Road Runner Offroad King of Hammers race 2020
Road Runner Offroad - King of Hammers 2020
The past and the vision.
In early spring 2019 Barry had an idea, an idea born from a failed attempt at KOH 2019 back in February, an itch that remained unscratched, some unfinished business between himself and the KOH race.
With lessons learned still fresh in mind, the hunt for a new car was on, scouring Facebook sites, classifieds and via word of mouth, the process of finding, inspecting, and ultimately purchasing a race car, over 15,000km away began. It was a tedious and at times frustrating process with friends in the USA helping to assess the viability of a vehicle, after looking at a number of cars and riding (what was ultimately just the beginning) of the emotional roller coaster, there was finally a vehicle on a truck heading down to Texas. With money having changed hands and the dream commenced.
While only taking a few seconds to explain, the reality of this process saw months pass by with the car only arriving at Twisted Fabrications in Texas late November, now cutting the already fine timeline for preparation even finer.
With the car unloaded and washed down the preparation process started. A near full teardown of the vehicle revealed a few dirty secrets, jobs that needed to be done, and parts that needed to be replaced. Removing, stripping and sandblasting the Spidertrax Diff housings, rebuilding the Gearworks and Yukon 3rd members, coating the housings in steel-it stainless steel coatings, and powdercoating the arms and links in Prismatic powders “tangerine twist” (mainly because of the name!) saw the car start to come to life and take on a new personality.
The following months saw hundreds of hours of work by Michael & Braydon and the team at Twisted Fab. The guys literally working through the nights, sacrificing time with family and loved ones all to have the best prepped vehicles for the KOH race in February 2020. Video calls, photos, videos and measurements (along with the the required metric to imperial conversions!) jumped back and forth across the pond via messenger to work together to get every last detail iron out before the car got loaded for the lakebed.
Back in Australia, Barry and Cam sourced parts, safety gear, and discussed support from their greatly appreciated partners to prepare for the race. With Maxxis tyres, providing trepador tyres for both the EMC and main race, Exotic Graphix and Aussie mates by Jules providing a killer design and vehicle wrap (to be flown over with the guys in their luggage!) Trail Gear providing the orange creeper lock wheels, and RCV Performance and Drivetech 4x4 back in Australia providing additional support for the 2020 KOH campaign.
Fast forward to the second last day of January and the boys jump on a plane (along with 10 or so other Aussie along for the ride) for a sleepless flight in anticipation of seeing the car for the first time, and experiencing the week long offroad festival that is King of the Hammers.
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Day 1 Thursday - Planes, RV’s and Racecars
Stepping off the plane, 4 hours back in time, with bags full of race car parts and racing gear and a 2m long box of car vinyl wrap, the guys got through US customs and onto collect a small fleet of RV’s which will become home for the next 9 days, low on sleep, driving on the wrong side of the road and having to stop and get supplies (food, water, bedding and maybe a box of beer or two) along the way it was dusk before arriving at our new address of 120 Nitto Tyre way - Hammertown. With the spectacular sunset over the mountains of Johnson Valley came the bitter cold and wind. Sleepless anticipation soon gave way to exhaustion and and early night saw the end to a 33 hour long day.
Day 2 Friday - The fruits of labour and lifelong friends.
With some sleep onboard and some exploring of thier surroundings, soon there was a big white truck with huge tri axle trailer in tow, inside was the 4809 Road Runner Offroad Ultra 4 car. With all pitching in the trailer was soon parked, awning setup and the car out of the box for all to lay eyes and hands on for the first time. Although still sitting on its tiny transport wheels and tyres the Aussies could already tell this car was neat, well prepped and was everything they had anticipated.
This was the time Barry and Michael could meet again after 2019 and Cam and Michael could meet for the first time, having spent countless hours talking, discussion options and directions on various aspects of the car prep the two felt as though they were already lifeling friends despite having never met. A friendship cemented over the coming days.
