Sit back, friends. Let me tell you a tale about dust, broken parts, lucky breaks, and a damn good time chasing King of the Hammer Glory in the 2022 Toyo Desert Challenge. This will be a long story, so if you’re short on time, skip to the bottom. There you will find the culmination of months of preparation ending in a piece of tin proving that Off Map Racing not only attempted but finished one of the hardest if not the most brutal one-day desert race in the world.
Where to begin is always a hard decision to make. Starting too far back, you lose interest before the climax, start late in the story, and there are holes and things that don’t make any sense. This confusion aggravates the reader, and again you lose interest. I will start one week before departure for King of the Hammers. The Off Map Team never waits for the last minute to prep. The car was 99% ready several weeks ago. A couple of cosmetic things is all we had left on the list. Side by Customs worked on a new skid plate, and some powder coating color changes in anticipation of the car coming out of wrap. With the car back from Troy at Prescott Custom Wraps, we could get our bumpers remounted in the correct color, get the skid plate mounted, and slap the last number plate on the front of the car. At this point, it was gear into the trailers and roll out. We recently acquired a 48ft race trailer with living quarters that would be Exxon and his family’s home for the Hammers week, and Mike and I would be in the toy hauler. We stuffed the Prerunner, 170 for the kids, and the race car in where they would fit and then piled everything we could use for tools, spares, and living like hobos for a week around them and then the worst part of heading to a race set in, anticipation with nothing to work on. We had four more days before departure, and everything was done.
Tuesday night rolled around, and we were ready to hit the road. It’s 11 hours of straight driving for us from Northern Utah, and we figured leaving the time we did would allow us to skip all the big city traffic in Salt Lake and Vegas but would also land us in Hammer Town while the gate was open and lots of daylight to get setup and maybe take the car out to knock some of the dust off since the BOR season ended. The road down was uneventful. We swapped out drivers as needed, so no one drove exhausted. I took a break in Vegas before getting into California about daybreak. The Flying J in Barstow has potable water fills, so that was our last stop before heading the last 45 minutes to Hammer Town.
I can’t accurately describe the feeling you get coming into Lucerne Valley and taking the final turn at the stop sign cause its different for everyone, and it changes dramatically based on why you’re here. The first year for me was apprehensive. A good friend of mine likes to say, “I don’t know what I don’t know,” and he is exactly right. That first time you have expectations, but they are probably completely wrong. The next several times rounding that turn at the last stop sign for me was a feeling of excitement and anxiousness. Before this year, I had always gone as the support team. Either pit crew or a co-driver, sure I had invested time and money to be here but not so much that it was worth thinking about. This time was different. This time I had my own car in the trailer, I had 2 of my best friends investing their money and time in our program and, this time, I had put a lot of money and resources on the line to show up to a race with all the best names in the game. Doubt and fear started to creep into my normally optimistic outlook. Was my prep adequate? Do I have the right spares? Was the team prepared for this? Was I ready to go door to door to prove we deserved to be here?
SLAP. Get your head right, Oscar. There is a job to be done.
Boone rd was low traffic. Our race was the first one of the week, so we beat a large chunk of the would-be population of Hammer Town, but despite being on the lake bed early, there were more campers than I had seen at this point in the week than ever before. I knew it would be a big year, but I didn’t realize how big until I saw enough people to consider it big already, with still 24 hrs before the official opening of Hammer Town. We found our garage spot quickly, the same place every year, and like every year, we were bunking with good folks from Team Indiana. That crew would be helping us in the pits, and in-kind we were helping them for their races. We couldn’t dream of pulling off a race like this without the support of these guys, and we were glad to stick around and support them in return. It’s a good system.
