King of the Hammers (KOH) is one race that more experienced teams have an advantage on due to the simple fact that they have had more seat time, and know the course compared to some rookie teams. This year, team City Slicker 4×4 changed that notion when it competed in the Legends Class of the Smittybilt Everyman Challenge race.
Not all teams finish the race; most of the time, it is just the luck of the draw. We had a chance to talk to Adam Smadja, team driver, and find out how racing KOH goes from a dream to a reality.
How It All Started
According to Adam, “It started almost a year prior, with the selection of a vehicle and the learning process that came with discovering the ins and outs of this rig. I went into my home equity line to make the purchase, and every race-related expense afterwards. I have to thank my wife for allowing me to pursue this costly and crazy dream. When I bought the rig, I didn’t even have a trailer for it. I borrowed a buddy’s to haul the race car back.”
“For people who think you need a lot of room and tools, well, you do, but I quickly realized how few tools I had. I was always missing the right wrench size or socket and had to run over to the hardware store for more on a regular basis.”
Working conditions may have not been ideal, but Adam made the most of it as he told us, “Working out of my townhouse garage was tight, but we pushed forward. I proceeded to prepare the vehicle for the Legends class.”
“What followed were months and months of long hours in a tight and badly lit space, but the one thing I insisted on was being race-ready,” Adam continued. He was not the only one working on the car, recruiting his wife, 69-year-old father, and 5-year-old son to help get the car done.
Adam recalls the moment he knew this dream would become a reality. “When my co-driver Rony Machorro got committed, I knew that this dream might have a chance of actually happening. In the weeks leading up to the race, my crew came together.”
The week prior to a race, some people may think they see the light at the end of the tunnel, but for others, stress levels rise as that clock ticks down. Not all the stress has to even be related to the race vehicle; in Adam’s case, his rental RV began to wear his mind as well.
“I had opted for this specific rental place, because they had a no-pet policy on their RVs. I have severe respiratory allergies that can be triggered by pollen, pet fur, dander, and even dust. I went to go pick up the RV and saw hair everywhere and knew that there was no way I could spend a week locked up in this place and survive. I had to go to a new RV that was twice as expensive and twice as large. I had no choice but to rent it,” he explained.
Over-prepared for the situation, the family headed to the gas station and topped off all their vehicles, as well as eight gas cans. Adam told us, “We filled up the cans with over 60 gallons of gas. We wound up using just 20 gallons for the trip.”
“As my father and I were gassing up, the rain was still pouring, the sun was setting, the wind was kicking up, and we were freezing. We got completely soaked and couldn’t feel our fingers or faces. On top of that, as I filled up the cans, I noticed half was going in and half was leaking out the sides of the hoses. I had tightened those hoses and my team re-tightened them, but apparently it wasn’t enough.”
“About 45 minutes in, I was standing in a pool of fuel in the bed of my pickup, my clothes and shoes soaked with both rain and gas. We were out there so long that it had started hailing, then later snowing, and we were still filling up. The pump timed out every $75, and we had to restart the pump with another credit card every 10 minutes.”
It made for a very frustrating time, but Adam knew it would all be worth it. They made it out to the lakebed and set up camp. The team could not afford a tent for the race car, so any work that would need to be done to the car would need to be done out in the elements. Adam and his team’s determination pushed on. He told us, “The race car had a layer of dust probably a 1/4-inch thick every time we got in, but that did not stop us.”
Time To Go Green
The day before the race, every vehicle was forced to run through technical inspection to make sure it was safe. Adam and his team almost did not pass. “We almost failed for a stupid little insignificant thing,” he said. “Apparently, they wanted to see two safety triangles and we only had one. Thankfully, my co-driver bolted down vendor row, went from one booth to another, and found the last one, a display unit for sale, bought it and ran back. In a matter of a couple minutes, we had it stuffed into our tool bag. That saved us.”
With the team’s budget as tight as it was they could not afford using tire balls, which help with traction allowing teams to run at a lower PSI. “I had to take that chance. I felt confident that I would do well with some careful and smart driving, avoiding sharp rocks and slowing down to avoid puncture. Keep in mind, I only had two good spares and a used one with a plug I got off Craigslist,” he explained.
Everyone’s first rodeo is not always a walk in the park as Adam and his team found out. “I elected to run lower tire pressures than just about everyone else in the field. People called me crazy and tried to discourage me. My own crew at the starting line doubted me. One guy told me, ‘Hey, are your tires ok? They look really low compared to the other competitors. Is that by choice?’ But I had to stick to my guns.”