With the car out, it looks a little lacking with just bare aluminium panels and the process of vinyl wrapping the vehicle begins, near freezing temperatures, a steady cloud of dust and essentially no vinyl wrapping experience saw the job flow well into the night, with new friendships being celebrated with a drink or two, spirits were high and in the morning after a few hours sleep the car now sported its new livery, heavily featuring an Aussie theme with Aussie mates by Jules artwork topping off the Exotic Graphix amazing design. The car was now unmistakably Australian, with it’s 4809 number remaining to pay homage to its history and heritage.
Day 3 Saturday - We have ignition! The first drive, oops and whoops!
Getting up early to finish off the little jobs, Cam set to work making all new ignition leads using the Ice ignition parts brought over on the plane. The old leads were no longer serviceable and the team at Ice Ignition have a range of boots, clips and lead to ensure making a new custom set of leads on the lakebed was a breeze. With the car now running perfectly and the wrap looking good it was time to drive the car for the first time. With Barry jumping in the driver’s seat and Cam on the other side.
The Boys headed out for a quick warm up before heading to do some shock tuning with Phil Liccardi in the afternoon. With Barry quietly cruising out past the camp sites that surround Hammertown, a nice sandy road with woops opened up in front of Barry and he opened up the car for the first time, with around 650hp coming from the 435ci LS2 the car quickly accelerated and was soaking up the woops and cruising at 60-70mph. Barrys smile could not be wiped away as a quick warm up turned into a 20 mile drive out into the desert, minor issue, no one topped up the fuel tank for such a drive, with the boys now sitting 15 miles or so out of hammertown they soon got the opportunity to fault find a non running car(oops!), making the most of the situation getting a few photos before quickly getting some more fuel and heading off to Phil’s shock tuning spot in the desert.
The tuning process consists of driving a large washout followed by a series of whoops. (Consecutive sand corrugations about 3-4m apart and about 2 foot high.) With Phil Liccardi making changes to the compression and rebound bypass tubes on the 5 tube bypass long shocks (A coilover coil carrier and spring topped with a bypass shock) with repeated runs, establishing a baseline and requesting further adjustments to the vehicle as required. With the sun going down it was back to Hammertown to load the car with race weight fuel and tools/spares, adjust the preload and ride height and to do a final check & tune in the morning.
Day 3 Sunday - Power steering pain & shock servicing.
The suspension tune is so reliant on vehicle weight, working through what tools would be carried, what spare fluids and parts and filling the car with fuel was needed to get the car up to “race weight” for final shock tuning. With all this now strapped onto the vehicle the team headed back out to the shock tuning area for some more adjustments, soon into the process Phil noted that the adjustments being made to the bypass tubes (external tubes with an adjustable valve allowing tuning of the shocks compression and rebound force, for each area of stroke, externally by adjusting spring pre-load on the valves) were not responding in the expected way, this indicated an internal issue or fluid foaming, reducing performance. Back to Hammertown to remove the shocks and deliver them to Phils shock tuning trailer where his experience and expertise comes to a whole new level when he disassembles, checks, replaces fluids and makes a shim stack change (small shims that restrict flow through the piston change how the shock performs according to the amount of resistance they provide to the piston movement) all in around 45 minutes, allowing them to be re-fitted and some final tweaks made before sunset.
With the cold winter season comes extremely short days, so at around 5pm the sun is setting and the valley is swallowed by darkness aside from the orb of light being emitted from the ever growing community of motor-homes, pit trailers and recreational vehicle lights now starting to spread out into the valley.
This was the first chance to pre-run the qualifying course prior to the 11am qualifying slot the next day, the qualifying course consisting of some fast short course corners a loose climb up and over “short bus” down and along a sandy creek bed, up over a rocky climb with 2 distinct ledges with a sharp steep drop back onto a high speed whoop section, then another climb over a rock section down through the Ford Arch, back onto the short course track with a table top jump to finish, all taking around 3 minutes or so to complete.
