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XRRA East - Gray Rock ORV Park, Alabama
Story and photos by Nolen Grogan the Rock Midget
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Anticipation for the XRRA Eastern season opener has been brewing for months in shops and garages around the country. Although a few teams have been running local events and the western series in preparation for this event, there were still those that were rushing just to finish their buggies in time to start on Saturday morning.

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One of the former was Brian Shirley. Word got out a week before the event that the Cadillac Northstar that has helped make his Jimmy's 4x4 chassis so competitive was finally dead after limping it through the Moab XRRA western opener and two MoRoc events. After discovering their replacement motor was bad, Brian and his team loaded his rig into the trailer on Wednesday and headed south from Kansas working the phones to find a replacement. Teams and friends met up at Off Road Connection on Friday with a motor brought down by fellow competitor and all-around good guy, John Markovich. Keith at Off Road Connection was incredible as he turned the keys to his shop over the gang that had gathered and said, "Make sure the building is not on fire when you guys leave", and with that, the wrench-fest went on until the job was done. Other similar stories preceded the start of the Eastern XRRA series.

Many of the buggies that showed up had under an hour of run-time before the event. Three such vehicles would carry their teams to the podium by the end of a brutal day.

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I walked the course before the event with veteran rock crawler Doug Bigelow and Ken Blume. Both of these men are tried and true competitors in both the W.E.Rock series and XRRA. It was interesting to hear their thoughts and comments on the course. Although Doug had a great run at King of the Hammers in February, he had spent his practice time preceding the race getting his buggy back together from the abuse he gave it in that event. This was to be Ken's first event as he had spent his prep time building a new house this winter. In fact, Ken was leaving right after the race to go move in!

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The course this year was excellent. Tony Cousins, owner of Gray Rock ORV and Mike Weaver teamed up to make a super challenging course. The obstacles were large and scary. There were big drops, slick climbs, boulders and mud, thanks to the 1.5" of rain we got on Friday night.

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The crowds were getting bigger and louder in anticipation of the start. The National Anthem was played and soon the sound of open headers rang through the beautiful mountains of central Alabama. Doug Bigelow was on the outside in lane 2 and Mike Moze on the inside in his wicked SXOR buggy. Chaos immediately erupted as both Mike and Doug became high centered on the first obstacle. Although they both seemed hopelessly hung up, they each got free and continued.

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Drew Goldie and Kim Sears were next on deck. Drew's rig looks fantastic after a rebuild from a fire during the King of the Hammers. Kim and Droopy Sears are in a new rig this year sporting a Jimmy's 4x4 chassis. Drew has been wrenching and his buggy has never looked better as he dove into the course in lane 1.

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Kim and Droopy were not so lucky. As Drew made a near flawless pass on the inside, all hell broke loose on the outside lane as Kim hit the terrace mid-way up the side of the course and stayed in the gas. She did a complete rear roll and landed on all 4 tires. As soon as she stopped, Kim was in the throttle for another attack! Unfortunately, the roll took her out of bounds and she timed out.

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Brian Shirley and Ken Mercer then squared off. Neither of these veteran racers had any better luck with the wicked course. Brian took a bad bounce and laid his buggy on its side and Doc Mercer in his new 600hp moon buggy could not get the slick Gray Rock rocks to cooperate.

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Up next were Wyatt Pemberton and Chris May. Wyatt is not only an XRRA rookie, but admittedly he is a rooky driver as well. Chris had just gotten his beautiful Tacoma buggy finished for the event. Neither team gave the course any mercy. Wyatt was in the Triple Nickel buggy and Chris in the #99 Tacoma became the first pair to actually finish the course. In each run prior at least one or both had DNFed.

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Nazir Adam in the #55 moon buggy and Dave Smith in the five oh buggy both fell on hard times with a flat and a roll respectively.

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Next up was Rusty Bray and Josh Murray. Each was driving insane racers more akin to a formula one car than your average Jeep. Rusty had just finished his Campbell Enterprise chassis and had very little seat time in preparation for the event. Josh Murray was just off a fantastic 4th place finish in Moab. Each attacked the course with aggressive driving and his own unique style laying down the best times for the day in each lane.

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John Markovich laid down a great run with his no mercy style on a set of Pit Bull tires. Ken Blume on the other hand, took a nasty roll on the first rock pile and DNFed.

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Levi Shirley dished out the most carnage I have ever seen on a rock crawler on his very first run of the day. Paired up with Jason Alf in the NAPA buggy, Levi tore down the first hill under throttle just to have his front end completely tear away from the buggy. Just as he was doing this, Jason Aliff laid his buggy over on its side. Both DNFed.

