UTVUnderground, SXS Australian Championship Recap
What can I say, the best part of my job is the adventures I get to experience. Traveling to Australia was nothing short of epic on so many levels. The people, the culture, the travel and of course the memories make up an experience I won’t soon forget. Let me share with you a bit of what this trip meant to me.
Sometime in 2016 I was contacted by Mr. Sam Beck, owner and operator of the SXS Australian Championship (SXS Aus).They had just undertaken a name change from the Australian RZR Championship in hopes of expanding beyond just a Polaris RZR series to an all inclusive UTV / SXS series that welcomed all brands of machines. The change for them not only was beneficial from an exposure side, but also allowed the series to grow as it has pertained to car count and sponsor participation. Sam had reached out to me in hopes of furthering a connection with UTVUnderground.com and extended an offer to travel to OZ to not only cover an event but also witness the UTV movement in OZ and get to know his racers better with the goal of legitimizing their talent and series.
Scheduling conflicts forced me to postpone any plans of travel but I kept my eyes on the series and you probably have noticed some shares of race content over the past two seasons of competition. Fast forward to 2017 and Mr. Beck and I remained in communication with hopes of making a trip this season a reality. The offer was further extended and after review of the 2017 SXS Aus schedule it was determined that a visit for round 4 of the series held in Balarat, VIC would be doable. It was then that my non stop wheels began to turn.
I’m not one to travel alone. Like most, I want to share my experiences beyond the stories I write or videos we produce. It was then that I had reached out to SXS racing star and close friend RJ Anderson to ask if he may be interested in traveling with me. Of course RJ was all in and when I offered to Sam that if he was to bring me along that I could also travel alongside RJ he jumped at the opportunity with even more enthusiasm. RJ would not only bring more exposure to the trip he would also lend even further credibility to the fast growing series as RJ is known as one of the best in the world and of course racers in OZ would love to see how they stack up. The plan was set.
RJ is more than just one of the sports biggest names, he’s become an icon around the world as it pertains to RZR and Off Road racing. In addition, RJ is one of my closest friends and over the past 10 years has played a huge role in not only growing the sport in general but helping me grow UTVUnderground.com as a business and industry platform. RJ and I have shared countless adventures together, we have built a relationship that closely resembles that of brothers, something beyond just work but rather one of friendship and respect. We share many of the same goals in life and I think we both value the bond we have built over the years. During trips like these we compliment one another, I do the talking and he does the walking for lack of a better description and together we work well in representing the sport from both a driving talent (him) and industry representation side.
A plan was set in place for the two of us to travel to Australia to not only visit the series in action at round 4 but to also take in the sites, meet other players in the fast growing UTV industry in OZ and lastly for RJ to actually compete against the completion during the weekends race. But to make this happen we would need to work closely with Sam and our mutual partners at both Polaris RZR and BFGoodrich Tires. Both companies play an active role in the SXS Aus series and in RJ’s racing career, both are also big supporters of UTVUnderground.com. Polaris Australia stepped up to make sure RJ would have a competitive vehicle to race with and BFG stepped in to make sure our travel expenses were met. With those details out of the way, it was up to RJ and I to do what we do and so we booked flights and set our sites on the “land down under.”
Australia is a country I’ve long wished to travel to. RJ shared in that ambition to see Australia. While racing a RZR was the catalyst, seeing the country and partaking in yet another international travel experience was by far our greatest motivation. We are both so fortunate to have worked ourselves into a position to have such opportunities and we are pretty good at making the most of any situation, especially one that includes seeing one of the most desired travel destinations in the world..
While their would be business to handle, Sam Beck laid out an itinerary that would give us the full Australian experience and we were dead set on making the most of the trip. We landed days after appearing at the Polaris Dealer Show in Las Vegas in Brisbane. A short car ride from the airport and we found ourselves checking into a Hotel / Casino in Gold Coast. Gold Coast was amazing and felt a lot like home in southern California. Perched right on the coast, weather was a perfect 75 degrees despite it being winter in OZ. Sam lined up a trip to meet Justin Joseph, owner of Patriot Campers at his facility. Patriot Campers make the most insane “overland” 4×4 style camping trailers you have ever seen. In addition, they specialize in building up Toyota Landcruiser’s into the coolest “overland” style off-road vehicles that are fit for a king and priced for one also!
