It’s a long trip from Cumberland, MD to Johnson Valley, CA. It seems even longer when you compare lush, mountainous Cumberland with the dirt and rocks of Johnson Valley. So who would have guessed that a young shoe from the East Coast would come out of nowhere to win the 2012 King of the Hammers title over seasoned desert racing veterans in just his third year of competition?
Erik Miller hadn’t even set foot in a desert before deciding to compete in the King of the Hammers in 2010. He and co-driver Rob Ruggiero finished a very respectable fifth overall that year, and finished 14th overall in 2011. They came back to win the whole thing in 2012, driving a Jeep-bodied buggy built in the Miller Racing shop. The pair became the youngest drivers to win King of the Hammers, and so far is the only East Coast team to do so.
Some background on King of the Hammers is probably in order. It’s kind of an off-road rally that combines elements of high-speed desert racing with the technical finesse of rock crawling. Competitors must complete the entire course (usually 150 to 160-plus miles depending on the year) in 14 hours. Each team must pass through seven checkpoints and stay within one hundred feet of the centerline over the length of the course.
While there are classes for stock 4x4s, dirt bikes, and ATVs/UTVs, the main King of the Hammers race showcases vehicles called Ultra4 Unlimiteds. These sophisticated tube frame 4x4s are capable of speeds over 100 miles-per-hour and have transfer cases with gear ratios of 100:1 or lower for rock crawling. Most Ultra4 Unlimiteds use a straight axle front suspension. Forty-inch tires and beadlock wheels are pretty standard, and most racers run GM LS based V8s making up to 800 horsepower.
We caught up with Erik Miller when he was visiting Trick Flow Specialties, which is down the street from OnAllCylinders’ world headquarters. Erik ran a set of pre-production Trick Flow GenX® 255 LS3 cylinder heads on his LS engine in 2012 and loved the heck out of them. His current Ultra4 Unlimited has a 427 cubic inch LS7 with a set of Trick Flow GenX 260 cylinder heads that makes about 700 horsepower.
Erik was kind enough to sit down with us for a few minutes and talk about his career, engines, and such.
OAC: As far as we know, there are no rocks or desert in Maryland. How did you get interested in off-road racing?
ERIK MILLER: Yeah, that’s why people always said that nobody from the East Coast could ever win King of the Hammers! I got started with rock crawling when I was in college in Pennsylvania. There was a rock crawling park nearby named Paragon where I would spend my free weekends and got hooked on the sport. So I gave up studying to be a doctor, followed my passion, and told my dad that I wanted to build cars and race. In turn, I studied marketing and got some sponsorship and did some racing locally.
OAC: What was the first off-roader that you built?
EM: I built a 2003 TJ Wrangler. The drivetrain was stock but I did an axle swap. I competed in Stock Modified class rockcrawling and did a little XRRA rock racing as well. I was a total underdog competing with guys running tube chassis and they always kept joking with me, telling me I had to get into a real car. After I qualified for King of the Hammers I built my first buggy.
OAC: So how did you manage to qualify for King of the Hammers?
EM: Ultra4 Racing (sanctioning body for KOH) did their first King of the Hammers qualifier on the East Coast at a local off-road park. I entered my Jeep just for fun and actually ended up placing ninth and earning a spot for the 2010 race.
OAC: What did you do then?
EM: My team and I decided if we were going to do this, we were going to do it right. We put together a plan, got our race car squared away and went out West in November 2009 to spend a week learning how to race in the desert. I had never been that far West, never been to the desert, so I learned a lot. I think that was probably why I did so well that first race.
OAC: What was the biggest thing you learned that first year?
EM: People always argue whether the race is won in the desert or on the rocks. I say that it can be lost in the desert and won on the rocks. Not many understand all the pitfalls of desert racing. You can be doing 100 miles-per-hour around a blind corner and all of a sudden there’s a wash. Before you know it you’re on your roof. That was a real eye-opener for me and I think that’s why I finished so well that first year (Erik placed fifth). That told me we had a good program and a good vehicle, and with some time and effort we could win, which we did two years later.
OAC: How did you get into the building side of the sport?
EM: I got into that because I had some issues with the Jeep. I broke a gear set, and my Dad asked how much it was going to cost to fix it, and I said it would probably be about a thousand dollars at a shop. So he said why don’t you get some tools and learn to do it yourself? So that’s how the builder side of this started.
I think it’s important to know that side of the deal to be a well-rounded driver. You have to know your race car intimately because when you’re in the middle of the desert and it breaks down, you need to know how to fix it. That’s been an ongoing battle for us. We’ve had one of the fastest cars on the circuit for the last five years, and the only thing that’s kept us from winning every year were small mechanical issues that were unforeseen. You have to understand that KOH is a no-chase vehicle race. The only help you get is from your competitors or from your team in the pits. You have to adapt and learn to fix those issues in the field.
OAC: Tell us a little about the people on your team.
