Angal & UTV Inc. Earn 2015 Championship
While some drivers were racing in the present, others were looking towards the future at the Best in the Desert season finale, the Henderson 250 in Henderson, Nevada. The Henderson course is actually located closer to Jean, Nevada and shares some of the Mint 400 course. It has whoops and technical sections but a majority of it is covered in loose dirt and rocks. That combination causes a double jeopardy of blinding dust and unseen rocks. The UTVs raced in the morning while the wind conditions were calm; the dust was brutal. Those who survived without having at least one flat tire were lucky.
Two racers who were focused on the present were championship title contenders Johnny Angal and Justin Lambert. If there is one thing more perilous to navigate than the race courses, it’s calculating the championship points standings. Points earned, number of entries, throw-out-races and races won all go into the pot. For those of us who report on the sport, its best left to the sanctioning body for results; many avoid mention of it without using 100% official data.
Unfortunately for the Cognito Motorsports team of Justin Lambert, they fell prey to the complicated calculations. They battled valiantly all race long with a damaged car to finish fourth, while Johnny Angal’s UTV Inc. team had bigger problems and finished 22nd. The Cognito crew thought they had accumulated enough points to take the championship; celebrating with champagne after the race. On the drive home, they were informed that Angal dropped the race, which in fact, gave him the title.
“We loaded up and started to head home to Bakersfield, then we got a call from Bill Schueler,” said Lambert, “He handed us the bad news. This race became Johnny’s throw-out-race, since he only finished 22nd. We actually lost the championship by two points after the throw-out, 739 to 737 points. If we would have finished 3rd, we would have won. Congratulations to Johnny and his team, it was quite a battle all year long!”
Lambert and co-driver Justin Sheakley were pushing hard in the dust to overtake Brandon Simms on lap one when they hit not one, but three boulders in a row. The impacts bent the lower control arm on the right front. The drive axle was making contact with the bent arm and the wheel was tipped out 30 or so degrees. The steering wheel was also 90 degrees off center. Despite the damage, they were able to keep going and at a pace that was good enough for fourth place at the finish. “I was pretty amazed that we were still moving forward after that kind of bashing; the dust hides these rocks until it’s too late to move at those speeds,” said Lambert.
“We went into the race thinking it could and probably would be a throw-out race for us,” said championship winner Johnny Angal, “We were confident that we had the points in hand to take the title. The championship wasn’t our goal at the beginning of the season; we would rather go for wins and have a pile of trophies. But, we’re really excited that we won it, and thank our sponsors and all our supporters who helped us to achieve it. I did not dream that we would be competing with the fastest racers in the desert in our first season. We had Polaris reliability, great prep and a lot of luck too. When it comes down to it, we are competing with the desert. I never feel more defeated than when we fail to finish.” Angal will be back racing the UTV Inc. Polaris in the Best in the Desert series next season and racing his Geiser Brothers Spec TT in the SCORE series.
Separate from the championship battle, several teams were sparring for the race win. First to lead was Scott Yancey in his Goliath Company Polaris. He grabbed the hole shot over Shane Dowden who was driving the S3 Powersports Can-Am with Dustin Jones navigating. “The debate over turbos is over,” said Dowden, “Scott’s turbo is a rocket ship. They took the lead and we chased in the dust; he was very fast in the opening miles and when we hit the short pavement section, he put a gap on us. We caught him in a rough section and we gave him a tap. We got tangled up and almost crashed but got past him. Dustin told me to calm down and, looking back, I was driving too hard in the dust.” Like Lambert, Yancey hit a huge rock in the dust that damaged his suspension. They limped it around the first lap, but had to call it quits on lap two.
No slouch behind the wheel, Dowden has been racing longer than Jones but honestly admits that Jones is faster. Dowden enjoys navigating and takes pride in guiding Jones through the pitfalls they encounter at every race. He has a calm, cool demeanor on the radio, an important asset when calling out directions. They both agreed that it was wise to get Dowden some seat time just in case Jones was unable to take the reins at some point.