It was this first time driving the car at speed, and as he demanded immediate steering response, Barry felt the steering baulk as he traveled through the rocks, with smooth steering responding well we returned to the pit to address the issue that could significantly slow things down in the morning.
With further testing, the consensus was that pump flow was the issue we were dealing with, the option of running a smaller pulley ruled out due to not having a shorter drive belt available as well as the issue remaining even with higher engine RPM. So the walk around Hammertown for parts commenced, with a good second hand PSC pump already in the pit trailer attention turned to finding a similar sized pulley for it to allow fitment of the original belt. Pip Justice, a fellow Australian racer, came to the rescue with a suitably sized pulley that would do the job. With midnight fast approaching the process of removing material on the factory bracket to fit the larger pump, finding fittings to allow the smaller sized lines to be fitted and aligning the belt properly saw the car fire up and the steering tested around 2am, enough time to get some needed sleep before getting up for qualifying the next morning.
Day 4 - Monday - Qualifying and pre-running.
With not enough hours of sleep on board, the boys woke to the 6am alarm, quickly getting race suits on, and heading out to the qualifying course for a dawn pre-run of the course to both familiarise themselves with the obstacles and layout as well as test the previous nights modifications to the steering setup, with the risk of the upgrade not solving the problem, or belt alignment issues all fresh in their minds they set out and completed 3 trouble free laps of the course. With this completed they head back to pits for a quick breakfast and to get ready for qualifying. In the EMC and KOH race starting position qualifying is optional. If you do not qualify then starting position is randomised behind the qualifiers. While not effecting your overall time due to the corrected timing of the race, traffic, dust and passing means a better starting position generally results in a better race result. (Although not always the case) It also gives an opportunity to pit yourself directly against your competitors to see if you pace is where it needs to be.
With very little driving time in the car, and having only done the course 4 times, Barry and Cam line up and set off on their qualifying lap. The full tube chassis with no doors makes getting in and out of the Ultra 4 cars a little difficult, and to aid this the steering wheels are removable on a quick release type setup. The steering wheel pushing on, then a collar pulled back and the wheel pressed on further to lock it in place. Not being familiar with the car Barry left the start line not realising the wheel had not been locked in this second stage, as the car landed off the jump leading up to “Short Bus” the wheel came off the shaft, with a short period of steering by grasping the column itself with constructive advice from Cam in the Co-Driver seat to “put the @&#^ing thing back on!” This little mishap didn’t stop the boys laying down a top 10 run at the time coming in in 7th position.(later to be dropped back to 20th after power hour (the traditionally fastest cars qualifying together int he last 1 hour bracket))
Happy with the top 20 Qualifying position the attention now shifted to getting the car “race ready” for Tech & Contingency in the morning.
Day 5 Tuesday - Aussies at the hammers and contingency.
KOH has long been a draw card for offroaders from all across the world, this year the amount of Aussies making the journey to experience the hammers was numbered into the 60’s. With the “Aussies at the Hammers” facebook page a meeting place for all those who are there to share their experiences. With a pre arranged time all the Aussies attending this years event (along with Barry and Pip’s cars) headed to back door to take a photo showing their Aussie colours. It was great to see so many Aussies supporting and representing at KOH this year.
After some time at back door Barry and Cam snuck off for some time pre- running the first 20 miles or so of the race course to get some more seat time and get a feel for the terrain in tomorrows EMC. The first 2 miles of course is sandy whoops, littered with various rocks, and station track like roads, a couple of minor rock sections to slow the pace down followed by a fairly smooth run out toward the area where remote pit 1 would be located and on to the wind eroded smooth rocks of Cougar Buttes. Returning back to Hammertown to get some comms system interference addressed by Rugged radios ahead of Contingency.
