“The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” — Robert Burns
Heading into King of the Hammers 2019 there was a quiet confidence that we hadn’t had last year. We had rented a car that had finished the event previously, we had roughly a month with the car to tear it down and rebuild it after it had been used and abused by a seemingly endless string of drivers (as they kept coming out of the woodwork to tell us how they had thrashed it out on the lake bed), but as the quote up there at the top portends… all was not sunshine and roses before we left Dallas. And it for sure wasn’t the smooth sailing we were hoping for once we got out there. (Some of that was self inflicted. More on that soon.)
To understand the end of the story let’s back track to the beginning of the story. It all started in Johnson Valley on New Years Eve. Aaron had driven through the night to get to the lake bed to pick up the rental 4400 car he was to run this year’s Hammers in. Brian Tilton, the driver Aaron co-drove for last year, met him in the valley to do a few shake down runs with Aaron and see the general state the car was in. Brian very generously offered to co-drive for Aaron for this year’s event which was a much welcome addition to our little team because Aaron had absolutely no experience crawling in the rocks since the Scout had only made it 26 miles last year before running out of fuel. The news that Aaron came back to the shop with, and the video evidence that Brian posted on Instagram, wasn’t terribly encouraging. After tooling around at about 35mph with the car bucking, twisting, and sometimes with only one tire on the ground Aaron loaded the car up on his trailer and made tracks back to Texas.
The next month saw us doing a complete teardown of the car, inspecting wiring systems, remaking the exhaust system so the car could carry a spare tire, finding out the shocks were beyond the point of being able to be rebuilt, and then finally, with 12 hours left before we were set to hit the road to California a transmission seal letting go meaning we had to pull the transmission to replace it.
But nevertheless, we pushed on and Web and Foz were able to get the car back together just in time for Aaron to get back from filming a remote piece for the new season of Shifting Gears, and we loaded up the car on the trailer and made tracks to California! We made it to the valley at 3am on Sunday morning, plenty of time to get a couple of hours of sleep before it was time to go watch the UTV race. After the race started and they made it out of the short course we set to work on our car, trying to get the suspension setup dialed in since we hadn’t had time to get any real serious shock testing under our belts before it was time to head to the race. We dropped the shocks, coil overs, and bypasses off at Fox to get them to recondition them to new, out-of-the-box settings so we’d have a baseline to work from on our car.
That evening we got the shocks back in like new condition and set to work putting them on the car so we could go get some shock tuning accomplished the next morning. When the sun rose over the desert we made our way to the outskirts of Hammertown to the Fox shock testing area and set to work. After about five passes back and forth, making minor adjustments to settle the rear of the car, Aaron went to make the gentle curve at the end of the tuning course only to have the car resist his inputs. He muscled the wheel harder only to have it push back with even more force. Finally with all the strength he could muster he was able to overpower the pump’s objection and actually get the car turned but it was not happy about going any direction other than arrow straight so we limped the car back to our pits so we could tear into the hydraulic system and see where the issue lay.
After some inspection and diagnosing of issues some of the vanes had broken off in the hydraulic pump and wasn’t allowing the fluid to move back and forth freely, just flowing in one direction making the steering impossible so a last minute pump replacement and adjustment on the ram meant that we were back in the game and ready to do some last minute shock testing the next morning right before we were set to have our qualifying run. The only rub was that Aaron hadn’t seen qualifying course yet and had yet to turn a wheel in anger with the new setup we were running. Nothing like jumping in headfirst to the deep end to see if you can swim.
The next morning came and we were back out on the shock tuning circuit making laps and everything was jamming, looking to be trending in a positive direction, albeit we were cutting it a little close to be getting back to our pit to get Aaron and Brian suited up and off to qualifying but nothing too crazy until… in typical Arclight fashion, the car ran out of gas on the shock tuning course! We scrambled back to Hammertown and were able to borrow a gas can and enough fuel to get us back to our pit to do a quick splash and dash to the qualifying line before our time came and went.
Aaron and Brian made it to qualifying with just minutes to spare and set what at the time we thought was a competitive time, netting them a 51st starting spot. Then the reality of the situation began to set in; half the field still had to set qualifying times. When the dust settled on qualifying Aaron and Brian were set to start 92nd out of the field of 109 cars. Not bad for having never seen the qualifying course but not great for our chances of winning the race. (Don’t worry, before you comment below that we never had a chance to win the big show, we were well aware of that.)
We spent the rest of the week fixing the rest of the little issues that we found during more testing and running out in the desert with the car and went to bed the night before the race with a little bit of that quiet confidence beginning to return. But with Hammers nothing is certain and all the preparation in the world sometimes isn’t enough when not only the other cars are your competitors but also the course itself.