We were the first to arrive, but luckily we planned ahead and had a map laid out of how we planned on park trailers to get everyone to fit in the ten garage spaces we were lucky to get together. We use the bigger trailers to ring the perimeter creating our own courtyard. Two-fold reason for this gives us some protection from really windy days and gives a hell of a venue for wing and taco night (more on that later). The crew sets about emptying all our worldly possessions, getting our shade canopies up, and really staking a claim to our section of desert for the next eleven days. Unbeknownst to Exxon’s kids, we loaded up my kids RZR 170 for them and drug it with us so they could get to drive too. Well, it was about 2 minutes after camp was set that the still unoccupied section of the block became its own miniature racecourse with the youngest having never driven anything doing doughnuts like a champ with everyone shaking their head and laughing just 30 seconds later. It was amusing to watch, considering the full-size man in the passenger seat looked about ten times too big for the car. If you are in the 200+ range like I am and have tried to sit in a RZR 170, you know what I mean.
We technically can’t Prerun until tomorrow, but we decided to take the car out for a run to stretch her legs away from the course. In our prep, we had done a complete drain and flush on the coolant system. After the run, we were a bit low on fluid, guessing we had shaken some air bubbles loose, so we topped her up and called it a day. We spent some time just giving everything a once over and writing down the things we wanted to do before we put her on the line to qualify and then things we wanted to check between qual and the race. No vendors had opened for food yet, so we made one of the dinners that our Director of Operations Missy had planned for us and just relaxed for a bit.
The following morning we prepared the Prerunner and welcomed some of our Team Indiana friends in. The crew helped them get settled while I went over to see my good friends Scott and Ryder at PCI. PCI handles the distribution of the race files on the lake bed, and for the last several years, I have helped fix some errors with how different nav systems interpreted the race files and wanted to see if they needed help. This year they had a new guy building the files, and aside from adding a few speed zone markers, it was very clean. They wanted me to look it over just to be sure, but I’m confident that if Mr. Livingston keeps doing the file, they will be useable. So Prerunner flag in hand and race file on the tablet it was time to take the Prerunner out and see what we were up against. Our Prerunner is very similar to our race car except for width and some other race-specific things, so it’s a pretty good judge of how the car will handle the terrain.
This year we decided that we will be putting at least two crew members in the car with us for every prerun, so they get a chance to see the course. Brooke and Missy (Mike and Exxons’ wives) have been at almost every race we have ran and are valued members of the team. We threw them in the back seat and headed out to survey the course. This year the course looked like a figure 8, with remote pit one being the center. Every lap, we would see remote pit one twice and the main pit once per lap. The upper loop was about 54 miles, and the bottom loop was about 36 miles, with the main pit splitting the bottom loop pretty close to the middle. We left out of the start-finish, and unlike other years I’ve raced, we took a sharp left right after the start and headed into the desert towards Heart Brake Hill. It’s a well-deserved name because it took out its fair share of people this year, and I have been its victim in my first race with Chris in the old 4973 car.
This bit of the course is fairly repetitive every year just depends on which way we run. The 13 ish miles out to remote one after that damned hill is pretty routine stuff. Mike marked a few things, but it was more which line was faster than watch out for dangers. Remote Pit One is always in the same place, so we cruise right through it and hit the back 50+ miles. Dave added a lot of new course to this backside, and it is rough. They typically choppy washes and rocky ridgelines have had a bunch of rough crossings and incredibly rocky tracks thrown in just to F with your mind and push the limits of grade 8 suspension bolts. Several hours later, we returned to RP1 with a tablet full of markers and a strong desire to find a bush to water. With empty bladders, it is only a short run across open but whooped out desert back to Hammer Town.
Prerun over, we settled into finalizing car prep and took all day Friday to check things over. And glad we did. To ensure the coolant was full, we decided to run the car for a little bit to get it up to temp. Well, out the gate and straight east for a minute, and the damn STM primary clutch bolt decides to shear off in the clutch again. This is the second time this has happened and the first time I bought spares, so we radioed Mike to bring us an easy out to get the little bit of bolt still in the crank out, and we slapped one of the two spare bolts in. This started a long line of worry about whether that damn bolt was going to last the race. Many theories were thrown around about why it broke again, and after some research, it turns out STM just makes trash bolts. We have another brand bolt on the way that claims to be unbreakable. I’m sure we’ll test that theory plenty. We decided to keep the easy out in the car tool back and take our last spare bolt with us. There was nothing we could do at this stage to prevent another breakage; we just had to hope it held for the next 250 miles.
