ULTRA4 INVADES THE UK FOR 2015 KING OF WALES

(Originally published August 24, 2015 on http://www.drivingline.com)

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ULTRA4 EUROPE: KING OF WALES

August 8 – 9, 2015 |Walters Arena, Glyn Neath, Neath Port Talbot, Wales

The 2015 King of Wales race (formerly King of the Valleys) marked another huge step forward for Ultra4 Europe. Returning to Walters Arena in Glyn Neath for the fourth year in a row, teams from the US, Portugal, France, Italy, Malta, England, Wales, Scotland, and even Belgium lined up and battled it out over two grueling days.

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The course was as punishing and brutal as any US-based course, excluding the toughest-one-day-race, King of the Hammers in Johnson Valley, CA. It tested the drivers’ mental and physical abilities as well as the trademark endurance/survival of machines that has become the hallmark of Ultra4 racing. King of Wales consisted of a Prologue (Qualifying) on Thursday night, Stage 1 on Saturday, a Night Stage Saturday night, and finally Stage 2 on Sunday. It was a timed event with a prescribed number of laps for each stage. The driver who completed the most laps in the least amount of time would be crowned King.

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American off-road star Levi Shirley, the reigning Ultra4 Europe Series Champion and current “King of the Valleys”, was on hand to defend his title, just one week after competing in the US at the Ultra4 Sturgis Off Road Blowout in Sturgis, Kentucky. A UK favorite and frequent competitor at the King of the Hammers, Jim Marsden and Team Gigglepin Winches, along with frequent 4700 spec class driver Axle Burmann, led a group of challengers on hand to battle young Levi for the crown.

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Prologue consisted of a 1.75-mile loop created by course designer Chris Bowler and was built to challenge the drivers with everything from rocks, to mud, to tight forest roads… without delivering too much punishment to the vehicles. Results from Prologue would be used to determine the starting order for Stage 1 on Saturday. The challenge for racers here was to find a balance between “fast enough” and “too fast”. Jim Marsden (UK) came in first, with only 3 seconds separating second and third place finishers Nicolas Montador (France) and Filipe Guimanaes (Portugal) respectively.

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Saturday morning started off with something startling and rare in Wales… sunshine. With 43 cars leaving the line at 9 AM, the locals were trying to determine which was more unusual: the roaring sounds of big American V8 engines or the clear skies and bright sun. In true “King of…” fashion, there was a massive pile-up at race km 4, allowing the leaders to run away from the pack. Once that pile-up was cleared, the bottom 30 cars all reached the “Belly Basher” rock segment at roughly the same time, creating a chaos-filled spectacle of winching and carnage, reminiscent of Sledgehammer during this past year’s KOH.

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Race Ops, lead by race director Richard Crossland, took quick and decisive action to clear the leaders who had lapped the pack by this time. Jim Marsden was the early class of the field, lapping the other front running cars in spectacular fashion, only four laps into the race – however, fastest isn’t always first in Ultra4 racing. After Jim suffered a huge setback with a mechanical issue, Nicolas Montador drove to the front and was the first to complete all 6 laps (120km) required for Stage 1.

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Filipe Guimanaes was second after Stage 1 with UK favorite Rob Butler in third, pushing Jim back to fourth place. After an unfortunate and rather controversial crash with Dirty Duck Racing’s Jerry Hunt, defending KOV champion Levi found himself in 12th place. A lap down from the rest of the leaders as the course closed at 6 PM, Levi had his work cut out for him. All teams now had 4 hours to repair their cars and get ready for a new twist at the King of Wales: the Night Stage.

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The Night Stage took the 1.75 mile Prologue course and turned it on its head, requiring teams to run the course in reverse fashion. Rather than coming down the challenging “Dragon’s Tail” rock section, teams would now be running the course UP the rock section… and in the dark! Fans were able to line the Dragon’s Tail section in a scene reminiscent of a mini-Backdoor Shootoutenvironment. Heckling was in full force as was carnage. Axle Burmann put on the “best of show” by completely blowing up the front end of his car and taking himself out of the competition, but the crowd sure did go wild. Jim Marsden showed why he was the fastest of the day by taking the night stage victory easily, with Nicolas Montador and Levi Shirley taking 2nd and 3rd.

