Rock Crawling Comes of Age
|John Reynolds at the WRCC '99
Following World War Two, jeepers began to drive their surplus Army jeeps with tiny stock 6.00x16 military tires up a handful of rather attractive rocks. Ever since then, successive generations have been dreaming of and attempting new, more creative and elegant ways to get a four wheel drive vehicle over rocky real estate. Until just recently, there was no formal competition to test that rock crawling technique. Enter off-road entrepreneur and rock crawler himself, Bob Hazel. He knows the extremes of Rock crawling and dreamed up this "battle on the rocks." His 1999 Warn National Rock Crawling Championship is now history. The competition was actually simple. Get yourself over a fixed course, broken up into stages, with 3 to 7 sets of gates per stage to squeeze through, not unlike slalom skiers (except, of course, for the slow part), and do it in a prescribed time frame, usually from 5 to 7 minutes. There is time to complete the course without racing, unless you get hung up, in which case you need to make up time.
Battle on the Rocks
|42" tires barely fit under the well-trimmed fenders
Nearly sixty hard-core rock crawling teams signed up to do battle on the rocks and with each other. The state of the art crawlers were there in force, including folks like Ned Bacon, Pat Gremillion, and John Currie. Each team had a driver and a spotter. I was the spotter for my brother, John, on team number 4, "Team Reynolds". We've both been jeeping for a long time and he decided he had the right stuff to drive his '73 Ford Bronco against the best crawlers in the business. By default, I was his spotter. It's a job I enjoy, but the pressure was really on. If John did well because of my spotting, he got the credit. If he did poorly, I got the credit. My job was to make him look good.
It all started with months and even years of preparation. Each vehicle was brought to its best condition, by largely amateur owner/drivers. Many of the contestants either had their own 4x4-related business or had some affiliation with such a business, usually with a 4WD shop, machinist, or fabricator. Months of practicing was also evident, as an array of driving styles and spotter techniques rolled, no, make that crept past the crowd. This is one of the very few automotive sport competitions in which it's still possible to bankroll yourself.
Go Big or Go Home: Preparing the Bronco
|The Brothers Reynolds work their way up Clawhammer
John spent all his spare time for about 3 months preparing his '73 Ford Bronco for the big event. After reviewing the tape of last year's Rock Crawling Championship, John decided to "Go Big or Go Home." Most of the problems last year's contestants incurred resulted from limited clearance over competition-sized rocks. Consequently, John's 'puny' little 36" tires had to go - replaced by big 42" Swampers on 10" bead-locked rims. Backtracking from there, it seemed obvious that the hardened shaft, 30-spline, Dana 44 front axle would not stand up to the torque, so he replaced the front axle with a 35-spline Dana 60, with massive outer U-joints to absorb the stress of those giant meats. Deciding on 4.88:1 gears, he stuck with ARB lockers. The rear axle was already a 35-spline Dana 60. He retained his mildly massaged Ford 302, fuel-injected engine. An Atlas transfer case and NP435 granny-low gear box, deliver a 115:1 crawl ratio in low/low. To fit the giant tires, we trimmed the fenders mightily, and even extended the inner fender wells both ways to prevent tire rubbing. Taller front coils and a shackle flip on the rear 11 leaf National springs were also in the mix. John fabricated a sort of quick-disconnect (wristed-radius arm) for the front axle, allowing one radius arm to pivot in relation to the axle during full droop or compression. This allowed much greater articulation of the axle.
John and I thought we were ready for the competition. We had visited the "Hammers" area of Johnson Valley Recreation Area several times prior to the event, hoping we would be practicing on parts of the trails that would be in the competition. We saw Bob Hazel, the event promoter on a trail a couple weeks prior, and knew that some of these trails must be on the docket.
John and I are both professional musicians and amateur off-roaders. It's a hobby. It's just a tall in the saddle piece of tin with lots of rubber touching the ground. While we have adequate home workshops, we were in no way connected with any big time 4X4 shop or fabricator, except for John of West Coast Broncos in Yucca Valley. He and his staff stood ready to serve as a sort of parts/tech backup in case something went south.
We rented a large motor home for the duration and planned on camping on Means Dry Lake, the staging point for competition. Believe it or not, John drove his rig to the site. We don't have a tow vehicle or car trailer to get it to the event. If you've never driven 42" tires on the freeway, you have a treat in store... actually more like an endurance contest, with a 200 pound gorilla on each corner trying to have its way with your rig.
Thursday night was the driver's meeting. The testosterone oozing around the room was obvious. About 100 people crammed in a meeting room at the Community Center in Yucca Valley to get instructions, booklets, rules, and vehicle I.D. numbers. John and I pulled number 4. I didn't realize the importance of number placement until after the competition commenced. Earlier in the afternoon we applied vendor stickers, then obtained hats, t-shirts, and vehicle inspection approval.