Friday night is the driver’s meeting. If you wanna watch it, you can see Dave get cross with me on their youtube feed. Dave’s a friend, so him yelling at me doesn’t really upset me much. If you know the guy and how stressful putting on an event this size is, you can see your way towards understanding. I think it’s hilarious, so no hard feelings between racers. The driver’s meeting changed a few understandings for us. We came in with the understanding that we were running three full laps and the longest qualifying loop I’ve ever heard of. Basically, qualifying would be first thing in the morning, and we would run 33 miles. The course out to RP1 and back. So instead of doing the whole big number 8 shaped loop three times, Dave had wisely changed it to the 33-mile qualifier, which would rerack everyone regardless of class. After that, the Race would start with two cars leaving every 30 seconds. They would then run the same loop as the qualifying (33 miles) and would then leave out to finish two loops of the full course (86 miles each); this put a monkey wrench into some of our plans as it adjusted fueling stops but other than that it was a solid adjustment and I applaud the org for making the change. The class 11 bugs race on the short course at 5 pm ish, and if we added another trip around the back 50-mile section, I don’t think very many racers would get to the start-finish before timing out, which is a very unfortunate thing. I am okay if the course takes me out of the race but losing to a clock arbitrarily with a car that is mobile is the biggest kick in the nuts to an endurance racer.
Back at camp, we rope in the crews who are supporting us. My guys Nate, Brandt, Jonathan, Mike B, and Jody showed up to get RM1 sorted out for us so our Crew Chief Exxon along with Missy and Brooke, could be at the start line for the Qual and the start of the main race. They would then haul ass in the pre-runner out to RM1 to join them, hopefully just before we showed up in the race car. Dustin from AllThingzUTV was going to handle Main pit for us, and even tho we didn’t need him after the main race started, we are stoked he was there. He really came in clutch, letting us know about a traffic jam on Heartbreak before we got caught in it.
Time to qualify. We started off the line 51st to qualify. There is supposed to be a 2-minute gap between each start to allow the air to clear; unfortunately, the one day the wind decided it didn’t want to blow at all was today. In the 52nd spot was the team from London. When they pulled in behind us, their coolant decided it would rather be on the ground, and it just spewed fluid everywhere. Exxon took off to get our coolant and some tools, and that’s how a friendship that spanned a week of adversity and now international borders was started. Long story short, and the story really belongs the Philon and his team anyway; the car was fixed with enough time to get both of us up to the qualifying line.
Once the car was fixed, the smack talk began, and since he started 2 minutes behind me, I was promised that 3 min after I started, we would see that orange can am come by me. Fifty-one cars at 2-minute intervals really drag on and on and on. Mike and I sat in line for damn near 2 hours before we had our shot, and when we took it, we took it big. The clean air proposed by the 2-minute gap was non-existent. Heavy dust plagued us from the moment we set out. Mike did his best but moving to overtake the guy that started in front of us; we got lost a bit and missed a turn. A brief second or two later, we got back on the right course and were able to run the number 10 car down and get slightly cleaner air. The rest of the run out to Remote 1 was uneventful. Right at Remote 1, a caution flag was being waved vigorously, and while we did the correct thing and slowed for the caution, the 977 car decided to pin the throttle and bounce by us under caution.
Running from RM1 back to the Start finish was bout 20 miles of whooped out straights into a corner back into a whooped out straight. We ran hard as vision would allow the whole way home and flew across the start-finish. Out of 82 total cars off the line, we were told we would be starting 36th. Exxon filled us with gas (guess where the nickname comes from). We pulled the clutch cover and gave our primary bolt a torque check, and it didn’t move. A slight bit of relief was gained here, and I can honestly say I didn’t think about that bolt again.