One major difference between racing locally and at KOH is the vendor support. Nearly all the major vendors for suspension, radios, brakes, engines, transmissions etc. all attend the event and provide parts and support to race teams throughout the whole event. The tech inspection (or scruitineering as it is known in Australia) sees all vehicles pass through the vendor area, snaking their way along various tech “checkpoints”, allowing the crowd to get up close and personal with cars and drivers, the vendors chance to offer sticker exposure in return for results based cash incentives and drivers the opportunity to quickly address tech issues such as a missing first aid kit etc. This is a great way for vendors to get support, to meet the guys that make the parts and offer their help throughout the race and to meet and greet some fans along the way, with a mid contingency brake light switch install and wire, the boys had their gear all checked out and deemed ready to race.
The evening consisted of assigning jobs to pit crew, organising fuel churns and filling them, making sure radio’s were working and a safety meeting for all crew and drivers/co drivers to ensure that pit stops went smoothly and without incident. With cars hot refueling and very limited visibility to the driver and co-driver, a safety officer is appointed for each pit location, with teams adopting various strategies including stop signs or a simple witch's hat placed on the bonnet and only removed once all crew are clear. This ensures no one is in the firing line of a Maxxis Trepador as the car leaves the pit! The twisted fab pit crews along with some of the Aussies divide up to provide pit services to the two cars, the Road Runner Offroad car and Irl’s super narrow 4 cylinder turbo 4800 class car.
With all plans and pit equipment ready its off to bed ready for the 6am lineup ready for the 8am race start time, starting in 20th place the boys will be in the 10th row off the line, a mere 5 minutes behind the front row qualifiers.
Day 6 EMC Raceday!
As the unlimited 4400 class kept moving up and up in terms of speed, technology and cost, the stock (4600), modified (4500) and legends (4800) classes were adopted into the KOH rulebook. Giving teams the chance to race against cars that had the same set of limitations allowing racers to be competitive at a lower price point than the (sometimes over $500k USD) 4400 class cars. The EMC (or Everyman Challenge) race consists of the first two laps of Friday’s 4400 race, the first lap being a 99 mile desert loop with the second being a 66 mile rock loop.
The boys line up the car as dawn breaks at 6am, sitting in grid position, doing final checks and trying to get some needed breakfast into nervous stomach's full of anticipation and adrenaline. Edging forward, at 8:05am the Green flag drops, side by side they manage to edge in front of the 19th position starter and head off into the desert loop, the first 20 miles or so flowing nicely, being careful not to make a mistake and hit a rock until the nerves settle and Barry finds his pace. Navigating the rocky outcrops the boys then pick up the pace for the longer desert woops section, making it into main pit in good time, briefly stopping for a quick checkover and continuing on. Around 3 miles after the RP1 stop the car starts to misfire and shut down cylinders, quickly noticing the temp gauge is pegged to the hot end of the scale Barry shuts it down and pulls off clear of the main track.
After getting out of the vehicle and assessing the issue, it seems the cooling system has an air lock, venting the steam and replenishing the water seems to address the immediate issue, with attention then being brought to one of the cooling fans not coming on, a bit of quick twisting and jamming a wire under a screw and the fan is now temporarily wired to always on. The misfire is quickly isolated to one cylinder, and with spark and compression isolated as OK they boys decide to unplug the fuel injector and continue on without this cylinder. With these issues under control the boys feel they have found the “smoking gun” with the cooling fan not working and make their way back onto the course. Even on only 7 cylinders the engine makes enough power to easily push the car on at race speed. After a few more miles things settle back in and the boys head out toward Cougar Buttes, now having lost over an hour. They make their way though the smooth flowing rocks of Cougar Buttes picking their way around rolled and disabled cars to come out the other side and head off on the large desert loop into the US Marine Corps Base.
Coming back into RP1 without any issues and then heading off to the last of the loop followed by a climb up through “Guacamole”, down “Resolution” and then dropping down the formidable drop off of “Back Door” pulling into main pit for fuel.
