1999 Johnson Valley WRCC

A Contestant's Perspective:
Steve Friend

Photo by Denise Friend
Steve Friend's '79 CJ has a highly modified 360, T18, IH D300, D44s at both ends with 4.27s and Detroits. Custom National springs make room for the 35" Swampers.
Denise Friend

8 months ago while visiting at Tri-County Gear, Jason Bunch and I talked about a Rock Crawling challenge being held at the Hammers, just Northwest of Yucca Valley, Calif. I mentioned that I would sure like to compete in this event but decided right then and there that I did not want to suffer the damage that it (I) might cause.

Several weeks later, the discussion came up again on the Internet. One of my "friends" sent me the info again, and that spurred my interest again. I read the rules through and decided to give Bob Hazel a call to see just what was involved. Bob has put on a few of these challenges and was very informative. Then, a friend of mine from out of state suggested that he would like to do the challenge and the rest is history. Bob Hazel let both of us know that we had been selected, as had Jason. Now what were we to do? We had several opportunities to back out, until the first sponsor money came in that is - then we felt committed.

6 months went by quickly and suddenly I had to get ready. Lots of friends had made suggestions about equipment, things to build, things to take off, or just things. I listened, again thinking "what the heck am I doing?" Heck, Jason was competing and building a whole new Jeep. I should be able to modify mine a bit, no problem!

Photo by Denise Friend
Volunteers covered the Ferrari Red paint with sponsor stickers.
Denise Friend
Photo by
Luckily, the volunteers didn't sticker the grill.
Denise Friend

After a few calls to suppliers and with friends supporting my efforts I obtained a few sponsors to help with the expenses. I started to look at the Jeep to see what needed to be done to be a competitor. I decided I needed to get the Jeep lighter, I had some exhaust work to do (things were beginning to rub after all the 4x4 trips), and it needed some new tires. The Super Swampers were fine for everyday runs, but if I was going to compete, I felt I needed to gain the maximum traction and that meant new tires. In addition, my rock sliders were the worse for wear and should be replaced. Heck, I had time to build new ones, and I had the steel.

Lightening and Modifying the Jeep

First, off came the spare tire and jerry can rack that I had designed and fabricated. I removed my custom storage box of spare parts, welding equipment, tools, etc. I pulled the tailgate off and mounted a prerunner-type spare tire carrier into the bed - a 35" tire just fits between the fender wells. I emptied out the MasterRac boxes of the spare gear and then stopped to figure out what kind of spare tools and parts I really needed.

TOOLS: I selected the necessary sockets in case I busted an axle, a wrench for the drivelines, Allen wrench, pliers, snap ring pliers, picks, spindle nut, and " drive ratchet for hub removal, " impact wrench for tire removal, welding cables, goggles, and welding rod, and of course... a hammer.

SPARE PARTS: A pair of front axles, drivelines, and universal joints.

A few months earlier I had replaced all the axles and hubs with the new Warn Full Floaters in the rear and the new Warn hubs and axles in the front. These axles are outstanding; I bought the best so that I wouldn't have to worry about breaking them. I talked non-stop with Warn about their hubs, and they were confident that I would not have a problem with them exploding. After installing all of these bulletproof parts, I decided to take extra hubs and my old axles anyway and stored them under the tire mount.

Photo by Denise Friend
A good spotter knows where to stand....
Denise Friend
Photo by Denise Friend
...most of the time.
Denise Friend

ROCK SLIDERS: Trying to gain as much ground clearance as possible, I decided to contact Sun Performance instead of making my own sliders. These things are beefy, fit around and under the rocker panel, and also are well supported on the underside by tying into the body. The rounded feature at the base of the rocker panel stands out from the body to insure the rocks stay at bay, away from the body.

TIRES: I bought new Super Swamper TSL SX's from 4 Wheel Parts Wholesalers. I have used these tires for a couple of years now and they work well for me. I also stopped by America's Tire for siping to get all the extra traction advantage I could get.

EXHAUST: I handled my exhaust problems and moved the whole system a little closer to the floor for ground clearance.

Support

My friend Phil DeMarco volunteered to bring his enclosed trailer out to Means Dry Lake and leave his Jeep at home. Man - what a sacrifice! His trailer has a welder, tool roll-a-way, hydraulic press, and drill press, and I had other friends that would lend a hand if I needed it at the end of a day of competition. I decided to take my F250 4x4 pickup for Phil to use to travel to the events, and of course, the motorhome had to be packed, and the trailer prepared.

