Ultra4 Avoids The Sophomore Slump In Reno
In some ways, the Nitto King of The Hammers is a victim of its own success. No other event in the Ultra4 series can match the excitement, mystique, and sheer difficulty of the Hammers trails. And no other venue can match the 99,870 acres that Dave Cole and his team have to work with in Johnson Valley. The 4 Wheel Parts Nitto National Championship presented by MetalCloak at Wild West Motorsports Park in Reno comes close though. Very, very close.
Despite rainy conditions, there was no sophomore slump when Ultra4 racing returned to Reno for the second year in a row. Fans flocked to the event in even larger numbers than last year, filling the bleachers to capacity. Those bleachers offer an experience that King of The Hammers does not: visibility of the entire track.
Eric Pender and the crew at Wild West Motorsports Park outdid themselves this year with a course that utilized much of the Lucas Oil short course track, where the tight turns reward vehicles with well dialed suspension setups. From there the course climbed up a loose hill (where horsepower was king) before crossing the ridgeline and dropping back onto the track. Then the cars plummeted down through a huge boulder field, which found the weak link in more than one driveline, before returning to the short course track.
Another set of boulders was placed at the start-finish line, right in front of the crowd. We are talking about boulders here, not cobbles. The type of rocks that most recreational Jeeps would be creeping through with their transfer cases locked in low range. How the top Ultra4 cars can blast through these rocks while barely slowing down, without cutting tires and detonating axles shafts into a million pieces, is beyond us. In short, this track contained all of the elements that makes King of The Hammers great and sets Ultra4 racing apart from any other discipline.
Throngs of fans were not the only ones in attendance to witness history being made. The Nitto National Championship marked the return of Ultra4 promoter Dave Cole after successfully beating throat and lymph cancer. Cole was aided this year by JT Taylor and Chris Ridgway during his absence, and both have agreed to return next season to help elevate Ultra4 racing to new heights. Cole took the opportunity to issue a heartfelt thank you to the 120 racers that showed up to battle in seven different classes.
The lion’s share of racers were in the premier 4400 class, but the Legends (4800) class continues to enjoy steady growth and some of the best racing of the weekend was seen in the Stock (4500) and Stock Mod (4600) classes, where Matt Peterson #4608 continued his dominance in his Grand Cherokee (4600) and Justin Hall #13 just barely edged out Shawn Rants #4531 (4500). The Stock and Stock Mod classes were on course at the same time, racing in the morning for starting position in their main race in the afternoon.
Legends and Spec cars were grouped together in a similar fashion. Ricky Johnson #4748 won the Spec Class (4700), and Anthony Arroela #4861 bested Dave Schneider #4871 in the Legends Class (4800), driving the B2 Bomber car that Ben Napier used to win the Legends Class with at the 2015 Every Man Challenge.
Starting positions for 4400 races were determined from a single, timed-run of qualifying on Friday, which was held on the short course portion of the track in order to get 54 vehicles qualified in a smooth and timely manner. Initially qualifying times were in the 1:40s when Loren Healy #67 came and set the spot to beat at 1:30.9.
All eyes were on Shannon Campbell #5 and his much anticipated new car, which came out and set a 1:29.7 – besting Healy but not quite enough to beat Gary Ferravanti Sr’s #44 time of 1:28.3, who clearly felt very at home on the short course-only qualifying track. Ferravanti was on the top step when the Ultra4 series visited the short course mecca of Crandon in 2012, but he has been unable to repeat that success with his new IFS car. Would he finally get his groove back at the Nitto Nationals, or would Ferravanti get slayed by Campbell?
The qualifying order set the line-up for Saturday morning’s preliminary races, with odd qualifiers in Heat 1 and even qualifiers in Heat 2 – which meant that Shannon Campbell and Loren Healy would get their face-off a littler earlier than the main event.