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Up next were Tim Cantrell and Brandon Haynes. Tim was driving a sand-rail inspired racer with a wicked sounding 383 stroker and the first set of Tennessee cut Maxxis Creepy Crawlers I have ever seen. He ripped through the course in perfect fashion only to break his rear driveline some 70 yards from the finish line. Brandon Haynes pulled off a great run in lane 2. He was the first of three new buggies built by Branik Motorsports and that buggy preformed as good as it looked.

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Paul "P" Beattie and Tony Rietdorf were up next. Paul was one of the competitors that had zero seat time in their new buggy before the event. He literally finished the buggy the night before. Unfortunately, this would plague him throughout the day as small problems kept him from completing each time. As P was stalled with electrical issues on the first rock pile, Tony in his Branik Motorsports buggy attacked the course hard. As he rounded the back corner of the course he seemed to break every part in his front axle. First the drive flange broke and as he tried to get up the hill in 3WD, he took out his Detroit locker. Both DNFed.

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Stan Haynes, owner of Branik Motorsports then paired off against veteran Stock Mod driver Derek West in his new Jimmy's 4x4 chassis. Stan attacked just like the rest of his team in his new buggy. On the parallel course, Derek drove smoothly around the course like his buggy was on rails. Fresh off a first place win at MoRoc, Derek was in his element pulling off a clean consistent time.

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Finally Danny Rohrer and Adam Carter came downhill into the course. Both of these vehicles were on their first race. Danny has redone the venerable Wombat buggy into a low-slung, light weight racer. Adam and his spotter/father Pops built his racer in the 60 days prior to the event. Of course you could not tell that either had zero seat time in their new buggies as they laid down 2 of the best scores of the day.

Lanes were changed and luck was still bad for some of the racers. Bigelow rolled in the same spot Ken Blume had rolled and Mike Mose took another DNF. Next, Drew Goldie took the uphill turn too hot and rolled his buggy uphill while Kim Sears managed to get her buggy hopelessly mired in the rocks.

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The next crowd pleasing moment was when Wyatt Pemberton in the 555 buggy flopped before the first rock pile. Using the winch and teamwork they managed to right the buggy with 90 seconds left. Adrenaline was flowing as he launched the buggy up and over in a cloud of smoke and dust, just to roll again.

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As the course began to get worked in, the numbers of finishers and good times went way up.

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Team Napa was running the course solo since Levi Shirley was out for the day. Just as he was almost out of the woods, he took his second roll on his second course.

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The course was reversed after everyone had competed in each lane. Because of some really ugly climbs and the fact that some of the morning extractions had taken longer than usual, the XRRA team made a decision to alter the course and make it faster for the afternoon.

The first crowd pleasing moment of the reverse course was with Team Fat-Boy. Mike decided to let his co-driver have a go behind the wheel and that is when things got interesting. Never loan your buggy out in completion! Not only did he roll the SXOR buggy on the first hill, after the buggy landed on all 4 he went right back and rolled it again. Excellent entertainment.

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Doug Bigelow could not catch a break. He high-centered on the same rock that he had on his first run of the day. I overheard him telling Mike Weaver he was in for a butt kicking if he ever got the first spot again.

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The next person to "rent" his buggy to his spotter was when Ken Mercer decided to let Bender have a go at the course in the 600 hp moon buggy. Bender laid down a great time on what was the hardest lane of the race. Although he struggles some on the uphill section later, he put on a great show for the crowd.

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Not to be outdone, the rookie team of Triple Nickel Racing put on a show for the crowd. After clearing the last rock pile of the course, Wyatt ended up laying the buggy over on its side. Wyatt then managed to drive out of the flop in a cloud of smoke and attacked the uphill section with a near vertical wheel stand.

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It was evident that the drivers and spotters were starting to get into the groove. Rolls and breakage were becoming less and less and the times were getting lower. Fast times were being laid down by the 2 seaters with V6 motors as well as the huge HP moon buggies.

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John Markovich had the most incredible run of the day in lane 1. Just as he dropped in a big hole on the back side of the course, he got turned around and had to drive backwards on the course. Next, he did a front dig around a tree and crossed the deep hole again. As he was coming out of the hole he did a complete roll only to land on all 4 wheels to finish the race. It was insane.

Rookie team Dirty Thirty with driver P Beattie was having a tough time with the mechanical issues throughout the day. As they made the climb on the last course they ended up falling off the ledge and rolling on the roof. They slid about 30 feet on the roof only to catch fire. It was exciting, but everyone was ok in the end.

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Adam Carter had a real heartbreaker on his last run of the day. He had pulled off 3 very consistant runs up to the final one. All he had to do was finish to make him the top seed in the shootout. As he approached the last rock pile in lane 2, he broke an axle and took out a tire leaving him to time out in frustration.

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