As a photojournalist, you occasionally stumble across a story that writes itself—a tale that begs to be heard by as many people as possible. Such was the case when it came to learning about the plight of Stinger Motorsport during its participation in the 2019 King of the Hammers race in Johnson Valley, California. Finishing 26th overall out of 111 entry vehicles takes a team effort to overcome the incredible adversities of race day. Sometimes life throws you lemons, but never in their wildest dreams could the team have expected how difficult it would be to squeeze the most out of them.
Take a step back at any race and you will dig up some great stories of triumph and failure. Seldom do these tales have as many layers as the challenges experienced by the Livonia, Michigan-based team. Stinger was dealt a heavy blow leading into the race that ended up being a blessing in disguise.
“I rolled the truck during an exhibition at the Four-Wheel Jamboree, which resulted in us having to tear down and essentially rebuild the truck from the ground up again,” team owner Shaun Day explains.
At the time, the team was not too excited to repair any damages, but were thankful to see that Shaun only sustained inconsequential injuries from the gnarly high-speed roll.
During this time of reconstruction, the crew discovered several loose ends from previous owners. Their competition vehicle was a second-hand racing truck; hired by various drivers over the years, it had been tossed around like a gym class practice ball and there were many tired components and gremlins hidden inside. Spearheaded by crew chief Dave Williams, it took the gang over 1,600 man-hours to get the truck sorted out. Shaun, along with driver Chris Paiva and co-driver Tad Dowker, reached out to friends for their help. Tim Smigowski and Don Dowker were instrumental in the process of rebuilding the machine, along with Ben Meador, who Shaun had met at a local Michigan event and spoke fluent off-road wheelin’. The team effort had the Bomber Chassis 4400 in the best shape of its life and it was finally ready for the trek to California—or so they thought.
Shaun completed the 2,200-mile drive in the Stinger rig, which rolled onto the dry lakebed early in the week. He met up with crew members, Drew Wadolny and Josh Lambeth, who towed the week’s RV accommodations from Phoenix. Once they got squared away and the rest of the team trickled in, the truck was backed out of the hauler and fired up. It didn’t take long before they noticed something wasn’t right. The massaged-over LS3 engine wouldn’t idle correctly, and stumbled upon throttle application.
“It was exhibiting all the characteristics of bad ignition or fuel issues, but we spent a couple days going over the truck to figure out what was going on,” said driver Chris Paiva. They enlisted the assistance of nearby racers, Team 208 Motorsports, to try to get everything sorted out. It was finally traced back to a blunder that occurred during the rebuild. Somehow anti-seize instead of Loctite was used when they installed the new fuel lines and fuel filter. A bit of the lubricant oozed its way into the fuel line and clogged the injectors. With Pep Boys not exactly around the corner, the racing family on the lake bed came to the rescue. The team was able to scrounge up a new set of LS injectors and fuel components to make her healthy once again.
As rewarding as it was to get the vehicle running properly, the downtime used for diagnosis and repair cost the team dearly. Drivers Chris and Tad were too busy fixing the truck to pre-run the course, which is one of the most crucial steps in any off-road race. It helps the team strategize its plan for race day and provides them with a better understanding of the 300-plus-mile, three-lap circuit layout so they do not go into the race blind.
Additionally, the team uses the pre-run to make final adjustments and changes before the race. This was another area of detriment, as they knew coming in that the custom changes they made to the truck’s suspension needed some TLC from Fox Racing Shocks to get everything dialed in for the event. Chris was the Vehicle Dynamics Engineer on a little project you may have heard of built by Ford Performance known as the Raptor, and it’s evident that he knows a thing or two about suspension.
With the help of the Stinger team’s braintrust and some late nights plugging numbers away on the incredibly powerful computers at Ford Performance, they tailored the suspension on the Bomber to boost chassis performance. Some of the time before the race was set aside with Fox to target the suspension, but the setbacks put them behind the eight ball, and they were only able to get in a short night test in. Their unique setup was binding the suspension coils—as predicted by Chris—and eventually a Fox employee personally delivered the necessary spring ratio late Thursday night, just before the race began on Friday morning.
