15 Seconds in Shamokin: 2018 Ultra4 Race Recap
15 seconds. Pause what you are doing and count to 15. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
After three solid hours of hardcore racing in the twisted, wooded, rocky terrain of central Pennsylvania, Josh Blyler beat out Erik Miller by 15 seconds to win the Ultra4 Racing Rock Krawler Showdown in Shamokin. Team Nitto swept the podium in the 4400 series with Josh Blyler taking the top spot, two-time King Erik Miller in second and Disco Derek West rounding out the leaders. Team Nitto drivers also took the top spots in the 4800 Legends class, with another victory by Casey Gilbert, as well as the 4500 Modified class, as the multi-talented Vaughn Gittin Jr. powered his way through the woods to victory.
2018 marked Ultra4’s return to the East Coast in several years, and the AOAA park did not disappoint! Large crowds, a challenging course and a top notch venue only elevated the competition. The AOAA facility is tucked away deep in coal country, and the timing of the race couldn’t have been better. On Wednesday of race week, it snowed. The day after the race, it rained. On race day? A perfect, sunny day and 70 degree weather. The course sported tight wooded racing, a hard uphill rock climb, tight downhill turns, high speed fire roads, always surprising creek crossings…and of course, trees, trees, trees. Ultra4 is committed to finding the most challenging, most diverse courses for the series. After the austere, vast, wide open stage of Johnson Valley and the 2018 King of the Hammers, Shamokin offered the exact opposite to test these off-road warriors and their equipment.
Ultra4 combined forces with the Line Mountain club (who was hosting a race on Sunday), so qualifying consisted of just over 150 vehicles from both races powering their way through an abbreviated, 1.2 mile qualifying course. Elevation changes, tight two-track lines, trees and a speed section helped set the qualifying order for both races both days. In true biblical fashion, the last shall be first. Two-time King, local hero and Team Nitto driver Erik Miller was the last to run and qualified first for the main event on Saturday.
The race would break into three segments on Saturday: 4900 UTV race in the early morning, Underclassmen (Stock, Modified and Legends) would run just after lunch, with the 4400 Unlimited class launching at 3:30 in the afternoon. 4900 and 4400 were seated according to class, but the Underclassmen were seated according to time. Clean air makes a difference, and with different classes only racing each other, the qualifying order has significant advantages in avoiding traffic jams and having clean air. The Showdown in Shamokin was an elapsed time race (similar to KOH) instead of a Grand Prix finish. Adjusted time would have an impact in the results.
The pole position for the 4400 main race was taken by Erik Miller, followed by Josh Blyler, and then Derek West (are you seeing a theme here?). The Underclassmen pole was won by Team Nitto driver and 2018 EMC winner Casey Gilbert in his PAC Springs racing machine (also in a Miller Motorsport Pro Chassis), with Miller Motorsports’ Scott Decker taking the pole for the UTV race. Friday night ended at sunset and the teams went back to their onsite pit areas to prep for the big race on Saturday.
Race day broke bright and clear with a magnificent blue sky and slight breeze. Locals were amazed since there was snow on the ground only two days earlier. The West Coast drivers (and Ultra4) tried to take credit for the good weather. Race director and All American Bad Ass J.T. Taylor kicked the day off with a driver’s meeting—outlining race rules and any course changes (such as a bypass for the UTV race and the 4600 stock class in the upper rocks), and reiterating the spirit and guidelines of sportsmanship, safety and good, clean competition.
Cars were backed up out of the park and half a mile down the highway as spectators waited to get in to see the Ultra4 racing action! The AOAA facility had ample parking, great restrooms and other facilities you don’t often find at an off-road race, and the friendly staff really made the spectator experience outstanding. It was safe to say that everyone was excited to see Ultra4 back on the East Coast.
The Morning Race (4900 UTV)
The green flag dropped on the UTV race, and race day was off and going. The race course was a 13 mile lap with the UTVs having a 3 lap/2 hour race, whichever came first. Three miles into the course was a spectator area that allowed fans (and photographers) great access to the lower rocks section, and with a little bit of a hike, to some of the most challenging and beautiful sections of the course.
Despite the sunshine, the course was still wet and muddy enough that after the first lap, every car was the same color of brown. Creek crossings, muddy turns, slick rocks and the ever present trees wreaked havoc on the field while also creating some outstanding race moments as teams raced and passed each other in the rocks in a desperate attempt to gain a position before the tight two track sections began again. The start finish line was a stop check to ensure proper race numbers were recorded, then racers were off into the woods once again.
East Coast racers have been making the trek west for the last few years to stay competitive, so there was a huge turnout for regional favorites like Scott Decker, who was in a Miller Motorsports UTV and tearing up the course in a fevered bid for first. Fans lined the raceway and cheered on their favorite drivers. Young fans were happy for the sound and fury of cars ripping up rocks and through trees in a spectacle they had rarely witnessed. When the mud had stopped flying, Sean Haluch was standing on the top spot, followed by Scott Decker and Dustin Robbins.