They racked and stacked us, and cars started taking off. The real race was about to begin. We lined up next to T958 in the pro class, and when the green flag dropped, we went to war. I had the lead into the first corner, but since I had the outside line, that lead dropped to dead even as we headed out into the desert. As the road narrowed, I got pushed wide and had the option of eating big ass bush or wrapping my tires into Mr. Mamelli’s. Knowing it was a long race and I had the speed to run him down, I backed off a hair and fell in on his tail as tight as possible to stay out of the dust. We were only glued to his bumper for maybe a mile before an opportunity to pass came. Mike hollered, “burn him right,” and before burn was out of his mouth, the MRT tires dug deep and shot us pasted them, and it was onto heartbreak hill and the next set of blinking lights. I’m gonna toot my own horn here, and my co-driver will back this up. I’ve grown a lot in this rookie season. I had the curse of seeing blinking lights thru the dust and going on a rampage to get to them. Not today. Hopefully never again. Cool, calm, and calculated worked really well in this race and I’m gonna endeavor to stay in that headspace.
Heartbreak hill there was the forming of a traffic jam. Near the top, a ten-car was stuck and had its jack out. The co-driver was out and working on the car, so I knew they were okay, and I know this hill. Unfortunately, I’ve walked it too many times in previous years, and I did not want the opportunity to do so again. Wide right line get past where the Co-driver was jacking, cut in thread the tires between two giant boulders at the top and its downhill and ten more miles to Remote 1. We skip RM1, hit the U-turn back towards Hammer Town, and give it the beans. We didn’t need fuel yet, so we would stop at RM1 on our first time out to the back 50.
We passed so many cars broken or limping in that first 33 miles and a good amount of legit wheel-to-wheel passes as well. This lead us under the Bronco arch and over the timing loop onto our 2nd lap. Mike hits the radio. “908 race to 908 main. We are not stopping.” “Race, this is Main. Solid copy. Good run, keep it up.” We are flying. 18 Cars didn’t finish the qualifying lap. Another 15 cars never finished their first 33-mile loop to see the big loop. 33 cars out of 82…. Attrition has already set in. Evidence is all over the place. The sides of the track are littered with broken cars on the way out to Remote 1, again many of which we hadn’t seen the first pass because of the dense dust cloud covering the entire area.
Remote one we need fuel. We are still over half a tank, but after running 46 miles at race pace and 50 miles ahead of us before the next pit, we need to splash to ensure that neither Mike nor I get to pull a Terry Madden before he gets to pull it in the 4900 race. If you watched the race, you’d get the joke. The Team Indiana guys and our crew descend on the car. There is a whirl of action, and then everyone jumps back while the fuel goes in. Topped off and getting clear to get going, Jonathan spots a car getting ready to leave also, and the crew shoots me out in front of them for that clean air. The next 50 miles are rough, really rough. Mike finally has some danger calls to make and lots more work on his part. I am pushing the car hard. Maybe too hard. “Mike, is this pace sustainable?” “She’s not complaining yet; get back into it.”
I found myself begging for the speed zone to come up. This 3 mile stretch of road was limited to 30mph for safety reasons, and it was the only place on the whole of the back half to relax even slightly. Mike kept my speed to 30 on the GPS so we wouldn’t catch any penalties, and we are right back to fighting the terrain and the occasional other racers. The long rough hill climb to the ridge top signals we are within a couple of miles of Remote 1 again. We crest the last hill, and it’s all downhill to the pit, and Mike gets on the radio. We need a few hard hits looked at, and the tires checked along with our planned splash of gas. We had taken a hit or two off the new Side by Customs skid plate, and we needed to make sure we hadn’t jacked the front diff in the process. A very quick stop, and we are back at it getting back up to pace, and Mike hits the radio, “Great stop guys, killed it like always. See you again in 33 miles.”
