Chat with 2014 King of the Hammers Winner Loren Healy

Feb. 19, 2014 By Josh Burns
Loren Healy earned his second King of the Hammers race in 2014, beating 157 other racers to earn the crown. For him, it’s about pushing hard …  but not too hard. “It’s all about that fine line: Do you want to go fast in the desert, do you want to go fast in the rocks, do you want to be in that grey area in the middle?”

Four years ago, Loren Healy had to pass nearly 50 cars to earn his first King of the Hammers victory in 2010. It was a surprise victory, and no one was more surprised than Healy himself, who told us at the finish line he couldn’t believe the result: “When we entered this year’s race, I was just hoping for a top 10 finish,” he said after his 2010 win. “I wanted to prove to myself and others I could be competitive in the 4400 series. I never thought we would end up in the winner’s circle. For such a small team on a tight budget and no spare parts, I am in total disbelief.”

Fast forward a few years: Healy and co-driver Casey Trijillo’s approach is no longer that of a privateer team hoping to earn a decent finishing position. Now he expects to be in contention every time. 

“Now I think we’re one of those teams that are supposed to win, or at least that’s how I feel about it,” he said. “I go to every race now to win, and if I don’t win it’s a failure.”

Win is what he did in 2014, and it’s that drive that helped make Healy only one of only two drivers to earn two KOH title (the other being Shannon Campbell). It also secured sponsor Nitto Tire its first major off-road race win, something the company was clearly excited about as it hosted a meet-and-greet event for Nitto employees and the media at its U.S. headquarters last week.

The victory for Nitto has been years in the making. The company has made a clear push in the off-road market. It released its aggressive Trail Grappler M/T off-road tire back in 2009, which has expanded to a range from 32 to 40 inches in size. Nitto has also been the title sponsor of the Ultra4 series since 2012, and it sponsors a number of racers in the series.

Loren Healy celebrates his victory with the Nitto Tire team at its U.S. headquarters in Southern California.

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Much of the credit for the success of the K-Spec Trail Grappler M/T used by Healy and other Nitto racers at KOH can be credited to Senior Staff Engineer Alan Ngo, who worked with racers and in-house engineers to develop the proper blend of durability and traction in this race-spec tire.

“I was the project manager for that tire, so I was the one getting together the information about the race, the requirements of the tire, and working with our engineers in Japan to work toward creating the right compound and construction to be able to achieve success out in the desert and in the rocks,” Ngo said.

With Nitto focusing on the tough challenges of Ultra4 Racing that blend rock crawling and desert racing into a single discipline, the toughness of the tire takes center stage.

“Definitely one of the biggest things was the durability of the tire,” Ngo said. “A lot of racers experience sidewall cuts, sidewall punctures, so that is a timely issue changing tires in the pits and having to replace tires on the course, so one of our biggest things we learned in off-road racing is the puncture resistance of tires.”

All hail the King! Loren Healy talked with us about his move from an independent front suspension rig back to a solid-axle car: “If you work hard and really tune a solid-axle car, you can get it fast in the desert. It’s not going to be an IFS car but you can get it really, really close. And that was my plan going into the race. That’s why I sold my IFS car going into the race. It was too heavy, the turning radius was miserable, and that just ruined you in the rocks.”

It was a blend of race experience, testing and engineering to develop the race-winning K-Spec tire that is performing so well in the Ultra4 series and at KOH. But how does the K-spec race tire compare to the off-the-shelf Trail Grappler M/T that the average Joe would buy?

“Tread design didn’t change – the bigger changes are in the shoulder and sidewall to provide better rock traction, so we kind of opened up the tread designs and created larger blocks to give more biting edges,” Ngo said. “There’s also a bigger groove between the tread and sidewall to provide better traction for air-downed driving.”

Loren Healy slices up his celebratory cake at Nitto Tire headquarters.

Having confidence in your tires is important to every racer, but so is knowing how to walk the fine line between pushing hard enough to win and not destroying your tires or your car. Healy says that qualifying helps him figure out how hard he can push on a given course, and he then dials that back about 10 to 15 percent on race day. The days of looking for a decent finish are long gone for Healy, though, as now he knows the target on his back is even larger than before. But that doesn’t bother him – it motivates him.

“That actually fuels me a little bit to work harder, and to go to the gym every day instead of four days a week,” he said. “That fuels my fire. If there’s people chasing me, that’s what I want. That’s what I need to keep me focused. I actually really like that part of it.”

Drive and determination are certainly important characteristics of successful racers, but anything can happen on race day – especially at the King of the Hammers. Healy’s win was impressive, and he was in a tight battle with previous KOH winners Erik Miller and Randy Slawson, among others. Unlike Miller and Slawson, who had technical issues on the final leg of the 198-mile race, Healy was able to avoid misfortune down the stretch (well, aside for his jack debacle 150 miles in), though he nearly missed the turn off for the “Elvis” section that caused a great deal of trouble for racers, and at least a few penalties for racer who missed the that section of the course entirely. The rocky, technical Elvis section comes after a high-speed section across the desert, and with it being late in the day on the third lap with sun beaming straight into the driver’s vision, it made the turnoff for the section tough to see.

“I think there are about 10 people out there really racing to win, and I think everyone else out there is racing to finish, but I just don’t know how you can approach a race like that. If you’re not racing to win you’re racing in my opinion.” – Loren Healy

“It was that time of the day, you were driving right into the sun, you couldn’t see the dash, and anytime you got into the dust you couldn’t see anything,” Healy said. “We actually blew by the corner on Elvis, too, and all of the sudden my co-driver yelled at me ‘We’re off course, we’re off course!’ so I shut down, looked sideways and recognized right away where we were at, and I ran all through the bushes to get back to course and got back on the course. Tom and the other guys that got penalized they just kept going around it, and I can understand that because if we hadn’t caught it when we did we may have been five miles past it and said, ‘Well let’s just keep going to the finish line.’”

Obviously, the 2014 season is off to a good start for Healy, but there is still a full schedule of Ultra4 racing ahead. He is also looking forward to racing his single-seat IFS car, once it’s completed, in the short-course races this year, and he will look at other opportunities in the future as well, including potentially exploring desert racing. For now, the king gets to return home and begin rebuilding for the upcoming season.

It’s early in the year, but Loren Healy already started it off right by putting himself in an elite category.

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