Perhaps the most anticipated vehicle in qualifying was Shannon Campbell’s new “Dragon Slayer”, a not-so-subtle reference to Loren Healy’s dominating “Red Dragon”. Campbell’s new car is longer, lower, and wider than the one it replaces, along with a big boost in horsepower. The detail on the Dragon Slayer surpasses past Campbell builds as well with fully TIG welded joints and carbon fiber panels that have more in common with a supercar than a rockcrawler.
The sheer number of entries in the 4400 class required two preliminary races, with the top ten finishers advancing to the finals. The rest of the field was made up of the top four competitors in the “B Main” race. Smart racers kept their cool and concentrated on making it into the finals, not tearing up their cars to win a hollow victory in a heat race… but that doesn’t mean some excitement didn’t ensue. Shannon Campbell tore off the line from sixth position jumping past Loren Healy and into first right away. By the second lap Loren had caught the lead with Shannon falling back to 6th. Loren kept a steady lead pace throughout the six lap preliminary, but was overtaken during the final lap by Clay Gilstrap #26.
Once the field for the finals had been determined, Gary Ferravanti Sr and Clay Gilstrap lined up on the first row, with Jason Scherer #76 and Loren Healy behind them.
As he had done at 2015 King of The Hammers, Clay Gilstrap led early at the Nitto National Championship Main, but Loren Healy overtook him coming down the hill on Lap 3. As he had done at the Nitto Nationals last year, once Healy took the lead he never looked back, or made a mistake that would put another competitor within striking position. Healy went on to win the Nitto Nationals for a second year in a row, adding to his crowded trophy case.
Healy pulled into a comfortable lead as Gilstrap and Jason Scherer battled for second place, with Scherer overtaking Gilstrap on Lap 4. Surprisingly, Scherer had considering skipping the Nitto National Championship as recently as last month, wanting to put all of his resources towards King of The Hammers. We are glad that he chose to race at Wild West Motorsports Park, and we are certain that he is as well. Scherer’s buggy “The Gavel” had a trouble-free race, providing a much needed boost of confidence ahead of King of The Hammers.
Gilstrap appeared to be on his way to a third place finish at Wild West Motorsports Park, but on the final lap he was passed in the rocks by Erik Miller #4421, driving like a man possessed. The pass had the crowd roaring, summing up an entire season of excitement into one concentrated moment.
Miller’s risky move also paved the way for an all-Nitto podium, with Loren Healy and Jason Scherer. Miller had the only solid axle car on the podium, and Derek West #20 joined Miller as the only driver in the top ten with solid axles front and rear.
Levi Shirley #81, who placed third at the 2015 King of The Hammers, finished in fifth at the Nitto National Championship in his Campbell Enterprises IFS car. Shirley’s hard work and determination allowed Lucky Dog Racing to win the Ultra4 points championship for the season, following on his championship in the Ultra4 Europe series last year.
Derek West won the 2015 Eastern Regional Series in his new Jimmy’s 4x4 car, with a victory at the Badlands and third place finish in Hot Springs.
Still, the man to beat continues to be Loren Healy. Healy only ran the Western Regional Series in 2016 (scaling back from the entire Ultra4 schedule), but secured the Western Regional Series championship by sweeping the Stampede, Glen Helen Grand Prix, and Fallon 250, in addition to the Nitto National Championship. Healy and the Red Dragon continue to win every race they enter, with one notable exception. The only thing left to play for is the King of The Hammers victory in February.
In addition to placing in the Nitto National Championship, 10 qualifying spots for 2016 KOH were up for grabs as well - congratulations to Jason Scherer, JP Gomez, Eric Miramon, Raul Gomez, Scott Foley, Charley McDowell, Gary Ferravanti Sr., Gary Ferravanti Jr., Kevin Yoder, and Tom Liu for qualifying for the 2016 Nitto King of the Hammers. There was some confusion regarding Scherer’s qualification, as he is a past KOH winner, however the Ultra4 series clarified that past winners are only qualified for five years from their victory. Only OG13 racers from the very first year have a guaranteed entry for life. 2016 marks the tenth year since those OG13 lined up on the lake bed to win a beer bet over who could run the Hammers trails the fastest. Time flies when you are having fun (and even more so when you are making history)!