UTVUnderground wants to welcome you to the first of many “Race Life” stories. The purpose of this series is to give readers a closer look at racers and their teams as they prepare or take on a race. We all know and see the final results, and learn a lot about the general ins and outs of events through social media and our race reports. But the “Race Life” series will give you a closer look!
Race Life: The UTV Wolfpack
For our first “Race Life” story we tagged along with the UTV Wolfpack as they headed from their shop in Orange County, Southern California to Parker, AZ to take on the first Best In The Desert race of 2017, the GMZ Winter Nationals Parker 250. The UTV Wolfpack is a family based UTV racing program created by brothers Jeremy & Jason Merrell. The two brothers began racing RZRs at the Lucas Oil Southern California Regional Series where they were the driving force behind helping creating the Production UTV race class at the series. While racing is their passion, their love for UTVs, particularly their Polaris RZRs, drove them into creating the UTV Wolfpack line of parts and accessories which are centered around racing applications. The two brothers gained the attention of Polaris RZR through their dealings with us at UTVUnderground.com and became factory racers a couple of years ago. Since then their business, racing team and notoriety have drawn attention and respect from all around the industry.
The brothers have a unique relationship. They both share duties on the business side and the creative side. Jason appears to be the one who stays centered on the product, its function and development while brother Jeremy takes on the marketing and creative. Both share driving duties as members of the race team and both play an active role in promoting and running the team and business. Personality wise, its hard not to like the Merrell’s. When you first meet them its easy to underestimate them as business savvy individuals. Their laid back Southern California lifestyle is a part of who they are, from the way they look to the way they talk. As you get to know them you realize that these are a couple of guys who operate on passion and hustle. Beyond that, they are a couple of guys with massive hearts. They are one of the main reasons that Warfighter Made has gained in popularity, having introduced them to Polaris RZR and UTVUnderground.com. They have dedicated free time to supporting Warfighter Made and have a special place in their hearts for veterans and those still serving in the US armed forces. They go above and beyond for the youth as well, always thinking of the kids and doing little things to share the stoke with kids who attend the races and events they are at. We have learned that what makes these guys special is not what they do in business or at the track but who they are as people and as American’s. These are guys you want to hang out with and be friends with. These are guys you want on your side when things get rough.
Many think that they come from money, their older brothers Jarred and Josh are both very successful business men and are very well known in the action sports and motorsports industry. The name J-Star Motors, Hart & Huntington, and Liquid Graphics probably are names you have heard. But the Merrell’s are as “blue collar” and hardworking as they come. Jason & Jeremy have both played roles in their big brothers business ventures, but instead of riding their coattails like many would expect and certainly not blame them for doing, they have instead decided to pave their own way. While both possess different and lucrative skills, they have decided to venture into the UTV Wolfpack together with visions of not only building a legitimate factory racing program but also a successful aftermarket business. Its not an easy road, both racing and making parts are full time jobs and while Jeremy isn’t a husband or father just yet, brother Jason has kids and a wife to look after. We can all relate with the pressures of running a new business, pile on the pressure of racing competition and representing sponsors and its easy to see that the Merrell’s have a lot on their plate.
With the business in full swing and a lot riding on their success both as company owners and racers for 2017, The Rockstar Energy Drink / Polaris RZR UTV Wolfpack team would be taking three Polaris RZRs to compete at the 2017 Best In The Desert season opener in Parker, AZ. The #944 Polaris RZR XP Turbo would be driven by Jason Merrell, along with his navigator Ricky Silber in the BITD Pro-Production Turbo class. Jeremy would be racing the #4545 Polaris RZR XP Turbo in the Production Turbo short course race. And new for this race, they would join forces with RustFish racing and their team of Kent Pfeiffer and co-driver Zach Goemer in the #2921 Polaris RZR in The Unlimited class. It was going to be a lot of work to get these three machines to the start line, let alone the finish. But one thing you can always bet on, if the Merrell’s say they are going to do something, they always find a way to make it happen.
