Back in December 2015, we published an article called “How To Go UTV Racing.” It’s a comprehensive look at just what it takes to build a UTV to go compete in events of all types, from short course rounds to the most grueling point-to-point races in America. Countless people have no doubt seen that article and referenced it on the way to starting their own UTV journeys, but recently, we met one racer whose story started with that very article and ended with a win in Laughlin.
Oregon’s Buffalo Dave Thomas debuted his Bison Racing ride in the UTV Sportsman class at this year’s Vegas to Reno, and made it nearly 100 miles before a mechanical failure. He returned two months later at the Laughlin Desert Classic and, against all odds, scored his very first victory! We sat down with Dave to learn more about his inspiration, what he learned over his first two races, and what he’s hoping to do in the future now that he’s got that first victory under his belt:
First things first, let’s talk about your background. What brought you to the world of UTVs?
I’m a bison rancher by trade. I actually started out as a car painter and did that for several years, maybe a couple decades. From that I moved into bison ranching. I’ve been doing this for a little over 15 years—it’s something different. But I’ve been off-roading my whole life, ever since I could get my first motorcycle.
I spent a little over a decade in a Jeep club that they claim was the oldest Jeep club in America, and I ran with them for quite a while. That was a pretty good experience. I was a volunteer in the fire department and I used that for an off-roading outlet when we did range land fires, where I drove a big military truck with a big water tank on it. I’m not really sure how I got into the UTVs. The numbers were just getting real impressive, getting better and better, and then all of a sudden you can’t deny them.
You’ve talked about “How To Go UTV Racing” as being your inspiration to go out and build one of these vehicles. Do you remember when it was you found that article and decided you could do this?
I remember seeing that article and it kind of dwelled on me for a year or so. It’s just real expensive to try it, and I probably bit off more than I could chew. But I’m not a quitter, I’m gonna keep trying. I’m 48 years old and it’s kind of a bucket list thing, and whether I could afford it or not, I’m not gonna be younger next year. So I just decided to jump in and try it.
You made your debut at Vegas to Reno in the UTV Sportsman class earlier this year. How quickly did everything come together to build the car?
We bought the car probably 30 days before the Vegas to Reno race and I did the build in those four weeks. There was a lot of things we had to change, and it was a little more involved than I was expecting. We had to completely change the cage, and add parts of cages that weren’t even there. Remove the doors, add new seats, add fuel cells. And none of that stuff bolts in, it all had to be fabricated in. It was quite the fabrication job, but fortunately I had a car building background through the body shops and obviously found some pretty good fabricators and they made it.
It can’t have been easy, getting a race car ready in four weeks…
That rulebook threw me for so many loops, just figuring out what they meant by compliant. It probably would’ve been better off for me if they said, “make it as safe as you can and bring it in.” There are no directions or anything and once you tear the car apart, pull the fuel tank and stuff out and change all that, there’s no place to put the seats back in. It was definitely a head scratcher, and I have many many photos of the build.
Like I said, I robbed Peter to pay Paul to get all this done. Both times I’ve come back from a race, I’ve come back way overdrawn. Consequently my internet got shut off this morning. I’m gonna have to drive all the way to town, which is 40 miles away, and pay the poor lady so she’ll turn it back on. So it’s been a struggle.
But it’s something I’ve always felt that I could do. I was one of those guys sat watching the TV, watching off-road races since the beginning of time. But I’ve always been one of those sitting on the couch screaming, “boy, if I had a chance to get in that truck, I could do that.” Apparently I was right!
It must have been a huge relief when the car passed tech!
Yes! Going through tech, there was nothing more stressful ever. And even the second time through tech, it was still stressful. In my Vegas to Reno run I went 98 miles, I made very good time in that 98 miles, but my fuel pump fell off into the fuel cell. Poor installation kit from the makers, but we won’t get into that. But that’s racing. And I still made it 98 miles.
The Laughlin night race I did, it was so fun. And I’ll be the first one to admit, I made mistakes all the way through. Looking back, I’ve made mistakes everywhere. It started out with the mistake in the luck of the draw, and I started out dead last. That didn’t help matters, trying to weave through traffic. But it was really fun pushing my way through the field and stuff. I believe I finished physical fourth but there were three classes running at the same time. But I got first place points in my class.
Yeah, winning isn’t a bad result for only your second time out!
I’ve been told that doesn’t happen, but once or twice ever.
It sure doesn’t! It’s not very common to take a victory that quickly. Especially when your first two races are as different in character as Laughlin and Vegas to Reno are, not just because one is a loop and one’s a point to point, but in the terrain as well. How much did you have to change the way you drove from one event to the other?