This section of the course is worn in pretty good at this point, but it’s still softer and way faster than the previous section. Turn it up to 11 and head for the main pit again. Once more, around Means Butte, down the wash, into the short course, under the Bronco arch, and over the Yukon launch. “908 race to 908 main. We are not stopping.” “Copy Race. Be advised there is a pileup on the top of Heart Break Hill. Advise the bypass if you have anyone in the way when you arrive.” “Copy Main, You guys, pack it in; we’ll see you at the finish.”
In the words of Jeremy Clarkson, “POWER,” and we are back out into the desert. Three miles from main, we hit Heart Break Hill for the final time. We are on our last 86 mile run. It’s clear, not a soul to be seen. Send it up and over and back on the juice out to our final fuel. We can make it from Remote 1 around the 50 back to Remote 1 and then the next 20 miles to the finish line. We hope.
Uneventful at remote one. The crew throws a wrench on a questionable radius rod, but it takes maybe a minute. Topped off with fuel and were gone. Painful. Despite everything, the next 50 miles are painful. The car groans and lets me know she’s getting tired. A swaybar link bolt gives out somewhere, and we lose a little top end. Some goofy bounces try to send the rear of the car past us, and every bounce is a little unpredictable. Front shocks. Still awesome. Rear shocks. Faded badly. We can feel it. Still, it’s almost over. Stay in it.
Speed zone. Mike takes the wheel. I need to relax my hands, my palms are bruised, and I need to close my eyes. Mike drives us thru the speed zone from his seat. Three miles goes by too fast. Travis Zoolinger got past us right in here, and I can’t recall if it was just before or just after. His stretched and widened RS1 must have broken somewhere, and he caught us and took the spot in that back half, and to be fair, he was faster.
Here is where the endurance part of this racing kicks in. We have been moving for 9 hrs. Between stagging, tech and contingency, waiting for our chance at qualifying. Waiting for everyone else to finish qualifying and then the 200 miles of abuse we have endured thus far have added up to sore bodies and not focused minds. Change it up time. The conversation moves to things not racing. Let’s get the brain out of its routine and energized again. A dangerous place to be trying to go fast with a mind that has wandered. Few minutes of that and its 2nd mental wind. Mike and I push hard back to remote 1. We make radio contact 3 miles out. “908 race to 908 remote. We are not stopping. Pack it in; boys, see you at the finish” “Remote copy, go get ’em.”
And then it all went south. We had made radio contact 3 miles out. At .5 mile out, we came head to head with some younger…. IDIOTS going the wrong way on an active racecourse. Luckily when we crested the hill and literally dropped into these two morons trying to climb the hill, they were out of the car, and when I hit the front of the lead car, there was no one in it. Our suspension got tangled. I tried to back out, but gravity wasn’t having it. The kid had to back up. Mike is yelling. I am yelling. This kid looks stupefied.
HEY, F*** FACE. BACK UP YOUR DAMN CAR NOW AND GET OFF THE expletive deleted RACECOURSE!!!! NOW or SO HELP ME ILL BEAT YOU TO DEATH WITH MY HELMET!!!!!
That got his attention. He got in his car and backed up 1 foot, and we were gone.
“908 race to 908 remote are you still there?” “Race go ahead” We are 1 minute out; we just went head-on with a non-race car on course. Hop over to race ops and let them know. Also, we are stopping. We tangled up with their front suspension, and I need everything once overed.” “Copy, bring it in.”
We hit the pit. Straight-line to my guy shake the wheel. Get the thumbs up. Come to a stop. “Is there anything F’d up there?” “No. SEND IT” we wave goodbye as we get up to pit speed. The entire stop took 15 seconds. Twenty miles to the finish line. Out of pit row. Resume speed sign. POWER!!!!!
