7 Ways Ultra4 Racing Improved the Modern 4x4

Motorsports has always been a major catalyst for creating new products that are able to meet the strenuous demands of automotive racing. In the off-road world, the Baja 1000 was long thought of as the benchmark race to showcase the latest cutting-edge off-road racing technology. However, over the past ten years, Ultra4 Racing’s flagship King of the Hammers race has proven to be just as saturated with new technology. This biggest difference between the Baja 1000 and those participating in Ultra4 Racing is that all of the vehicles racing in Ultra4 are four-wheel drive.

While that might not seem like a significant fact, the reality is, to get a modern 4x4 system to be competent and reliable in the desert and over rocky terrain is no small feat. Though you might not be ready to build your own Ultra4 machine, you’ve likely benefited from the technology in these cars without realizing it. From tires and suspension to steering and safety features, the technology in the modern Ultra4 car has made a lasting impact on the components you can now purchase to upgrade your daily driven 4x4.

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Here, we look at seven areas that the Ultra4 car has helped to improve the four-wheel drive upgrades across the board.

1. Steering

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The class that you are racing in will largely depend on what steering system your vehicle can be outfitted with. At the premier 4400 Unlimited level, you’ll typically find a trophy-truck style rack-and-pinion system or some sort of fully-hydraulic variant. While both steering types had been around for years before Ultra4 Racing, the mix of low and high-speed racing required steering companies to create systems that could be more adaptable. Taking what they’ve learned in the racing arena, we’re now seeing improvements in steering pumps, gear boxes and steering cylinders. This has created improved steering systems for those looking to upgrade to hydraulic assist and fully hydraulic steering systems.  

2. Lockers

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When you’re battling through some of the hardest rockcrawling trails in America, you need every tire fighting for traction. This means your differentials must be up to the task. Companies such as ARB have used Ultra4 Racing as a test bed to create more robust locking differentials. This has translated into being able to purchase Competition Edition air lockers, which you can find under the three-time King of the Hammers Shannon Campbell’s Dragon Slayer 4400 car.

3. Tires

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The right set of rubber can make or break your race. With some podium finishes coming down to mere seconds, having a flat tire can mean the difference between winning or losing. One company that has spent countless hours engineering a proven tire is Nitto. Its Trail Grappler is one of (if not the) most durable mud-terrain radial on the market. This is largely thanks to its incredibly strong 3-ply sidewall and seriously stout tread. From recreational ‘wheelers to tow rigs, the strength and uniformity Nitto has developed with the Trail Grappler has translated to a tire everyone can benefit from.

4. Suspension

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King of the Hammers mixes two extreme off-road disciplines—rockcrawling and desert racing. Both require well-designed and durable suspension systems. A failure here can signal the end of your race in a hurry. From internal-bypass shock technology to more durable suspension endlinks, the suspension bits proven in the off-road race setting are now packaged in bolt-on suspension kits you can purchase for your truck or SUV. These hardcore racing-inspired systems can be found from companies such as EVO Manufacturing and ICON Vehicle Dynamics. Though many will rarely push their vehicles to the extremes of Ultra4 Racing, it’s nice to know the components can handle it.

5. IFS

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A major shift in Ultra4 Racing has been the move to an independent front suspension. While going IFS was once a radical notion, it’s proven that it can be made reliable. In fact, we’re now seeing fully independent Ultra4 cars move onto the scene. Why is this important for your everyday ‘wheeler? With the majority of 4x4s sold in the U.S. being fit with IFS, we’re now learning what it takes to make these systems survive off-road. Aftermarket axle companies such as RCV Performance even offer complete axle kits for those running IFS, making that transition to a durable frontend more attainable.

6. Axles

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For a serious ‘wheeler, upgrading your axle assemblies is par for the course. In an off-road race environment where the ‘housings are often bashed at high and low speeds, strength is everything. Companies such as Spidertrax were among the first to develop an axlehousing suited for the extreme demands of Ultra4 Racing. Using chromoly axletubes and offering steering knuckles capable of 50 degrees, Spidertrax has created ways for the axles to be lighter and stronger, all while offering increased maneuverability. The best part is that these are not race-exclusive parts. Every Spidertrax part you see under an Ultra4 race car, you can purchase for your 4x4.

7. Aluminum

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In most forms of racing, weight is a critical element. Ultra4 Racing is no different. While there is a fine balance between becoming too light in the desert, in the rocks, the less your vehicle weighs, the easier it will be to propel over the obstacles. A big push from many competitors has been the strategic use of aluminum. You can see the widespread adaptation of aluminum steering and control arm links in the Jeep aftermarket, all of which have been proven durable in the Ultra4 setting. Aluminum is also used in many of the Unlimited series cars, such as two-time King Erik Miller's Miller Motorsports chassis, to sleeve high impact sections of the chassis.

Check out a detailed breakdown of the Ultra4 car with the most wins—Loren Healy’s Red Dragon.

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