Sure this is going to be a long read, but there is now way to put this into just a few words. I could go on and on about each and every event that took place that day. The bottom line is we are one of the few first timers that actually finished the race on their first attempt.
I encourage you to stick with it and read it all the way through. We are the Every Man, we have day jobs, and we converted a TJ into an EMC race contender.
Thursday morning came quick and I did not get very much sleep the night before. My brain was still processing preparation lists, my nerves were creeping up and I did not want to over sleep for fear of missing our line-up spot. But none the less 5:30 a.m. came and I had to get up and get the day started. I brewed some java and started sorting out my race suit stuff. Darin was up as well, getting all his stuff together, and we heard a knock at the door of the RV. To my surprise it was my best friend, Johnny, standing at the door. He took some time out of his very busy morning getting Savvy Offroad ready to stop by and give us some much-needed words of encouragement. I was shocked by his visit and it really set our day off on the right foot. We finished getting suited up and loaded up the last of our stuff in the Turtle, then headed for our line-up spot, Number 32, which was in front of 212 Performance Gloves.
In the line-up we had several people swing by to give us some encouraging words. It was a bit surprising to see so many people wishing us luck the morning of the race.
The time came for the line to start moving and I knew things were about to get REAL. Everything we planned for was going to be tested in the next few minutes. And the Axial SCX10 was strapped on the back for the ride of its life. We got to the start line and it was us against Lindsay Gilstrap from Texas. I knew she had a car with more power so I suggested we just let her go when the flag drops. Aaron from the Poison Spyder Pit Crew gave us a great countdown through our Rugged Radio intercom system, and on his mark with the green flag waving at 8:07 a.m., we punched it… and then quickly let off the gas for turn 1, the sharp left-hander that can quickly roll your rig and take you out of the race.
I figured Lindsay would have left us in the dust, but she was still right there so we got back on the gas and the drag race ensued until the jump at the end of the short course section. We both hit the brakes and rolled through the jump and then she started to check out.
At that point we were eating her dust and decided to back off a bit so we could get some clean air and see where we needed to go. The first hill climb (part of Short Bus) had become a dust covered canyon from all the previous racers, making it very difficult to see where we needed to be to avoid the rocks. We picked our way through and were headed down the backside in no time. Finally passing RM01 we were picking up our speed to hit the first small sand hill of the day. As we approached the base of the sand hill doing about 50 — BAHBOOM!!! We hit this pot-hole in the dirt that came out of nowhere. We hit it so hard, it felt like we just drove up a curb in a SmartCar. We continued to drive up the hill without issue and got to the top. I decided to check with Darin and see if he felt a flat. At first he said “It feels good”, but as we approached the southern end of Melville Dry Lake, RM02, he said “It’s flat man, it’s flat.” I said “No big deal, let’s pull off the course and get it changed.” Truth be known, we only tested our scissor jack on the rear of the vehicle and it worked great. As we lifted the front of the car it would only go so far before the impact ran out of torque and would not lift anymore (maybe it’s the jack and not the impact). Anyways we busted out the ratchet and continued cracking. Of course we discovered that we did not have the ½-inch drive ratchet with us and had to use a 3/8-inch drive with an adapter (CREW CHIEF!!!!). But we were able to get it done and get back in the car and get going again. It was frustrating for both of us to get a flat so early but it was actually a good thing — it brought us down a notch and allowed us to get back in our britches, get our wits back and thinking straight. We were on our way and headed for RM03 and by this point the race had been going for about 20 minutes and we were only at RM03. I got on the radio to let Main Pits (Poison Spyder Pits) know that we had a flat and will need to replace the spare when we get back. At the north end of Melville Dry Lake we reached RM04. Just after that is the military base gate — on the base the course runs for about 6 or 7 miles before exiting again. Just after RM14 we reached Remote Pit 1. Knowing that we did not send a spare tire with the crew to Remote Pit 1 and our car seemed to be doing well, I radioed in to let them know we would see them on the flip side. We continued on, picking off mile after mile. Along the way a Legends car or two would pass us but we also saw more and more busted cars off to the side of the course.
