Our first time as a racer at the King of the Hammers was a success! Did we win? No, but we made a great maiden voyage completing 109 miles of the 190 mile race course. Our #4555 Rock Racing “Grocery Getter” Jeep Wrangler did what we had hoped for: it stood out and gave a good performance. When we lined up in tech we were looking out-of-place among the 4800 class Legend buggies and the heavily-modified 4500 class. The team had the chance to talk to lots of people in Hammer Town as we walked through the sea of wild looking cars. We hoped to encourage other people to come racing and buy the parts that helped get us here.
Our week was not without struggle before the race, though. As it was Grocery Getter’s first race we had to undergo a strenuous tech inspection to get the chassis tagged. Our safety equipment, roll cage, and suspension checked out. But we didn’t get off that easy. After the addition of a fuel cut off valve, homemade locking dipsticks, a few aluminum skid plates held on by hose clamps, and too zip-ties to count, the chassis was tagged and we were cleared to race. The car is a little heavier than we would like, at just over 4800-pounds, but shedding weight and adding strength over the next year will be a good challenge.
We made as strong an effort as we could to pre-run the course; we are sure the pre-running notes are a large part of what kept the Jeep competitive through the desert lap. Without designated vehicles, our pit crew’s 4×4’s became the pre-running vehicles, which kept things interesting as the group suffered a broken leaf spring, blown shocks, broken driveshaft, bitter cold wind, and Chris Paul’s Hummer H3 lost an entire tail light (if found please contact us). By the morning of race day, my team was ready to roll. We had spare Cooper tires, gasoline, and tools at each pit and plans in place for the day. Co-driver Rand Bagi and myself were sleep deprived but ready to race.
We started 90th out of 140 cars on the line. This put the Grocery Getter deep into the 4800 and 4500 class. Our Jeep was by far the most stock looking vehicle that the spectators had seen by that point. The 4.0L engine screamed off the line and gave us a shocking 6-or-7 car length lead on the guy next to us by the end of the short course. We were careful not to hit the two big jumps with too much speed and risk breaking the car in the first 1/16th of a mile.
We did our best to warm the Jeep up as we roared across the sand wash, past the Back Door waterfall and passing another car straight away before Grocery Getter let out a horrible grinding wail. Our four-wheel-drive’s high gear was gone. We suspected the shift fork nylon guides broke. I banged the car into two-wheel-drive and got back on the gas. We made good distance across the desert, setting our first top speed of 52 miles per hour. (A speed that is not impressive on the road but felt pretty wild on the dirt with no windshield.) The car did great through the bumps and made it to remote pit 1A. We stopped for some fuel and a once over before heading up into the hills not far from Cougar Buttes. In hindsight, we should have skipped pit 1A, but we learned a good lesson as we later had to try and chase down some of the many cars that passed us.
Cougar Buttes is the first rock crawling area of the race and it is famous for being tricky to navigate. It is also well known for causing vehicle rollovers as drivers get off line. As we pulled up, we were greeted by a five or six car traffic jam waiting for recovery workers to get drivers out of a rolled XJ Cherokee 4600 class race car. Once traffic began to move, tension and nerves were high as everyone worked to avoid the next traffic jam. Rand got out of the car and jogged through the rock section to make sure we stayed on the right lines. This strategy was one we decided upon when pre-running and it worked out well as we made quick time through the rocks – and we even passed several here.
Now I should take a moment to explain that Grocery Getter is powered by the original 4-liter motor that made 190-horsepower around 168,000-miles ago. We had no intention of winning and faster cars passed us throughout the day as expected, but this didn’t mean we didn’t have our share of back-and-forth battles with other cars, as well as overtaking slower cars and many broken vehicles. The Jeep struggled in the fine, choppy stutter bumps of the desert, but shined in the larger whoops. The shock tuning we did before race week with Accutune Off-Road payed off big time as the car was stable and grounded through the bigger bumps despite its restricted 14-inches of suspension travel.
The second time we came through the start/finish short course, we were more confident and let it fly over the jumps. We came through our main pit stop to get more fuel and eat. We headed out into the desert, this time into territories we were not able to pre-run. Lacking notes, we had to pay more attention to course markers but we were encouraged knowing that once we made it to the infamous Hammer Trails we would be on home turf. We have been driving the trails in Johnson Valley for years now, and I had seen all those miles from the driver seat of this same red Jeep.
A quick stop in remote pit 2A meant we were off to the start of Boulder Dash Trail, a simple trail we had driven many times before. Not far up the canyon, I went to drive around a large boulder and instead of going right, the Jeep went hard left. I backed up and tried once more with the same result, it was clear that our steering was in trouble. We exited to find our steering drag link was sheared clean in half. After removing the two pieces of broken drag link, we hiked a ½-mile or so back to remote pit 2A where we went from pit to pit looking for a team with a portable welder. Our spirits were restored as a team who we had never met welded our drag link back together on the tailgate of their 1-ton Dodge.
With the Frankenstein drag link in hand, we hiked back and installed it on the car. While we thought the repairs would hold, we were concerned about how bent the drag link was. About 300 yards up the trail, as we tried to crest a rock ledge, our fears were realized as the drag link sheared in half in another location. The drag link had clearly been cracked and bending for some time during the race and the steel had simply lost any tensile strength. We were now broken in a bad location, blocking one of the two ways up the trail. Our welding friends in the pits had moved on to another location to support their team and we were forced to end our race, turning our attentions to extracting the car from the trail.
We hitched a ride into Hammer Town and was lucky enough to have the guys at RuffStuff Specialties make me a temporary drag link. As I rode back to the trail to extract the crippled Grocery Getter, we heard news on the radio that another team had damaged the Jeep trying to fit around it on the trail. I was saddened by the news but knew this is part of the sport. We soon hiked back up Boulder Dash Trail with the new temporary drag link in hand to find the jeep had sustained damage to the passenger front fender and hood. Within a few hours we limped the Jeep back to camp.
We ended the day with a hurt race Jeep, but spirits were high. The Jeep did so well and we had a blast. The drag link steering failure was race ending, but something we will have beefed up to never let us down again. Hopefully a fiberglass hood from the likes of Chris Durham Motorsports will find its way onto the car to fix the front end damage and shed some weight. With the racing addiction now in full effect, we will be hunting for sponsors to help the car stay afloat and make the necessary upgrades to have the Grocery Getter Jeep ready to rock at the Ultra 4 Lasernut Western Series in Rancho Cordova, CA.