Men and machines conquer Broken Boulder Ranch in stunning fashion
The motto for rock crawlers has to be “if I can see it, I can climb it.” During two days of competition at Broken Boulder Ranch, north of Goldendale, drivers repeatedly accomplished what seemed impossible, climbing over eight-foot high boulders and maneuvering cars through a tight maze of rocks and trees. There wasn’t much left on the course that hadn’t been climbed.
Justin Hall, a young driver from the San Francisco bay area walked away with a handful of cash after winning the Unlimited Pro class of the W.E. Rock event at Mark and Rody Schilling’s property at the junction of Pipeline and Orchard Heights roads. Hall carried a large point lead into the final “Shoot-out” after two runs through four courses on Saturday and Sunday. It wasn’t always flawless and Hall didn’t accomplish the win on his own. He rolled the car over and out-of-bounds on one course and he had to rely on a little muscle from his dad, Mark Hall on the final run. Mark Hall is Justin’s spotter, a key player in rock crawling. After chasing Matt Messer for most of Saturday, Hall took a slim lead on his final run of the day. When Messer took a big points hit on course one on Sunday, Hall opened up an insurmountable lead.
For those whose only experience with the sport of rock crawling is from blooper videos and images of Jeeps running through wilderness mud holes and moguls, seeing an actual, sanctioned event such as the W.E. Rock western circuit event is an eye opener.
The Broken Boulder Ranch has a deep ravine, peppered with Ponderosa pine trees and a never-ending array of boulders. The course is outlined across the hillside by flagged ribbon. Orange cones designate gates that the cars are required to pass through to gain negative points, as low score wins. The cones are placed in crazy locations on the tops and sides of boulders so close together that it becomes a precision driving event with barely a foot clearance between tire and cone. Drivers enter the course at the top of the hill and choose their own path through the course, trying to pass through as many gates and score as many bonus points as possible in the 10 minute time limit. They must exit the course through a designated gate within the time limit to keep bonus points.
There are three key components to this sport: the driver who has a lot of things to control in the car; a spotter who guides the driver through the course, helping negotiate gates and at times rearranging rocks to assist a climb or descent; and the cars which are high-tech machines that can do remarkable things and take a beating and keep on running.
Hall competes in eight to 10 events a year and does a lot of off road recreational driving the rest of the year. There isn’t a great deal of money in the event, but with sponsorship and winnings, it at least covers the travel expenses. Hall says the cars are basically modeled after old sand dune buggies with the same type of suspension on the rock crawlers. Struts on each wheel give the machines great flexibility, allowing the axel to move freely, extending up to 40 inches. With independent control of the brakes on each wheel, drivers can lock down a rear wheel and use it as a pivot point to negotiate tight turns.
Hall’s car runs on a Chevy Cobalt 2.2 liter engine with turbo boost that delivers 350 horsepower, which is needed to make the steep climbs. The transmission is a two-speed power glide by Hughes Transmissions. The car itself was custom made and Hall and his dad do necessary repairs and modifications. The tires are also special with a soft compound that allows maximum grip and durability. Each tire costs close to $1,000.
Another important piece of equipment is their communication system. Nearly all drivers use the same radio system that motorcyclists use to communicate with each other. It allows them to work their way through the course with help from a spotter without having to yell over the engine. In addition to the driving skill set, rock crawlers have to be talented in welding and fabrication and have a good knowledge of plumbing for the hydraulics and electronics that keep everything running.
A person can buy one of the rock crawlers for around $50-$60 thousand. Or, if you are skilled and on a tighter budget, you could do as Todd Young did and build your own from scratch. Young, from Nampa, Idaho, says he built his car for $15,000. Young runs the Unlimited Pro class, competing in four to five W.E. Rock and CAL-NEVA events per year plus running a full series of Idaho X-Rocks.
Young got started after attending an event in Goldendale where he worked as a spotter for another driver. He had been a recreational off roader, driving a 4-wheel drive Suzuki.
Since 2005, Young has been building his own cars. His car for this weekend was powered by a 2.5 liter, fuel injected Chevy with Volvo turbo-boost. His wife has her own three-seater for trail driving and Young also has a second single-seat car for competition.
The number of seats is one of the things that differentiate the Unlimited class from the Pro-Modified class. Pro-Modified are required to have a front mounted engine and 37 inch tires. Pretty much anything goes with Unlimited cars, including front and rear steering, but none of the cars last weekend were so designed.
Nine drivers competed in the Stock Sportsman class, which was won by Jeremy Eaton with Kraig Williams as spotter. Eaton is from the Tri-Cities area. Seven cars ran the Unlimited Sportsman class, which was a special class for this event. Nathan Osborn was first with spotter Ben Carlson. Both of the Sportsman classes are for drivers who are not running the full schedule and don’t have the equipment to tackle the toughest courses, but the difference between their courses and the pro class courses was minor.
The Pro Modified class was a close competition. Six points separated the second and third place cars going into the Shootout, which was worth up to 50 points. The first car out rolled to his top and had a gas leak which ended his run. The second car got hung up on a tree and had to be pulled free, thus ending his day.
Jared Neff, of Nevada had a clean run and powered his car up the nearly vertical climb through the final gate, dropping his overall score from 36 to 25 and putting pressure on second place Aaron Sykes. Sykes had trouble with one gate, but minimized the number of times he had to go to reverse gear, each of which adds a point to the score, and finished five points ahead of Neff. Sykes and his spotter Ken Rose hail from Northern California.
The final driver, Jason Feuilly, of Cortez, Colo. and spotter Cody Folsom had a big lead entering the final run and were able to skip the bonus gates and popped out the top for the win, 49 points ahead of Sykes.
Randy Southall was first on the course in the Unlimited class, but was well out of the running as Hall and Messer scored negative points on six of their eight runs. Southard hit cones on the fourth gate and the exit to finish with 105 points.
Young was 32 points out of second and had a strong run in the Shootout. He cleared two bonus gates and finishing with time to spare for a -20 point run.
Messer, from Fresno with John Gabriel spotting, was the only driver to try the third bonus gate, but failed on three tries. He struck a cone on the third gate and just made it off course in time for a zero score, keeping him 12 points ahead of Young.
Hall led by 14 points going into the final run. He got high-centered on a large boulder, but Mark was able to lift the back end enough to shift the car forward, gaining contact with the rear wheels and he drove through the rest of the course for the easy win.
Expect the crawlers to be back again next year. They first came to Goldendale for a series event in 2003. According to the Schillings, the event got on the calendar, but no site had been secured. When Rody heard about it, she offered their property, which turned out to be ideal. They filed the conditional use permit paperwork, had environmental and endangered species review and received the permits. The events have been held at their site every year since, except for 2009-2011 when the series skipped Goldendale for a variety of reasons.
If comments from the winners from the podium are an indication, there will be another event in 2014, as all were complementary about the location and event. For those who missed this event, block out late July of next year for the opportunity to see something that is bound to change the way you will for evermore look at a Jeep.
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