|Ned Bacon snaps a drive hub
Amazingly, given the obstacles, I only heard the telltale sound of axle failure one time as I watched this year's Rock Crawling Championships - though I'm told more carnage occurred out of my earshot. Killer Bee (piloted by Ned Bacon) is one of the most recognizable and able jeeps on any trail. It entered the first gate of the finals, boldly crested the chest-high barricade of rock, dropped down into the gulch, and walked over the boulders strewn along the way. After navigating the tight left turn, the Bee began to grunt its way up the wall to get the right position for the next gate.
That's when it happened. The sound of the axle letting go was nearly drowned out by the groan of the crowd. Most of the spectators realized that this sound signaled the end of the line for one of the favorite teams competing for the ultimate bragging rights of the rock pile. As it turned out, the failure was only the drive hub, not an axle shaft, and though this was much easier and cheaper to fix, it didn't save this attempt at the championship.
Hidden in the Johnson Valley State Vehicular Recreation Area, northeast of Los Angeles, the trails used for this competition are some of the toughest rock crawling trails anywhere. With well-recognized names like Sledgehammer, Jackhammer, Clawhammer, and Wrecking Ball, you can bet that the rocks would be unbelievably huge and unforgiving! The rigs that came to play were just as impressive and varied as the terrain. On hand were two Snipers, purpose-built monster rock buggies. One ran Rockwell 2-1/2 ton axles and 48-inch rubber -- these Snipers are available in turn-key versions for that someone who has everything, including an extra 50-60K. The lineup also included lots of Jeep CJ-based 'big dog' rigs like Killer Bee, as well as some very nicely built early Broncos and Land Cruisers.
|This small-tired underdog placed 5th overall
The big surprise was the 'Underdog' contingent, rigs that you might not expect to see, like lightly-modified and streetable-looking Jeep Wrangler YJs, or an older Wagoneer in trail dress (no doors, lots of lift and tire, as well as lots of dings and dents). The three rigs that most impressed me were: Bart Jacobs's late-model Jeep Cherokee, Tim Hardy's well-broken-in Suzuki Samurai, and the show-ready Jeep Wrangler YJ piloted (outstandingly) by Jason Bunch of Tri County Gear.
|These guys proved that you don't need a big budget if you have a good attitude
All three of these teams stood out for one reason: they all had good shots at beating the super machines with more down-to-earth rigs. I'm not saying that these rigs were not well-built rock crawlers in their own right, because they did show truly great engineering and fabrication. Still, each rig looked like somebody could get in and drive down to the local burger joint or 7-11. The teamwork apparent between these competitors was truly inspiring, even when things went catastrophically wrong.
|This wasn't your everyday grocery-getter
Jason Bunch scored the best of the three, placing 5th with some of the cleanest runs of the event, easily driving around boulders that bigger rigs had to go over or back up to get around. Tim Hardy placed 27th but gets the nod for giving us all a great show on the first obstacle of the finals. Even though he was no longer officially in the running, he kept going up this terrible crack until it ate his rig. But none of this compares to the 'cool points' Bart Jacobs earned for casually reaching over and pressing the button to roll his power window shut, blocking out some jerk who was heckling him from the sidelines for driving a Cherokee.
|These rocks partially-digested Tim Hardy's Suzuki
The best thing about this event was the way these widely-varied machines were still able to compete against each other and even more so against the rocks. In most motorsports, there's so much research and development that all the truly competitive machines are pretty similar, and much too expensive for the average person to even imagine themselves driving. Sure, most of the rigs that showed up were purpose-built for the big rocks, but a dedicated fan could still see himself or herself building a rig that could hold its own out on the trail -- a much more attainable goal than competing in Formula 1 or Top Fuel.
As the sport grows, it will soon change. We will probably see some different classes and the rules will get more complicated. But rock crawling will always be for the rough-and-tumble, and we will still hear the groan of the crowd after the sound of a major break.