Just one week ago today I sat down for the first in a series of RACER.com interviews with the most influential people in off-road racing. The mission? To offer insight into the rapidly growing off-road motorsports segment with its movers and shakers.
Our first guest? Three-time King of the Hammers winner Jason Scherer. Long regarded as one of rock racing’s most forward-thinking personalities, Scherer was prepping to defend his 2019 KOH crown as we sat down in his heated, trackside tent for a cup of his sponsor’s brand of java known as “Clutch and Coffee.”
After just a few minutes, it struck me that Scherer, who hails from the northern California town of Danville, is today’s reincarnate of the late “Baja” Bob Gordon. A consummate strategist who dissects every aspect of his game to find and exploit any advantage he can, like Gordon Scherer isn’t a guy who races but rather a rare breed of pure racer.
Marty Fiolka: Looking around here the day before the big KOH race, it’s hard to believe where this all started isn’t it?
Jason Scherer: Rock crawling was cool, but after we saw the same slow obstacles for long enough, fans and drivers wanted to do something more. Everyone really wanted to race in the desert, because it’s way more exciting. We watched the whole thing blow up, with builds all over the old Pirate 4×4 website.
That allowed us to switch from racing for championships to pinnacle events, because there was only the King of the Hammers. Then, in 2011 or so, Best in the Desert allowed a 4400-class at their Vegas-to-Reno race, which Dave (Cole) and I did. Things progressed even faster then, because now guys could see the potential in it all.
Really, that’s the insane part (laughs). It’s a rock donkey race through rock crawling crap like we have done for a million years. All of a sudden, it’s bigger and badder and then bigger and badder again. Everyone believes their own BS and it starts snowballing from there. But it’s working. It’s crazy. Now you can’t not be here.
MF: You were instrumental in exploring a much bigger path for the sport by building a specific car just for this [King of the Hammers] event, correct?
JS: This is the pinnacle event. We put all our effort here — even the chassis is specific for this race.
It happened back in 2008 when I asked Shannon Campbell to build a dedicated KOH car. Nobody had done that yet; it wasn’t a thing yet. We were still competing in old-fashioned rock crawling. That car had the lightweight rear-end and the Chevy LS engine, but we still had air shocks. I remember calling John Marking at Fox and telling him we needed to move to bypass shocks. They said we could never make these cars fast in the desert. We bought the first set of bypass shocks for rock crawling and made that car work pretty good. In its first race we had a 51-minute lead on corrected time. That was all it took to make everyone start new builds.
MF: Well, that was 2008. Things have progressed to where the best unlimited Class 4400 vehicles are now outright, top-level race cars that cost more than $400,000 correct?
JS: They are only $400,000 because our side of business doesn’t pad it enough. Everyone on this side of the fence does most of the work themselves. There’s not a team of guys doing the work — I mean, Shannon (Campbell) is out in his shop doing the work.
But, when you think about it, a lot of the parts now are interchangeable, and those Trophy-Truck desert guys are looking are our technology with all-wheel drive systems and stuff like that. I have James Lin doing my wiring and my car is all the Motec stuff – it’s all the same: Brown and Miller plumbing and C&R radiators. The engines all cost $60,000 to $70,000 at least.
MF: You have driven some of the very best new race cars now, both in rock racing and in the Baja desert. What sticks out the most?
JS: Well, I just tested Cody Waggoner’s Lasernut car to help out Cameron Steele, who is driving it for tomorrow’s race. It’s an IFS (Independent Front Suspension) and and IRS (Independent Rear Suspension) car that’s also 96 inches wide. A modern Trophy-Truck is, what, 92 inches wide? It takes an adaptation in driving style because the portal hubs makes it stick out, but the ground clearance is absolutely insane. The stuff that I used to have to pick a line for you can now just kind of party through. The rocks turn into whoops, and you almost don’t have to think of them as being rocks because you are not going to drag your A-arms on them.
But, of course, it’s still a ton of unsprung weight. Don’t know how it was set-up, but Cody’s car felt happiest around 85 miles an hour in the whoops; after that you can feel it losing the handle a bit. Our car is better in that portion of the course, but it’s all still a compromise.
MF: Does the performance of today’s 4400 cars still surprise people?
JS: Funny you mention that. We were sitting down with Brad Lovell (the 2020 KOH Every Man’s race winner) at dinner the other night after we did all this testing. He asked Mike Kim from Fox how my car was, and he said it was unbelievable, that it was faster than a lot of the Trophy-Trucks and the 6100 class trucks, too. Brad was stunned, because he has an old Ultra 4 car and now competes in the 6100 class too. So, the word is getting out there. These aren’t rock donkey race cars anymore.
Postscript: The next day, Scherer took advantage of his second-place qualifying run to lead the first portion of the 2020 KOH easily in his No. 76 Fox / BFGoodrich-backed machine before succumbing to a broken transmission.
However, that was not before proving his point about enhanced performance. The KOH course from race mile 6 to race mile 28 was technical, had big bumps and was shared by both the Class 4400 and the T-1 (Trophy-Truck) classes. T-1 winner Bryce Menzies’ average speed here was a whopping 59.70 MPH in his all-wheel drive Mason, while second place finisher Luke McMillin managed 50.60 MPH in his two-wheel drive Racer.
Scherer’s speed through the same section? An eye-opening 50.89 MPH.