During our stop at Patriot Campers we were also met by off-road racing star Toby Price. Toby is a Dakar champion and factory KTM / RedBull athlete. Only in his mid 20’s, Toby is already an Australian legend and despite his fame and notoriety world wide is one of the coolest guys we have had the pleasure of meeting. We would spend the first two days of our trip hanging with Sam, Justin and Toby in Gold Coast, seeing the sites and even spend a day on Justin’s mini-yacht cruising around the keys of the Gold Coast harbor. It was the perfect way to acclimate to the time change and have some fun before making our way south to Melbourne.
After our quick stay in Gold Coast we jumped a flight south to Melbourne, a massive city that reminded me of a cross between Vancouver, BC and New York. Its a large city yet still very clean and has a great vibe to it. The people were awesome and the options for travel are endless. We found ourselves exploring the city, eating and shopping for our friends and family back home. Sam had lined us up with a morning of Golf at a Greg Norman designed course outside of the city. From there we were to take a helicopter ride out to the “bush” or what we would call the country. Unfortunately, heavy fog and very cold weather would ruin our golf plans but that gave us the chance to travel by car to Sam’s 700 acre ranch outside a town called Ghin Ghin. Driving from the city to Ghin Ghin was well worth skipping golf as we got a great chance to see some really beautiful country side.
Arriving at the ranch was really cool. Off-road isn’t just a lifestyle, its an actual way of life in that guys like Sam drive 4×4 vehicles everyday to be able to access these remote areas. While accessing his ranch wasn’t a brutal ride, it was a lot of dirt roads which really gave you a sense of heading into Australia’s remote country terrain. The ranch is totally picturesque. Wildlife like Kangaroo, cattle, horses and wombats are all over and it wasn’t long before we were behind the wheel of a Polaris Ranger and exploring what felt like Jurrasic Park. Green, luch rolling hills full of gum trees, rock formations and beauty surrounded us. We crossed through water, drove up and over hills and explored Sam’s property with glee. We even helped him lay out a future off-road course that he plans to use both for fun and for driver training and vehicle testing. Its a true off-road paradise, it was certainly a highlight of the trip.
During our two-day stay at the ranch we were able to meet our new friends from BFGoodrich & Polaris Australia as well as one of the local racers and series sponsor at Selby Acoustics. All three of these companies played a huge roll in bringing us to OZ so to get to spend time getting to know them was really fun for us. We capped our say off in the “bush” with a BBQ that felt just like home. Cold beer, lamb, steak, and sausage was on tap and we had a great time there in the Outback just hanging out. We would travel back to Melbourne the next day but would make a stop by Polaris HQ. It was amazing to be welcomed to the Polaris HQ adn get a chance to meet everyone on the Polaris staff. They took us through the “race shop” and it was so cool to see that they have a true factory race effort being operated within the Polaris walls. Being a smaller market, they have the ability to get even more hands on then the factories are able to do here in the states. Here we were able to see RJ’s race RZR for the first time and talk with the local Polaris staff about set up and racing that we do here in the states. It was a great experience for all parties.
Back in Melbourne we prepared for a “Night With RJ Anderson”, a pre-planned event by Sam to gather the sponsors and other players in the series to gather at Sam’s pub. Sam organized a press conference of sorts that featured RJ and myself alongside local series racers and rally campions Simon Evans & Cody Crocker. This was our first time meeting these two who we had heard so much about. Both Simon & Cody found success in rally racing for Subaru amongst other factory efforts. Both are now factory Polaris RZR racers in Australia with Simon also being a factory BFG racer. While racing against RJ was on the agenda, they acted as teammates making sure RJ knew the ins and outs of the local series. The evening was a lot of fun, we had the chance to meet so many great people who shared in the excitement for us being in OZ. We talked XP1K, UTVUnderground, racing and so much more during the evening and it really made us feel welcomed.
