The 2019 edition of Ultra4 Racing’s King of the Hammers week has been entered into the history books. The week was one that contained familiar stories of success and heartbreak. Many people this year stated the weather was somewhat cooler than in previous years.
The week was full of racing that kicked off on Sunday and finished up with the event that serves as foundation on Friday. This year marked a change in the schedule, as races were moved around thanks of the addition of the high-powered T1 desert truck event. What can be referred to as a “driver’s race,” the 4WP Every Man Challenge, was held on Wednesday, February 7th. The EMC race is unique in that three distinct classes of vehicles are allowed to compete.
The first class is the 4500 Yukon Gear Modified Class. The 4500 cars have factory-appearing bodies, allow for a partial frame, mechanical steering setup, two shocks per corner, and 37-inch DOT-approved tires. The 4600 Spidertrax Stock Class are limited even further with a factory engine, stock frame, full body, single shock, and 35-inch tall DOT-approved tires. Last but not least, the 4800 Branik Legends Class have front engine setups, seats for two, solid axles, single shock setup at each corner, and 37-inch DOT-approved tires.
The EMC race is home to drivers of all levels . There are the drivers who are new to the sport. These classes are usually a little cheaper to get into. Also, the restrictions of each class allows a driver to learn how to drive off-road and take care of their equipment. Other drivers stay in these classes because they are a perfect fit for them. That is not to say that the level of competition is any less than the 4400 class.
Names To Note
One of the names to note that competed in this year’s EMC race was Matt Howell. Racing out of the Texas-based Tribe 4×4 stable, the EMC race has eluded the clutches of this three-time national champion.
The Lovell Brothers, Brad and Roger, hauled their Ford Ranger buggy from Colorado to compete. They are back-to-back winners of this race, most recently taking home the trophy in 2017.
Last year’s winner, Dan Fresh, was back with the same car he won with in 2018. The car had also been used to take first in this race four years running – 2012 to 2015. He attributed the car’s success to the prep work that goes into it before each race.
4400 young gun Levi Shirley made an appearance in the EMC class. Levi rose to national prominence piloting a two-seat SniperFab car around Texas and Oklahoma a few years ago. Although the car has been relegated to prerunner duty since the acquisition of a Campbell chassis for 4400 duty, Levi tore the car down and prepped it for race duty in the desert.
Since KOH has risen to a position of international prominence in the motorsports and automotive community, manufacturers will show up with new, shiny things to test in the harsh climate. This year, Jeep debuted the 2020 Gladiator. Sporting four doors, the 4×4 was prepped by Savvy Off Road out of Corona, California. It remained almost completely stock, and went in the capable hands of two-time KOH winner Erik Miller and off-road legend Robby Gordon.
The EMC course consists mostly of the same course that is used for the Friday race. It was 165 miles of high-speed flats that run through dry lake beds and deep whoops that swallow small cars. What’s more, there are world-famous rock canyons, which brought Johnson Valley to the attention of the 4×4 world to begin with. The canyons consist of massive elevation changes and rocks that, in many cases, are the same size as the vehicles trying to maneuver around or over them! It is a course that levels the playing field pretty quickly.
The Battle Of Lap 1
Casey Gilbert, piloting the #618 4800 car, would be the first car off the line in the brisk morning air with Jason Bunch beside him. Shirley was in the next row, having qualified third. Going down the line, Howell started 12th, the blue Ranger of Brad Lovell was 14th, and Fresh was 18th off the line.
The green flag wove at 8am on Wednesday morning. The drivers were greeted with cold temps that were reinforced with stiff winds. In fact, the Cougar Buttes section of the race course showed a light dusting of snow. The cars were lined up two by two based on qualification times, and started in 30-second intervals.
The race quickly turned into a battle for the lead. Gilbert and Shirley threw caution to the wind as they headed out across Means Lake towards Cougar Buttes. Shirley on his Maxxis-shod machine stayed out front, while the Miller Motorsports chassis riding on Nittos stayed in close pursuit. At one point, Shirley had a miscue that allowed Gilbert to close the distance.
The terrain in Cougar Buttes is deceptively rough. During the first lap, several racers, including Jason Bunch and David Hartman, ended up on their sides. While Bunch was quickly righted, Hartman spent several minutes awaiting for assistance to be put back on all tires.
Shirley and Gilbert continued their battle for the lead once they left the rocks of Cougar Buttes and reentered the flatlands. Shirley later said that he was surprised by how fast the old chassis was during the race.
Lap 1 saw Shirley get to the start-finish line just in front of Gilbert. After being cleared, both racers entered the pits to receive fuel and close inspections. Spending right around two minutes in the pits, Shirley left, and Gilbert was hot on his trail. Lap 2 would introduce the racers to the world-class rock trails that made Johnson Valley famous.
Jason Bunch quickly recovered from the flop in Cougar Buttes and brought his Jimmy’s 4×4 chassis into the pit area. He was in the pits a few minutes longer than Shirley and Gilbert. He had reported that there was a possible spark plug issue. Bunch’s crew went through the car with a fine-toothed comb. Would the extended pit stop benefit or hurt Bunch in the long run?
Three time National Champion Matt Howell was the first 4500 car to complete Lap 1. After a quick stop at the Tribe 4×4 pit, Howell, with co-driver Adam Scherer, crossed the start/finish to enter Lap 2. Like Shirley, Howell was pulling double duty during the week, as he was also entered in the main race.
Not long after Howell left the main pits to begin Lap 2, 4800 drivers Brad Lovell and Jeremy Jones finished Lap 1 and headed back out in the desert. Dan Fresh, competing in the 4500 class, finished up Lap 1 in second place behind Howell. Like several other drivers, the EMC race was not the only event Fresh was competing in during the week. He also competed in the main race on Friday, but he pulled triple duty as he finished 12th during Sunday’s Can-Am UTV King of the Hammers race.
The Tide Turns On Lap 2
Early on in Lap 2, pole sitter Gilbert was able to get back around Shirley to retake the physical lead. Disaster struck as Shirley developed transmission issues in the rocks on Lap 2. This allowed Gilbert to stretch his lead.
When all was said and done, Gilbert plowed into Hammertown the 2019 winner of the 4WP Everyman Challenge. His time was 5 hours, 8 minutes and 3 seconds. The familiar blue Ranger out of the Lovell stable crossed the line in second just under thirty minutes after Gilbert. Gilbert stated that the weather did play a factor in the race, saying that some ice puddles and snow in places severely affected his traction. Finally, Bailey Cole rounded out the overall top three and 4800 class.
In a race that came down to the wire, 4500 drivers Jimmy Jack and Dan Fresh finished 1-2 in the class. They finished with just a three-second difference between them. Jack was 6th overall. Justin Hall rounded out the top three in 4500.
Justin Reece was the first 4600 car to cross the line and 19th overall. Alex McNeil was second in the class with Josh Attebury rounding out the top 3.
Lastly, the 2020 Jeep Gladiator rolled across the finish in 43rd place. Feel free to check out our image gallery from the race, and find the results of the Every Man Challenge here.