The Afternoon Race (The Underclassmen: 4600 Stock, 4500 Modified, 4800 Legends)
With the course good and slick, the Underclassmen lined up to make the course really nasty for the Unlimited guys. With Stock, Modified and Legends cars typically being closer to a production vehicle, this class was particularly well suited for the narrow racing and tight turns that some of the larger cars would find challenging. Casey Gilbert screamed off the line, and frankly, never looked back. The Underclassmen race was also 4 laps or 2 hours, whichever came first, and Casey dominated the Legends class from flag to flag. Team Nitto and Jimmy’s 4x4 was well represented on the podium with second place going to the 2017 Nationals Champion Cade Rodd. Cade overcame a brake issue and an unscheduled pitstop to power his way back to the podium. Bob Wimmer rounded out the top three in 4800 Legends class.
Top qualifier for the 4500 Legends class, in his Jimmy’s 4x4 IFS car “Brocky,” was drift legend Vaughn Gittin Jr. Having taken the pole in class, many spectators were curious how this pavement experienced driver would fare in a wide IFS car. Vaughn had a strategy to not take a pit stop and drive a fast, steady race. He did not disappoint. Vaughn also led flag to flag in the 4500 class.
Here’s what Vaughn had to say after the race, "What a grueling race with some gnarly terrain to conquer. The balance of running hard and conserving at the right places on the course is what earned us the win out here. We ran into some challenges on course, mud clogging coolers, we lost reverse on a very, very tight course that needed it in some instances but we overcame each challenge and stayed focused on the goal! The all-important strategy, physical and mental challenges in Ultra4 racing is why I think it is such a cool sport and from my perspective the ultimate challenge when it comes to racing off-road. Huge thanks to all the fans that were on the course cheering us on. That energy was needed on the last lap!"
With the best hair on course, Mr. Matt Howell brought his Tribe machine across the line in second, never quite being able to make up time on Vaughn. Third place went to recently sheared and always popular Jimmy Jack, who put together a complete race, landing him the third position on the podium.
The 4600 Stock class was full of true heroes who strapped themselves into Wranglers and Cherokees to brave the course. With a 35-inch tire rule and limitations on engine, shocks and body modifications, these racers are the most identifiable with the Everyman and were cheered on at every stage of the game. East Coast racers (and King of the Hammers movie famous) Hack Shack racing took the top spot, followed by Albert Contreras (making the 2500+ mile trip from California) and Michael Justo in third.
The Main Event (4400 Unlimited Class Race)
Ready! Set! Go! The whole day of racing did nothing but amp the crowd up to see these Unlimited monsters rip through the woods and bounce up rocks. For all intents and purposes, this could be considered a home race for Erik Miller and Josh Blyler. Both had huge crowds of friends and family at the event, and Miller Motorsports gear was seen everywhere you looked. A bit of a local hero, Erik represents Ultra4 with grace and class. His Miller Motorsports bodies are the “go to” chassis for tight course racing, and winning the King of the Hammers twice (and being competitive every year) doesn’t hurt. Much of the field—including Josh Blyler and Big B Motorsports—were sporting Miller Motorsports Pro Chassis and the excitement in the air a palatable. After the second lap, you could only tell the cars apart by their headlight configuration.
Within the first lap, a group of four—Erik Miller, Josh Blyler, Derek West and Lucas Murphy—broke away from the pack and started putting distance on the rest of the drivers. The main event was a 6 lap/3 hrs endurance test of mud, rocks, trees and fire roads. Towards the end, Lucas developed transmission issues and the front group—still running in starting order—were neck and neck through the woods. On the fifth lap was when things got interesting. Derek West, who only needed to keep Josh and Erik in sight to win on corrected time, overheated and had to let his vehicle cool down. Muddy creek water did the trick, but not after losing 20 minutes of course time and falling well behind the leaders.
That left Josh and Erik set up for an epic finish. In almost identically matched cars, the two whipped through the woods and up the rocks as Josh fought to keep Erik in sight. Erik, for his part, had to not only run a clean race, but needed to put at least 31 seconds on Josh to keep the flag to flag victory going. Erik never lost physical first, although he tagged a tree towards the end, and he ripped across the finish line in physical first place. Then all heads turned towards the final corner, where the cars emerged from the woods, to see how far back Josh was. Every spectator and pit crew could hear his car coming up through the woods…but would it be enough?
Josh crossed the line and rolled into the hot pit area to wait with everyone else. After the official scorekeeping team checked, double checked, and then triple checked, it was announced that Josh Blyler had won his first Ultra4 race by 15 seconds on adjusted time! Congratulations, Josh! Derek West crossed the line in third place, solidifying an all Team Nitto podium!
After the Race
If there is one word that sums up Ultra4 racing (and off-roading in general), it is family. In this case, with a “local boy” winning the race, Josh was met with hugs from his Mom, his Dad (and fellow racer), his wife and a host of friends and family. The first to congratulate him was actually Erik Miller. This family is especially significant to all of us at this moment as the Ultra4 family lost one of their own several weeks ago. Shon Wilson, mastermind behind the setup of Hammertown and the “consigliere” to Ultra4 founder Dave Cole, passed away recently. Josh’s victory and the family atmosphere between racers, friends, and staff are part of what make our sport unique. I asked you to take 15 seconds earlier in this race report; now I’m going to ask you to take 15 more seconds and remember Shon. We lost a good one.
Next up for Ultra4 Racing is the MetalCloak Stampede in Prairie City, CA. This West Coast favorite is a powerhouse of a short course and promises tremendous action with Loren Healy, the Campbell family and other western series drivers powering up for the start of the West series. The park in Prairie City is also one of the most spectator friendly locations for Ultra4 and is a great venue to check out Ultra4 for the first time.