Off-road racing has had many changes throughout the years, but one thing has remained consistent no matter what. Trophy Trucks remain a fan favorite no matter where you go; whether in Baja or the U.S., they reign supreme in the desert. But they aren’t the only fan favorite; there is an argument to be made that the slowest class in desert racing is quickly becoming the new fan-favorite – Class 11 known as stock Volkswagen. I had an opportunity to ride shotgun at last year’s King of the Hammers Class 11 short course race with Josh Felix, and I got to see firsthand for myself what all the hype was about little did I know we would roll the car three times come race day. This was an experience not to be forgotten and gave me a true appreciation for Class 11 racing.
Having zero co-driving experience and my only racing experience being limited to ice racing, prerunning in Baja, and photographing off-road races, indeed, I was qualified to sit shotgun at a short course race? Probably not, but why the heck not. I was already a huge fan of the class just because of the sheer rawness of it; its racing roots all the way back to the ’60s to where these were what most people were racing. I am a sucker for nostalgia.
Class 11 has been known to be one of the roughest and harshest classes in desert racing. The rules are pretty simple, stock Volkswagens, stock(ish) suspension, monotube shocks, full steel body, and a VW 1600cc displacement engine. Aside from standard safety items such as a roll cage, you can literally race a stock VW Beetle with minimal modifications.
This class has become a widely popular class for competitors to race in; not only is it affordable, but one of the most competitive classes out there. In Class 11 you are given a set of rules you have to work within, and that is simply it. The rules prohibit big budgets from coming and being the most competitive like we see in Trophy Trucks. For instance, a $700k+ four-wheel-drive Trophy Truck is needed to win down in Baja. Drivers are tasked with making a limited race car go as fast as possible through some of the most challenging terrain making it truly a driver’s class.. this is no easy task.
Josh and I met up a few weeks earlier to test his Class 11 car in Barstow, check systems, and dial in the shocks. After hearing how terrible they were to ride compared to a UTV, I nervously got in the race car, and off we went. Up and down the infamous Barstow main drag where Trophy Truck whoops would become jumps for us, as we would go back and forth for a few hours constantly making adjustments to the car. We would hit a few jumps and come crashing down upon landing – it wasn’t that bad. I became less and less nervous about it and any future back pain I might have and settled in the car.
Then came race week – Ultra4 King of the Hammers. The largest off-road racing event in North America brings thousands to Johnson Valley’s lakebed for a week-long event with races almost every day. Our race was just days away; we would be racing the EMPI Class 11 shootout, a short course race around Hammer Town at night – the first prize was $10,000. We had one last final shakedown as I watched Josh pilot his bug up and down the whoops up to Chocolate Thunder. The car was solid; Josh was ready, I was ready.
On Sunday, just an hour before we had to be at staging, I was looking for Josh and he was nowhere to be found in the sea of RVs. Race suit and helmet in hand, I head to the staging area and expect to find him there. All of a sudden, he pulls up in his RZR and says, “Jason, I rolled the car; we are trying to fix it, hop in.” I think to myself, “Wait for a second; Josh rolled the car?” He had rolled the car while testing just an hour earlier, making more adjustments to the shocks. The race hasn’t even started yet and we have less than an hour until staging. Hammers were flying, trying to bang out the roof and fenders while two guys were wiring in new lights on the hood.
This is one of the reasons why Class 11 is so great; similar to a lot of desert racing, no one is getting paid to be here, and Josh had a whole team of people wrenching on his car doing whatever they could to get him to the start line. These people do it out of a sheer passion for the sport of racing. They could have been doing anything else, but instead, they chose to help us get to the start.
The green flag drops, signaling for a land rush start spreading 16 cars wide. We were off, and within the first 50 feet, we were door to door then another car slammed into our fender. Josh could no longer steer; the metal fender was jamming the tire so far that the wheel couldn’t turn. Immediately we were in the pit, and the team just ripped off the fender, and we were on our way.
Josh was holding a good position, trying to make up time. As we soared across the tabletop jump on our fourth lap, we were headed down the hill into the infield. Josh put it on two wheels, corrected it and the next thing we knew, we were on the opposite side. They flipped us back over within 40 seconds, and we were still in this.
Lights that were merely zip-tied on the hood made visibility abysmal. Josh was focused and was driving hard; just two laps later, we were battling it out with another car. They took the low line in the huge berm, we took the high line going a little too high, causing us to roll. While we waited to get flipped back over, oil from the engine was leaking out of the breather tube onto the roof of the car. Hot oil dripped onto our helmet visors as we took off. Not only did we barely have any lights now, we had to race with not only minimal lights but with our visors open and dust in our eyes. Winning was out of the question; the goal had become to finish.
This story might sound like an awful time racing; it was actually one of the most fun things I had done all year. Lap after lap, we were having the best time. We made it to the finish line despite having all these issues racing it was an experience that was not to be forgotten. Blake Wilkey would battle it out with Cisco Bio all 25 laps and would earn a first-place finish. Josh was excited just to get across the finish line. My job riding shotgun was over, and I can’t wait to experience it again.
While the Trophy Truck experience is unattainable to most people, the Class 11 VW Bug experience isn’t. These Bugs make the sport become accessible to most people that want to get into desert racing. Those who race in Baja are some of the most hard-core people on the planet. A raw battle of survival between drivers and machines. It takes a special type of person that is willing to endure that type of physical abuse on the body for that long of a race and to see them barreling through the desert as fast as they will go third gear through the whoops just before they bog down into fourth on the flat straights. These bugs are the real deal.
I truly believe every class in desert racing is exciting but seeing what these VW Bugs can do with minimal modifications to the suspension soaring across jumps and whoops is beyond impressive, and for that reason, I believe it is the most exciting class in all of desert racing. With the involvement of larger brands and race events allowing this class to thrive, we will see this class only grow in years to come.
The 2022 Ultra4 KOH week and class 11 Showdown starts January 29th! Click here to watch highlights from the 2021 Class 11 Showdown