The next 20 miles are now super rough. This high-speed section that was 2-foot rollers is now closer to 3 feet deep, and they roll much, much less now. It’s chewed up, but it’s the last time we will see it. Almost home. Last time around Means Butte, down the wash, into the short course, under the Bronco arch. “908 Race to 908 Main. We are in the short course. Have a beer ready.” The only thing left is the Yukon Launch. Full pedal. If she’s going to break, now is the time. We are past the point of not making it. Even if she rolls shell roll across the finish, let the engine explode momentum will carry us. She winds out but holds. Airborne for what seems like an eternity. The team is next to the Yukon launch, filming, and cheering. We did it, Mike. Across the finish line. Head for the exit. Where is our team at? Still making their way down pit row. A course marshall tells me to park it…… Did…. Did we do good? We are going up on the podium. It must be decent. It has to be decent. My tire sponsor is there. MRT hat goes on the head. One on Mike too.
“This isn’t real.”
“who has a phone with service?”
“Check the timing and scoring; where are we”
Right behind Travis Zollinger. We get told to pull the car up to the podium. My mind is racing. The team is out front to watch. Someone flashed a #1 at us. No way. 977 was just on the podium; we have to be second at best. It’s all unofficial anyway. I know better than to get excited before they make it official. Real pressure sets in. What do I say? My brain is coming off its last several hours of laser focus, and it’s spent. Wait a minute. Relax, breathe. You can talk to anyone Oscar. Just open your mouth; the right stuff will come out, or it’ll be funny. Either way is a win.
Apparently, it worked. I neglected to thank my crew, but I can do that here easily. I didn’t sound stupid at my first live interview, complete sentences, and everything. If I had been more coherent, I would have hit all my sponsors, told a great story about the best crew that ever existed, and remembered to thank my beautiful wife at home. These were things a coherent me would have recalled. Exhausted me defaulted to being funny, and the best I can say is I didn’t embarrass my best friends who worked tirelessly to get us to this point.
So let me make up for that here. Big shout out to my Crew Chief Doug “Exxon” Kometscher and his wife Missy and their daughter Gabbi who was more help than she’ll admit to. My co-driver Dirty Mike Lopez and his wife Brooke. The Team Indiana boys who left home earlier than planned to ensure I had pit support. My super supportive wife who stayed home to make sure our kids started school. And all my fellow UtahRDs here at home that spent an enormous amount of time preparing the car.
We couldn’t be here without the support of these great sponsors.
Thanks for everything Dustin. You’ve been a great help from day one of this program.
The UtahRDs are some of the best people ever. Solid race enthusiasts to the core.
This stuff wakes me up every day and gives me the drive I need to deal with a day job. Love some JP8 Coffee
Killer rubber that ran the roughest race we have encountered without a single flat.
Brady and crew are fantastic fabricators and one hell of a pit crew. Glad to have them in our corner.
Jason is good people and has been a long time supporter of my crazy ideas. Give him a look for anything 4×4 related
Trinity exhaust and tune makes us move and we are stoked they support us and racing in general!
Justin rocks. The Gear is 2nd to none. We didn’t need it this race but confidence in it was high if we had needed it.
Nick outfits all our chase trucks with the best gear for holding coms and navigation equipment. WE love tachform in our SuperDuty chase trucks.
IF you like the look of our car you need to contact Troy to get the same treatment. Hes a professional with a quality product.
Tie Rods, Wheel Studs and Wheelbearings. Kryptonite kills it in everything they make.
WE love our Vision Wheels not just on the race car but on several of the chase trucks. Strongest cast wheel we have ever run. very happy with these.
Matt is an artist. The custom shock setup he built for us has put us on more podiums than I ever imagined we’d hit.
Great hard parts and a new GPS app that we are beta testing. IF you are tired of the other guys this nav app is going to be designed for racing by racers.
These ball joints are epic. Try them. they are hands down the best ever made.
Superwinch and Westin have been long time supporters of the team and we are always glad to see Ozzy and David at the race. We cant thank them enough for all the support.
Last but not least. PRP kills it on seats, belts, nets and cargo straps (speed strap). We love our seats, limit straps and belts.