To us it was a little sign of encouragement to keep going and be thankful we were still in the race. The course along the way would vary, from some whoop sections to some goat trails, to some sand washes, and then to some high-speed smooth routes. The mix of terrain was relentless and would change at a moment’s notice. Darin was on his game reading the terrain and checking-up when needed to avoid damage and/or additional flats. Reaching RM31 we checked in on the radio to let the crew know we were at the half way mark and headed for Remote Pit 1 for the second pass. There were some tricky turns on the way and attention had to be paid to the GPS so we wouldn’t miss the marks and stay on track. I think it was at RM32 where we finally got our first Check Point sticker. For us, that was a major mile marker and reassurance that we were still in it. We made our way through the rest of the RM’s periodically calling in to Remote Pit 1 that we were getting close. We finally heard from them about RM46 and we let them know that we were hearing some clanking noises that we wanted them to check on. When we pulled into the pits, a little after RM47, Craig W. stepped up to the window and said he had our spare tires there for us and asked if we wanted it. I was shocked! I am not sure how they pulled it off but I was sure glad to have him and the Poison Spyder Pit Crew supporting us. I was not expecting to have a spare tire there. But my response was quick, “Heck yes I want the spare one! You guys rock!” They continued to check the rest of the rig and give us a splash of gas.
They found some shock bolts loose and cranked them down tight then sent us on our way. Clicking off the next several miles, it was smooth sailing. The noise that we heard was gone and the car was feeling strong.
As we approached the next checkpoint I knew we were going to have to make a game-changing decision soon. There is a split in the race course and you have to make a choice to take Alternate 1 or stay on the course, which leads to a rock section covered in sand, making it a very difficult route. Beyond that is Alternate 2 which is even more challenging as it is a steep sand hill with rocks strewn about. Darin and I talked for a bit about our options but without haste and with pure confidence he chose the sand hill (Alternate 2).
We had avoided this route during our pre-run because we did not have anyone with us to help out if we got stuck. I’m sure Larry McRae’s pep talk in the Poison Spyder trailer the night before helped make this decision, and we were counting on him being there to help us navigate the line. I called out on the radio to see if Larry was at the sand hill and he replied “It’s all clear, come on up.” Passing RM57 and then passing the race course, I knew there was no turning back and we were going to tackle this hill head on. Larry chimed in on the radio giving us the approach line and the “go for launch”. Darin hit the hill like he had done it before and I could hear Larry on the radio calling the driving line for us “Driver, Driver, easy throttle, passenger, driver, driver, passenger, passenger… You made it!!! Nice work boys.” … or at least it sounded something like that. We were caught up in the moment and we just crushed that hill, hitting it blind and in race mode. It was a bit sketchy but really not all that bad, if you avoid the big rocks. Moving on, the next task at hand was navigating some more tight twisty turns in the sand and rocks, and heading towards Main Pits, a little after RM60. There’s not a whole lot of room for speed between the sand hill and main pits but we punched it when we could, trying to make up some of the time we lost with the flat and extended stop at Remote Pit 1.
We reached Main Pits. Darin had finished the first lap and kept the car together. It wasn’t an easy task but he kept his cool and composure and got us through the first lap. Main Pits is where Poison Spyder stepped up the most for us.
They went to work looking over the car and making sure it was ready for the second lap — the rock sections. Darin and I climbed out of the car to trade seats, as this was the plan after we looked at the course map. We had learned each other’s strong points and both agreed he would do best in the desert and I would do best in the rocks. We took a moment while we were out of the car to take a breath, grab a drink and a snack before getting back in the car.
There had to be at least 8 guys combined from the Poison Spyder crew and the Desert Turtle Racing crew working on the rig, making adjustments and some slight changes to the car for us to hit the rocks. We climbed back in the car and got strapped in with our DJ Safety Harnesses.
