A crown, according to the Merriam Webster dictionary is “A reward of victory or mark of honor”. Many aspire to one day be the holder of the annual crown at King of the Hammers race as it is considered throughout the off-road community as the most brutal race of the year. In this “Race Life” story, we catch up with the reigning 2016 King of the Hammers Champion Blake Van de Loo, to get some insight into his busy and interesting life of running a multimillion dollar company and preparing to defend his title against a competitive field including past champion Mitch Guthrie.
Blake and his wife Monica Van de Loo live on the outskirts of Phoenix Arizona, in a beautiful desert style home with their 2 dogs Buddy and Tyson. Blake works in an industry that dates back hundreds of years, the rail road industry. We get to accompany Blake as he gives us a behind the scenes tour of a normal day running Mountain States Contracting, a railroad design, construction and service company and spend some time with him in his home shop as he builds, preps and finishes his new bullet for the 2017 King Of The Hammers race which takes place February 4-11, 2017 in Johnson Valley, CA.
Waking up before the sun is a normal morning for Blake as he grabs a fresh cup of coffee and hits the road to “The Yard”, his local headquarters, to assess his tasks for the day. As the sun started to rise we arrived to the yard, which was a huge lot filled with giant tool trucks and rail road equipment. Blake and his employees don’t have what is the usual employer/employee relationship, it was something much more personal. Some of Blake’s employees have been with his company for more than 20 years.
Blake walks me up to his office, from which he overseas the entire operation. His walls are adorned with beautiful photos of some of his rock crawlers, adventures and projects he has helped build. After running through the morning email., we jump in his truck and head off to the multiple local job sites for the day.
Witnessing Blake’s humor and personable attitude was contagious. I could sense the co-workers respect and admiration they had towards Blake. After going over all the plans and verifying the work to be do that day. The next thing to cross off his to do list was a quick parts run to local manufacturer, Lone Star Racing, to pick up the last odd parts he needed for his new 2017 Polaris RZR XP Turbo he is finishing up for KOH. Dan Fisher and Heath Seritt of Lone Star Racing gave us the grand tour showing us one of their newest builds soon to be revealed at The Mint 400.
Living in Arizona, Blake grew up enduro racing and transitioned into ATV racing once the 400ex hit the market in the late 90’s. His love for off roading grew into building rock crawlers where he eventually met Bill Schueler and his son Brandon who he befriended. The relationship would blossom between the three, fast forward many moons and the three represent the most successful UTV team of all time as Jagged X Racing. Blake has been a part of 6 BITD championships as co-driver with Brandon Schueler. Blake’s knowledge and experience have helped lead the team to many race wins and his humor and non-stop attitude of positivity have certainly given the team a jolt of passion and fun. It seemed only right to connect with his team during this trip so after leaving Lone Star Racing we made a quick stop to Jagged X to talk with Brandon about the up coming races, including KOH where Jagged X will once again support Blake’s efforts to repeat as champion.
In those early years, Blake and the Scheuler family became close friends and would help each other during the rock crawling events. In 2008 when the Polaris RZR 800 came onto the scene, Blake and Brandon decided to pick one up and compete together. The first race they competed in they placed 4th, not bad seeing that they threw the UTV together with home made parts they had built. Blake and Brandon caught the attention of Polaris and became one of the first factory Polaris teams competing in desert racing. Today, Jagged X Racing has 2 Polaris RZRs that compete. Brandon races desert in the Best in the Desert and SCORE series, while Blake does King of The Hammers.
Blake is a longtime competitor at KOH and has been battling Mitch Guthrie for the past 6 years at King of the Hammers. Guthrie is no slouch, he has won the UTV race at KOH 6-times and losing to Blake in 2016 is something that certainly weighs on him. Blake knows that, and as respectful as the two are to one another as friends and competitors, there is a fire that burns deep within each of them to want to win. Their rivalry is fun and humorous outside the track and never gets out of hand. Although, when it comes to on the race course Blake told me there have been some “friendly gestures” when passing one another throughout a race. “Do you have a strategy for this years race” I ask.
“I should be doing more of King of the Hammers testing because the trails are changing so much. “ said Blake.
It was time to stop talking history and time start working on the RZR. The grinder could be heard screaming from outside the shop, Blake was grinding down some welds on the tie rods before installation. Next thing you know I get smacked on the leg to look down to see it was one of his dogs Tyson. Tyson seemed to have heard the grinder and was eager to help. Blake showed an affection for his dogs, an affection Blake seems to also share for life.
Blake took delivery of his 2017 Polaris RZR XP Turbo in early January which only left blake with about one month to build it into a KOH race winning machine. With starting work on the UTV a little late Blake asked for help from his trusted friend Brian Mumford. Brian would travel every weekend from California for a consecutive 3 weeks to help Blake with the build. It was a tall task even for as a couple of guys as talented as Blake and Brian. It leaves many to wonder if Blake’s machine is up to the task of repeating as a winner. Blake’s 2016 race winning RZR was a culmination of years of work and knowledge. He had applied things to that build that no one had ever done before such as a speed winch with interior free-spool mechanism and a hydraulic disconnecting rear sway bar. Things usually reserved for the 4400 crawlers. Blake isn’t afraid to try new things and while he had a limited amount of time to work on this new machine, years of experience were being poured into it. It should be noted, both of these innovations have found their way to this new RZR, in a much more refined and improved way!
