Underclassmen Show Gumption and Grit at Ultra4's 2016 National Championship
When most people speak of Ultra4 Racing, or refer to "Ultra4 cars", they are talking about the 4400 Unlimited class. With such innovative builds as Loren Healey's Red Dragon, Shannon Campbell's Dragon Slayer, or 2016 National Points champion Jason Scherer's The Gavel, it's easy to see why. But…
Week-in and week-out, race after race, and mile after mile, there is another group of hard-working, dedicated, and passionate racers: The Ultra4 Underclassmen. Often relegated to a few paragraphs at the end of a 4400 class race recap, we at Driving Line wanted to highlight these committed racers with their own 2016 National Championship and end-of-season recap. Underclassmen, this one's for you.
The “Most Exciting Race of the Day” at 2016 Ultra4 Nationals
The 2016 National Championship Races had the crowd on their feet during every race; cheering their friends, family and favorites in head-to-head racing. National points were on the line, but beyond that, the competitive pairing of drivers and equipment led many to declare the 4800 Main the "most exciting race of the day." Lead changes, hard charging rock racing and a never-quit attitude meant you had to keep your head on a swivel to take in all the action.
Creating Race Classes for “Everyman”
With the unlimited cars evolving into something unattainable for most, in 2012 Ultra4 racing added two new classes with the inaugural “Everyman Challenge.” The 4600 Stock class was designed to showcase stock vehicles with aftermarket manufacturer parts, while the 4500 Modified class was a nod to the modified beasts already on the trail that wanted to also go fast. As the popularity of Ultra4 continued taking off, the 4800 Legends class was formed in 2015 to bridge the gap between the ever expanding 4400 Unlimited class and the 4500 Modified class, providing an extremely competitive space for racers and fans alike.
The Good Stuff: 4800 Legends Race Recap
Originally billed as a class for retired 4400 cars, the 4800 Legends class quickly became much more as teams purpose-built new vehicles to compete with the older cars in Ultra4 racing. Limited to 37” DOT tires and one shock per corner, these cars and drivers are as competitive as any on the track and are also the fastest growing class in the series.
The National Championship race was broken into two parts: Prelims, where teams blasted around the track in a 6 lap shootout vying for starting position, and the Main, where all the chips were on the table.
4800 Class Vies For Position
The morning Prelim was a preview to the thrilling conclusion in the Main. As the cars took off two-by-two, like freak animals leaving Noah’s Ark, the race was on! Team Nitto driver Rick Waterbury took an early lead and looked as if he was on a mission to own the pole position, leading for the first four laps. Fellow Team Nitto driver Bailey Cole was locked in a battle with Casey Gilbert and Jason Bunch in a three-way crush for the other front row seat in the Main. With 3 laps to go, an inexplicable string of flats (later it was discovered there was a foreign object in the big rock pile that was slashing tires) threw the Prelim in chaos as Bailey Cole took the lead, eventually surrendering it to Jason Bunch. Despite drivers powering through on rims only or hoods flapping up to kill visibility, the Main was set as Bunch took first, Jeren Gunter slid into 2nd, and Cole held on for 3rd to enter the afternoon Main race.
Who’s The Leader of the Pack?
Coming off such an exciting Prelim, the Main began with expectations high, and did not disappoint. From the drop of the green flap to the wave of the checkered, this race was non-stop heart pounding action. Bailey Cole, Jason Bunch, Kent Fulks, and Rick Waterbury formed a pack at the front that traded the lead back-and-forth and back-and-forth for the first five laps of this eight-lap battle.
Aggressive passes in the rocks, torn sheet metal from cars trying to occupy the same space, drag racing up the back stretch, and blasting through the start/finish rocks had the sellout crowd on their feet. With so much action taking up the track, some didn’t notice Kyle Wickam and brother Jade starting deep in the back and steadily working their way up front.
With two laps to go, Kent Fults, 4800 winner at 2016 Battle in Bluegrass and Hot Springs, had established a lead and was fighting off a swarm of challengers when suddenly his day ended. Fults’ exit opened the door for Rick Waterbury to take the lead, a position he would not relinquish.
Meanwhile, Bailey Cole and Jason Bunch were locked in a battle for 2nd as flat tires and hard racing took their toll. Coming into the final straight, Kyle Wickham, almost forgotten in the up-front action, had worked his way from the back of the pack to snag 3rd place in the final 300 yards! After sorting out the timing between Wickham and Bunch, it was official: Rick Waterbury was your race champion, followed by Bailey Cole, then Kyle Wickham.
4500 Modified Race Recap
Usually racing together with the 4800 class, the Nationals packed roster saw the 4500 class having the spotlight to themselves during their own Prelim and Main. Also limited to 37” DOT tires, many like to debate whether Legends or Modifieds are faster, the 4500 Modified class allows two shocks per corner, each limited to 14” of shock travel.
From the start of 4500 racing at Nationals, it was clear that the strategy of “save your car for the Main” was out the window. Attrition is a hallmark of Ultra4 racing, verified during the 4500 Prelim as only half of the class finished on the lead lap.
East Coast powerhouse Matt Howell would be lined up for the pole position, followed by Justin Hall in 2nd, and Kevin Rants in 3rd. Teams furiously worked on repairing their cars to get ready for the afternoon Main.
The opening lap of the Main started with a bang! Jordan Pellegrino charged from 5th to 1st on the opening lap and it was on. Pellegrino flew around the course, holding 1st place for the first three laps and fighting off Matt Howell and Kevin Rants in a bumper-to-bumper push battle. Duane Garretson entered the fray by lap 3, taking the lead by lap 5.