I live in the high desert of eastern Oregon. Taking off at Vegas to Reno felt like going down my eight-mile driveway. I’ve probably got 100,000 miles on those kinds of roads. So it was just like going to the grocery store to me, it was a ball. I didn’t find anything tough about that at all. But the Laughlin track, they claim it’s the roughest toughest track around. Fortunately, I’ve got a five mile loop track in my backyard that’ll rival it that I carved out with my tractor.
So you’ve got some practice then.
Yeah… I guess I’ve been practicing for this my whole life. I’ve always pretended to be Robby Gordon—well, before that it was Ivan Stewart, and then Rob MacCachren and Robby Gordon kind of knocked those guys out.
Did you have any opportunities to test the car on that backyard track before either event?
I did not use that five mile track at all before Vegas. The first time I’d driven the car was Vegas. It was so tight getting done, that I pulled it off of the trailer onto the starting line and that was the first time I drove it. That’s where I went wrong—if I would’ve gone and put 100 miles of testing on it, I would’ve found the problem. So the second time around, yes, the car had a lot of testing.
Getting your testing in beforehand was clearly the lesson from Vegas to Reno, then. What did you learn at Laughlin?
Don’t hit Laughlin Leap at 72 mph, or you’ll fly over 75 feet!
I had no idea where I was on the track or anything. My navigation didn’t work, my comms didn’t work, and I had no radio. So I came in out of the desert and I see all the lights and stuff, and I had no idea there was a jump right there. I came in to make a statement and boy, did I ever!
So you did that whole racing without working navigation?
Well, that’s a lot better than a broken fuel pump. At least the car is still running…
Yes. I had a lot of disadvantages over those other teams. I was running a stock vehicle, no aftermarket tunes in it, I even ran on the stock wheels and tires that came straight from Polaris.
Taking a class victory this soon and knowing the odds were stacked against you… how much does it mean to have a win under your belt already?
It’s tremendous. The hardest part is that I know I could’ve done so much better on so many parts of the track. I got a flat tire and I passed the pits with a flat tire. So I had to go another 17 miles around the loop with a flat tire before I could get it fixed. Talk about a mistake!
On Lap 3, I finally caught the lead pack of the first three that took off. Some guy behind was ramming me, and I was ramming the guy in front of me. I got knocked into a wall which popped my tire and spit a big rock out into the track. I got caught up in the race with all three in front of me and in all the dust and the darkness I just passed the pits. So I ran another 17 miles around on a flat tire.
And I didn’t even have any pits of my own. When I went through tech, I told Cory (Sappington), “I don’t have any pits and I don’t know what Im gonna do.” He asked me what my plan was, and I said, “I’m gonna go run 100 miles and run out of gas, is what’s gonna happen.” So he told me that they’ll fill up a gas can and to leave my tires there and pit with him. When I came in with my flat tire, they changed my tire and filled my fuel and had me out of there in I swear 30 seconds. So Ive never seen anything like that. When he come up the window and told me to go, I said, “really?”
That’s a hell of a fast pit stop.
That’s what I thought! I never even heard the gun zapping the tire on and off.
Obviously it took a ton of hard work for you to make all this happen, but it sounds like you’ve been bitten by the racing bug. What’s next for you?
I definitely want to keep going. There is a realization that slammed into me about two hours after the race—I don’t know how I’m gonna do it. It’s real expensive to go to these races. On our way home, we were praying sticking cards into the gas pumps wondering which bank would be nice enough to let us overdraw. But like I said, I’m not a quitter and I’m gonna try every avenue I can.
When I started this, I had visions of going to Vegas to Reno and winning first place. I actually was in physical second the time I was running, but you know, stuff happens. Even in this race (Laughlin), I didn’t finish near as well as I wanted to as far as my time went. I had visions of lapping everybody. I never got in front of those front three guys to get clean air so I could go around and catch them again. Then I ran out of laps. When I got to the finish line I begged, “please, can I go get in line and go do the next race.” I really needed to get more laps to finish what I was trying. So if there’s any way I can market myself and keep racing, I’m 100% game for it.
Anybody else you’d like to thank?
My co-driver, his name’s Mike Adams. He’s gotta be crazier than I am, because I wouldn’t get in that car with me. That’s for sure! And one of our local Polaris shops is trying to help me a bit. I’ve got the car over there now, they’re going over the machine to see how badly I beat it up. I gave it absolutely no mercy, but that’s how you win. I passed a lot of people that acted like they didn’t want to win. It was a rough dusty track and the wind was blowing so hard, I heard 50 mph winds, but when you go over the big jumps in the infield, it would push you a car width over in the air, so you would land in the land next to you. I actually made a pass doing that on accident.
I also have to thank Josh Martelli—he’s one of the people that got me to do all this. I emailed him about all this, and I’m amazed that somebody that high up in the sport and the industry would take the time to respond to me.