“Dustin had a big challenge,” said Dowden, “We sent our GPS out for service and somehow, it was reading upside down. Rights were left and lefts were right. We had a few moments but he did a great job. On the second lap our crew told us we were third on corrected time when we pitted. We had 40 miles to go; it was time to turn it up. If we had any kind of a mechanical problem, we would be off the podium. We ran trouble free to the finish and took the win by about 40 seconds.” The S3 Powersports team has made a huge statement in their first season of desert racing. They have been in the lead at almost every race and had a few heartbreaking DNFs when it looked like a sure win. Both Dowden and Jones have a win while driving. In 2016, their focus will be on winning the championship for Can-Am.
Second place was relative newcomer Ryan Holz. Ryan and his Father Mark built their Holz Racing Products car themselves as a Father and Son project. Ryan had success in the WORCS series and wanted to try desert racing. “I like WORCS because it’s a full out sprint,” said Ryan, “In desert racing, you are in the car longer and you get to run at higher speeds. We raced the Silver State, and Vegas to Reno but broke. We started Henderson in 6th and just set a solid pace to the finish. It feels great to do so well in our third race.”
In third was the team of Dodge Poelman and Doug Mittag. Poelman, who is 15 years old, has been getting tutelage from Mittag and father Ryan. Dodge had a clean first lap; no flats and no stops for mechanicals. His car was prepped by “Nacho” from Hoffman Motorsports. He started back around 20th place and handed the car off unscathed to Mittag in seventh place. Mittag continued the pace and with second place in his sights; the drive belt started to heat up and slip about 10 miles away from the finish. He nursed it to the finish to take the last spot on the podium.
“Dodge has had a lot of experience driving recreationally,” said Ryan Poelman, “I’ve only got a handful of years racing in the desert, but I’ve realized over half of the equation is keeping the equipment in good shape. The desert has the best chance of beating you above all the other competitors. I reiterated the importance of keeping the car in good shape and not over-driving it in the dust. As a father, it was awesome to see Dodge keep his cool and turn the car over to his driving partner within striking distance of a solid finish.”
As previously covered, Justin Lambert finished 4th. The Murray Brothers brought their Can-Am in next to round out the top five. The Henderson 250 provided a perfect transition to the 2016 season. While championship contenders were battling it out, several other teams were just getting their feet wet in order to hit the 2016 season running. S3 Powersports will be back with a new strategy, Johnny Angal will be back defending his title and several new teams, like Erik Goulish’s One Way Electric Inc. Polaris team, will have a good head start. “It was our first big race,” said Goulish, “We were working on jetting and getting our shocks dialed in. We lost the carrier bearing and had to slow down due to the vibration.” He and co-driver Chris Balak made it to the finish in 17th place.
With 2015 in the books, there is no time to waste. The Parker 250 is fast approaching on January 8-9 in Parker, Arizona. With tough established teams competing and a new crop of teams and drivers slated to join the series, 2016 looks to be even more exciting.
2015 Best in the Desert Results
1. Shane Dowden
2. Ryan Holz
3. Dodge Poelman (15) Provo, UT
4. Justin Lambert (40) Bakersfield, CA
5. Jason Murray (33) Downey, CA
6. Snake Livernash (26) Spanaway, WA
7. Logan Gastel (30) Highland, CA
8. Cory Sappington (50) Peoria, AZ
9. Dan Fisher (38) Gilbert, AZ
10. Jonathan McVay (40) San Tan Valley, AZ
BITD Pro UTV CHAMPIONSHIP
1. John Angal (50) Mesa, AZ
2. Justin Lambert (40) Bakersfield, CA
3. Jason Murray (33) Downey, CA
4. Brandon Schueler (26) Phoenix, AZ
5. Branden Sims (29) Prescott Valley, AZ
6. Dan Fisher (38) Gilbert, AZ
7. Logan Gastel (30) Highland, CA
8. Cory Sappington (50) Peoria, AZ
9. Jonathan McVay (40) San Tan Valley, AZ
10. John Melvin Jr (43) Queen Creek, AZ
11. Dustin Jones (30) Bossier City, LA
12. Cody Nygren (31) Farmington, NM
13. Robert Villarreal (18) Austin, TX
By Mike Ingalsbee