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Chasing Down Harley Letner presented by King Shocks

Harley Letner has been a busy man lately. In a months time, he’s won the Laughlin Desert Classic overall, raced his first race in a Trophy Truck at the Baja 500 and went down under for the Tatts Finke Desert Race.  Letner’s been on a tear, missing only one podium in his last seven Best in the Desert races. This year, he’s won the Parker 425 (Class 1500), Mint 400 (Class 1500) and Laughlin Desert Classic (overall) and is surely on to another championship season.  We & King Shocks caught up with Harley after he returned from the Finke to talk a little bit about his stellar year so far.

I guess let’s just start where this article first began!  Congratulations on the overall win at the Laughlin Desert Classic. The #TTDestroyer has now, literally, destroyed a field of Trick Trucks.  You beat second place finisher Jason Voss by over four minutes, who on both days was physically out front of the Trick Truck race with no other classes to weed through. What was the key to your dominating performance?

Thank you!! I think the key to winning was just being smooth and running a fast pace without making any mistakes.  Getting through the dust of the lapped traffic from the 10 cars in our group without messing was key for sure.

You’re proof that the the Class 1500 cars are still in contention for the overall.  You’ve got Vegas to Reno (550 miles) coming up in August, followed by two relatively quick races in the Tonopah 250 and the Pahrump 250.   If I were to guess, the shorter, balls to the wall races are more your style.  Are you pedal down at all times or does it just appear that way?

I’m a for sure a big fan of the shorter balls to the wall style races. I like to drive hard and go fast.  But in all races, short or long, conserving the car and making sure I finish is always priority.  It might always look like I’m WFO the whole time but when there are no cameras or fans around, we tend to pace it down a little haha.

It looked like on Day 1 you quickly found a comfortable distance behind Pat Dean where you remained the entire race, eventually finishing first overall on corrected time.   Could you have passed him or did you know you had him on correct time so you’d start first on Sunday and lengthen your lead then?

With Pat being fastest qualifier and starting alone, I knew all I had to do was get the jump on Quinn and hunt him down. Once I got close enough to see him, I just stayed right with him while getting time splits from my crew.   Pat is a very talented and fast driver.  I knew he would run a winning pace so I didn’t push hard enough to pass him.  I just stayed close enough to beat him on time and start first on day two.

It’s been just over a year since you made a big move in your career and joined Youtheory Racing and seven races later, you’ve only missed one podium in your class and you’ve now won all three BITD races in 2017, being the Parker 425 (Class 1500), Mint 400 (Class 1500) and Laughlin Desert Classic (overall).  You’re killing it. 

My first year with Youtheory Racing has been absolutely amazing, to say the least.  For sure, I have to attribute the success to an amazing group of people who make up the youtheory family and team.

The family aspect of racing gets hit home all the time.  What about your relationship with other racers outside of your immediate team?  Are you pretty good friends with a lot of these guys or is it pretty much show up and kick their ass as bad you can? 

My relationship with all the other racers is really good.  In all the years I’ve been doing it, I’ve definitely gained a bunch of friends.  When the flag drops we may not be the best of friends because we all want to win but at the end of the day we’re all hanging out again swapping stories.

Harley Letner | 2009 BITD Vegas to Reno

A big part of that success has to be the freedom you have to prep your own vehicle, which was built in 2006.  You were able to race it under the Youtheory banner but bring over some key partnerships that have been with you from the beginning.  How important is building relationships that last?

Having the freedom to prep my own car definitely helps me perform well, I think. I know everything about that car and what it can and can’t do. The Alpha was built in 2006 and is still dominating, which says a lot of how the car was built.  All the relationships that I have built over the years with great companies like King Shocks, Toyo tires, Jamar Performance and countless others that support me have been without a doubt the key to it’s success.

There’s something to be said about feeling “comfortable” when you’re doing +100mph through whoops that can break cars in half.  That’s a huge testament to the car’s suspension components.  

Car set up is the most important thing when you are going 100+ through the rough.  We have done years of testing with King Shocks and Henry Bergdahl to get the Alpha the best working car out there.   Knowing the car can take anything the desert can throw at me definitely makes it comfortable to go fast!

What are you thinking about in that moment?  Are you worried about anything or is that pretty much all on Jimmy’s shoulders?

In that 100+ moment, it’s pretty much hold on and steer the machine and wait for Jimmy or Don to yell at me that a danger maybe coming up.

How important is it to have someone in the car with you that you can depend on?  

Having a good co-rider is everything.  Jimmy and Don are both very active telling me what’s coming up, changing tires and fixing issues along the way, as well as keeping me calm and focused.  We talk quite a bit in the car but I’m not at liberty to discuss what about!