The Most Bizarre Award Goes to 4500 Main
Typically, in short course racing, the least used part of the course is the hot pit… as you just don’t have enough laps to effectively stop, make a repair and still be competitive. But as Gremlins snuck on the course and began to wreck havoc, the hot pit became where the race was won or lost in one of the most bizarre races of the year.
The madness really started on lap 3 when car after car began giving up track position to enter the hot pits for repairs, including Team Nitto driver Jimmy Jack who was running 3rd at the time. Jordan Pelligrino gave up the lead on lap 4 after entering the pits. Soon we saw race leader, Duane Garretson, give up the lead to pit after lap 6, never to return to course. It was insane! Every time the crowd thought someone was going to run away with race, there was a dramatic lead change.
With just two laps remaining, the race finally settled into a more predictable pace as Marty Mann took the lead and kept it to the end. Marty created a huge buzz with his brand new Toyota-inspired buggy and put an exclamation point on the weekend by taking the win. Jordan Pellegrino overcame a flat and no brakes at the beginning of the race to finish in 2nd, and first-year racer Matt Howell, who surprised everyone by winning all three of his East Coast races this year, took 3rd.
4600 Stock Race Recap
Considered by many the bravest race class in Ultra4, or at least the craziest, the 4600 Stock class drivers tackle the same course as the others, but in a heavily restricted race class that maintains most of the original car parts. With just one shock per corner and a 35” limit on DOT tires, 4600 Stock is, tough, fun and very much keeps the “family” feel of Ultra4 racing. Seeing cars compete that aren’t far from what you’d see on the street, these stock class warriors are always a crowd favorite.
While the class size was down this year, the hard working, hard charging veterans of this class hit it hard at Nationals. Fielding only four cars for this race, drivers pretty much had just to keep the car together during Nationals seven laps to earn a podium spot. Did that keep anyone from hitting it all out? Nope.
Sounding like the opening to a great story: “Two XJ’s, and LJ, and a TJ walked into a bar...”, everyone attacked the course with the passion that defines this class. Ben Varozza took the lead on lap 1 and never looked back. Piloting his car with an expert hand, Ben led from wire to wire. Super competitive and always entertaining Albert Contreras was 2nd, with the “XJ Brothers” Sean McNamara and Brian Behrend duking it out for third early on.
Mechanical failure took Brian out of the race on lap 3, but not before he gave it 100%. With respect and love, the crowd cheered this class of warriors on as they lived their dream and battled it out on course. Big smiles covered every face on the podium as the 2016 season came to an end.
Next year brings some new and exciting initiatives for Stock class, recently announced by Ultra4, which will hopefully help the competing numbers grow.
And The 2016 National Championship Winners Are…
Before we get to the season points for each class, a huge congratulations to Team Nitto driver Rick Waterbury for being named co-Sportsman of the Year. This award is voted on by the drivers, for the drivers, and reflects respect both on-course and off-course. It’s an accomplishment to earn the podium, but it’s an even bigger testimony to character and the merit of a man to not only win your class for the year, but to do so in a manner that earns you Sportsman of the Year honors.
4800 Legends class points championship for 2016 went to Rick Waterbury as he leveraged a National Championship race victory, combined with a Glen Helen victory, to earn top points for the year. The last two laps of the National Championship race bumped fellow two-time winner, Kent Fults, to 2nd for 2016. The dynamic brother duo of Kyle and Jake Wickam locked up 3rd. Team Nitto driver Bailey Cole and Jimmy’s 4x4 Randy Rodd’s progeny, Cade Rodd, rounded out the top 5.
4500 Modified class points went to the dominant Matt Howell. Notching victories in all three East Coast races, Matt takes the National Points Championship back East for the year. Incredibly fast and well-dressed driver Justin Hall finished 2nd this year, helped by his win at Stampede, and Fallon 250 winner Kevin Rants rounded out the National podium in 3rd. Arkansas driver Duane Garretson finished 4th with Team Nitto driver Jimmy Jack in 5th for the first year in his new car.
4600 Stock class points went to KOH class winner Brian Behrend, who also took the top spot at the Stampede and Fallon. Sean McNamara, also in an XJ, took 2nd, with Albert Contreras close behind in 3rd. National Championship race winner Ben Varozza finished 4th in points and Brian Hays in 5th.
Onward and Upward for 2017 Ultra4 Season
With the 2016 season in the books, teams are already looking forward to the 2017 King of the Hammers in Johnson Valley, CA this coming February. In addition to renewing old rivalries and building upon the success of this past year, 2017 promises to be very interesting with Nitto driver Vaughn Gittin Jr. entering the fray in a brand new Jimmy’s 4x4 Bronco inspired 4500 class car. Already the buzz of SEMA, and of much discussion among other 4500 class drivers, all eyes are on the start of the 2017 season and how this next-level car will perform.
While there is no rest for the wicked, there is even less rest for these dedicated Ultra4 drivers who only have a few months to get ready for KOH! We’ll see ya out there!
Want more Ultra4 National Championship photos? Click here for the full Underclassmen gallery.
*Authors Note: If this race recap reads like a love letter... well, it is. After spending four years in my own 4500 class car (and getting to co-dawg with Bailey Cole in his 4800 class car at the Fallon 250 this year), I got well acquainted with the blood and sacrifice of these guys during each race. They race because they love it. They race because it's passion. They race because it's life. This year, I had the honor of watching from behind the lens rather than behind the wheel, and my hat is off to each of you. Hammer down and “See you on the Lakebed” in 2017.
- The Dusty Gnome