Thursday evening, Tony Pellegrino is finally packed up and heading out to The Hammers with the #4485 Ultra 4 race car in tow. Accompanying Tony was his son, Jordan Pellegrino. At age 15 ½, Jordan was participating in his very first off road race, the Every Man Challenge ‘Modified’ Jeep class. As Tony drove out to his 5th consecutive King of the Hammers race, he had a good feeling coming into this one. He could see the lights of Hammer Town before he even turned off of Highway 247. Once there, Tony met up with his co-driver, Bryan Lyttle from Escondido, CA and they got registered for the big race.
After receiving the GPS race course map on Friday, Tony and Jordan hopped in their race cars and started pre-running! This year both Tony and Jordan pre-ran the race in their racing rigs. Normally racers will use a different vehicle (such as Tony's YJ from last year). Pre-running in your race rig is a gamble because it adds 150 hard miles to the rig and increases your chance of breaking before the big event. However, nothing prepares a driver like using the actual rig and getting a feel for how the car handles the terrain. In Tony and Jordan’s case, this strategy paid off.
By Saturday, Tony and Jordan had finished pre-running the entire course with their co-drivers. Co-drivers, Bryan Lyttle and Gunnar Velasquez fine-tuned their GPS race course notes while the GenRight pit team began car preparations.
The work continued into Sunday where the crew watched what they could of the King of the Motos race and awaited news of the qualifying course.
Monday morning, both Jordan and Tony took some time to practice the Qualifying course which was absolutely brutal this year! The area had degraded since the 2013 KOH race, causing ruts to deepen and rocks to fracture with razor blade sharpness. The two had drivers meetings to attend with Tony running a triangle between the main camp, the Falken camp and the GenRight pit garage.
Tuesday, was qualifying day for both Tony and Jordan. Tony was included in the “Power-Hour” lineup, that included some of the biggest names in the off road racing industry, such as Randy Slawson, Greg Adler, Eric Miller and Kevin Sacalas to name a few. As Tony pulled forward in the starting line-up, he looked up at the Hammer town Jumbotron, just in time to see Kevin Sacalas flip his car end over end at the finish line of his qualifying run. Kevin’s car was destroyed! Car after car came across the finish line with shredded tires and severe body damage, limping back to their pit garages. Then, chills ran down Tony’s spine as he pulled up closer to the start line and the throttle cable malfunctioned and the throttle stuck wide open! Fearing for the spectator’s safety, Tony immediately threw the car into neutral and turned the engine off. Tony’s Pit Chief & lead mechanic, Darren Ruzicka was already heading out into the desert to watch the qualifying runs. Tony yells on the radio of the throttle malfunction, and within minutes, Darren returned and he and several other GenRight team members dove head first into and under the race car to find the source of the problem. Within 15 minutes, they found the throttle cable had kinked, and had a temporary fix in place by installing a couple throttle springs. Due to their quick action and ingenuity, Tony was able to complete his qualifying round.
Tony takes off the start line, but the extra throttle springs hold back the car's power. Luckily, Tony makes it through the course in good time without further damage to the car. Qualifying can prove tricky for drivers, a good qualifying time can give a real advantage over competitors by placing them at the lead of the pack in the big race, but by pushing too hard, a racer runs the risk of causing major damage to their car, and jeopardizing their ability to make it to the big race on Friday. In spite of the rough start, both Tony and Jordan had a solid qualifying runs without beating on their vehicles too badly. For race day, Tony was starting position #38, and Jordan starting position #7.
Tuesday night, it's determined that Tony's car is not running to its full potential. After reviewing all their options, Darren and Tony decide to have the engine re-tuned. At 4:30 am Wednesday morning, Darren, and a few others from the GenRight crew load up #4485 to have the car dyno-tuned in Anaheim. The tuning session was a success, and Darren and his crew return to the lake bed by 6 p.m.
With the race car off the lake bed, the GenRight crew sought out work to help out their fellow racers & teams. That morning they learned that Jessi Combs' Spec class car was not even running and she desperately needed help. Without hesitation, the GenRight crew sprang into action. They rolled Jessi's car into the GenRight garage, and within a few hours, our guys were able to identify the issues, including a fuel system issue and get it running in tip top shape so Jessi could race the next day. Happily, Jessi completed her race 1st in her class!
When Darren got back with the GenRight race car, Tony and the rest of the team were already prepping Jordan Pellegrino (#4585) and Richard Garrett's (#4565) cars for the Every Man Challenge being held on Thursday. Darren wanted Tony to try out the re-tuned race car but they didn't have enough time with the Contingency Parade. The parade pulled staff that had already been working on the UTV race and didn't end until 10:30pm, giving Tony no chance to run the re-tuned car.
