Jump Champs: The Grassroots Off-Road Race You've Been Waiting For
Somebody once said, “It’s better to be a racer for a day than a spectator for a lifetime.” The first time I heard that, I wasn’t really paying attention to the significance of what it meant. I was too busy trying to adjust the fire suit I had just rented after removing the visor from the obvious dirt-bike helmet I planned on wearing for an event that had absolutely nothing to do with dirt-biking. I had entered an event known as the Jump Champs Time Trials. The concept was simple: race around a dirt track filled with jumps, bumps, turns, washes and berms and let the one with the best lap time win. Although my trusty ’91 Toyota Pickup 4x4 was well-built and ready for the abuse, it was certainly no race truck. But as I looked around at all the other competitors staging for the race, seemingly just as nervous and excited as I was, preparing themselves and their home-built vehicles, I suddenly realized how much fun this day was going to be.
Even as a teenager, I was always interested in competing in grassroots motorsports events. From open track days at Willow Springs, to half-mile speed events, to countless poker runs across the deserts of Southern California, I entered in as many as I could. When I first heard about Jump Champs, I knew I had to check it out. Fast-forward three years. I have now competed in several Jump Champs events, each more exciting and memorable as the last. I even took home a second place trophy during the last one in October. This friendly competition isn’t just for the glory. The Jump Champs coordinators usually have a huge list of prizes including cash, parts, gift certificates, swag and other goodies for the podium finishers. Even if you don’t place on the box, there’s prizes for the crowd favorite!
This December, I knew I was going to compete in the Time Trials event. The beauty of this competition is how easy it can be to have a great time, get lots of practice and win great prizes. Traditional off-road race entry fees can be hundreds if not thousands of dollars, require specific safety and class rules to be followed and carry a very high rate of attrition. The Jump Champs events are much easier to enter, requiring only a racing fire suit (which you can rent as part of your entry fee), a helmet, a fire extinguisher and appropriate seat belts. This opens up the world of off-road racing to those who haven’t yet installed a roll cage or racing seats and harnesses in their vehicle. Although I have a cage, seats, harnesses and other safety equipment, preparing my Toyota for Jump Champs is very easy. I simply do a nut and bolt check, fluid check and top off the tank and air down the Nitto Ridge Grapplers a bit, and she’s ready to hit the track.
Race day is divided up by different heats for different classes. This means you’ll be racing against vehicles in the same realm of ability as yours. I entered the modified class, instead of race truck class, due to my old and tired V6. Although I knew my suspension could handle anything on the Time Trials track, I knew I couldn’t keep up with the dedicated race trucks due to the lack of power. Alas, the five-speed manual and 4WD capability does help around some sections of the course.
After passing tech inspection and getting my transponder used to record my lap times (which I zip-tied to my front bumper), I tried on my fire suit to make sure it fit correctly and lined up in the staging lanes. It was about two hours until our heat started, so I walked to the grandstands to join the other spectators watching the Raptors-only class that was currently going around the track. The infield section looked like lots of fun. Several table-top jumps, elevation changes and a tight turns made it challenging.
Green Flag Drops
We were given the five-minute warning to suit up for the modified class heat. Now the butterflies began to set in. As I was jumping into my suit and strapping my helmet on, I couldn’t help but think back to the very first time I was getting ready to race my own vehicle in a competition, back when I was just 15 years old in a Mustang GT. It’s always the same level of excitement and nervousness that brews in the moments before the green flag drops. As my first lap at full speed began, I got comfortable with the track and started pushing my boundaries. Hitting some of the jumps on the throttle instead of coasting, sliding into turns, not being afraid to oversteer—it all came naturally after the first lap. I remember thinking to myself how much fun this course was during the second lap, and feeling confident in the next four laps ahead of me.
Then things got smelly. Really smelly. In fact, so smelly that I pulled off the course at the end of lap three. My clutch had begun to slip and was smoking pretty badly. Not wanting to risk further damaging the clutch, making it impossible to roll up onto the trailer under its own power, I decided to park the truck and let things cool off. I’ve owned this Toyota for three years and 15,000 miles, and have yet to replace the clutch, so I couldn’t be too mad at the situation. Upset that I couldn’t continue, I reluctantly took off my helmet and suit and watched the remainder of my class turn laps around the course.
As the remaining classes finished their heats, the official results were in and the winners were announced, claiming their prizes right there on the spot. Soon after began a bonus event called Desert Drags, which puts two like-powered vehicles head to head in a flat out drag race, around a tractor tire and back to the start line. The Desert Drags was an awesome event to watch, with high horsepower vehicles, and perhaps even more entertaining, low horsepower vehicles entering the race. The races were held bracket style, with the top two competitors racing for a finale.
A New Tradition
Jump Champs has grown from a small event into a tradition. It’s not uncommon to find friends and families setting up their RVs at the Glen Helen Raceway grounds for the weekend, camping, cooking, having bonfires and celebrating their wins and losses from the competition. It becomes an entire weekend ordeal and fun for the whole family. Best of all, the coordinators of the event know exactly who their demographic is. These events are curated for the grassroots motorsport competitor, and that’s always who I will be. I already can’t wait for the next event in May, so be sure to make it out there if you’re in the area!
Photos courtesy of Try Hard Photography, Superior Media Company and The Jump Champs