EM: It’s definitely a team sport. Each team has to support two remote pit locations and a main pit. I’ve been very fortunate to have a close-knit group of friends that have been willing to support me all along. My co-driver is Rob Ruggiero. He’s been with me from the start, and he’s like a navigator in a rally race. We will prerun the course and note all of the pitfalls in the desert and come up with a game plan for the rocks. He has to keep me calm during the race and keep us going, especially in the dust where another pair of eyes is vital. Rob is a quick thinker and very commonsense guy, and I have a lot of trust in him.
The core of the team is made up of myself, John Balducci, and Leah Light. We handle the day-to-day of running a race team and all that comes with it. In addition to John and Leah, the rest of my crew are some of the best friends you could ask for. They are out there every year at each race, and I couldn’t do it without them. Big thanks to Scott Decker, Jake Burk, Kevin Ledder, Ryan Early, Mike Baklarz, Colin Graham, Nate Stowers, and Craig Vucich for helping me bring it all together on race day.
OAC: Most of the Ultra4 racers run LS engines. Do you?
EM: Yes, we’ve always run LS engines. Before getting together with Trick Flow, we ran modified stock engines. We started out with a 5.3L that we bored out but retained the factory heads. We quickly found out that we needed more torque, so we went to the LS3 with a stroker crank. We had good torque but didn’t do much cylinder head work, so we were stuck around the 550 horsepower mark. The sport was evolving so quickly that we needed more top end. That’s where the association with Trick Flow started.
OAC: So what is the story behind that?
EM: Trick Flow has really helped us go from a mid-pack runner to being a true contender for the win. We’ve had to really up the power of our LS engines over the past few years, and that’s an area I wasn’t familiar with. In 2011 I got in touch with Trick Flow through my contact at PAC Racing (PAC supplies valve springs to Trick Flow—ed.).
In the desert you need top-end horsepower, but on the rocks we needed low gearing and plenty of torque. We were really asking for the best of both worlds. Mike Downs at Trick Flow thought the GenX LS3 heads then in development would do the job, so he sent me a set of pre-production heads to try out. I was taking a leap of faith with them, but we ran the engine all season and were so happy with the heads. They made the power we needed and we had no durability issues whatsoever. That’s important in endurance racing like ours.
OAC: What kind of power did the LS3 make with the Trick Flow heads?
EM: If I remember correctly, we gained about 25 horsepower over the stock heads. The torque curve rose fast and stayed flat throughout the powerband, which really impressed me. I don’t care about numbers—I care about seat-of-the-pants feel. It’s all about what it (an engine) actually does in the real world.
OAC: So what engine combination are you running now?
EM: It’s an LS7 engine. It’s based on a factory block, 427 cubic inches, and running the new Trick Flow GenX 260 LS7 heads. It’s a combination we started with last season, and we saw about a 100 horsepower increase over the old LS3 combination. We’re at about 700 horsepower now and roughly 800 ft.-lbs. of torque. And that torque curve is flat, it’s really impressive. The engine pulls right out of the hole and stays there. It’s important to get that holeshot (in the desert) because we leave the line in pairs and you want to get into clean air as soon as possible. The torque is also critical in the rocks because you need that instant power to get through.
We leave the engine in the car all year. It’s very reliable, which is the biggest thing for us. You can’t have that worry about whether the engine is going to hold up through the race.
OAC: What about the rest of the drivetrain?
EM: The most common platform in an Ultra4 car is an LS engine, a GM Turbo 400 transmission, and an Atlas transfer case. They’re true four-wheel drive vehicles. Most cars have Ford 9-inch type solid axles front and rear with Spidertrax axles and aftermarket differentials that use a true 10 inch ring gear. You need strong stuff when you’re putting 700 horsepower to 40-inch tires in the rocks!
The trend is going to independent front suspension. It’s been really neat to see the evolution of the cars over the last six or seven years, guys racing rockcrawling buggies in the desert and trying to decide if you build more for the desert or the rocks. There are about 20 guys that are in it (Ultra4 racing) to win it all and building full-on race cars. We’re in that class now.
OAC: We understand that you’re building cars for other racers now.
EM: Yeah. This year we’re working on the design of the Miller Production chassis based on my current race car. We’re designing and making all the fixtures in-house. The goal is to have a car where every piece is a production part, down to the headers and the wiring. It’s a car that you can call up and order any part for, which is something we haven’t seen in this sport yet.
It’s a top-tier car and not the cheapest, but it’s the best we can build. The fact that you can call up and get a roller and then buy bolt-on parts for it is something guys seem very receptive to. We’re hoping this becomes the trend.
OAC: Do you see yourself staying with KOH and Ultra4 racing?
EM: Off-road has always been my passion. Short-course racing looks like a lot of fun, and I’ve recently gotten into UTV racing with PAC Racing (Erik is the off-road product manager for PAC—ed.) to do sway bars and spring and shock packages for the Polaris RZR XP1000. I see that market blowing up really soon. I can see myself sticking with Ultra4 and continuing to enjoy the side x sides on more of a recreational basis.
For more information on Miller Racing visit www.millerrockracing.com.