Rock crawlers compete at national championship

Steve Garrison
stgarrison@daily-times.com

FARMINGTON — Professional rock crawler Steve Nantz found himself in a precarious situation this morning at Chokecherry Canyon, where the W.E. Rock Grand National Championship is being held.

Steve Nantz, of Moab, Utah, competes in the World Extreme Rock Grand National Championship on Saturday in Chokecherry Canyon in the Glade Run Recreation Area.

The Moab, Utah, man's rig clung to the precipice of an escarpment while its 42-inch tires kissed an orange cone.

If he hit the cone, he would draw a penalty, but Nantz said afterward he was more worried about the vehicle's descent down the 20-foot cliff. His spotters scrambled across the rocks and guided the man's vehicle as it crashed into the canyon floor and crawled out of the competition area.

Nantz avoided the cone and scored a 12 on the course. As in golf, the lowest scorer wins, and the best score on the course this afternoon was a minus 20. Crawlers are scored based on their ability to navigate their vehicles through four gates, marked by cones, scattered across the rocky terrain, as well as various bonus gates. There are four courses to complete.

Nineteen professionals in two classes, unlimited and pro mod, competed this year at the national championship, which concludes Sunday. Fourteen more people competed in the sportsman's class, which W.E. Rock business manager Shelley Krehbiel said was "for the guy who wants to come and see how their rig will do."

Driver Jessica Johnston of Winchester, Va., descends a steep slope while competing in the World Extreme Rock Grand National Championship on Saturday in Chokecherry Canyon in the Glade Run Recreation Area.

W.E. Rock held four events in the western United States and four events in the eastern United States before the championship.

Rick "Big Rich" Klein, president of W.E. Rock, said rock crawling is about control. The highly modified, high-torque, four-wheel vehicles are outfitted with locking differentials, big tires, off-road shock absorbers and roll cages, which allow the drivers to climb rocks and speed up escarpments.

"You are looking for the best way to get through the gate," Kline said.

More than a few vehicles overturned this morning on the four courses. Krehbiel said injuries are rare, but drivers sometimes get "their bell rung" when vehicles flip.

Nantz, who has competed professionally since 1999, said personal safety is a concern, but the sport is "addictive."

Spotter Dominic Balducci of Dolores, Colo., guides ddriver Jessica Johnston of Winchester, Va., through one of the courses in the World Extreme Rock Grand National Championship on Saturday in Chokecherry Canyon in the Glade Run Recreation Area.

"It's the adrenaline rush of competition," Nantz said. "They put you in so many weird positions."

Driver Tracy Jordan led in the unlimited class by day's end. Branden Blume led in the pro mod class, and Uriel Barela led in the sportsman's class.

The crawlers will compete in four new courses today. The top scorers in each class will then compete in a final "shootout" to determine the champions.

Steve Garrison covers crime and courts for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4644.