The net day (Friday) we would make our way to Balarat which is a historic gold mining town. The town has a really cool vibe and also plays host to one of the coolest MX tracks in the country which is where the race would be held. Upon arriving in Balarat we were taken to the local Wild Life Park where we were able to get up close with Dingo’s, Wallaby, Crocodile, Wombat, Koala Bear, and of course Kangaroo. The local television media met us there and performed interviews with RJ and Toby Price who also made the trip out to come hang some more with us. We hit it off really well with Toby, it was cool to have him come along and bring even more exposure to our trip. After a quick stop by the local radio station for another interview, we headed back to the host hotel in Balarat where Sam had lined up a big series dinner party where everyone in town to compete would gather. We were able to meet even more racers and team members and everyone continued to show love to us. It made us feel even more welcomed and excited for Saturday’s big race. We retired for the night in prep for the following days competition.
We had an early call time and were on our way to the track before sunrise. Sam was not only playing host to our trip but is also the owner of the series so he had a lot of work to tend too. We arrived to the track where racers and staff were already buzzing. They were performing technical inspections and racer registration and a late night storm had brought enough wind to knock down a lot of the tracks signage so the staff was busy getting that all back in order. Polaris had their full pit set up, staffed by Polaris employees, that had RJ, Simon Evans, and Cody Crocker all pitting beneath the tent. It was time to go to work!!
33 racers in two classes would come to Balarat to compete in Round 4 of the SXS Australian Championship. Turbo and Naturally Aspirated are how the two are broken up and the field was made up of primarily RZR but also had a fair share of Maverick X3 and YXZ 1000R machines. While Cody Crocker & Simon Evans are certainly the big names in the series and two of the most talented competitors, privateer racer Ewan McClue is the man to beat. Ewan switched to the Maverick X3 this year after racing as a RZR competitor in years previous. It didn’t take long to see that Ewan not only could drive but his well tuned Maverick was definitely the quickest machine on course. It was going to be a fun day of racing in a format we have never seen before here in the states.
The SXS Aus series has made a lot of changes and has adapted in ways that Sam has seen as beneficial for his series and racers. Early on racers would break their machines constantly racing these MX style course in longer format like we race here. They have now adapted to a shorter format style of racing to help racers preserve their equipment in that instead of racing one big 45min + long race, they now break the races up into extremely short heats. 5-6 racers will line up in six races throughout the day. Each race is only 4 laps long and features a joker line that each racer must use at least once per heat. This type of racing really forces you to use strategy and the hole shot is more important than usual. The starting order for each race is pre-determined and is not based on points, finishing order, or podium results from any race or heat throughout the day. It is all selected at random by SXS Aus officials. Your finish order in each of the racers six races will be tallied via a points system and the total points at the end of the day determine the rounds final finishing order. There are certainly flaws within the format but it works for them and everyone seems to have adapted well. The format does keep the action high and their is no downtime. Racers may only have 10 minutes between races to get their machines repaired or prepped for the next heat, spectating is fun and exciting as their action all day long.
Racers are given an one hour open practice session that proceeds the first heat of the day. Some racers take the chance to spend the full hour on course while others like RJ only turned off a few laps just to get a feel for the track and machine. RJ and I set a strategy to wait until late in the practice before taking the track. This would allow for as much of the mud as possible to get blown off. The clay course was very slick and muddy due to the previous days weather. With practice out of the way it was time to get to work. RJ was ready and comfortable and knew that if he was to get out front it would take a combination of speed and strategy. The fastest or best racer will not always win as we would see due to this format which makes strategy, hole shot and luck the key to the race win. RJ would be slated to run in the first heat of the day, all eyes would be on him to see how he would do.
With the drop of the green flag the five racers would rush to the tight left hand corner for the holeshot. RJ would come out in the third position but would keep tight on the bumper in front of him. He would hit the joker line in his first lap which gave him a very healthy lead. He never looked back. As the heat went on RJ’s lead was slowly reducing. He would win the race but once he pulled back into the pit he would explain that he felt power fall off in his RZR and the check engine light was on. With the next heat already underway, the Polaris team was quick to diagnose a boost issue with RJ’s turbo system. The team worked feverishly but it would result in RJ missing his second heat which all but sealed his fate for the day. He would make it back out on course for his third heat but while racing with no turbo power he had to settle for a second place finish, still impressive considering the circumstances. The staff continued to try and repair the issue but not wanting to miss another heat RJ would take on both his fourth and fifth heats also finishing in second. But during his last race he felt power fall off even more and with signs of a bigger issue with the engine beginning to show, he was forced to sit out the final heat despite still sitting second overall in points for the day at that point. Nevertheless, RJ still had a great time and still was able to give the racers and fans a sense of his talent and just why he is known as one of the fastest off-road racers in the world.
