Erik Miller Returns to Victory Lane: KMC Battle in Bluegrass 2018
The thrill of victory is back on the face of Erik Miller! Despite being one of the most consistent Ultra4 racers, a two-time King of the Hammers victor, a consistent podium finisher and a leading contender for the Manufacturers Cup, Team Nitto driver Erik Miller was riding a two year drought when it came to victories. He was edged out by 15 seconds in Shamokin to take second and he finished second in the 2018 King of the Hammers. 2018 has been an outstanding year of racing by any account, but victory had eluded him, until Saturday!
Team Nitto took every top spot outside of the UTV race at the KMC Battle in Bluegrass. Erik and fellow Team Nitto driver Derek West finished first and second in the 4400 Unlimited class, undefeated 4800 Legends class driver Casey Gilbert extended his record to 4-0 on the season, “Brocky” took the top spot in the 4500 Modified class with Eric Davis driving for Vaughn Gittin Jr. and first-time winner Chris “Dizzy” D’Auria claimed the victory in the 4600 Stock class. To make Erik’s victory even more dramatic, he did it using only seven of his eight cylinders!
The Dirty Turtle Offroad Park in Bedford, Kentucky, is rapidly becoming a favorite of Ultra4 drivers nationwide. Its mix of short course, deep woods, creeks and hill climbs make it challenging, yet fun. Bedford is easily accessible to teams from all over the Midwest, South, East and Northeast. While not as intense as the 2017 Oklahoma race, the weather played a role in the weekend. Tornadoes, flooding, hail, and severe thunderstorms made the track an insane mixture of sliding, slick mud and controlled crashing. Scientists are still trying to figure out how that Kentucky mud could be so slick and yet still stick to everything in sight.
Drivers came off the course after the race both laughing and apologizing to each other for all the on-course collisions. “That was you?” was also a common refrain since every car was the same shade of mud by the end. Neither trees nor race cars were safe when these monsters went sliding down a hill. “Like playing Plinko,” was how one driver described parts of the course and how he would just bounce off things while sliding downhill.
Qualifying for all classes was a fast lap around the short course track. Easy enough, right? Mother Nature decided to help things by dumping rain and making the course a muddy mess. As they day wore on, however, laps around the track helped dry it out, and later drivers posted faster and faster times. Saturday’s races would be six laps for every class and an adjusted time race, not a Grand Prix finish, so starting position was only really important to avoid a pile up early in the race.
In addition to being the title sponsor of the race, KMC Wheels has also sponsored the “KMC Hard Charger” award for the fastest qualifier in each class. Hard Charger awards went to Levi Shirley in the 4400 class, Jimmy’s 4x4 and Team Nitto driver Cade Rodd took the pole for the 4800 Legends class, fellow Jimmy’s and team Nitto car “Brocky”–driven by Eric Davis–led the 4500 Modified class and Mr. West Coast Awesome Albert Contreras took the pole in the 4600 Stock class, with Jay Shaw leading the UTVs. Overall, 95 cars were taking the field for the Eastern Series finale, with 25 of those being UTVs.
Post qualifying and into Friday night, the weather actually became more frightening. Tornado warnings, flooding and overall general “natural disaster movie” quality TV was on that night as every station was broadcasting alerts and breaking into the regularly scheduled programming for updates. It was a long night for racers and fans to see what condition the course would be in the next morning. Saturday morning, however, broke relatively clear and bright.
Racing started at 10 a.m. with cars going off the line every 20 seconds. Each race was six laps and drivers started 20 seconds apart from each other off the line (30 seconds apart for the 4400 class race). At this pace, the Unlimited class was scheduled to start at 3:30 p.m., and the weather was calling for more storms to roll in at 3. But right then, the sun was shining and–being Kentucky–some folks even decided to wear their finest Kentucky Derby outfits to go “check out the ponies.”
