If You Build It They Will Come | U4 Finals
Ever since the inception of King of The Hammers, promoter Dave Cole has been wrestling to find a way to duplicate the excitement and challenge of this signature race in his Ultra4 series while presenting the racing in a way that is accessible to fans in the stands and on TV. The Ultra4 Nitto Nationals at Wild West Motorsports Park in Reno, Nevada, brought Cole’s vision to life. Over 5000 spectators showed up to watch the finals, and they were not disappointed. The varied terrain was all contained on a hillside with natural elevation changes and the ability for the entire course to be viewed from the grandstands. Thousands of people who couldn’t make it to the event watch live coverage online provided by Currie Enterprises. Over 100 drivers from 17 states and 4 countries showed up to do battle for season points and add their names to the Ultra4 history books. They were greeted by a two mile long course that had a huge rockpile at the start-finish, followed by a climb up to a sweeping 180 degree turn that then dropped out from under the vehicles. After another tight 180 degree turn, the course climbed up a steep hillside where functioning 4WD was a requirement. After a brief moment of suspense where the vehicles could not be seen from the stands, the course dropped down the loose rocks with multiple passing lines before entering a technical drop down huge boulders that could cause problems if they were hit with too much speed. The crux of the course for the 4400 class was a huge hillside covered with tons (literally, tons) of giant boulders that dashed the hopes of more than one competitor. At the top of the hill the course turned back to drop down to the boulders at the start-finish.
Five competitors showed up to compete in the UTV class, but King of The Hammers UTV dominator Mitch Guthrie Jr. was not among them. Darren Mitchell edged out Andrew Gorman for the win on a track that was a huge challenge to the side-by-sides. Melvin Wade IV succumbed to a broken axle, but he did gather enough points to win the UTV series championship. Suffering more than just a broken axle was Phil Cagliero, who was leading early but cartwheeled his UTV on the front straightaway with only one lap to go. Cagliero was unhurt, but the scene rattled fans and drivers alike. How many more vehicles would the course claim throughout the day?
The Legends Class shared the course with the Spec Class and Stock Mod, adding to the chaos of finding passing lines. Multiple rollovers and stuck vehicles on the preferred line caused issues during the race and brought out the red flag on more than one occasion. When the dust settled, Ernie Hardaway took the win in the buggy that his brother Alex used to race, followed by Jade Wickham. Dave Schneider came in sixth place, which was enough to earn him the Legends class championship in his Trent Fab buggy.
In its first full year, the arrive-and-drive Spec Class has proven popular, with a dozen different drivers competing throughout the season. Both Jim Marsden and Axel Burmann flew in from Europe to compete in Reno, an opportunity they would not have had without the Spec Class. Jessi Combs won the 4700 class at King of The Hammers and was leading the Spec Class in points coming into the Nitto Nationals, but a recent motorcycle accident left her with a broken leg. Genright’s Tony Pelligrino filled in for Combs at the finals, but the move was not without controversy and left some competitors wondering if points are tied to a driver-of-record or vehicle. In the end, Pelligrino came in third in 4700, with Rob Butler taking the win and Axel Burmann in second place. The podium finish for Pelligrino was enough for Combs to secure the season championship in 4700.
The Stock Class ran down the big rock pile instead of up it, but that doesn’t mean the racing was boring. 4600 is one of the most fun classes to watch, as they look similar to vehicles that we drive every day, with full bodies and 35-inch tall tires. The difference is, these guys beat on their rigs like they owe them money! The Jeeps managed to hold of their Toyota and Suzuki competitors at the Nitto Nationals. Former KOH Stock Class champion Matt Peterson edged out Ben Varozza to win at the finals in his WJ Grand Cherokee, but Varozza finished second at the race to win the season championship in his TJ Wrangler.
4500 Stock Modified
John Currie and Gerald Lee have owned the Stock Modified Class for the last two years, and Nitto Nationals was no exception. There was some confusion regarding the timing, and it was not initially clear that Currie was the winner. Times were combined from the five-lap race in the morning and the seven-lap race in the afternoon. Currie had the fastest combined time and won the Stock Modified Series Championship in the process. Next year Currie and Lee are moving up to the 4400 class and it will be interesting to see how they do against the best in the business.
The 4400 class was the only one to run individual cars on the course for qualifying on Friday, and Nick Vona and Erik Miller were the only two qualifiers in the top ten with solid front axles. Gary Ferravanti Sr. set the fast time around the track at 1:46, besting Loren Healy by 5 seconds and Shannon Campbell by 7 seconds. Qualifying times were used to determine starting position for the two preliminary races on Saturday morning. These races saw the top ten (of thirty) competitors advance to the main race, with others having an opportunity to find their way into the final round of racing through the B main (4 competitors), or the Last Chance Qualifier. There was some confusion during the preliminaries regarding red flags and where drivers needed to stop on the course, but the Ultra4 organization is always adapting to new situations and was able to resolve these issues quickly so that they did not pose a problem during the finals, when the level of competition was more even with only the best vehicles and drivers on the course. When the green flag dropped, Loren Healy and Shannon Campbell were immediately locked in a battle for first, as we have seen so many times in the past. The duo checked out from the rest of the field, and the packed stands were on their feet watching some of the best Ultra4 competition ever seen. With both drivers on the ragged edge, Campbell took a bad bounce and rolled multiple times on the third lap. The front suspension was torn off in the process, ending Campbell’s day. Healy throttled back and paced himself at that point, cruising to his fifth victory in a row. Many wondered if it was the driver or the vehicle, as Healy’s new IFS buggy is undefeated since it debuted at Glen Helen. Behind Healy was Erik Miller in second and Levi Shirley in third. Shirley broke a driveline early in the day that took out his transmission, and the Lucky Dog team worked hard to get him back on the course. He got into the main race through the Last Chance Qualifier, starting dead last but passing over a dozen vehicles to finish third.
After the race over 500 racers and fans headed to the Atlantis Casino for the end of the year awards ceremony. Loren Healy got a clean sweep, winning the East, West, and National Series. Loren’s new IFS car has won every event he has raced it in, but the question still remains whether he will race this vehicle at King of The Hammers next year or run a traditional solid axle car, like the Jimmy’s 4x4 buggy he drove to victory at KOH this year. Mike Bou earned Rookie of the Year, and Levi Shirley was awarded the Sportsman of the Year. It was also announced that Nitto is now the title sponsor of the King of The Hammers, and both Monster Energy and Polaris have signed on as official series sponsors as well. Ultra4 racing will be back in Nevada again, not only for next year’s 2015 Nitto Nationals but also for the VORRA Fallon 250 desert race, which will replace the American Rocksports Challenge on the Western Series calendar. Dave Cole and his team have set the bar high in 2014, and we can’t wait to see what other surprises they have in store for us next season. The game has truly changed. Photos: Kyle Jackson and Kristin Cline