RJ was a mere side show to the competition that was taking place between racers who were racing for a season championship. Whole we were focused on our effort there, it was still all about playing guest to this awesome race series and learning more about the racers in Australia. It was easy to see that while UTV racing there is still very much in its infancy, there was some very strong talent running the track in Balarat. While the format through a wrench into the heats here and there preventing the fastest guys from earning the results they would have had in any other race, it was clear that these racers have what it takes to be competitive anywhere in the world. Cody Crocker was smooth and quick, even while battling his own mechanicals. Simon Evans is as ferocious a driver as I have ever seen behind the wheel of a UTV. He’s fast and aggressive and is a guy who tosses caution to the wind and goes for it every single lap. Ewan McClue was fast and consistent. His Maverick X3 is a rocket compared to other machines on course and his driving skills showed as he handily won just about every heat he was in.
Other racers that caught my attention in the turbo class were Nathan Weissel, and international racer from Japan Tadamitsu Niihori. Niihori travels from Japan for each round of the SXS Aus series and was an animal on the course. He was not afraid to use his bumper and had he and RJ not tangled resulting in a damaged front end on Niihori’s RZR, I expected him to do even better during the weekends event. In the N/A class, Yamaha is crushing it! Ivan Szkut, Dan McKenzie, and Tim Liston are heavy competitors and made that class a lot of fun to watch. Simon Evans son, Tom Evans was also very quick and shows signs of future success as a UTV racer behind the wheel of his RZR.
The end of the day saw Ewan McClue, Cody Crocker and Simon Evans sitting atop the Turbo class podium 1-2-3, proving that the format still shakes out with the fastest racers up front. In the N/A class, Ivan Szkut, Robert Plagerman, and Tom Evans would go 1-2-3. Racers are working hard to win the final season championship which will conclude at Round 6 of the series. We look forward to keeping tabs on the series and the racers the rest of this season and are excited to see who will take home the top honors in the 2016 season.
We concluded our trip with a fun post race gathering back at the host hotel in Balarat. We traded race stories and talked about the future of UTV / SXS Racing in Australia. RJ and I left with a lot of excitement and appreciation for everyone who helped make this experience happen. Not only were we impressed with the level of competition and the professionalism for which Sam Beck and his staff run the series in Australia, we were very appreciative for the opportunity and experience. It was a trip we won’t soon forget.
I will conclude my story like this. Traveling to Australia was yet another adventure that I was able to live out because of this amazing industry. Being a part of this sport has rewarded me time and time again and it truly is a special time to be involved. No matter where we go in the world, meeting members of this sport is always the same. Despite the differences in culture and local, we all share one common love in off-road. I feel like I have added a host of new people to my off-road family and I think I speak for RJ when I say that we are so very grateful to everyone we met along the way.
Thank you very much to Sam Beck for all of his hospitality, education and for including us in this experience. Thank you to BFGoodrich Tires for stepping in to make sure we were well taken care of throughout our journey and for providing the tires for RJ to race on. Walker Evans Racing also sent shocks and wheels out for the race and we are very thankful for their support. Polaris, what can we say? No matter what kind of crazy idea we come up with they are always there to support it. Their staff in Australia was amazing and we are so grateful for the partnership and all of the efforts on their part to make sure we had all we needed while in country. Big thank you to Shaun O’Brian of Selby Acoustics for his support as well. We look forward to seeing you soon in the states. Lastly, thank you to all of the racers, fans, and people of Australia. You all were very welcoming and showed RJ and I a fantastic time. We enjoyed our time in your country and we had the times of our life! We hope you all will join us in 2018 at the UTV World Championship, we extend the invitation to you all!
Until next time…..
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