Thursday, EMC Race -
Running the Every Man Challenge proved to be an excellent dry run for Team GenRight. It gave the team an opportunity to get everything dialed in time for the big race on Friday. And this gave Tony the opportunity to see what was involved with being on the “other” side of race day as part as a pit crew member. At 6 am, on Thursday morning, as they get ready for their race day, Jordan and Richard were met with overcast skies, ideal race conditions. The two had very close qualifying times and took off at the starting line side-by-side.
Just around the first corner, a driver had already flipped in the middle of the course causing Richard and Jordan to swerve left and right around the car. Jordan said the dust was extremely bad in the area, reducing visibility and adding danger to the course. The rest of the first lap went very well, which enabled Jordan and Richard to keep pace with each other, and come into the first pit close to the same time.
Jordan took off after refueling, but the team had discovered Richard's clutch was broken. Richard's spirits sank as he learned the news. Last year, Richard was unable to complete the EMC and this year was starting to look similar. Tony took off to get the replacement clutch from the GenRight pit tent, and ran back to Main Pit ready to get Richard back in the race. Between Richard, Tony, and hard work and innovation of seven other team members, they were able to pull the clutch and fix the driveline in just over two hours!
It was a huge team effort to get Richard back in the race, and get him to the finish line. When he finally took off, his spirits soared and he drove his wheels into the ground moving faster than most drivers in front of him. HHe was extremely appreciative of GenRight's help and to be racing once again toward the finish line.
Having been a driver for the last 4 years, being in the pits was a whole new perspective for Tony. Tony says it was extremely stressful as you are desperate for any information on the car you are pitting for. With this being Jordan and Gunnar’s very first race experience, they weren't calling out race miles or communicating regularly over the radio. On top of all this, Jordan's IRC tracker antenna broke off and rolled under the dashboard, causing sporadic updates on their GPS location. With little information, Tony hopped in the 'Terremoto' JK and booked it across the desert trying to beat the racers from mile 49 to Wrecking Ball hoping to catch sight of Jordan.
Once Tony got there, he found a great vantage point where he could see the cars as they came out of Jack Hammer, in & out of Chocolate Thunder, and proceed to Wrecking Ball. It was a good spot showing 3-4 miles of the race course and allowing Tony to report back to the crew on their whereabouts.
As Jordan was making it through Jack Hammer they passed Ben Varozza who had lost a radiator fan and was over heating. Realizing that Jordan's car was also overheating, they stopped to fix it and were then passed by Ben. With the car working again, Jordan was able to catch up and pass Ben Varozza in Chocolate Thunder. Because Ben was in the Stock jeep class, he was able to bypass Wrecking Ball, while Jordan in the Mod class, tackled the waterfall.
Tony wanted to ensure that Jordan and Richard cleared Wrecking Ball without issue, so he waited for both to clear it, before returning to Hammer Town. Due to Richard’s time delay from the clutch replacement, Tony was unable to make it back in time to see Jordan cross the finish line. But he was there just after Jordan drove off the stage following his post-race interview. Never was a father so proud of his son, and his accomplishment! Tony left the 'Terremoto' running while he ran over to congratulate Jordan and give his young son a big hug. That night everyone waited for Richard to finish, and when he finally made it across the finish line it was very emotional experience for Richard and the whole team.
As soon as the celebrations were over Thursday evening, the team went right back work prepping for the big race on Friday. The team had several strategy meetings, including fueling and communications, then divided the spare parts up between the pits, tires, tools, and fuel and loaded up the trailers. The team revamped the radio communication procedures for Friday based on the results of Thursday's race. They followed Tony's example, by placing spotters in key areas of the course to report on car location and condition, course conditions, pace, bottlenecks, or any other matters that might affect the outcome of the race.
Friday - Race Day
Race day came and Tony, Bryan and the GenRight team were up and ready by 5:30 am. Darren got the car warmed up and to the start line by 6 a.m. Tony and Bryan were in the car at the starting line by 7:20 am. At 8:19 am Tony was 38th off the starting line and flew out of the gate taking the inside line. As part of the teams race day strategy, Tony chose to bypass ‘Backdoor’ on Lap 1, saving it for the third lap, thus avoiding potential bottlenecks, or car damage early on in the race. Once around the corner Tony saw another driver already on their roof after taking a bad bounce on mile 2. Jordan had warned Tony that the first part of the lap coming up in Melville was very dusty, so Tony wanted to get ahead of the dust by passing as many drivers as he could early on.