The 4900 UTV class kicked off the festivities with a huge field of drivers fighting for the win. Slipping and sliding their way around the short course, drivers headed into the woods to see how bad it would be. Muddy hill climbs, bottlenecks at choke points and the natural toughness of racing soon took its toll on the field. Sean Haluch took an early lead, however, and never really looked back. Sean and co-driver Mark Shea took the top spot on the podium, lapping the field as the only UTV to complete all six laps. This is the second Ultra4 victory of the year for Sean Haluch racing after also scoring the win at the Shootout in Shamokin back in April. Jacob Versey took second place with Justin Barth rounding out the podium in third.
The Underclassmen were up next, with multiple storylines playing out at the same time. All three classes were racing together, but only competing against each other. The course was a little drier after the UTV race, but it was still a sloppy, muddy mess that really tested both man and machine. In the 4800 class, and overall pole position, Team Nitto driver Cade Rodd took a tumble and landed on his lid mid-way through the first lap, giving up his advantage on the field. After some hard work, he righted himself and laid down the fastest lap of the class, but was too far behind the lead group to make an impact on the final results. Fellow Team Nitto driver Casey Gilbert, however, continued his dominant streak, taking the lead by the end of the first lap and then laying it down fast and mean.
The Gilbert Brothers Motorsports #618 is undefeated this year, having won the G2 Legends class at the Everyman Challenge, as well as the rest of the Eastern Series races. Casey and his team stayed true to form and continued their undefeated season, winning the Legends class, but not without some intense racing with Shawn Rajski and Jody Ford. Never fully able to pull away from the field, the top three cars pushed each other hard all day, trading advantages in the woods and short course. When times were all squared away, Casey had only won by 38 seconds over Shaun and less than two minutes in front of Jody. Killer racing from some very talented drivers.
The 4500 Modified class had a familiar car at the front in Brocky, but this time piloted by season long codriver Eric Davis, as Vaughn Gittin Jr. was burning his Nittos at a drift competition. Eric took the pole for the 4500 class and then proceeded to show what he could do behind the wheel. In control and comfortable with the car, Eric maintained the lead the entire race, leading flag to flag in his class. Longtime 4500 class racer and one of the original EMC competitors Shawn Rants returned to the podium despite doing an endo on lap 1. A class act and dedicated family, the Rants are a well-known and respected race family. Congratulations on returning to the podium. Third place was taken by Duane Garretson, the only other car to finish on the lead lap.
The 4600 Stock class provided one of the best feel good stories of the weekend. Six cars made it out for the race, including Albert Contreras all the way from California. Albert has been in every race this year, but the spotlight went to first-year driver, but long time Ultra4 guy, Christopher “Dizzy” D’Auria. (If you came off the line at KOH anytime over the last five years, chances are Dizzy started your Heavy Metal Concept GoPro for you.) Following his dream, this is Dizzy’s first year racing his own vehicle. After a DNF at KOH and in Pennsylvania, Dizzy chalked up not only his first U4 finish, but his first U4 victory! Surrounded by friends and family, the smile on Dizzy’s face was contagious. While nothing compared to the birth of his daughter earlier this year, the Kentucky race will be something that Chris remembers for a long time. Albert finished second, and Michael Justo rounded out the podium in third. Chris was also racing on Nitto tires, putting Nitto on top of the box of all four Ultra4 car classes for the weekend.
Not a part of the regular series, but certainly part of the event at the Dirty Turtle Off Road Park, was a Kids Cup class of young drivers racing on the short course in 170s. Thirteen young racers took the field, supported by fans and families cheering them on. Focused and dialed in, the young racers took their job seriously and laid down six laps around the short course. Entertaining and fun, it was difficult to tell if the kids or the parents had a better time. Who knows, maybe a future King was inspired from this event.
The 4400 Unlimited Race
All eyes were on the sky as the 4400 class cars lined up for the main event. Mother Nature didn’t ruin the event, but she made sure her presence was felt. The skies opened up and a half inch of rain soaked the course as the drivers were lined up for the start. True to the spirit of Ultra4, anything goes, and that includes the course. Levi Shirley was first off the line and the sound of horsepower echoed off the Kentucky hillside.