Spend five minutes and you will see that red is the color of choice for Blake whether its a truck, buggy, or RZR. The red which Blake chose for his new RZR was vibrant and shared a similar resemblance of the color on his work trucks. Walker Evans Racing supplied the build with their 2.5″ Velocity Series Shocks that Blake tunes and valves to his specifications. The shocks are bolted to Lone Star Racing front long travel a-arms which he moved 3″ forward. High Lifter supplied the rear trailing arms. Blake’s axles of choice are RCV Performance axles, they have proven very reliable for Blake throughout all the brutal torque he puts them through while rock crawling and Blake’s win last year at KOH in many ways solidified RCV as the top axle and driveline brand in the UTV industry. A Warn winch has been mounted behind the custom front bumper Blake made. You can’t build a rock RZR and not have a winch!
“I mounted the winch as far back from the front bumper as I could to take weight off the nose, in doing that I had to move the intercooler to the rear behind the drivers head. I chose to mount the intercooler behind the drivers head to help with the weight distribution from the winch out front. The balance is going to be a lot different than what I am used to” said Blake.
PRP Seats made custom ostrich skin and carbon fiber seats that have been embroidered with the Jagged X logo. In case of failure, Blake brings 2 GPS units, a Lowrance and Lead Nav system. For communications, Blake depends on the one and only PCI Race Radios.
Blake has gone through a plethora of wheel/tire combos when it comes to rock crawling and he trusts OMF Performance Wheels with tire blocks installed within BFGoodrich KR2 UTV Baja T/A UTV tires supplied by Jackson Motorsports Group. “A medium sized boulder is like a house to these” Blake stated when asked about the differences between rock crawling a UTV other than his dedicated rock crawler.
The night was coming to a close and we heard a faint call from his wife Monica that dinner was ready, she had made us an appetizing lasagna. Having a home cooked meal really made me feel at home and comfortable with them. The Van de loo’s are gregarious and easy-going, soon after, I felt like I had already known them for years. We ended the long day drinking beers, talking life and watching one of their favorite classics, Tropic Thunder.
Saturday was meant for sleeping in, right? Well, not around these parts. We woke up at 6am to finish the final touches on the RZR. It was time to see how it looked on all fours. Hearing an engine start along with the scent of propane Blake came flying around the corner in his fork lift. He lifted the UTV up and set it on all fours and drove it around the front yard for the first time.
The RZR was complete. Granted Blake did not have the stickers to apply, but overall it was a job well done. Feeling good and excited to compete Blake got a small a group together to go for a sunset trail ride. Never having gone on such a ride in Arizona, I was stoked to jump into the RZRs with Blake and crew, then I hear “Take these, you’re driving the King of Hammers RZR” from Blake. Smiling from ear to ear I grabbed the keys and ran into the house to put on some warmer clothing. We were accompanied on the ride by his friends Mike & Andrea Borgeson and their daughter Scarlett. Mike had met Blake through UTVUnderground’s Joey D. & Rusty Baptist. The three are longtime friends and soon Mike became good friends with Blake. After a couple of visits to Blake’s place, Mike decided to pick up and move to Arizona. The two are now neighbors. It is so cool to see how the off-road community and UTVUnderground have connected so many great people together.
Rachel, Blake’s daughter came with her husband Matt. Not knowing what I was in for, I was eager to hit the trail. Only 5 minutes into the ride we ran across a pack of 6 burros which was an odd sight for a California kid to see. We then stopped 15 more minutes into the ride at an old dam where we would have a couple beers and even more laughs. With the sun drawing lower onto the horizon we realized we were running out of daylight, however Blake had one more place to show us. We had to rev up the pace to make it to our last destination. With a sliver of light left, we arrived at an old mine that has been abandoned for years.
With the sun drawing to a close on the day, I was thankful Blake had given me the rare chance to become apart of his family for a couple of days. We are enthusiastic to follow Blake as he defends his crown this coming week at the 2017 King of The Hammers race! Make sure you stay tuned for event coverage, features and more!!
UTVUnderground.com wants to extend a huge thank you to Blake & Monica Van De Loo for opening their doors and allowing us to get an inside glimpse into the life of a KING! We also want to thank our coverage partner, RCV Performance for helping make all of this possible. We will continue our 2017 King Of The Hammers coverage right here at UTVUnderground.com starting this Saturday at Qualifying for the UTV race and will carry on through to next Wednesdays UTV King Of The Hammers race event! Follow us here, in our forum and on social media for constant updates on Blake and the rest of the UTV field!
Photos & Words by Daniel Schenkelberg // UTVUnderground.com