What Is Rock Crawling: World Extreme Rock Crawling


Norden is a small community in Nevada County, about nine miles west of Truckee, California. The community is located on a former portion of U.S. Route 40 near Interstate 80 and lies along the historical First Transcontinental Railroad, 1.5 miles west of Donner Pass. This is first and foremost a skiing community with ski lifts and ski resorts in almost every direction. With a population of 27 people, and situated at an elevation of more than 7,000 feet, Norden is typically one of the quietest communities in the Sierra Nevada mountains in the summer.

World Extreme Rock Crawling (W.E. Rock) changed all of that the weekend of July 6-7 when it hosted the third event of the Western Rock Crawl series at the top of the Donner Ski Ranch. Rock crawling events draw spectators from all over the Western United States and the W.E. Rock events draw many of the best teams and the best drivers competing in the states.


What Is A Rock Crawl Event

We cover a lot of events and typically a well-built car and a skilled driver with just the right amount of crazy seems to be a winning combination in anything off-road, but rock crawling is different. It is technical and favors precision and control, with speed as public enemy number one.

Fans lined the rocks overlooking the judges and spotter as buggies approach the next gate.

You win rock crawling events by running the course perfectly and placing every wheel where it is needed to pass through a series of gates with the fewest number of penalty points. These courses are outlined with flags to mark the path and are covered with cones identifying the gates competitors must pass through on each course. The events this weekend had eight courses and the winner was determined by the team with the lowest number of penalty points upon completion.

If you have not been to a rock crawling event,  here is what you need to know to understand the rules, scoring process, and method the penalty points are assessed. The driver and spotter work in combination to watch the cones and borders to make sure the run remains clean and the score is as low as possible.

Steve Nantz clears the gates and uses rear steer to climb left while the front pulls forward.

Course Time: Every team will have 10 minutes to complete each course unless otherwise specified in the driver’s meeting. Time will start once any part of the team enters the course. Time will stop once any two tires cross the imaginary line between the finish gates

Out of Bounds: Competitors must stay within the roped-off areas that define the course. Materials used to define a course may not be driven over or under, or be touched by the vehicle.

Gates: Each obstacle is marked with cones and other hazards like marked bushes or trees. A 10-point penalty or disqualification points are issued for every cone or hazard touched. If the spotter, winch rope, pull strap, or vehicle contents touch any cone or hazard, it will count the same as if the vehicle had touched it. A cone does not have to fall to be counted; it only needs to be touched at any point, including its base.

All gates must be taken in the order intended by the course designer. To ease navigation, all intermediate gates will be marked, in order, from start to finish. While on the course, understanding course flow is solely the responsibility of the team.

The course is designed to be driven between the cones. If, while attempting a gate, the vehicle is so far off-line that at least three tires do not place/travel on or between the set of cones or gate, they will be declared “out of bounds” and will receive a 40 point penalty for that obstacle.

Justin Keilman demonstrates how a properly equipped buggy makes climbing through the bonus look easy.

Reversal: One point is issued for a purposeful reversal by the competitor. A purposeful reversal or backup is considered when a driver puts the vehicle in reverse and backs up or pushes in the clutch and rolls back, etc. A reversal is not counted when the obstacle pushes the vehicle back unless an advantage is gained during the process. A reverse in an attempt to save a rollover is considered an infraction and will receive reversal points. A reversal penalty is also counted if a team uses a “reverse burn.”

Bonus Gates: In an effort to reward those who wish to attempt higher difficulty lines, bonus gates may be included throughout the course. These are optional and will be marked or colored differently than a standard gate. Each bonus gate is worth a -10 (negative 10) bonus points plus progression points, if in lieu of a regular progression gate; bonus gates may also be a stand-alone bonus and are counted after the rearmost portion of the vehicle clears the imaginary line defining that gate.

Unlimited Class Champion Tracy Jordan had a great weekend and made everything look easy.

Pointed Out/Timed: The maximum allowed points for a course are 40. Points accrue throughout the 10 minutes traveled on the course, and if the total reaches 40 prior to completion of the course, the team is “pointed out.” The team receives 40 points on its score sheet (less any progression points) and moves to the next obstacle using the quickest allowable route possible.

Progress Points: To reward teams for progress through a course, progression points are given for each intermediate gate completed. Point values correspond with each gate, -1 for the first gate; -2 for the second gate; and so on for each intermediate gate completed, and are counted after the rearmost portion of the vehicle clears the imaginary line defining that gate.

If an intermediate gate cone is hit, it counts as any other cone, but progress points are still earned if the gate is then cleared. The start and finish gates will not be credited as progress gates. Progression points will be credited once cleared and are the only credit points retained if the course is not completed.


