Kennewick's Bales, Hoffman take off-roading to a new level

March 14, 2013 

Kennewick’s Mike Hoffman loves racing cars. But not the circular track type of cars. No, Hoffman likes to race four-wheel-drive vehicles in events that are out in the desert and over rocks.

Such was the case last month, when Hoffman and his friend Jeremy Bales raced in an event called King of the Hammers near Johnson Valley, Calif., an event Hoffman says is like being in “a 14-hour car wreck.”

Hoffman and Bales made the starting grid in the seventh annual event the day before in a last-chance qualifier in a much-shorter distance.

For Hoffman, who is 26 and works for Connell Oil, it was a dream come true.

“We’ve been watching this race for the last six years, and we’ve been part of it (as race team support) the last couple years,” Hoffman said. “You see guys race the last six years, guys I consider legends, and now I’m racing beside them.”

And the fact that Hoffman took two years and spent $40,000 to build his own car made the event that much more special.

“There’s something that gives back to you when you build your own car,” Hoffman said. “With off-road racing there is just something about it. A very small percentage of drivers do it, and even a smaller percentage finishes it. We’ve done the hardest off-road race in the world.”

That’s what the King of the Hammers is called.

Here’s how it works: drivers and their navigators are sent off 30 seconds at a time to complete a three-lap course within 15 hours.

Lap No. 1 consisted of 52 miles of nothing but desert.

Lap No. 2 was 63 miles, with a combination of desert but mostly rocks.

Lap No. 3 was much the same as the second lap — 63 miles but with even more rocks.

Hoffman drives as fast as he can, while Bales — sitting in the passenger seat — mans a 5-inch monitor GPS unit.

“We get 100 yards on either side of course, he lets me know,” said Hoffman of Bales.

Bales, a 36-year-old who paints cars for a living, keeps his eye on the GPS most of the time.

“A lot of my job is basically watching the GPS, letting him know where we’re going,” Bales said. “I let him know what turns are coming, if we’re going off course. There were a couple of times where we were just a little off course.”

For Hoffman, the desert was the worst part of the race.

“The desert is hard, super hard, on cars,” he said. “The desert there will make Juniper Dunes look like a paved parking lot. I want to be in the rocks. That’s where my background is: rock crawling.”

What makes this event so hard is the variance of speed. In the desert, a driver might reach speeds of 100 mph. But when it comes time to crawl up the rocks, he could be going as slow as 2 mph.

Cars get broken over the rough terrain.

In fact, only 27 drivers out of 129 entered even finished the race within the 15-hour window.

Hoffman and Bales were among those who did not complete the race.

“We ended up completing two laps out of the three,” Hoffman said. “When we crossed the start-finish line after the second lap, they gave us the red flag and checkered flag because it was dark and there was no way we were going to finish in time.”

The two had one mechanical breakdown, a driveline, that took them roughly 90 minutes to fix.

Bales — who also races stock cars, mud boggers and is an admitted race junkie — also is in charge of maintenance of Hoffman’s car. And he also gets out of the vehicle to talk Hoffman over certain rock piles.

“Mike is really good at rock crawling,” said Bales, who lives in Kennewick. “I was pretty impressed. I was never uncomfortable about him rolling it.”

Randy Slawson won the race, completing the three laps in 7 hours, 28 minutes and 10 seconds.

“Randy Slawson drives like a man possessed,” said Hoffman.

Bales agreed.

“It’s something you almost had to watch to believe,” he said. “(Slawson) came by in the rocks just absolutely flying. How do their cars stay together like that?” Simple. Some drivers spend close to $200,000 on their vehicles, using better equipment.

In fact, one of the highlights for Hoffman and Bales was passing Robbie Gordon in his expensive vehicle around mile marker 38.

But the biggest highlight would be to finish the event.

“To finish, that is your best goal,” Hoffman said.

So all this work they put in, and they don’t finish?

It’s a good thing both men have supportive wives, Hoffman’s wife Brittani and Bales’ wife Loriel.

It’s more about the journey, Bales said.

“It was definitely an awesome experience,” he said. “You have to live it to understand it.”

And they both want to go back and do it again next year.

So towards that end, Hoffman is already working on building a new car.

“He wants more power,” Bales said.

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