By Pit 1, Lap 1 Tony had passed thirty-one cars and pushed his way up to physical seventh. Starting in the back of the pack has never been an issue for Tony. During the first year he ran KOH, Tony started ninety-sixth and got up to physical fifth before having a mechanical issue on the course resulting in a 14th place finish. Then in 2011 Tony went from starting forty-first and finishing in 2nd place.
In 2012 and 2013 King of the Hammers, Tony pushed harder and fought more only to get two DNFs in a row. This year, the race course had been lengthen 20 miles bringing it up to 194 miles in the roughest and toughest rock crawling terrain on the planet. Tony knew he at least had to cross the finish line for the team no matter what it took. 2014 would prove to be one of the longest and toughest races in KOH history.
As part of the team’s race strategy, the crew filled up the race car at Pit 1. Crew member, Eric Pender calculated the fuel strategy based on average mpg, mile markers and terrain. Since the re-tune, Tony and Eric weren’t sure the fuel economy estimates for the race car were still accurate. With Tony out of the pits, Eric began to calculate when Tony would need to refuel based on the gas he had used in each pit. It is extremely important to go into the rocks with a full tank or Tony could get stranded. The fuel strategy was reviewed and agreed upon the night before the big race.
When Tony finished the first lap and came into the main pit, the car was running better and felt better than any race since 2011. With the car running strong, Tony pushed it to keep pace and focus on driving the car as hard as possible while keeping it in one piece.
Lap 2 -
On the second lap Tony was running the course pretty clean. By mile 100 (half way through the race) Tony already couldn't see the dust cloud of any car in front or behind him. In fact, at one point during that lap, Tony looked over to his co-driver, Bryan who was visibly relaxed, with his arms folded and gazing out the window. The sky was blue, and the winds blew much of the dust away from the course. HOWE had also given Tony a new steering setup one week before the race that made a huge difference getting through the rocks on Lap 2. Tony, Bryan and car #4485 were running the trails flawlessly, passing two to three cars at a time.
Then the real battle began…Tony was passing former Kings left and right. He found himself in a battle with some of the best in his class, such as Bill Baird, Loren Healy, Jake Hallenbeck, Rick Mooneyham, and Randy Slawson. On the second lap, the top seven racers were as good as, or better than Tony. He was only able to pass some because their cars were limping or they had gotten stuck in the rocks. Coming through ‘Upper Big Johnson’ a new rock the size of an ottoman had shifted into the main line changing the course significantly. Tony got stuck on the new obstacle when a driver he had just passed in ‘Lower Big Johnson’, came up to give him a hand. This driver pulled Tony off the rock which allowed him to continue the race. Tony was very grateful, though he never learned who that driver was.
Lap 3 -
The race course was brutal. With so many cars pre-running and racing the course its condition had deteriorated much worse from last year. At this point, Tony was just trying to finish. On the third lap many of the drivers on the course were still on their second lap, adding a level of difficulty to an already challenging course. Just before Tony approached the ‘Backdoor’ obstacle, their roof antenna broke off, knocking out all communication to the pits just before one of the hardest parts of the race. Tony had gotten horribly stuck in Spooners during pre-running so without a working tracker or radio it was looking grim.
For the 5th year in a row, Tony was having tracker issues. This year not all of the EMC drivers had turned in their trackers, so 30-40 drivers in the big race had been given the smaller trackers that had to be ‘zip-tied’ to the car as they didn't fit into the original full-sized GPS mount. Cheesy.
With the antenna out, the radio went into a special failsafe mode and stopped transmitting. Between the Jumbotron live feed and Tony's last communication the crew was able to determine that he had made it up Backdoor and was on his way to Spooners. Bryan was trying to get the radio to work through the two hardest parts of the course. ‘Spooners’ and ‘Outer limits’ are harder than all of the rest of the trails combined in Johnson Valley. Once through them, Bryan had a chance to swap to the secondary antenna and reset the radio. With great relief, Tony and Bryan once again were in communication with their pit crews. Tony proceeded over to ‘Aftershock’ and opted not to take the bypass, despite the high attrition rate of cars to this point.
Surprisingly, when Tony came out of the rocks down ‘Boulderdash’ the car was in fantastic shape. Tony and Bryan report to pit 2A that the car was doing well and they didn't need to stop. Randy Slawson and Bill Baird had just made it into the pit to refuel and were getting ready to hit the rocks when Tony drove through. When they heard Tony had driven through the pit, they were both furious as this meant they each dropped a position. As Randy started to pull out of the pit his car blew a huge plume of smoke. Bill Baird left the pit 5 minutes later, hot to catch up with Tony. The crew radioed Tony that Bill was on the gas and Tony made sure the gap didn't close.