My wife was beginning to hate me. To make matters worse, every time I started to think about the event I got butterflies in my stomach. I have never done anything like this before and had not a clue what to expect. I poured through photographs from Las Cruces and Farmington to see what they did. I talked to a lot of folks. I guess I was ready to start.

Picking a Spotter

The rules stated that it was advisable to have a spotter and I wanted to take advantage of that rule. My choice was pretty easy - Paul Beckman and I have 'wheeled together for years. He knows me and how I drive, and I know him. We totally trust one another - an important element in this event. Paul stays in good shape, and as spotter I figured that he would be doing a lot of running, pushing, pulling, and rock moving. Of course, just picking a spotter is the easy part; we also needed to practice. In the past, neither one of us actually had used a spotter as a regular thing. So, off we went to the Hammers for some practice. Coincidentally, the weekend that we picked was the same weekend as the 7.1 earthquake centered 30 miles away from our camp. It was an interesting way to start a weekend. Paul and I found that the spotter/driver coordination was not as easy as it sounded, but by the end of the weekend we felt we made a fine team.

The Event

Thursday, November 18th arrived quickly and we headed out to Yucca Valley for registration. Bob Hazel and some volunteers handled registration smoothly. I looked on in horror as a volunteer started plastering sponsor stickers all over my Jeep. Good thing I had a gazillion coats of wax on that Ferrari Red Jeep! When they were done, I sported a true looking race Jeep - it was kind of neat actually. My number in the event was #25.

That evening we had a driver's meeting to lay out the rules of the competition and try to answer all of our silly questions. When we arrived back at camp, we found most of the club members had arrived and so had most of my Internet friends. Bart Jacobs and Mike Garner were there as well to compete.

Photo by Denise Friend
The West Coast 4Wheel Drive Club proudly sponsored Steve and Paul.
Denise Friend

My club had hoisted a great big banner 15 feet in the air - red and black letters on a white background lit up with my name in lights.

Man, that was great. I was a bit embarrassed and now really nervous. Paul looked as calm as could be.

Friday morning at 7am we headed out for our first event. The even-numbered rigs headed for Wrecking Ball, while the odd-numbered rigs headed for Claw Hammer. We used the conventional trails, but they set up a few new obstacles for us just to make it interesting.

The rules were pretty basic: a contestant started each stage with 20 points, and could only lose up to 20. The object was to add points to your score by passing through gates. Doesn't seem too hard does it? Oh, one small thing: the contestants could not walk the course before their timed stage started.

Most of the 11 rigs in front of us had a very hard time at the first gate. Two rigs rolled at the 3rd gate. After watching this first stage cause 2 rollovers, a busted universal joint and several flat tires, we had our strategy ready: slow and easy. We almost aced this stage, with the exception of one reverse. Not a bad start.

Photo by Denise Friend
We broke an axle, but fixed it in record time.
Denise Friend

The second, third, and fourth stages were pretty much the same with a couple of perfect scores and one 15 point score. We had a bit of a problem with the fifth stage: I broke my passenger side front axle. I have no idea why it busted, and reviewing the video later did not tell me a thing. I had 20 minutes to fix or replace the axle without penalty. We finished in 19.999 minutes. I lost my position and ended up behind Jason Bunch of Tri-County Gear. When I told him the front axle busted, he borrowed a bystander's cell phone and ordered the darn thing - right then and there. The axle arrived in camp the next morning, ready for use as a spare. Now I call that SERVICE.

I pointed out with (0) points on the last stage of Claw Hammer and my day was over, with a total of 115 points on this trail.

Photo by Denise Friend
The Currie TJ performed consistently throughout the event.
Denise Friend

Saturday morning found us at the beginning of Wrecking Ball. They reversed the order of contestants with the last driver from Friday going first this time. I watched some fine driving, but some were hitting the first gate and losing some points. Paul and I aced it. Man, I was feeling good. The next Stage had some interesting parts to it. We could see rigs having to climb a sheer wall in the distance, and what looked like falling over to the driver's side to miss what we could only guess. We had to get through a couple of gates first, but did not see them as a problem. When our turn was up, we made the first gate, headed for the next, and high centered badly. I could not get off that darn rock. I jumped out to help Paul stack rocks but the Jeep was too well hung up. Paul and I realized the mistake as we timed out. Damn. After a quick winch pull, we got the heck out of there.