I was a bit nervous at this point, thinking to myself “I’ve got a lot of work in front of me”, but I was focused and knew that we on a pace to cover some ground and get through the rocks with our Raceline wheels and ProComp Extreme MT2 tires. So with all pit hands cleared we took off for lap 2 heading across the Start/Finish line and making our way to the hill at the end of Short Bus.
Climbing over the hill we were cruising along. Click! There went mile one, and here comes the pot hole that Darin clipped on Lap 1. So I let off the gas in an attempt to save the tire, which I did, but that lead to not enough momentum to get up this lame worn out sand hill. The Turtle gave it all it could in 4-Hi and petered out just shy of the crest of the hill. It was a no go and we had to roll backwards down the hill. We gave it another attempt with no luck and then decided to give it a go in 4-Lo. Success!! We made the hill but I was pretty well frustrated at this point. I had done this hill in my JK a number of times and never had a problem. Knowing it was just circumstance and with a few calm words from Darin I got my composure back and we were headed around the desert to Remote Pit 2A, located just after RM70. The car was doing well and we opted to pass right by. Heading up the hill after Remote Pit 2A the rig bounced on the trail a little from left to right and back left again and of course it hit another rock. It didn’t feel like we were losing air but it was in the back of my mind that the front left might be going down. We drove into the canyon and into our first rock trail, Boulder Dash. It’s not a really hard trail but it does have a couple small challenges. I felt this was a perfect trail for me to get in a rhythm of reading the terrain and navigating the rocks. We made quick work of the trail and passed a couple rigs on our way over to run down Upper Big Johnson. This trail has a couple of nasty spots if you’re not careful, but it also has a couple of bypass lines if you can spot them. We were careful coming down the trail as to not beat up the front end too much. We were also able to take a bypass line and make up another position. At the bottom of the trail we hit RM72 and headed for the next trail, Claw Hammer. On the way into Claw I hit a few more rocks a little harder than I liked and was again concerned about the front left losing air. We made it to the water fall and climbed right up. Then at the V-notch there was a rig stuck in the line and we had to negotiate an awkward line up the side of the canyon wall to make a hard passenger pivot turn. It took a couple of tries to get up the V-notch, even with the help of the guys that were part of the stuck car. During the process one of the guys shouted to me “You’ve got a left front flat.” Great!!!! Just what we didn’t need — another flat. I opted to pull to the side of the canyon out of the course line and change the flat to avoid any further damage. With our first flat experience we knew exactly what we needed to do and so we got to work. We made quick work of this change and were back on our way climbing out of Claw Hammer. At RM73 Darin radioed in that we had experienced another flat but were still moving and were headed into Wrecking Ball.
Picking our lines in Wrecking Ball we knew we had to negotiate the waterfall or the bypass line. We had ran the bypass line during our pre-run and were confident we could pull it off again. As we approached we noticed a rig stuck in the waterfall line and that meant we were forced to take the bypass. We got into the bypass line and had to make a quick stop because I overshot the downhill turn. The sketchy part of the bypass is when you stop, at that point the rig slides sideways about three feet which puts you very close to the cliff. We were able to get a good backup and point the Turtle down the hill for a successful pass at the bypass line. Shortly after making it down the bypass we passed another rig that was broken, and then down the trail just a bit further we passed another rig, and another.
I was feeling relieved that we were making good time down this trail and others appeared to be having difficulties. We approached the bottom of the trail and realized that we had, yet again, another flat on the front right. We finished running the trail and pulled over right near the cross-over at RM74. We were bummed, we had already used our spare in Claw Hammer and now we had another flat. We talked about driving on the flat but I pointed out that we had 5 more really tough rock trails to go through before we would get to Remote Pit 2B, not counting the mileage that was ahead of us between the rock trails. We continued to weigh our options and I suggested to Darin that we could possibly plug the tire with the tire kit we were carrying. Darin looked out the window and said “Hahahaha — No we’re not, there is a 4-inch gash in the sidewall.” So we checked the tire on the carrier and it had a smaller 1-inch hole. I grabbed the plug kit to start plugging the tire, and Darin grabbed the tools to start lifting the car to change the tire. Thankfully, we outfitted our ARB Compressor with an NPT fitting and packed our air hose. We were able to plug the tire with seven plugs and get 20lbs of air in the tire and the tire held the air. We pulled it off the rig and swapped out our third flat. This seemed to take forever but we were back in the game. Darin said “We are in this race until we aren’t!” That was probably the best thing he could have said at that time. I noticed a few of the rigs that we passed in Wrecking Ball had caught up to pass us, so I knew we were losing ground again.
