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W.E. Rock Grand Nationals get wild and vertical

39 buggy drivers crawl up and down the sandstone cliffs in Chokecherry Canyon
Marvin Hickey descends a rock face, spotted by Darrel Cloudt. (David Edward Albright/Tri-City Record)

Mild September weather – calm, with temperatures in the 80s – set the stage Sunday for the W.E. (World Extreme) Grand Nationals Rock Crawling Championship Series in Farmington.

Seven classes, including Unlimited, Pro Trail, Pro Mod, Sportsman A, B, C, and Kid Buggy, presented extreme terrain and tight course challenges to drivers of wide-ranging ages, along with their indispensable spotter teammates.

Colby and Caleb Good were on the scene helping their father, Jake Good, from Kansas City. Colby Good, who was manning the T-shirt and memorabilia stand, said his dad and brother competed in the event in about 2010.

He said they’ll soon own the extreme event, which has been around for about 30 years.

Abe Croney of Salt Lake City said it was his first year to compete in the rock crawl. He was in the unlimited class, which is the highest level. His buggy, which broke down on Saturday, was powered by a light, 400 pound 2.0, LTG, Ecotec/4-cylinder turbo that puts out 350 horsepower.

Croney said he was maneuvering around the edge of Bonus Hill when his buggy slid loose and rolled, landing on its top.

Abe Croney, from Salt Lake City, relaxed on Sunday after breaking a transmission during a rollover on Saturday. (David Edward Albright/Tri-City Record)

“Just the torque of it broke the transmission,” he said, adding that he was strapped in tightly and wasn’t hurt. The drop was about 6 feet, he said. “We've got some big ones, but we’ve rolled them a lot higher,” Croney said with a hearty laugh.

Croney said it’s not a big spectator sport so “we know everybody involved.” It’s more about “bragging rights.”

Andy Valdez, from Bloomfield, was sitting up high in his impressive rig, which was powered by a 502-cubic inch General Motors Craig engine that’s rated at about 500 horsepower with “lots of torque.”

Valdez started building the monster crawler after buying the engine – used mainly in marine applications – in 2012.

Working steadily in his spare time, Valdez finished the street-legal vehicle in 2013. He said they eliminated the buggy class that year so he ended up as a “weekend warrior.”

Andy Valdez of Bloomfield built his street-legal monster rock crawler in about 1 1/2 years in his spare time. (David Edward Albright/Tri-City Record

“That’s why I ended up with 54-inch Mickey Thompson's, 20-inch wheels that are standard with a 2½-ton military Rockwell military (axles) … and aftermarket axle shafts,” Valdez said.

He said his category is for “rigs that have 54-inch or bigger tires.”

With an Atlas 2-speed, twin-stick shifter, which allows the driver to separate front and rear, Valdez has many options with a turbo 400 General Motors transmission.

“Yes, you can have a rear (for instance) in neutral … and put the front end in low range gear and … they call it front dig,” Valdez said, regarding the steering technology required for the very tight courses in the competition.

Valdez, also a metal sculptor, showed photos of mule deer antlers and roses that he’s sculpted out of steel.

“Conquering large boulders, steep climbs, rock ledges and massive drops, all while avoiding strategically placed cones,” W.E. Rock describes the challenge of the sport on their website.

Depending on the class the competitors choose to compete in, their vehicle must follow some basic build rules and safety requirements.

“The courses are designed to provide the most action for the spectators throughout the weekend and force drivers to push what they have built to the limits,” the website says.

Rules of the competition
  • Once on the course the driver and spotter have 10 minutes to navigate three to four gates without hitting cones and with as few backups as possible.
  • Each cone hit or backup adds points to their score, and the team with the lowest score wins.

The 67-page rule book (67 pages) is for competitors, judges and spectators.

Jennifer Cloudt, from Waco, Texas, was here with her husband Darrel, who was spotting for Marvin Hickey. She said the most rewarding aspect of the sport for her was being in “nature.”

Cloudt, who’s been here five or six times, said it’s a “beautiful area with nice people.”

Hickey pulled off an amazing recovery when descending the course. It appeared he would flip headlong on the last few yards of the course, but he steered and revved out of the nearly vertical drop perfectly to land safely.

Cloudt explained that the spotter communicates through portable radio/headphones to give precise directions to the driver about where the cones are and which way to turn the independent four wheels.

Darrel said that clear communication is the key because “the driver has an opinion and I have an opinion … at the end of the day, it's up to the driver to make the decision.”

Darrel said it was their second competition ever and the first time that vehicle had been on the course.

Cloudt explained that Hickey got out of the jamb by accelerating and gaining traction with the front wheels to get the “center of gravity back on rear end.”

As the sound system pumped out a familiar Led Zeppelin tune, the crowd cheered with approval.

Emily Manders, 10, from Montrose, Colorado, with her father, Rob, as spotter, prepared to head straight up an imposing boulder face. She agreed that the sport offered extreme excitement and adventure.

Emily Manders, age 10, maneuvers her buggy to climb and avoid the cone. (David Edward Albright/Tri-City Record)

She was ranked fifth in the Sportsman A class at the end of the competition.

Randy Marlow of Weatherford, Texas, in his second year of competition, said he’s had “less than 18 hours” of trail time in his rig, which he bought and modified considerably.

His rig has a 1.9 liter Saturn rear engine, with a transaxle, no transfer case and the standard 4-wheel steering.

Marlow said the most exciting aspect of the sport is the is the “competition and how well everybody gets along, competes and pushes each other.”

“At the end of the day it’s a big family. … We all push each other to do better by ragging on everybody … a bunch of grown men beaten on a bunch of money out on the rocks.”

Katelyn Boren, 16, a driver from Hurricane, Utah, was spotted by her father, Kevin. Competing since age 13, Boren ended up ranked second in the ProMod class.

“I've had a lot of victories … and some not-so-good weekends, but I always love coming back and always learning something,” Boren said.

In her third year at the Farmington event, Boren said, “I love this area so much and it’s so remarkable and there's so much to do.”

Asked what the sport does for her, without hesitation she said, “It fills my soul.”

Martin Hernandez, manager of the O’Reilly’s Auto Parts in Kirtland, provided the cooling rags, hats and water. “I'm enjoying it … I like the environment, the people, the cars … it’s pretty nice!”

Grand Nationals Winners


Dave Wong/Nate Reed

Pro Trail

Tyler Harper/Holt Porter

Pro Mod

Braxton Coleman/Bret Robison

Sportsman A

Landen Brown/Wyatt Brown

Sportsman B

Juan Oceguera/Ray Matinez

Sportsman C

Chris McKinzie/Josh Griffin

Kid Buggy

Gunner Brown/Wyatt Brown