1999 Johnson Valley WRCC

A Spotter's Perspective:
Mike Garner


Photo by Mike Pulskamp
Mike spots Bart on the Clawhammer trail.
Mike Pulskamp

Several months ago a friend of mine, Bart Jacobs, decided to participate in the 1999 WRCC in Johnson Valley, CA. Once I found this out, I volunteered my services as a willing spotter. I never expected to get the nod, though, because Bart Jacobs lives in Salt Lake City, and I live in Eastern Iowa... and so a team was formed. Bart and I had wheeled together in the past, and the best way I can explain it is that something just clicked between us. After a practice session on the Die Trying trail in Montrose, CO, we felt ready for the competition.

So, 'what is this rig?' you ask? Well, it is a 1988 Cherokee Laredo. Yup, that's right, we took the family 'wagon' to the Warn Rock Crawling Championships. Bart has built it up nicely, with eight inches of lift, 35" SSR's, Dana 44's (front and rear), and 4.56's -- as well as a Detroit, an ARB, and a Tera-low gearset. This dog will hunt.


Photo by Scott Wilson
This Samurai defined the small end of the spectrum...
Scott Wilson
Photo by Scott Wilson
... and the 'Big" Sniper defined the large end of the spectrum.
Scott Wilson

Driving into the staging area on the first day was quite intimidating. Rigs of all descriptions and sizes roamed about. The average tire size seemed to be about 38", and there were more 44" Swampers than we could count. In that crowd, our 35" tires looked small. What would this mean for us 'little guys'? There were a few CJ/YJ/TJ types on small tires (35's), but they are much smaller than an XJ. Hmmm... Well, we came to the dance, so let's hear the music and see if we can cut the rug.


We drew team number 16. With vehicles splitting up into a group of odds and a group of evens, we were the eighth vehicle in line. With the opportunity to watch only a few rigs in front of us, I wasn't sure how we would compare. After all, there were few similarities between our XJ and the rest of the rigs. With seven rigs through stage one, we pull to the line. The course judge said "Go!" and we were off. That stage was pretty much a blur to me, obstacle one... done. Up to the first gate... ok. Now high to the right wall, past the gate... good. Ok, over... around, across... oh, wait... backup, now this way.... up, up, there was the Z gate! We made it -- with the highest score yet!!!

We were flying high. I'm not gonna sit here and say we were the best that day, but we were sure that we were not gonna be the rig everyone laughed at. My wife came down to the finish gate, and said, "You should have heard the comments, everyone was really impressed you guys could do that in a Cherokee." Ha! I can't even begin to count the number of times we heard that sentiment repeated that weekend. Very satisfying.

As the day progressed, we watched the rigs around us. John and Jeff Reynolds had an Early Bronco on 42's, and would eventually make the finals. There was a simple CJ on 35's, a coil-converted CJ, a big SJ, a Samurai, and a BIG flattie on 38's or 40's. The big Sniper, packing Rockwell axles and 44's, rounded out the sample of the rigs in our group, which turned out to be a pretty good cross section of the vehicles competing.


What I found most interesting was that no single rig seemed perfectly suited for every stage. Some stages favored the small, short wheelbase rigs, and other stages favored rigs with long wheelbases. Some stages benefited from big tires, and others seemed more easily conquered by narrower, small-tired rigs. The diverse courses didn't seem to favor one single set up more than any other setup. I'm not gonna argue the stats from the finals, though, because most of the Dirty Dozen wore bigger rubber, and the top three finalists were all 'rock buggies', but I will say this: if you watched the event, the strengths and weaknesses of each setup became apparent.

Photo by Mike Pulskamp
This XJ has air conditioning, but Bart got even more air.
Mike Pulskamp

Smaller tired, narrower rigs often had the choice of several lines within a given stage -- the bigger-tired rigs had to muscle over stuff that the little guys drove around. Most of the differences between the driving styles seemed to depend on turning radius and overall width. The smaller tired rigs would often make gates in a single turn that the big guys just couldn't make without a reversal. Wide axles and tires had a noticeable effect on the turning radius. The flip side? Big rubber could sometimes go right over what the little guys had to navigate around, and in some places, this totally negated the turning radius issue.

The width issue was most vividly apparent on the last stage of Clawhammer. We were following the team of Rumore/Barber in the "Big Sniper." Following a Sniper on 44" Swampers, and 2.5 ton military axles all day can be a bit disconcerting. Our Cherokee had power windows and locks, for Pete's sake! Clawhammer's last stage was a narrow, climbing squeeze between two six-foot boulders. The Sniper hit it a few times before muscling up and over, making a hard left followed by a hard right, then out the Z gate. I'm not sure how many backups they accrued, but I do know that they didn't just walk the stage. We were up next, and all I could think about was the holes left by their 44s. After a short, technical crawl up to the squeeze, we slipped right between the worst of those big boulders, then placed the left rear in a hole and walked the front around to the left. We cleared the middle gate and climbed out just in time to keep moving forward. After a hard right, we cleared the course. The crowd absolutely erupted -- it was a great feeling. My point is, we made the stage look much easier than the Sniper. My wife was sitting next to two guys arguing about whether we were even on the course. Apparently the quote was, "There is no way they were on course, the Sniper had trouble there. That XJ couldn't have just done that if the Sniper had trouble."

Photo by Mike Pulskamp
Crawling competitor, and sprinting spotter.
Mike Pulskamp

There you have it, a stranger in the crowd made my point for me. You see, every rig had a spot that made it shine. Every rig had a spot that made it look hopeless. Again, I'm not gonna argue with the stats, because about two thirds of those in the finals were shod with 38-inch or bigger tires. Looking at the top twelve though, most of the rigs were really built up CJ/YJ/TJ, some on 35's or 36's, others on 38's. Some awfully tricked-out, monster-tired rigs were beat out by these smaller-tired finalists. This proved to me that you don't need a purpose built, rock buggy riding on 40" rubber in order to make a great showing.

Photos by Terry Howe
Click here to see more of Mike and Bart wheeling one of Colorado's toughest trails, Die Trying.
Terry Howe

Looking to the Future...

The sport is young. I'm sure that classes will develop, perhaps divided by tire size, and rock buggies may not compete directly against truly street-legal rigs. At WRCC, there was a healthy mix of all types of rigs. Was every rig there really legal for on-road travel? No. Did it matter this year? No. Did the spectators reward great teamwork no matter what type of rig was involved? YES!!

Oh, one last thing... the Cherokee's doors, windows, and power locks all still work.

Related Links