King of the Hammers ’19: Ups, Downs, Elation (Part 2 of 2)

The morning of the race came quickly. And frigidly. 19 degrees frigidly to be exact. We awoke at 5:30 to go inspect the car one last time, make sure everything appeared to be where it ought and to stage the car in formation through the vendors according to our starting position. Jon and Jason drove the car around for a few minutes to warm the oil in the engine and in the shocks before they staged on the line. A nice idea but once they got to the line and shut the car off it was nearing 6:30am; with the first cars rolling off the line at 8am and then as Aaron and Brian inched their way toward the start line, 92 positions from the front it was closer to 9am when they set off so the oil had long since cooled. Brian and Aaron arrived to the car shortly before 7, all suited up, ready to take on the grueling 200+ miles of desert, rock, and cliff faces they’d face over the next 14-ish hours.

As they crept closer and closer to the starting line the excitement of seeing this largely untested, unfamiliar car (even though seemingly everyone and their brother had driven this car at one time or another the actual concrete details about it were few and far between) driven in anger and test the durability that may or may not have been lurking under it’s freshly re-prepped skin. When the green flag dropped at the start line Aaron hammered the accelerator to the floor and burst forward ahead of the car next to him on the line! Twin rooster tails of soft dirt vaulted into the air as the rear tires spun, grasping for traction. By the time Aaron and Brian rounded the first corner the backend was still very light and began to come around and hurtled them toward the interior berm separating the first straight from the rest of the short course. Aaron lifted and gave the car a dab of opposite lock and righted the car and was back in the gas and once again hurtled past his nearest competitor. By the time they reached the first jump at the end of the short straight Aaron and Brian were about a car length ahead, by the time they left the short course section they were several lengths ahead. Things seemed to be falling into place nicely until they reached the first bit of desert section, an opportunity for the car to stretch its legs. Aaron was feeling more and more comfortable with the car in this type of environment (since it was really the only environment he had driven the car in up to this point) and began closing in on the car in front of him. As he pulled out of the car’s wake and laid into the throttle he felt a familiar sensation. The steering was completely gone in the car. He backed out of the throttle and pulled the car as best he could off to the side of the track to inspect the car and see what caused the sudden loss of steering. It had thrown a belt. The new steering pump that we had gotten a few days prior was just everso slightly out of alignment and would toss the belt every time they would really give it the beans. This happened a total of eight times by the time they reached remote pit 1 and Aaron and Brian had made peace with calling the race there unless they could find a way to fix the belt. Luckily they were able to find some some machined pump spacers (read: washers) and use them to space the pump out well enough that the belt was no longer an issue. After this relatively quick fix they were back on track.

The next thing to need fixing came when the driver’s side rear brake caliper let go and they had to pull off once again and put a pair of vice grips on the line to stop the fluid from leaking out. This cost AK and Brian a little more time but nothing too crazy.

By the time they reached us out at remote pit 2 all of the teething issues had pretty much been resolved and they just needed a top off on fuel, some water, and some snacks to replenish their blood sugar and they were back to racing in under four minutes.

It would be a long time before we saw them again as the next section that they had to complete was all the rocky sections. Our cell service was spotty but we found a section of ground about 50 feet off the racing line that we could just get enough reception to load the driver tracker and see roughly where they were and send out texts and receive updates on their progress.

There were sporadic reports that they were having mechanical trouble or that they might call the race early because they weren’t making the progress they wanted through the rocks but thankfully these reports weren’t accurate and our boys just kept soldering on! By the time they came around to remote pit 2a the second time they were making great time and the fuel consumption was better than they had previously figured (a welcome deviation from last year’s attempt) and they didn’t even stop! As they roared through the pits and up the hill in the distance we cheered them off into the black void of the desert. The only voice that made itself heard was Jason adding a “Go get ’em boys.” as they ascended the dusty hill in front of us.

Once again they entered the rocky sections, this time without the aid of the daylight to navigate and with a broken winch that had given up the ghost at Backdoor earlier in the lap. They pulled into the final pit right at 9pm with a marshal saying over the radio to start closing checkpoints and telling racers to make their way back to Hammertown, the race was over. When Aaron and Brian pulled into the pits and came to an abrupt stop in our stall we told them that they were closing checkpoints and they wouldn’t make it back in the allotted time. “The hell we won’t!” Aaron yelled through his helmet and told us to give him two more gallons of fuel and that they’d see us back in Hammertown. As they roared off into the distance the marshal reminded us that with checkpoints closing they would be on their own with no recovery if they broke down or got stuck; come to find out race ops had gotten on the radio and told Aaron and Brian that, too, but they decided to press on regardless and try to cross the finish line in the allotted time.

As we got back to Hammertown time was winding down to 10pm, the last time that officials would check people in at the finish line. Sadly the guys weren’t back yet. They still showed to be out on the final loop, and they weren’t moving terribly fast. As time began to tick on someone from race ops at the finish line asked what time they started, we didn’t know but we told them they started 92nd. Since they had started around 8:45 they technically had until 10:45pm to cross the finish line and still be counted amongst the finishers! There was still time!

But soon our hope for an on time finish began to waiver as time marched on, approaching 10:45. At just shy of 11pm Aaron and Brian entered the short course, barreling toward the finish line. They crossed the line and were given their final sticker. They had made it home in one piece and on three of the tires they left on 14 hours earlier. (One was deflated when Aaron misjudged the size of a rock and ran into it late in the day.) One panel was crunched but still attached, the guys were exhausted but jubilant that they had made it across the finish line. It didn’t matter to them that they missed the last timing checkpoint by 15 minutes. It didn’t matter to any of us. They had faced Hammers and with a week fraught with technical difficulties and a race with thrown belts, a flat tire, and a broken winch they were able to navigate the terrain with a driver who had never driven in the rocks before! Brian’s team met them on the stage with Zimas and peach sparkling alcohol. A little was consumed, most of it was sprayed on the team and on the car.

They had made it home. They didn’t let some of the hardest loops in the world best them. They didn’t give up and they crossed the line. Albeit 15 minutes late.

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