the race had a GPS tracking device. Michele had a computer showing the race course. Every vehicle was being tracked, where they were on course and the time and distance between could be determined. It must be depressing to hear, “You are 17 minutes behind the next 1700 Class vehicle.”
Early in the afternoon the wind blew over an outhouse. I sincerely hope no one was in it.
Back to the finish line. Brandon Berge in the 3777 was still first. His son is his biggest supporter. The first 1700 Class was Skyler Grambell.
Next was the 1712 of Todd Jackson and third was Tim Martin in the 1772. Class Champions were Todd Jackson in the 1700 Class and Bob Mamer in the 3700 Class.
It was so cold my lens shutter froze.
John Brannon garnered “Rookie of the Year.” The next season starts on January 11.
An extra tidbit.
In the late 1960s, I was heading to a desert motorcycle race in my ’66 El Camino with a fire breathing ’68 Bultaco Pursang. The race was between Red Mountain and CA 14. Just out of Mojave, there was a CHP roadblock; the officer sent the three cars in front of me back, then said to me, “You wait here, I will be back.”
He turned around several more vehicles, but some were pulling up behind me. He came back to me and related, “The road ahead is flooded and all of you guys are going to the race. We know that desert racers know how to drive and if you get in trouble you help each other. You will not leave us with 50 vehicles to rescue. Drive carefully, there is a lot of water and some of it is deep.”
It started raining hard just before the start of the race. Inbound to the start/finish my motorcycle drowned out three times crossing washes. I stopped and looked at each one before diving in. My throttle was sticking from water on the slide. I had already decided I was not going out on the second lap when the race was shortened to one lap. Nobody complained.
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