The next obstacle was immediately after this one - like 10 feet, or so it seemed. I was still thinking about the last stage, getting hung up where I should have walked over the trail with ease. The judges insisted that we get going, so we lined up and started. This spot looked too easy and we should have suspected otherwise. I started climbing up with my left tire, the right rear tire hit the gate, and I slipped out of bounds. The stage was over and I zeroed again. We were both depressed and had to regroup - we needed to get our heads back on again. I found out later that 48 others had zeroed out on this same site so I should not have been so hard on myself.

Paul and I crawled to the next stage and waited. Apparently this one was pretty tough and had already claimed a roll over, broken axles, bent sheet metal, etc. Great, I thought. Paul and I discussed it as the rigs in front of us tackled this spot. The little Samurai in front of me did a pretty good job of getting over the rocks, and in good time. The spot where everyone was really having trouble was just out of view. As we were getting ready to start, a spectator accidentally stepped on a rock above the course and it toppled right into our path. I mean a BIG rock. We decided to stay with our plan and started. 2 minutes, 41 seconds later we were through. We did not hang up, break anything, hit anything or turn the Jeep over. The crowd was going wild. Paul and I were very happy to be back on track and in the running. The judge told us that we had the maximum points and the fastest time of any of the contestants. This was a nice change from the previous stage's zeroes.

Photo by Denise Friend
Jason Bunch
of Tri-County Gear
Denise Friend
Photo by Jenn Pozniak
The 'small' Sniper had the winning combination.
Jenn Pozniak

The next and final obstacle was much different than the rest. It looked like a power hill at the beginning, but we could not see the rest of the trail. We heard other rigs in front of us: revving, grinding, scrapes, etc. I powered up the hill as Paul made a beeline to see what we were in for. We found ourselves looking at a long (100 yards) trail in a large rock garden. We started out pretty good, until I made a mistake, moved to the left, instead of to the right around a rock and that was it, I was stuck again. I was able to back up and start again, but time had run out.

We finished the trail without any other incidents, but there were no more gates to cross either! We were back in camp by 2:00pm. That evening, the points were tallied and we came in 24th out of the 60. Not bad considering I have never done anything like this before. I was disappointed about the mistakes we made, but that's the way it goes.

Sunday we watched the 12 finalists. Jason Bunch from Tri-County Gear made it and did pretty well, 5th place overall. The winners were the two rock buggies from Avalanche Engineering, from back east.

What won? Good driving of course, large(r) tires, lots of ground clearance, power (but Jason was driving a 4 cylinder), and no breaks. I was impressed with the volunteer Judges. They did a great, unbiased job. Bob Hazel, with help from the Victor Valley 4x4 club did a great job presenting the trail and obstacles, as well as keeping the event organized.

Afterthoughts

You know that I had to have some carnage: Absolutely no body damage. I did not want to scrape my paint, so I added lots of wax to better slip around the rocks (joke, this is a joke). This was important to me. I had made up my mind that if it happened, then so be it. But it was nice that I was able to do this challenging event and just have to dust the rig off afterwards. I scraped up the Sun Performance Rock Sliders. Eric from Sun Performance was there watching the event; he was happy with the way they performed and so was I. I broke the Warn axle and Warn is looking into that. I also damaged both drivelines, which are being repaired by Tri County Gear.

Would I do it again? No, probably not. I am not too sure why I did it in the first place, other than it being another challenge that I could never do again this close to home. But, like I said earlier, I had a great time. I have a few sponsors that I want to thank. They helped make the event easier and worth while. I met some great people and had friends from all over the country show up to watch and cheer for Paul and me, and my friends Bart Jacobs and Mike Garner.

Sponsors

Anchor Muffler, C&M Enterprises, FourXDoctor, 4 Wheel Parts Wholesaler, Kilby Enterprises (Custom Air Compressor Systems), Parker Aerospace, Parker Seal (Rod Chambers), private internet jeep site members (cash donations), Pull Pal and Premier Welder, Sun Performance, Short Fuse Racing (Brian Chapman), Tri-County Gear, Truck-Lite, West Coast 4WD Club, West Coast 4WD Club Members (individual cash donations)