Jesse Haines approaches the first obstacle guided by his spotter Cody Folsom.

Rock Stacking: Any rock, log, or other item found naturally in the course vicinity may be used to helps a team’s progress through a course. To ensure fairness, teams are not allowed to pre-set rocks and wood and will be called for sportsmanship and a penalty of 10 points if they are found to be moving anything prior to the start of their time.

Spotter Manipulation: Spotters touching a rolled vehicle while it is moving will not receive a warning, they will be assessed a penalty of 10 points. Spotters may not touch the vehicle to aid movement unless the vehicle is in park with the emergency brake set and the engine is turned off.

Spotter Strap:  If a team uses the spotter strap, a five-point penalty is assessed. Straps used by the spotter must be long enough so that the spotter is never closer than 15 feet from the vehicle in any direction, and 20 feet from the front of the vehicle.

Aaron Sykes is assisted by spotter Ken Rose to keep the car between the gates without tumbling off the rock.

The Machine

Now that you understand the rules, let’s get to our favorite part. The technology that goes into these unlimited buggies that allow the driver to win competitions. In the world of professional rock crawling only the custom buggies built solely for rock crawling have any chance at being successful or winning an event.

These vehicles are clearly built to climb what seems to be any obstacle in their path. They crawl like a spider up and down over rocks like no other vehicle on earth to the delight of a mountain full of cheering fans. When we wanted to find out how the best teams build a competition rock crawler we reached out to fan favorite and two time rock crawling champion, Justin Hall. Justin just completed the build of a new rock rig for the 2016 season and we asked if he could help explain the selections he made.

“For starters, I bought a Pro Mod buggy and converted it into an Unlimited Class crawler. I went that route because it was a proven chassis design that worked really well and I knew it would not take a whole lot to make it fit my style of driving,” Justin explained. “The chassis is made to be extremely lightweight and like most, this one was built out of 1.5-inch chromoly tubing. My buggy has a 425 horsepower Chevy LS3 V8, which is on the higher end of the HP of a competition crawler.”

“The V8 is mated to a two-speed Powerglide transmission, which is one of the shortest automatic transmissions around, and helps keep the drivetrain short and compact. For the transfer case, I went with an Atlas two-speed as it is generally the most common set up around,” he continued. “It allows you to shift the front and rear end independently of each other to help get the buggy into different positions, by doing what we call a front dig or a rear dig.”

The conversion of the buggy into an Unlimited Class Rock Crawler was completed by adding a rear steering axle to it  — something that Justin had no problem doing with the help of All Terrain Fab (ATF) in Livermore, California. “I used all Spidertrax parts as far as knuckles, axle shafts, and unit bearings because of the strength. The U-joints need to be just as strong, so I went with Nitro Gear and Axle 300m type U-joints,” he said. “To add strength to the axle housing, ATF and myself designed a completely custom truss, that will help allow the axle to withstand bending from the hard landings.”

“Both axle housings use a high pinion Ford 9-inch center sections outfitted with a selectable air locker. The tires that competition rock crawlers run are not your normal daily driven tire,” Justin said. “They are made with an extremely soft compound to allow the tires to stick to the rocks. I run 37-inch BFGoodrich Krawlers which has a sticky compound, but will be moving to 40-inch tires in the near future. Any bead lock style wheel is absolutely a necessity.”

An example of a rear suck down winch connected to the rear axle.

If you look at most crawlers, you will see that most run air shocks as they are built relativity small and don’t have room for a huge shock package. The suspension links are usually made out of aluminum, as it is a strong and lightweight material that takes serious abuse.

Almost all crawlers are set up with a winch on the front end. A suck down winch is attached to the front axle to help control the axle on big climbs. Justin’s buggy is outfitted with a front and a rear suck down winch, with a high strength synthetic winch line from JM Rigging Supply.

Weekend Winners

Winners in rock crawling events are often determined by a small number of points. The slightest touch of a cone with one wheel can be the difference between making the podium and going home empty-handed. The tables below show the top three teams after completing the eight courses over the weekend.

Jake Hallenbeck, winner of the Pro Modified, is guided by his spotter off the rock face between the orange cones.

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About the author

Sean Lyons

Sean Lyons grew up watching family racing at the All American Speedway in Roseville, California. His first opportunity behind the wheel was at age 9 with homemade go carts on a ¼-mile dirt oval built by his grandfather. Sean started working for a local magazine as a photographer in the Sacramento area in 2012, and realized that he could combine his love for photography and racing. He now enjoys photographing AMA Pro Motocross, NHRA drag racing, NASCAR, and a variety of off-rroad racing events.
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