In our last interview a year ago, in response to asking where you are planning on moving into a Trophy Truck at some point, you said, “I mean, that’s obviously the ultimate goal. There hasn’t been much talk about it. Eventually, I would love to retire the Class 1 car and move up to Trophy Truck.”  Has anything changed in the past year?  

For sure the goal is to get into the premier class of Trick Truck!  There is talk amongst the team and the shop about moving up but nothing set in stone yet.   We’ll have to wait and see..

Well that’s wonderful news.  I can’t say I wouldn’t mind seeing you in a truck full time.  You were down racing with Cops in the #50 Trophy Truck at the 500 so you got a fix down south.  What was your first race in a Trophy Truck like?

Thanks, I’d love to be in a truck full time!  Yeah, pretty stoked about the 500 – it was my first Trophy Truck race and it started pretty good.  I had a little spin out in qualifying and ended up 11th.  We started with a game plan of trying to run a good enough pace not to get passed – just get to driver change in a good place.  We ended up clipping a rock with the front tire at about 60 miles in and getting a flat.  Hook and I had it changed pretty fast with the help of some locals and only lost two spots, I think.  We had a clean run at a decent pace down the beach headed towards our first pit at RM150.  At RM145, we had a rear flat and the jack handle seized.  After watching bunch of trucks go by, we finally got it changed and made it to the pit for fuel and fresh tires.

Heading through the hills above Mike’s, we started to notice the oil pressure drop to dangerous levels, so we just cruised to the driver change at RM250.  Hook called it into the pits and relayed the issue got permission to cruise it in as long as oil pressure didn’t go to zero. It took 11 quarts at driver change before Zak took off and made it nearly 40 miles before needing to add more fuel.  The pressure didn’t get any better so the team decided to park it before blowing up an engine.

Get out of the truck before it got hotter than hell in San Felipe.  Smart man.  Racing along the Pacific Ocean – something we’ll most likely never get to do in Stateside racing.  Is that part of the allure of Baja?  

Yeah I was way stoked to be doing the start and going down the beach.  It was super hot further south but the beach section is definitely a tricky area and can end your day in a heartbeat.   That is for sure one of the best parts about racing in Mexico.  Even just being there – all the scenery and things we’ll never see in the States. It’s such a beautiful country and all the differences in terrain we got to cover out on the course make it truly unique.  It’s absolutely amazing.  I only got to pre run my section once, which I wasn’t too stoked on but I didn’t have the time.  My schedule has been crazy.

Right!  Immediately after the 500 you hopped a plane to Australia and raced the Tatts Finke Desert Race with Luke Ayers.  How did this come to life?  

Yeah!  First thing that Monday I headed down under for the Finke.  Back in the day, we sold our first Tatum Class 1 car to Team Taylor, who are good friends with Luke.  They came over to a few Stateside races with us and we became good mates. Luke then purchased the Tatum and invited me to drive it at the Finke with the intention of learning what the car is capable of since it was mine for so long.

Racing other people’s car is pretty nerve racking sometimes. I definitely want to do well but not hurt their car as well. I had never raced the Finke but I did race a couple years back with Team Taylor at the Goondiwindi 400. I had a great feeling heading into the Finke.  It was a really rough sprint from Finke to Alice and back to Finke – A style I’m really into.  The Tatum works really well in the rough. Luke has done it multiple times and knows the course well so he was my navigator on the way down and he drove back up to the finish.

You guys had a solid finish.

Yeah, we lost a power steering pump and rear brakes in prologue so we started 25th, which is not great for a race like this.  We left the line Sunday morning and the dust was the worst I have ever seen.  By far.  We just cruised along trying not to crash like another car we watched hit a tree 10km in. Once we hit the 80km mark, we were able to start picking up the pace and I passed six cars through the 4-6 foot whoops.  They were the biggest whoops I’ve ever seen.

We had a clean dust free run for the last 100km. We ran a hard pace trying make up as much time ass we could to start day 2 closer to the front and crossed the finish line in 13th for Day 1.

One car didn’t make the start so we took off in 12th with the plan to drive fast and safe to get a solid finish.  As we cruised up back towards Alice, Luke started passing broke down cars left and right.  Once we got in to top 10 outright, we were very careful to make sure we finished.  The Finke is the most grueling race in Australia so crossing the finish line in 7th outright was an amazing effort.

I know you’ve raced in China as well.  Three continents isn’t bad.  Would you hit the other four if you had the chance? 

Yes, I also raced the China Grand Rally a few years back.  I would for sure love to race all over the world if I had the opportunity.  Dakar is definitely a dream of mine.  I would race that in a heartbeat if given the chance.  The China Rally was put on by the same promoter as the Dakar, so I imagine it was very similar.  After that, I really got the itch to race the Dakar.

Why can’t we just race everywhere?

It’s definitely a unique way to see the world!

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