There is no denying that the Ultra4 off-road racing series is one of the most grueling and difficult forms of automotive racing that combines high-speed desert action with slow rock crawling precision and technique. Punishing for both drivers and their machines, it takes a lot of preparation, skill and luck to win one or more races during the season, let alone an entire championship.
No one knows this more than Loren Healy, driver of the ATX Wheels/Nitto Tire Unlimited Class buggy. In 2013, Healy was poised to take the Ultra4 championship but suffered a mechanical failure during the final round and finished 11th in the season. “We worked so hard all year and to have something silly like an A-Arm break and cost us the result was a real bummer," he says.
Growing up riding 4x4s, Healy began racing in 2009, and quickly rose to win the Ultra4 championship and the King Of The Hammers race in 2010. He’s raced every Ultra4 competition since then and is one of the series’ regular top finishers. “I always enjoyed the adrenaline of going fast in the desert," says Healy. "I wasn’t a desert racer to start. I was a recreational rock crawler. When they put them together in Ultra4, I had to try it. And I love what Ultra4 is; a big family with a camaraderie of racers and promoters. Its serious racing, but the family and relationships that everybody builds with each other are pretty awesome.”
The 2014 Ultra4 season begins with the King Of The Hammers Race that begins February 7th. It's the most difficult and perhaps the most popular of all the races. Healy is excited to see the growth of interest in this race, and expects more spectators will begin to line the desert for this and other Ultra4 races this season. “Last year there were 30,000 people out at King of the Hammers watching us race, and more than 300 competitors. If you compare this to 2009, there were only 100 competitors and a lot fewer spectators," he says. "It’s growing so fast and crazy. I can’t wait to see what the future brings.”
Considering that more than half of the competitors of an Ultra4 or King Of The Hammers race don't even finish, it would be an understatement to say the vehicles can get banged-up during a race. Drivers like Healy can prepare as much as they can, but ultimately they depend on the engineering and strength of the components they bolt on their vehicles. “Wheels and tires are huge in Ultra4," says Healy. "Having the awesome ATX wheels and Nitto tires that we use, are a huge part of our success and how we race. It’s about the confidence to drive as hard as I can knowing that the wheels and tires can take it, without worrying about breaking a wheel or getting a flat tire." For an Ultra4 racer, changing a flat-tire can lose valuable time and your position in a race. "Every time you have to get out and change a tire, you’re losing positions to whoever is winning the race," he says. "We don’t even carry a spare tire. I don’t want the extra weight while we’re racing and I know they’re going to hold up.”
Because the vehicles need to be capable in two completely opposite extremes, Ultra4 racing has brought about new technologies and stronger components that can handle the abuse. “As the sport grows, the technology advances with it. We’re lucky in in that there are a lot of products on the market designed for desert racing vehicles that work well for us," says Healy. "The biggest game changer recently has been the introduction of independent front suspension because it’s very forgiving. A solid axle car is like a ‘70s or ‘80s pick-up truck can handle the horsepower, but when you hit a bump, the whole vehicle reacts. IFS allows you to drive much harder. There are a few vehicles being built in 2014 that now incorporate an independent rear suspension. It looks interesting, but I want to wait and see whether it holds-up enough to be an advantage.”
Despite the A-arm failure that occurred last year, Healy believes his race buggy is still competitive and is ready for the new season. “In 2013, we built a new independent front suspension (IFS) buggy for the Ultra4 Unlimited class. It has an LS7 engine that makes 750 horsepower and 720 lbs.-ft. of torque. The drivetrain is a GM Turbo-400 automatic transmission, Atlas II transfer case, standard trophy truck 10-inch differentials, King coil-over and bypass shocks on the suspension, Nitto tires and forged ATX Slab wheels.”
With the start of the season only a several weeks away, Healy and his team are hopeful they've got the combination to take home another King Of The Hammers win, and start off the Ultra4 season well ahead of the competition. The King Of The Hammers race begins February 7, 2014 and will have more eyes focused on the racers, course and the event than ever before. With any luck, Healy and his team will take the challenge head on; focus on their goals, and walk away victorious.