A check over of the vehicle in main pit reveals no damage or issues and Barry and Cam head out to start lap 2. At around race mile 4 Cam notices the backup GPS unit screen loses the map and starts blinking, not a big issue as he still has the iPad based leadnav to work from and they press on, half a mile later the engine abruptly shuts down and the car comes to a stop just beside the race line. A quick assessment realises the battery is completely flat, the alternator having failed at some point and the demand of the 3 cooling fans, large fuel pumps and in car electronics making short work of the remaining battery power. Without a spare alternator or a charged battery to restart, the EMC campaign comes to an end, in a very uneventful fashion. Even in frustration an exhaustion the guys are not left unamused by the fact that someone earlier had lost their spare alternator in this exact spot, and just behind the car in the sand lay a very beaten up LS alternator.
With the help of some very accommodating local spectators Barry is ferried back to the pits to get a fresh battery but as this is a “no chase” race. The need for this assistance means the race is over for the Road Runner Offroad team. Months of work and effort resulting in a very anticlimactic end.
Once the car is back at pits, a few quiet drinks are had to help ease the pain of defeat, as word comes through that Irl has run out of time after making a navigational error and having to do 4 rock trails twice to re - enter the course correctly. Joining a few around the Tribe fire in Hammertown to somewhat celebrate the positives, but in the back of Barry’s mind he was already planning ahead.
Day 7 Thursday - All hands on deck
With the bitter taste of defeat still fresh in Barry’s mouth, early in the morning a quick “staff meeting” between Barry and Cam takes place over a coffee in the motorhome, Barry wants to turn the car around and race the 4400 race. As a racer there is immense pressure put on you to achieve certain outcomes, and more than anywhere else this pressure comes from within. The driving force to do well comes from a sense of duty to live up to the expectations of those that have supported you, sponsors, families, pit crew and Michael and his family, its a sense of responsibility to the sacrifice that others have made to allow you to race. When you give up, you don’t do their efforts justice, this is what drives you forward through the emotional rollercoaster of racing, and often outweighs the desire to prove yourself.
For this to happen a lot of ducks needed to line up, and as Barry returned from race ops with word that we had entered, we now had a potential engine issue to deal with, alternator issues, wheels and tyres had to be changed and a swag of other minor things to deal with.
This is where the combined strength of the Aussies and the Texans kicked into another gear, very quickly word got around and there were 10-12 people demanding to help, quickly taking ownership of tasks and getting jobs ticked off. A real highlight of the week was this group of people banding together to achieve a common goal, with teams heading to LA to clean injectors, others heading north to local towns to collect parts and others staying behind to toil on the car and get it ready.
By 7pm we had a car that was as ready as it could be. With fans re-wired, clean injectors giving all 8 cylinders back, new fuel filters fitted and a new alternator fitted. The crew felt the car was as ready as it could be as they set off to driver’s briefing. On a high of achievement and excitement no one knew there were another couple of hurdles lying await.
Drivers briefing out of the way and some dinner in our stomachs a quick 5 minute test run was in order just to check everything was spot on for the morning saw the car try to drive in reverse then lose drive and slip, a few more tests confirm the transmission is kaput. The excitement and anticipation replaced with heartbreak and disbelief, the KOH 2020 goal was over before it even started. With no time to pull the transmission out and most other teams getting an early night, heads were in hands, feelings were raw and exhaustion and emotions rose to the surface.
Through the emotions of defeat, Cam and Michael’s minds wont let it go, wont let this out of the blue failure exist without explanation, processing all the possibilities along with the devastation of being so close to a good clean start with a reliable car. After some time and discussion, the theory is born that the reverse band sevo must be leaking, allowing the drum to stop briefly before being overcome by the engine torque as the band loses it’s grip, as Michael and Barry head off to other camps to see if a new servo seal is available the remaining crew quickly set to work, draining fluid, dropping the auto pan and inspecting for obvious signs of failure. Inside was the smoking gun. 2 bolts had stripped out of the servo cover. While normally this would not bring joy to anyone to find out their transmission had an issue but in this case this news was met with hope and excitement (back up to the top of that roller coaster again!) Removal of the valve body, drilling, tapping and heli-coils in the holes allowed re-fitment and a test run in the early hours of Friday morning.
