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Spotter Fodder

By Jake Koetting
Behind every great driver is a great spotter. Though the spotlight is typically on the drivers, the oft-forgotten spotter can make or break the driver's run during an event. Jake Koetting spotted Matt Burkett's AGR Jeep during the 2000 Goodyear Extreme Rock Crawling Competition Finals in Farmington, New Mexico and wanted to tell his story about life on the rocks from the spotter position. In the second event of the 2001 series, Jake spotted Matt to a number 1 run. Stay tuned for more from Jake.

Team AGRI recently got a call from a friend of mine named Matt Burkett from AGR Power Steering. He was planning to compete in the ARCA Goodyear Extreme Rock Crawling Competition in Farmington, New Mexico, but his spotter was not going to be able to compete with him, due to a recent back surgery. He wanted to know if I'd help him out. I told him that I'd be glad to, but didn't think I'd be much actual "help." This overheated Texas boy was just eager to do some four-wheeling in a cooler locale.

Matt had just completed an as yet untested weight loss program on his Jeep; a '79 CJ-7 Golden Eagle (aka "The Chicken"), which included a new motor, transmission, transfer case, brakes, axles, tires and more. The change that would take the most getting used to was the swap from manual to automatic transmission. So, one week before the competition, we hauled the Chicken up to our favorite 4x4 stomping grounds; Clayton, Oklahoma, to get at least a little time behind the wheel. We did find a potential chink in the Jeeps armor - the brakes. In an effort to get the Chicken down to its flying weight, Matt had replaced the entire braking system with lightweight aluminum racing components. Try as he might to get all of the air out of the system, the brakes still felt spongy. In low range on any kind of incline, he was barely able to hold the Jeep still. We went home that day feeling only marginally more confident than when we ventured out that morning.

In addition to brake worries, we were still eagerly awaiting the arrival of the new tires. Interco had just begun production on a new 37" Super Swamper SSR and had planned to send Matt one of the first sets off the line for testing under the rigors of competition. After holding out as long as he could, Matt and co-worker/photographer, Jeff "Jeffro" Allen headed for Farmington three days after the Clayton test run, minus the SSR's. The tires did finally arrive the next day, though, and Tom Allen, the intended-but-injured spotter and I left that night with tires in tow. This, after Tom returned from the hospital, where he was receiving treatment for a nasty burn to his left hand. First his back, now his hand. Was Tom trying to get out of spotting at Farmington on purpose? I was beginning to wonder.

When we arrived in Farmington, we saw Matt, Jeff, their truck and trailer but no Chicken. Matt's brake problem had not improved. He had taken it to Jim Petersen at All Wheel Drive where they were installing a new master cylinder, brake booster, and Matt's factory brake pedal. After completing the install it was obvious the new brake setup was working much better but was still not perfect. However, it would have to do. The competition was to begin early the next morning.

Morning proved to be both cold and wet. Back in Texas, we had been contending with 110+ degree heat along with a 65-day dry spell, and it hadn't even dawned on me to dust the mothballs off my jacket. The warmest article of clothing I brought was a pair of jeans I purchased on the way. Fortunately, Matt had brought an extra jacket. After putting it on I had to break into a little verse of the song "Fat Guy in a Little Coat" from the movie Tommy Boy. We attended the driver's meeting where they explained the rules, stressed safety and minimizing environmental impact. Luckily, there wasn't an ill-fitting jacket disqualifier.

Soon, we were on our way to the trailhead. There were two courses, A and B, each with seven obstacles. There would be four groups of about 15 competitors each running these two courses. We would be the sixth vehicle in our group and would run the second half of course B. After completing obstacles B5 - B7, we would run obstacles B1 - B4 to complete the course. On day two, we would run course A.

In order to get properly set up for each obstacle, I would run across the start line to the first technical section to stack rocks or determine proper tire placement before Matt and the Chicken made an attempt. My desk job body was not prepared for the amount of work that this truly was. Some of it may have just been the altitude, but I'm not too proud to admit that it was mostly my poor physical conditioning. I gained a tremendous respect for the other spotters in this type of competition and grew even more suspect of Tom's injuries. Not only had he injured his back and couldn't run up the trail, but he also made sure to burn his hand so that he wouldn't be able to handle the boulders.

Our turn at the first obstacle began as I ran across the start line and up the first section. Matt followed in the Jeep and came right up without incident. At the top, the trail made a sharp left turn and came back down the hill dropping off a ledge. Back at the bottom, there was another turnaround. I ran over to the last climb and stacked a few rocks to make it easier for Matt to get up the big ledge. With a little extra right foot, the Chicken came right up the ledge and through the finish gate with a perfect score. Other than the exhaustion I was already beginning to feel, I thought this wasn't so bad. I was sadly mistaken.

Team AGRBy the time we got to our second obstacle it was already our turn. We were going in blind. I tripped the start gate and ran up the hill and around a corner to a giant step in the rocks. Matt came around the corner in the Chicken and I pointed him in what I thought was the right direction. Running up the hill and moving the giant rocks around must've been taking its toll on this Texas boy. It turned out to be a really bad line and the Jeep was stuck. We tucked our tails, winched the Jeep out and proceeded to the next obstacle.

Earlier, we had seen a Jeep on its side at the bottom of what turned out to be the third obstacle. We decided that we really needed to pick a good line this time, and be ready to winch. I ran ahead and began stacking rocks. Matt made several attempts at what we dubbed the "Waterfall," and ended up in a precarious position. On a steep incline, his right front tire ended up inches from falling off a two-foot ledge, which surely would have put him on his lid. I called for the all stop and we took the winching penalty, finished the obstacle and headed to our fourth challenge.

By this time I was really spent. I was beginning to wish I had an oxygen bottle. I drank lots of water and tried to rest as much as possible so I could make the rest of the day. Obstacles 4 and 5 weren't too hard. There were a couple of tight turns and close flags but, all in all, not that difficult. Then came our 6th obstacle.

When we got there, quite a line of competitors had formed - most always a bad sign. Apparently, this one would be tough. We watched as other competitors broke or timed out. Of the eight vehicles we watched go before us, only one completed the obstacle. As our turn approached, rain was visible in the distance.

I started across the line and climbed up the first rock face right out of the gate. Next was a sharp right, off-camber turn. I climbed onto the side of the Chicken in, what I like to call, the catapult position. I refer to it as such because if the Jeep were to overturn I can picture being launched through the air. He successfully made the turn and I ran ahead to stack some rocks. Matt got lined up and throttled it before I was ready. He came up and over as one of the officials and I darted out of the way. Now, it was on to the really hard part; a ledge consisting of several steps that you had to approach coming right to left. This made for an off-camber approach in which the right front tire hits the first ledge and pitches the vehicle left toward two flags. You had only one good shot at this section. Matt pulled up close to the first step and I assumed the catapult position. Matt mashed the go pedal and got both front tires up the first step as I gingerly stepped off the side of the Jeep. It wasn't over yet as there were still two steps left. I climbed ahead of the Jeep and Matt tried to follow. He was only able to clear one more step. He went right and left searching for traction and took out a flag on each side. At this point, he was sitting in a chute with an outcropping on either side of his Jeep. He took two backup points to get room for a run at it. By this time, it had begun sprinkling. Matt dropped the hammer, cleared both steps, made a sharp left turn, climbed another ledge, and exited the obstacle. We had made it and not a moment too soon as now it really started to rain.

The shower lasted 10 or 15 minutes, after which the officials decided to let the trails dry out for about 45 minutes before the competition resumed. The next obstacle didn't look too difficult, and being the last one of the day for us, we were thankful. My energy had definitely been depleted by the day's activities.

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