Tony and Bryan had previously been able to cross the lake bed at over 120 mph, but this time around, had bent both drive shafts in the rocks causing the cars top speed to slow to around 80 mph, to prevent the car from rattling apart! The Currie high pinion saved the drive shafts from major damage, allowing Tony to continue the race. Tony didn't want to change the drive shafts unless it looked really bad. With Bill only five minutes behind, Tony would lose his lead during the 10 minute swap. Every second mattered at this point if Tony was going to try to catch up with Loren Healy, and keep Bill Baird from catching him! After the race was over, Tony discovered that although Bill Baird followed Tony's dust, he was never able to catch up.
Immediately after pit 2 there was an area you get up to race speed and take off to Fissure Mountain. Right when you get up to race speed there is a nasty ditch that by lap 3 had degraded into an even nastier kicker. By this time, Loren Healy had already used his spare tire so there was not much to hold his jack down. When Healy hit that rut it dislodged the jack which punched through the radiator and the fan, which started an electrical fire under the dash. Loren was able to limp his vehicle back to the pit for repairs where his wife alerted him that “Tony is coming!”
When Tony hit that rut he was sent flying. After the front end reached 15 feet in the air, the car slammed down and maxed out the King Shocks. Amazingly, Tony, Bryan and the car were ok and kept up the pace to the finish line. When Tony reached the finish line he didn’t know what place his was in. Once he came through, he asked how they had done and was told he had unofficially gotten third place. On the stage the team swarmed the car jumping on top and cheering loudly. Not only had Team GenRight finally finished the race, but had achieved their second podium finish in 5 years!
Tony pulled off stage and was completely trashed, barely able to stand as he was congratulated. Through the crowd, a couple of the senior team members came through and informed Tony that there were still some time penalties to be assigned so he might get a better place. They stayed celebrating at the finish line until about 6:30 pm signing autographs, hand-shakes, hugs, and taking photos.
By 8 pm, a team meeting was called in the Falken tent. The area was packed with happy crew members, support staff, drivers, and co-drivers and as the meeting was proceeded. Dave Cole, founder of KOH, entered the tent with a sense of urgency and passed Tony without saying a word. Dave got up onto the stage and the room went silent. A sense of dread came up over Tony, as he searched his memories for anything that might have caused a penalty dreading that he would lose his place on the podium!
Tony will never forget the moment when Dave Cole announced that they had reviewed the trackers and he was happy to announce, that due to assessed time penalties, Tony and Team GenRight were officially bumped up to 2nd place finish!
Tony says he thought the roof blew off the tent with everyone going nuts, cheering, screaming, hugging and celebrating the great news! They went back to GenRight pit tent to review the day, and talk about how excited they are to be a part of such a fantastic team and an exciting day.
Later on, GenRight found out that Derek West had missed part of the course on Elvis. There was a straightaway that by passed the turn off for the checkpoint, resulting in a time penalty for Derek. Tony felt bad for Derek, since it was an easy mistake to make and was probably made by many racers that day.
At the end of the day, Tony’s co-driver Bryan only had to get out of the car three times on the last lap. During the course of the day, Tony got passed three times and went up the waterfall on Wrecking Ball twice. Tony doesn't like to take the bypasses since he feels it's not in the spirit of the race to take the alternate route. In hindsight, the two places Tony got stuck he could have taken the bypass which would have improved his time about 15 minutes. With those 15 minutes saved, Tony potentially could have won the race, but as Tony says…“that’s racing!”
Looking back on the day, Tony is convinced that the Falken tires were a tremendous asset and Tony believes that he could not have done nearly so well without them. Given this race is held on some of the toughest terrain in the world, the tires held up extraordinarily well!
At the finish line, the car looked great, and after it was dusted off, you'd never even know that it had been in such a gruelling race. It was in near pristine condition, with not more than a scratch on either side. The next day, Tony was even able to give rides in the race car to some team members, media, and friends.
Jordan Pellegrino did exceptionally well with a 4th place finish for his very first race in a simple TJ with a 6 cylinder engine. Jordan hopes to get his driver’s license in July. Congregations Jordan!
Richard Garrett finally got his finish, and is looking forward to a come back next year for another crack at the podium!
Tony would also like to thank Bryan, Darren, Neill and his entire pit crew for the fantastic job they did in prepping and setting up the car, their superb team-work and on-the-fly repairs. Wayne from All Tech was also a huge help in dialling in the car's suspension. At the end of the day, Tony says just making it to the finish line is a huge accomplishment on the longest and most challenging race course in KOH history.