With Barry and Cam sent to bed earlier to ensure some sleep was had, they woke to a simple message on a whiteboard saying. “Trans is fixed….send it!!!”
Day 8 Friday King of the Hammers Raceday
Exhausted and still recovering from the emotional ups and downs of the past few days, low on sleep but high on determination, Barry and Cam again put on race suits and head out for the 6am lineup, without qualifying they were to start dead last, 99th place off the line behind everyone, but determined to throw everything at this race. With Michael having done the rocks on Wednesday the team decided that he should co drive the second 2 laps to give the team the best chance of a finish as he can pick the lines most conducive to a clean finish.
Again the green flag drops and off into the desert the Road Runner Offroad car launches, consistently passing the slower cars that hadn't qualified, making up places and heading to RP1, this is where the hardest race of it’s type starts taking it’s toll with small issues revealing themselves. The small return spring on the throttle body snaps, leaving Barry to race 10 miles with hit toe under the accelerator pedal, providing both the pedal down and pedal up motions to slow down, still managing to pass a number of cars while using this foot technique to control the engine. The engine not returning to idle put huge additional stress on the brakes, with the engine trying to “drive” while braking, causing the brakes to boil the fluid and lose braking. Stopping is the only safe option. Getting out and bleeding the brakes, the pedal has returned however now low on brake fluid the guys start looking for options, power steering hydraulic fluid was deemed to be the most suitable option just as Casey Currie loses an engine 20m away. In the true sense of the racer spirit and a testiment to the generosity of all racer’s Casey cracks a brake line and pumps out enough fluid for Barry and Cam to get back on track. With a hand shake and a thankyou they are away again.
Entering RP1 the call over the radio is of instructions for the pit, “check brake fluid”, “fix throttle return spring”. With few spare parts carried at the remote pits one of the crew franticaly runs from pit to pit to find a suitable spring, getting the throttle fixed as best as possible with the time and tool limitations of the remote Pit, and off they go into the rest of the desert lap. After the cooling fan/overheating issue in the EMC the car had finished another 60 miles or so without incident, leading everyone to believe the cooling issue was the failed fan, which was now fixed, but in a devastating twist this was not the only issue, and the working fan had simply masked the underlying problem. As Barry and Cam traversed the desert section between RP1 and Cougar Buttes, the temp gauge began to run away without notice the engine went into limp mode and a steam pocket had been created inside the heads. Unfortunately this single issue was to be the most frustrating issue for the rest of the day, with a process of bleeding off steam, refilling the radiator and continuing taking 30 minutes or so each time. With extra water & coolant being obtained from each pit, the boys pressed on, making lap 1 late but still in high spirits of a finish. Cam jumped out and remained in main pit to assist while Michael jumped in the co-driver’s seat. The new crew headed out for lap 2. Battling the vapour lock issue a number of times throughout the lap, costing precious time. While there is a 14 hour time limit allocated to finish the race, there is a 7pm cutoff for people starting the 3rd lap, this ensures that there isn't marshal's and recovery teams out in the desert into the night.
With radio communication between main pit and the guys in the car, the message was relayed that they needed to step on it to make this cuttoff. With traffic in the rock section and the the now regular stops to bleed off steam and top up, the boys rolled into main pit at around 7:20, refueling and checking would have taken another 5 minutes or so putting them well outside the 7pm cutoff. Unfortunately this was the be yet another low key end to the race. Crossing the finish line to log as finishing lap 2, Barry and Michael rolled over the stage for a quick chat with Gigglepin’s Jim Marsden about their day and parked the car up for the night.
They guys have already started to investigate to cooling system issues and plan for next year. While the race outcomes were not what they wanted or expected having raced many times before they simply say “that’s racing!” and being the hardest race of it's type, finishing is never a gauruntee!. Until next year!