With this year's King of the Hammers -- aka "The Ultimate Desert Race" -- right around the corner, Ultra4 fans are gearing up for a bumpy ride!
We stole time with King of the Hammers competitor and driver of the WIDIA Rock Racer, David Buchberger, for a quick interview in hopes of capturing the excitement that goes along with race prep. Here's what David had to say about his relationship with 4x4 racing (and the WIDIA Rock Racer), his past KOH experiences, and his thoughts going into this year's competition.
Q: David, tell us a little about yourself. How long have you been involved in racing?
Well, I'm 36 and I've been wheeling since I was 16, so I've been off-roading more than half my life. All that time, I've been involved in building my own rigs. When you don't have a lot of money, that's how you get started. Growing up, I was welding, grinding, and rebuilding whatever I could to get out there. Racing is a relatively recent development -- within the last five or six years now. The support from WIDIA really took it to the next level.
Q: Good for you. How did you get hooked up with WIDIA?
Hi-Speed Corporation, where I've worked for nearly 12 years now, is the WIDIA representative on the West Coast. My dad was a distributor and I met Jonathan Saada, Hi Speed's owner and founder through him. Jonathan's one of the smartest people I've ever met -- and not just in machining knowledge but how to assess situations and solve problems. Give him a challenge and he'll come back at you with more options than you thought possible.
I had competed in two King of the Hammers Races and was in the process of building a new race car when Bernie McConnell (VP, WIDIA Products Group and Services) called. We were talking about how he had heard about KOH and what I would think of WIDIA sponsoring the car. Considering my first one took seven years to build and I had already come to grips with sitting out at least the next two seasons to get my next one built, the word that came to mind was "unbelievable." I wouldn't have to miss the next season and the car would be incredibly competitive.
Q: King of the Hammers is right around the corner. Can you tell us what it's all about?
The hammer trails in Johnson Valley, CA, are definitely some of the wildest around. King of the Hammers started with 13 teams (the OG13) racing for a case of beer. This year, it's 215 miles of desert-floor racing with stops for rock-climbing without. Competitors start side-by-side, two vehicles every thirty seconds, and must complete the course in less than 14 hours. Each team must pass through seven checkpoints while staying wihtin one hundred feet of the centerline of the course. KOH is a no-chase-team race; repairs can only be done on the track by the racers or in the pit area. It's the fastest-growing motor sport today, bar none -- the wildest to watch and that much wilder to compete in. There were 13 teams in 2007 and more than 300 last year.
Q: And it spawned its own class of racing, referred to as Ultra4, right?
Right. Ultra4's only requirement is that the race car is capable of 4-wheel drive and strict but fair safety requirements. Beyond that, the class in unlimited, meaning all cars are custom-fabricated and come in all shapes and sizes. To win, you have to be capable fo speeds over 100 MPH and have gear ratios low enough for rock crawling.
4x4 Pre-Running, Nito Tire National Championship, Reno NV. Photo Courtesy: Ultra4 Racing
Q: There's no sugar-coating it, this course chews up race cars as well. How has yours changed over the years?
It's a progression. The design is 100% mine front to back. My first effort was good, but not competitive. When WIDIA got on board for the 2012 race, that all changed.
Q: How did that change?
Well, I mentioned my first race car took seven years to design and build, and I was prepared to sit out a season to add all the things I wanted before WIDIA got involved. Take trusses for example; they stiffen the axles and support the upper suspension. Most fabricators weld different thicknesses of plate together because you need the perfect balance between light weight and high strength. I was able to take bars of cold-rolled 1818 steel, a grade known for a good balance of strength and ductility, and mill truss components down to 0.040-inch honeycomb for a very strong, yet light component. This kind of work can really eat up hours, but with the new WIDIA-Hanita VariMill II End Mills, we were able to ramp into the material at 40 inches per minute, roughing it with a half-inch mill and finishing the pockets and carving the edges with a three-sixteenths mill.
Let me add how important truss strength is. Last year, another guy hit me so hard it shoved my axle over about eight inches. I went end over end, seven times. There was a quarter-inch plate on the car that peeled away like a pop can, but the truss was perfect. In fact, none of the millwork failed. I wish I could mill the whole car.
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Q. How do you feel about the latest iteration of the WIDIA Rock Racer?
I feel really good about it this year. Racing like this is raw awesome, but it takes an incredible amount of time and resources. This year, there's a whole new front end, whole new upper cage, and a whole new fuel-delivery system for starters. It's a cab-forward, mid-engine, manual transmission design with all-wheel drive (AWD) -- the only Ultra4 car to my knowledge with AWD.
Q. And that meant more custom parts?
Parts never seen before. For example, we built a custom adapter between the transfer case and the transmission out of 6061 T6 Aluminum. This adapter is commonplace, but re-splining the 8620 case-hardened output shaft on a mill-turn machine was very challenging. The milled 32-spline output shaft from the transmission was then fit in an input gear on the t-case that was custom EDM'ed. Milling and heat-treating the steel for maximum hardness and toughness gave us the ability to use the only AWD transfer case in Ultra4 currently.
Milling splines is not a particularly easy operation. We adapted a two-flute WIDIA-Hanita™ solid-carbide end mill to act as a spline cutter for the output shaft. Our parts have some of the tightest tolerances out there.
King of the Hammers Throwback -- February 2014
Q. How would you describe your progression in Ultra4 Racing?
The learning curve is nothing short of immense. When I started, I was in the mindset of designing and building everything myself. You own your own concept, but it's a misconception to think you can be the expert in everything. It's a kind of arrogance that failure does a great job stripping away.
The most valuable lesson I've learned is you need to give your car away to people in the field you trust to deliver the best of what they do. For example, my skill set is building suspensions. This year's car has input from a pro chassis builder, a pro transmission tuner, a custom fuel-delivery system, and so on. In fact, I'd like to recognize my co-driver this year, Scott Lewis, the owner of Sterling Autosport out of Murietta, California. Scott is a pro mechanic and runs his own shop building supercars. He's done a lot in a lot of areas to make the car competitive this year. The result is I truly feel like I'm co-driving a great car for 2015.