We got back in the car and Darin called it in, “We plugged the flat and are on the move towards Chocolate Thunder. We are going to need a spare at Remote Pit 2B.” At this point I knew I really had to change my wheeling game and preserve the last chance tire we had left — We could not afford to get another flat. We got over to Chocolate Thunder and started picking our way through. There was a 4600 car in front of us, up at the cross section, having trouble. We watched and waited for him to get through and then made our way up the stair steps.
We cruised up the steps and while doing so I noticed the 4600 car take a different line that looked way easier than the line I am used to taking. So I half opted for that line and wound up getting the Turtle turtled on some rocks. It was time for Darin to get out and pull some winch line so we could get moving again. This is like the worst place to get stuck because there are a ton of spectators there to give you a hard time about your poor line choice. Darin made quick work of the winch line setup and we were un-stuck and on our way again, climbing the rest of the way out of Chocolate Thunder. Moving on to the next trail, passing RM76, we hit Jack North. At the entrance of the rock canyon for Jack North we caught up to the 4600 that was having problems on Chocolate Thunder. He was struggling pretty badly in a spot and ended up having to winch his way out of it. By this point there were a few rigs piled up behind us so the 4600 car let everyone pass him by. We made our way up to the top of the trail and there was a rig stuck in the main race line, so everyone else had to go around on a bypass line. I looked at the line and told Darin, “That’s not an easy bypass.” There was a line of about 4-5 rigs ahead of us and we watched a couple make it through the bypass line. Then one guy just about flopped his rig over. Now the main line was blocked and the bypass line was blocked and there was still a car ahead of us that had to get through. Not knowing what they were going to do about the rig that was almost flopped, Darin jumped out of the Turtle and started talking with another co-driver about alternate lines. Darin pointed out a line through the middle of the rocks that he thought might work as an alternate. I don’t think any of us had much faith in the line but Darin called up the next rig and spotted them through. They got through it with a little bit of work and some really good spotting from Darin. Next he called me up. I was wide eyed as I could not believe that the rig before me made it. These rocks seemed as big as the rig and once on top you could not see anything around you because it was all underneath the car. Darin again did a great job spotting and got me through the spot. As I exited this alternate line I could feel the Turtle was getting light and tipsy, but we were able to make an adjustment and pull on through. Thankfully another trail down and no tire issue. We took off and headed over to run down Jack Hammer.
We made great time coming down Jack Hammer until we got to the second waterfall section and I again got Turtled up due to a lack of forward momentum. Darin quickly jumped out and pulled the winch line. We were unstuck and on our way again in no time.
After Jack Hammer there was a check point at about RM78 and then right after that was a big sand hill. We attempted to power up this sand hill and almost got it, but the Turtle petered out just before the crest. We had to back down the hill, but this time I knew there was an alternate, so instead of trying the hill again, we opted to go around and keep on the move. We made our way around the mountain and were headed for Sunbonnet Pass. Still, I was keeping in mind that we needed to preserve the tire and could not afford another flat. We spotted a few key lines on Sunbonnet and were able to capitalize on a couple of passes in the rock trails. Quickly another trail was completed, now the only thing left in our way of reaching Remote Pit 2B was Hwy 19/20. This trail just after RM85 has a few tricky spots that can really cause some problems. We remembered some of the bypass lines here and took advantage of them. We even passed another rig that was struggling right were the bypass came back into the trail. We nailed this trail and even took a line that Johnny Rocha told us about, saving us more time. We were on our way out of Hwy 19/20 and were excited to crest the hill and see Remote Pit 2B. It was like a breath of fresh air for me. I was feeling stressed but the sight of the pits gave me focus and reenergized me for more racing. We got to the pits and the guys went to work on the car again.