As the domino effect took hold on Stinger, they had to push back the fabrication of their new light bar brackets until Thursday morning. Final tech inspection is held later in the afternoon that day, and the lemons kept rolling their way. At the CNC booth, the brackets were cut and welded to the frame; on the way back to the pit area, the bar for the passenger side window net managed to slip through the porous floors, never to be seen again. As half of the team went looking for the elusive bar, a few of the guys remained at the trailer fabricating a new quick release bar. They ultimately went with the new one and rolled through the vendor village with time to spare to visit sponsors with the truck on their way to tech. Something finally went their way as the team passed tech with flying colors. They were even complimented on having the best snacks packed away; it is mandatory that snacks and water are carried in the vehicle at all times.
The day’s work was far from done. That night, a fly on the wall under the canopy at the Stinger Motorsport hauler would have certainly suffered an anxiety attack in addition to freezing to death as temperatures dropped below 30 degrees. Drew took a blue pen to the dry erase board and began to list off more than 17 tasks that needed to be completed before anyone could go to bed. As each item was checked off the list, Fox Racing showed up with the new springs and a tool to make the job easier for Andy Eustice and Dave to install. The springs were the ticket to better performance, but with zero time on the suspension entering the race, Chris says he would have loved more time to dial in the shock settings.
Friday morning came much too quickly and it hadn’t warmed up in the slightest bit. The team’s misfortune also meant they had to start at the back of the 111-vehicle pack because they didn’t get any qualifying done. Once the green light dropped, all the worries leading up to the race were forgotten. On the first lap alone, Chris powered his way through the field, passing other trucks with ease.
“This wasn’t a truck that would have qualified in the back of the pack,” Drew tells us. “It should be really quick through the technical parts of the track, but lose out a little on the high speed desert sections.”
With a steady eye on the YB Races app used for tracking the individual GPS units on each truck, it felt like the Stinger team was passing a new truck every couple of updates from the feed. They had quickly worked their way into the top 70 before their lap one pit stop in Hammertown.
On lap two, the most bitter lemon any of them had ever tasted was about to fall onto the orange Ultra4 racer. Things got off to an impressive start as Chris piloted his way through Chocolate Thunder, one of the more infamous trails. There, the Stinger duo threw pie into the face of another competitor that took a bad line through the rocks. Chris charged ahead as Tad directed him to take a hard right and drive right past the other competitor as cheers erupted from the spectator hill adjacent to the course. As they approached the next obstacle—Jackhammer—a driver who was already on the third lap had caught up to them. Chris took a more challenging path through this section and the third lap driver squeaked past right before the checkpoint to receive their completion decal. It was here that the fate of the team was sealed.
The third lap driver was pointed onto a section that was reserved for the final lap and the checkpoint worker—in error—pointed Chris and Tad in the same direction. Remember that whole jazz about not getting a chance to pre-run? It became a factor for them as they followed the other team up the hill. This extended section of the circuit was not budgeted for in the second lap fuel reserves and the crew chief, Dave, was concerned about running low as they made their way toward the end of the lap. Some good news was relayed over the radio, however, as the Ultra4 staff conceded to their error and told the team they could skip the alternate section on their third lap. It wasn’t long after this that the GPS tracker stopped moving. Vehicle 313 was motionless a little more than two miles from the pits.
The team went into panic mode and everyone sprang into action to clean out a couple gallon jugs to fill with race fuel and shoved them into a backpack. Tad confirmed he would jump out of the truck and run all the way to pit row where he could legally accept the fuel to bring back. After what felt like an eternity, Tad emerged at the starting line and looked like death. He poured some high quality H2O over his head as Shaun told him the grim news: “You only have an hour and a half to start your final lap before getting disqualified.”
Tad shoved a bag of dangerously cheesy Cheetos into his mouth and began his jaunt back to the truck. By the time he reached Chris, it was dark outside and the temperatures were dropping fast. Far off in the distance, the Stinger team could finally make out a set of lights cresting over the hills. When they rolled through for a full fuel top-off, the look of determination on Paiva’s face could be seen through his visor. They were gonna make it, and nothing was going to stop these guys.
Stinger Motorsport became the 26th truck to complete the 2019 King of the Hammers. More than 80 vehicles couldn’t even finish what is considered the most brutal race in America. For this team of Michigan boys, it couldn’t have happened without the incredible will of everyone involved in the project. A preposterous number of hiccups snowballed into the formation of this tale, but it was resolved with a beautiful conclusion. We’ll see Stinger Motorsports next February—hopefully with less absurdity and more champagne and Cheetos!