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Sunday’s Stage 2 began at the crack of dawn in drastically different weather than the morning before. Saturday’s dry and sunny conditions were swapped for rain and a fog so thick that visibility was less than 100 yards, adding in yet another challenge for remaining competitors. The course had changed dramatically and all teams knew they were in for a long day of racing. The legendary “King of” attrition was already setting in, with just 28 remaining cars out of a starting field of 43.

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Levi Shirley, Rob Butler, Jim Marsden, and others were focused on hunting down leader Nicolas Montador. Jim and Team Gigglepin regained the physical lead for a brief period before suffering additional transmission issues. Jim surrendered the lead to Rob Butler, creator of the Eurofighter series of Ultra4 cars, before Nicolas regained first. Like a man on a mission, Levi Shirley charged through the pack from his 12th place start to running in the top 3 most of the day. Lap after lap, more and more cars succumbed to the unforgiving Welsh rocks, mud, and forests. Wales exacted her payment. The crowd on hand was energized by the back and forth of the leaders in gritty, competitive Ultra4 racing.

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Consistent throughout the day was Malta-based racer Neville Ciantar. Working his way up from 5th place after Stage 1, Neville was 100 yards from the finish line on his final lap when he ran completely out of fuel. Refueling on course is against Ultra4 rules and there were no winch points for Neville to drag himself across the finish line. Neville was in 3rd place and could guarantee himself a podium finish… if he could just get 100 more yards! One of the unique aspects of Ultra4 racing – born out of friends trail wheeling – is the phenomenon of racers helping other racers. While outside assistance is grounds for immediate disqualification, “racers assisting racers” is not only fair game, but also the embodiment of the Ultra4 spirit.

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Legends class competitor Drew Wright was completing his 3rd lap of the day (fairly well off-pace, but still within podium reach in the Legends class). After stopping to check on Neville, he agreed to tow the #23 car across the line! To the cheers and standing ovation of the boisterous crowd, Neville finished in 3rd place with his car completely out of fuel. Drew Wright (who still finished 2ndin Legends class) was awarded the “Spirit of Ultra4” award during the awards ceremony for his actions.

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When the mud stopped flying and all the engines were quiet, Nicolas Montador from France stood alone, victorious as the 2015 King of Wales. Demonstrating the growth of Ultra4 Racing as a truly international sport, 2nd place went to Filipe Guimanaes (Portugal), and 3rd to Neville Ciantar (Malta) – with Levi Shirley (USA) following up in 4th and Rob Butler (UK) in 5th.

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Marcus Williams won the Legends class and shared the podium with two close friends: Drew Wright and Mike Robertson. Only 30 minutes separated all three Legends drivers after 2 days of intense competition. Ryan Dunn ran away with the Modified class, finishing with a 2-lap lead on the 2nd place finisher Jamie Muir, and 4-lap lead on the 3rd place finisher James Ayre. Sharing the same course with the 4400 class cars, Ryan finished 10 laps over the 2 days on 33-inch tires. The race was a gutsy and inspiring performance from Ryan, who remained steady all weekend long.

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As the sounds of battle faded from the wooded hills in Southern Wales, a Frenchman walked away with the title “King of Wales,” the smiling soldiers were weary and muddy, and the triumph of Ultra4 Europe was complete. The 2015 event was the largest and most successful in its 4-year history. Just 3 of the 43 starting drivers finished all 13 laps required of this event – demonstrating the rough realities that Ultra4 demands. With more war stories in their arsenals, the Ultra4 Europe teams head onward to The King of Portugal event in September. Wales, however, may never be the same.

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