Driving up to the Starting Line

On February 5th, 2020 I competed in my first Ultra4 4 Wheel Parts Every Man Challenge (EMC). This event is part of a week long King of the Hammers (KOH) event, an event where some 100k off-road enthusiasts from around the world converge on Lucerne Valley, California to enjoy a week of racing.

It’s taken me two months to write this because a) I needed some time to get my thoughts together on how I felt about things and b) I wanted some time to understand our mistakes.

Unfortunately, we did not finish the race. Our transmission failed at mile-marker 103. This post will share the details.

Before I get into the details, it’s important to give a huge shout out to those organizations that contributed to helping get us to the line. Building a self-funded team is tough, and your contributions and support don’t go unnoticed. While the outcome wasn’t what I was hoping, your products and services were exceptional and helped us get as far as we did.

You can count on us getting better and learning from our mistakes.

How Hard Can it Be?

This was my first KOH event.

After a couple of years of sponsoring the Desert Turtle Racing team I decided to attend KOH 2019 to see the race in person. Although an off-road enthusiast, I had no history or background in the world racing at the time. Unfortunately, my time at KOH in 2019 was short lived after blowing my power steering on the drive up which put me onsite for about an hour and a half.

It was enough time, however, to know it was something I wanted to do.

Fast forward 12 months, and I found myself on the KOH 2020 EMC starting line with veteran racer Darin Doucette.

Left (Tony) and Right (Darin)

From the time I purchased the rig in May of 2019 I had one goal – compete in, and finish, the EMC race.

What I didn’t realize at the time was what this journey would entail and how much I would learn.

Let’s Race

Going into the race we felt exceptionally confident. The rig was fast, durable and running great. We’d been pre-running, found some kinks in the armor and we fixed them.

Over all, the team was feeling good. The truth is, however, we were feeling a little too good and that likely contributed to some complacency that inevitably had a daisy chain affect that contributed to how we finished.

Our race ended at mile marker 103 with a blown transmission. It took everything I had to take the following picture.

The truth, however, is our race ended much earlier than that, with errors we made.

Running out of Gas

First, we ran out of gas, at least our system thought we were out of gas, going into Guacamole towards mile marker 70 / 71. We decided on the bypass to avoid issues, and mid-way up the bypass we stopped. Done.

At this point we had moved up from 9th place to 3rd place. We were running an incredible race.

What we have learned since is that it had to do with our fuel sending unit. We are running a FuelSafe 44 gallon and should have easily lasted us the full 82 mile first loop. We had installed it backwards, with the sending unit front / center instead of rear / center.

Sending Unit Configuration

What this means is that for any prolonged, steep, incline the sending unit would think it was out of gas. Even it wasn’t because the fluid would be pushed to the rear. Coincidently, what’s interesting about this is the same applies for any prolonged decline where the fluid shifts to the front.

So while we, technically, did install it in backwards it’s difficult not to think we wouldn’t have run into the same problem on the way down Resolution or Backdoor.

We did manage to get to main pit to refuel after another team, can’t remember who they were (408? out of Texas) came to our rescue. They were the only team to respond to our call for help at Pit A. I will never forget their generosity and willingness to help. If someone can help me find them, that’d be much appreciated.

We ended up losing 3 hours at the entrance of Guacamole and that would set the tone for the rest of the race, which would become our downfall.

Things we did wrong:

  • We installed it incorrectly, at least not in conformance with the recommended installation. But it’s difficult to say if that would have fixed the problem. Feels as if the problem would have only presented itself later.
  • During our prep we lost a day and a half of training after blowing our axles seals. This cut down our testing dramatically. The fix wasn’t the issue, as much as the time lost driving back to the shop to pick up gear we left behind. Something we should have continued with this being the rigs first outing since the completion of the rebuild.
  • After the engine swap we were forced to install a new fuel bladder, we failed to configure it in our new RacePak. We had no idea how much fuel we really had. We did some back of the napkin math, and we discussed it several times, but we never did it; this was nothing more than complacency on our part.

Things we will improve moving forward:

  • We will never go into a race with critical gear that isn’t configured.
  • We will do a better job with our prep list to ensure we have every odd end part we can think of for the rig. I recognize ofcourse that it is impossible to think you will never forget something, but good documentation and planning can go a long way.
  • We will save all shenanigans until after the race, and check our ego’s.
  • We will replace the existing sending unit with a fuel mat. Something about the center and rear configuration doesn’t make much sense in my mind for our race application so it’s best to just go with a mat and call it a day.

Transmission Failure

There we were, back in the race, sending it down the desert floor about to pass the tenth car. Can’t remember who it was, but just as we were about to light them up, we shifted into third and bam.. it was gone.

What was about to be an epic pass in the flats turned into us coasting in their dust as they disappeared into the horizon as we coasted to a stop.

What we have learned since the race is that we burned up our transmission pump.

TH400 prepped to go to surgery. 🙁

Things we did wrong:

  • When we left Main Pit we were anxious. We did our swap, fueled up, and left the pit on a mission. In the process, we made one very big mistake – we didn’t turn any of the fans on. This is important because we had switched everything to manual to avoid failures, the irony. This would bite us in the ass going up the sand wash at about mile marker 86/87. We didn’t realize things were off until we got to the top of the wash and only because we thought we had caught fire. Quickly engaging the fans got the temps back to norm, and we felt we dodged a big bullet.
  • What we didn’t realize is we had made another mistake in our transmission build. We had used the wrong mating surface for the TH400. This had a dramatic impact on how our system was able to pump hydraulic fluid through the system. This became critical when we overheated the transmission on the wash, which contributed to the pumps failure and complete failure of our clutches.

Things we will improve moving forward:

  • Still thinking about whether we will add the sensors back, but at a minimum we will assign someone at each pit to be responsible for checking everything is on before we leave. But I have this feeling we will probably never forget this.
  • We have already fixed the TH400, replacing the clutches, updating the plate and making some other minor adjustments. We’ve discussed upgrading to a REID case, but it’s not necessary. We’re not experiencing cracks in the frame of the transmission, but failure of the internals.

An Amazing Experience

Although the outcome was not what I was hoping, I’m extremely grateful for the experience, relationships made and what I’ve learned along the way.

Special thanks to the guys that came out day of the race to help. Any one that races knows that it’s not possible without the guys that help.

  • Dean Graen
  • Dre Armeda
  • Daren Baer
  • Sun Baer
  • Tom Sujishi
  • Craig Weikamp
  • Greg McDonnel

A huge thanks goes to Darin, Clayton and Jordan. These three gentlemen helped me execute this idea and got us to the starting line. I am extremely grateful for all they did, and for what we’ve learned together along the way.

Clayton (left), Darin (center), Jordan (right)

With the current state of affairs it’s difficult to say what’s next, but I think we can all count on, at least hope for, KOH 2021.

The good news is that Sparky is functional. We’ve fixed a few of the pieces, and have a few more improvements to make.