Offroad racing is notorious for rivalries between drivers and brands. In the General Tire Jeepspeed desert race series presented by KMC Wheels, Jeep Wrangler racers earned some bragging rights as they dominated the Cherokees, Grand Cherokees, and even the Dodge trucks at the longest offroad race in the US; Best In The Desert’s Vegas to Reno. At 539 miles, just finishing the course is a challenge. The terrain changes from pine tree forests in the mountains, to dry lake beds in the valley floors. Silt, rocks, even ancient lava flows cover the ground. With no wind to speak of, the dust was thick, and relentless. Your co-driver better be sharp because the dust was hiding trees, sharp rocks, and deep ruts everywhere. Go off course and you will shred your tires, rip your suspension off or end up on your lid.
12 Jeepspeed teams rose to the challenge; three 3700 class Jeeps, one 2700 class and eight in the 1700 class. Tech inspection and contingency was on Thursday in the parking lot of Texas Station Casino in Las Vegas.
The race started in Beatty, Nevada on Friday. Like most western showdowns, the Jeepspeed teams left the starting line at high noon. Two strong winners were sidelined early. Garrett Allred's ZJ grand Cherokee developed ignition problems and past champion Rick Randall in the Bilstein Cherokee burnt a piston, taking him out. With Randall and Allred out, the 1700 class win was up for grabs. Ian Massey took the overall lead of the whole Jeepspeed field in his Class 2700 Cherokee on corrected time. Unfortunately, anyone who was leading seemed to suffer a curse. Massey was setting a blistering pace but was cruelly sidelined by broken drive line and cracked transfer case. Vegas to Reno marked the return of the 3 Amigos team to Jeepspeed racing. At mile 200, the 3 Amigos had already built up a sizeable lead in their recently purchased WJ Grand Cherokee. Newcomer Will Heaton was only 2 miles behind with the veteran Billy Bunch on his tail. The rest of the order included 1730 John Grewell, 3713 Conner Batham, 1785 Mark Kammerlohr, 1724 Rob Suebert and 1755 Jake Sheaffer.
As the miles wore on, the list of attrition grew. 3713 Conner Batham was stopped at mile 212. 1797 Jeff Sherrill lost a steering box at mile 285, and 1755 Jake Sheaffer was put on the trailer soon after. At mile 272 Bunch was leading followed by 1785 Mark Kammerlohr who was at mile 250.
During the night, the battle for the 3700 class raged on with Heaton and Bunch swapping the lead several times. At each pit stop, flat tire or stop for field repairs, the running order swapped places. 3739 Will Heaton was in his first race ever and driving the entire way himself. His learning curve was steep and he found out what lies just off the course in the bushes; bad news. He hit dirt and rocks that exploded into the sky. He was lucky just to receive a flat tire. Later in the race, his luck was not as fortuitous. He hit a boulder laying in the course that ripped the shock right out of the lower a-arm.
Sitting in the pits, Heaton mustered up the courage to go ask the Veteran Bunch for advice. Bunch has seen it all and knows every trick in the book. In fact, he had handed his truck off to Jesse Archer to take it to the finish, and was still there to see what the gap was when Heaton left the pits. Bunch told the rookie he had two choices. He could slap his truck together and drive like hell to try and beat him. He would probably break again and spend the night in his truck in the middle of the desert. His other choice was to spend some time on repairs, and baby his truck in to get a finish. Heaton asked, “Well what would you do?” Bunch said he would slap his truck together, race like hell, and probably spend the night in the desert; but that’s Billy Bunch. After hours of racing, Bunch took the win, Kammerlohr finished next, winning his class, and Heaton nursed his wounded truck to the finish; earning a podium finish his first time out.
“There were a lot of people on the internet telling me the “Super Jeep” of Heaton was going to beat us,” said Billy Bunch, “I think he did well. He might have done better if he shared the driving and wasn’t so tired. We had a great race. I stopped to help a truck that was stuck on the side of the course. I pulled up and my truck died. I had vapor lock. As I sat there, I got passed by a truck and the truck that was stuck got himself unstuck and took off. We measured out truck before the race to make sure it would fit through the tunnels and had room to spare. Not thinking about it, we put 37 inch tall tires on and when I drove down the tunnel we started throwing sparks from the light bar. I gassed it and jumped out of the tunnel; land in the rocks. We broke the front panhard bar. We limped into pit 5 and by the time we had it fixed, the field had a 2.5 hour lead.” Bunch was able to recover and go on to the win. His results put him in a great position for the class championship and possibly the overall points lead with 2 races to go.
Mark Kammerlohr and his Son Clayton joined the Jeepspeed series at the final race of the season in Pahrump last year. They landed on the podium in their first attempt. After a few disappointing results, they were back on the box; this time with their first win. “I knew Vegas to Reno was a big deal,” said Mark Kammerlohr, “Now that I’ve raced it, my respect for the race is even greater. We had a lot of help from the Barnet Brothers, Mike and Tom, Sean Hazelwood, and Mike Bragg. We kept rotating drivers and did our best to take care of the Jeep. My son has been my codriver since we started but Vegas to Reno was the first time he drove during a race. He did real well but I think the pressure got to him a little bit. He didn’t want to be the one who broke the car. We had some minor issues but kept making progress. I was driving with Tom when we saw the sun come up. He said when he got in the car that he was changing one flat, that’s it; you get the rest. I got a flat and all he said was “I can’t believe you did that.” When we made it across the finish line it was really special. The whole team was there waiting for us. Jack Weber, Mike and Sean, Doug Lawson and his son; Ryan Rivera. Sorry if I left anyone out, I was beat.” Actually Mark was not beat, he won! When the 1700 trucks get to the Tonopah race on October 19- 22 the points championship will be up for grabs.
Will Heaton was facing an incredible challenge. He was taking on the longest offroad race in the United States in a brand new truck. It was also his first race of any kind. He has done plenty of 4 wheeling but has never driven in competition. “This was the coolest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” said Will Heaton, “We came pretty close to not finishing. We hit a boulder in the course that cracked the lower a-arm and ripped the shock off. We made repairs but couldn’t get enough heat from the welder to get full penetration. We made it to pit 11 and the welds were cracking. They welded it some more and told us not to go over 20 mph. We went 50 in the smooth stuff and tried to baby the right front as much as possible. The last mountain section was stressful but we made it. It had its highs and lows and obstacles that had to be overcome. We had to find a solution and keep moving forward. That’s been my mentality for my whole life. I made mistakes and paid for them. Don’t go off course and hit bushes; there’s stuff out there. We lost our radio communications and then the intercom. My codriver Steven Hunt did a great job keeping me motivated and giving me moral support. I was amazed at all the different types of terrain; dirt, rocks, silt, cliffs, sand. There were big rocks, small rocks, sharp rocks, and round rocks. I think next time I will have another driver.” Taking on Vegas to Reno for your first attempt at offroad racing was ambitious. It’s nice to know that Heaton is eager to race again.
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