Poison Spyder Pit Crew and Desert Turtle Racing Pit Crew were working together to give the car a good look over and make sure we were going to make the rest of the race. I grabbed a couple more snack bites from Kimmie and we were on our way. I asked Justin Z. how much time we had left and he said we still had about an hour and a half. Knowing that we had Aftershock Trail ahead of us, we would have to nail the bypass on that trail to keep in good time and be able to finish the race. I felt like we really still had a chance to finish. We just needed to keep the car together. We peeled out from the pits and were off and running.
We headed down into Aftershock just after RM88. We picked our way through the rocks and caught up to a rig that was struggling in the rock garden, and that was when we noticed the bypass line. We broke right and skated on by, passing another rig. We got to the bottom of the trail and came across another rig that was broken and passed by him as well. We were on the move and clicking off the miles between Aftershock and Emerson Dry Lake. As we came down the hill approaching Emerson Dry Lake, around RM92, we prepared for our final high-speed run across the lakebed. We were all alone out there and completely dust free. The conditions were perfect so I smashed the skinny pedal and let the motor sing. We were up to 80mph and still climbing. We knew our motor did not have much more and we were running out of space on the lakebed. But knowing there was a bit of a run-out at the end, I stayed in it getting up to a final top speed of 88mph and then let off. We cruised through the next several miles of the flowy desert trail leading up to RM99. Safely making our way there, it was time to cross a totally whooped out section on the course. At around RM100 to RM103, this is where I could lose my lunch and the Turtle if I wasn’t careful. The sun was staring to come down and as we made a slight left around RM105 it put the sun right in our eyes. Through the next couple of miles of whoops, I had to drive with one hand on the wheel and one blocking the sun. It was unsafe to get any sort of speed built up with only one hand on the wheel, so we just cruised keeping the Turtle safe and intact. We made the left a little after RM106 and were headed back on to a portion of course that we ran in Lap 1. It was nice to be back on some familiar trails. At RM55, we reached the final checkpoint and they informed us that we had only 45 minutes to get back to the finish line. Darin said, “There is no way we are timing out after coming this far. Hammer down buddy – Let’s do this.” I was unsure of the distance that we had left and how long it would actually take. But I recalled that the final section had a lot of sand and rocks strewn about, and we would have to tackle the nasty sand hill after RM57 from Lap 1. Picking our way through the sand and rocks, we kept moving along — Sometimes, at what seemed to be a very slow pace, but we were still moving. We came to the sand hill that Larry coached us up before and Darin called out to see if Larry was still there. Nothing but radio silence, so it was up to us to conquer the hill. We hit it hard and screamed up the hill, but at the top the Turtle started to peter-out and was barely creeping along. I worked the rig with a little sand crawl, turning the tires left and right, and we were able to make it up and continue on. Picking through the rest of the rocks and sand we made it out and were headed across the last desert section towards the finish line. I can remember driving along and thinking to myself, just keep it together we are going to make it. We made it to a point where we could see Hammertown and the Start/Finish line – We were just moments away from completing our goal. We were at the bottom of the last hill climb and on the other side was the Finish line. Up and over we go, zooming down the hill to take the checker flag at the Finish line at RM114.
I was beyond excited and was feeling mentally drained at the moment from driving the rock trails. I was stunned and could not believe that we had just finished the 114 mile course of the 2016 Smittybilt Every Man Challenge on our first attempt! Darin and I were absolutely amazed at the accomplishment. I couldn’t wait to get out of the car and find out if the Axial SCX10 had made it through the journey with us. Yup, it was there! — All covered in dust, but it made it with us. The first ever Axial SCX10 to run the hammers and cross the finish line.