“The morning on race day was so cold,” Adam recalled. “I was wearing snowmobile gloves over my racing gloves. I could barely handle the steering wheel.” The big day was finally upon the team. The rookie team was about to take on the big leagues and the treacherous terrain of Johnson Valley.
“As a first-time competitor, I really didn’t know what would be a proper pace to both make it in time before the deadline, while also conserving the machine. So I chose to follow the guy in front of me and let him set the pace at the first turn. He soon had an issue and we passed the first car of the day,” he said.
“About a mile in, we got to a small dune where some spectators had gathered. As I went to shift into low, thinking we needed to make a good impression, my huge bulky gloves hit the ignition button by mistake and shut off the car. We fumbled with the controls, and I saw cars begin to pass us,” Adam continued.
Dust is always an issue and it cannot be explained until you have experienced it firsthand. Adam recalled the first time he couldn’t see. “I could barely see my shifters. I usually do it by feel, but with the double-thick gloves, I couldn’t sense anything. Luckily, my co-driver had a better view of all the controls. So I decided to have him shift for me for the next hour or so, until I took off the second pair of gloves.”
Spectators of racing usually do not think about bowel movements, since they have blue huts scattered across the area for them to go and use. For racers there are no pit stops, and Adam’s team did not know or plan for this. “We made it to pit 3 before we couldn’t hold it any longer. Most competitors use a catheter, or most just go on themselves to save the time. That was not gonna happen in my car. I don’t care what race we’re in!” he laughed about after the fact.
The rookie team continued to push towards the finish line. “Many times, we saw competitors cutting the course, riding the limit of what was legal. We didn’t know where that line was and did not want to chance it. We stayed on course, exactly on the GPS line the entire time.”
This came back to bite the team as they came up to what the GPS pointed to, and saw what everyone else was doing. There was a hill with a rock and sand section. The GPS said to go through the rocks, which they did; meanwhile they got passed by teams that took the sand path.
“The worst moment for us was probably at Wrecking Ball. We got there with no other competitors around. I had never run Wrecking Ball, and it was hard to even see a path or line as we drove through it. We got to a section where there was a big step down – sort of a waterfall, but a huge drop with two gigantic boulders on either side taller than the step itself. They narrowed the path, squeezed me in, and forced me to climb up them as I went for the step down, forcing me to come down from even higher,” Adam explained.
“I proceeded with caution, crawling up these huge boulders and slowly over the top into the step on the other side. That drop was taller than I had visualized. The right side tires slipped, the cars nose dove to the bottom, and the right A-pillar hit another boulder at the bottom so hard it almost knocked us both out. Thank God for the head and neck restraint systems, I believe they saved us,” he said. “To this day, weeks later, I have a sore bruise on my neck from this moment. We took a few seconds to recover, regain our breath, check if the other was ok. I’ll never forget, my co-driver turned to me and said ‘dude, I’ve never been hit this hard in my life!'”
Racing is one thing, but either way you think of it you are in the car for a very long time. Adam told us about the atmosphere inside the car: “For the most part, everything else went smoothly. My co-driver and I had a fun time in the car and a great relationship the entire time. No arguments, more joking around than anything. He did an amazing job.”
Every time I saw a competitor drop out, I felt their heartbreak. I saw their dream shattered and it reminded me and reinvigorated me to keep the focus till the end. – Adam Smadja
So what is it like completing KOH on your first shot? Adam said, “It was a combination of pride and relief. It had been a stressful journey. Not only did we have many issues on the way to the start line, but let’s not forget this was the 10th anniversary and this year had the largest field of competitors to ever start the race. More drivers meant more bottleneck delays in the rock canyons. So taking the start, I knew even if we had a good pace, other factors made the finish less likely than previous years.”
“I really didn’t know if I was gonna be able to make my team, my family, my friends, and our club proud,” he said. “All along the way, every time I saw a competitor drop out, I felt their heartbreak. I saw their dream shattered and it reminded me and reinvigorated me to keep the focus till the end. Seeing that finish line in good time, I knew I could go home with my head up, knowing I hadn’t let anyone down.”
“And of course, the other feeling was pride. Pride because, in the end, I went to KOH to test myself, to see where I stood, and to find out I had done something only 200, maybe 250 drivers ever managed to do in the entire history of KOH. That was a sweet reward,” a proud Adam told us. The team finished 33rd overall out of 111 teams, and 20th in the Legends class. The team had great success, and we can only imagine that they will have more with experience.