Running the UTV race with his son earlier in the day may or may not have been an advantage, but Brian Caprara, in his Campbell Enterprises chassis, took off like a rocket and looked like the car to beat. IFS vs. Solid axle is always a debate, and the general consensus is that IFS is better for desert, but solid axle is better for tight wooded racing. Coming off the first lap, however, it was IFS leading the way, not only with Brian, but with longtime U4 racer Clay Gilstrap and others powering their way around the course. Lurking just behind the lead group, however, was a strong contingency of experienced solid axle racers, including Josh Blyler, Erik Miller and Derek West. Cars bounced off each other, trees and rocks as adrenaline, horsepower and conditions created a melee on the first lap. A bottleneck early in the race created a gap between the lead pack and the field.
As the race wore on, attrition reached out its vicious hand and grabbed more than a few cars. Race leader Brian Caprara had engine issues, Levi Shirley had electrical issues, Handsome Jay Callaway was upside down, Clay Gilstrap landed on his lid while leading the race and Casey Gilbert had taken a hi-lift to the jaw. It was only six laps, but it was a HARD six laps to finish. Team Nitto driver Wayland Campbell was moving forward in his IFS car, but the solid axle crew was starting to take over the race. By the time the checkered flag dropped, only seven of the 32 cars who started were on the lead lap. Half the field didn’t survive to the end of lap 2. Through it all, the one man who started the race already down a cylinder down started moving towards the front.
Following qualifying, Erik Miller knew something was wrong with the car. The Miller Motorsports crew tore the motor down the night before the race to try and find something simple to fix, but the issue wasn’t a repairable onsite, so the team made the call to play it safe, disconnect fuel to that cylinder and race it on seven, trying to just finish the race. Erik was entering the race as the points leader for National points and second in the Eastern Series. Finishing was paramount. (Writer’s note: I was speaking with Erik while he was staged for the race and we joked about, “when you win, claim that you intentionally only raced on seven to help govern your speed so you wouldn’t over drive.” While he’s not officially claiming that, my story is that he did it strategically, and I’m sticking to my story.)
It’s hard to argue with the effectiveness of the Miller Motorsports Pro Chassis for East Coast racing. Erik chalked up his first victory in over two years (despite numerous podium finishes). Showdown in Shamokin winner Josh Blyler (also in a MM chassis) finished fourth, and Rusty Blyler finished sixth. Erik’s victory was a hard-fought battle with fellow Nitto teammate Disco Derek West. Derek pushed his Jimmy’s 4x4 machine hard and actually finished the race in physical first. As with all adjusted time races, the waiting is the hardest party. By the time it was all sorted out, Erik had won by a mere 12.9 seconds! Michael Ayersman beat out Josh Blyler for third, taking home his first podium finish in Ultra4 racing.
Eastern Series Championships
The KMC Battle in Bluegrass was the final race of the 2018 Eastern Series. With the victory, Erik Miller locked up the Series Championship and will be the driver to beat at Nationals for the overall points Championship. Congratulations to Erik and the entire Miller Motorsports team for a very successful season and yet another championship to add to the list of accomplishments.
Fellow Nitto driver Casey Gilbert not only continued his undefeated season, but also won the Eastern Series G2 Legends series championship. Vaughn Gittin Jr. continued the Nitto championship streak as Brocky won all three Eastern Series races and secured the 4500 Modified class championship. The West took over the East in the 4600 Stock class with Mr. Consistent Albert Contreras winning the stock class points championship.
It was an epic season of East Coast racing this year with all three races coming down to mere seconds. The Ultra4 season only has two races left: the Western Series finale, a hardcore desert race held in Ridgecrest, California, on August 10, and the season finale, Nationals in Reno, Nevada, on October 9. It’s been an exciting season of new and old faces taking home the checkered flags, and we expect Nationals to be no different. If you haven’t already, make plans to attend. You can get more information at www.ultra4racing.com. The other bit of big news, in case you haven’t heard, is that the 2019 Nitto King of the Hammers will have a $100,000 purse for the Unlimited Class. If you listen carefully, you can hear husbands desperately trying to talk their wives into new cars as we speak…because the beauty of Ultra4 racing is that anyone has a chance to win. The stakes have been raised.