The team got going early Thursday morning in Costa Mesa, CA where the UTV Wolfpack shop is located. With rain pouring down outside, the team was busy packing and preparing for this very important first race of the season. This race has always simply been known as the BITD Parker 250, but this year one of the teams biggest race sponsors was taking ownership of the event as title sponsors. GMZ Race Products, who sponsor the UTV Wolfpack with wheels & tires, had partnered with BITD to create the GMZ Winter Nationals which would bring short course to this already popular desert race. It added additional excitement to the race, but also brought a little more pressure for the team to arrive and do well as GMZ puts a lot of attention on Jason & Jeremy as one of their only desert racing teams. While packing all of their Makita tools (another sponsor of the program) up at the shop UPS dropped off a last minute belt delivery from Polaris. Racing we learned is the easy part, seeing how hard these guys work to prepare their race machines and support vehicles was a real eye opener. Beyond that, they didn’t have a ton of help.
Both brothers rushed around preparing for their departure. They were setting up everything from pit boxes to tool bags, wiping down machines to making sure they had all their racing gear and spare parts. As they prepared the spare parts it was apparent that each bag had its own purpose, labeled with what tools and or the parts which were inside. Having their tool bags labeled this way increased their productivity during the teams planned and unplanned pit stops and trackside repairs. Jason Merrell and his co-driver and Ricky Silber organize all the open end wrenches and pack up the rest of the tools they may need. Having the factory service manual close by is always a plus just in case you run into a problem you haven’t faced before. It seemed as if the team had just about everything except for the shop sink loaded up into their vehicles. Jason made it clear that it was better to be safe then sorry, so they packed it all in and prepared for departure.
Both UTVs along with all the tools, spare parts and luggage were packed into the trailer and we all hit the road around on Thursday afternoon. The drive consisted of story telling, shop talk, a stop at Del Taco and one for gas. We arrived in Parker, AZ right about sunset which allowed for a quick photo op. The setting sun painted the sky with vibrant colors as we unpacked at the team RustFish river house which is settled right on the bank of the Colorado River in Parker. We would be staying with the RustFish boys for the next couple of days, they were very accommodating and while this was the first time these two teams would partner for a race, it didn’t take long for the bonding to commence. We didn’t get much of a chance to sit back and relax at this sweet place, the team still had work to do. After a tasty dinner at “Mi Burrito” we headed to Queen Racing 45 minutes away in popular Lake Havasu City, AZ to button up the last minute repairs on the UTVs. Mark Queen is the teams engine sponsor and is very popular amongst the seekers of horsepower in the powersports world.
I don’t think anyone had an idea of what we were walking into when we arrived at Queen Racing. After stepping inside all you could hear was the sounds of metal being ground and welded, and of course the sweet sound of Queen’s revving engines. Mark Queen had his personal race car that he too was preparing to compete with, completely torn down. How he got it all back together by the next day is still a mystery to me but Jeremy and Ricky immediately jumped in to help Mark with his RZR, turning wrenches on his turbo assembly and down-pipe set up. Everyone helped one another, running in between working on Marks RZR, Jason’s RZR and Jeremy’s RZR. Jason decided to add a charge pipe and blow off valve in search of more horsepower. With it getting late and still more work to be done, the team decided on getting a hotel in Lake Havasu for the night so that they could get up early the next day to finish the tasks at hand. I learned during this process that this level of grind and commitment is not something new to this program. As out of sorts things seemed to be, a confident and collected attitude still surrounded the Merrell’s. While to me it seemed like chaos, to them it seemed like just another race weekend and together they all just worked right through the entire process like a couple of old pros.
Friday seemed to arrive much quicker than I had hoped for. The day would be filled with the races opening ceremonies of sorts which for desert racing means a parade through the events contingency display area and some time going through technical inspection where the race director ensures everyone’s equipment is fit for competition. Before heading to tech and contingency back in Parker, we headed back over to Queen Racing where everyone was back at it working away. Everyone was a little sleep deprived from the night prior but remained dedicated to finish the cars before the race. Jeremy was now busy setting up his new clutch on his RZR. Jason broke out Mark Queen’s alignment tool and got to work on his own machine. Positive camber was added to the rear tires allowing the tire to have more contact with the dirt. Ricky moved Jason’s ECU to the inside of their desert RZR just in case water became a factory. The southwest region of the USA has been hammered with rain this winter and it was still unclear if it would be a wet race or not. As the team worked on their machines they awaited the arrival of another sponsor, Adam from AIRDAM Clutches was set to meet them to make final adjustments to the clutching on the teams RZRs. He was also going to bring Jason’s new clutch and check out Jeremy’s clutch. Clutching on these machines I learned was just as important as the engine. They explained that its a science to really dial these clutches in and Adam was one of the few guys in the world who really could make these machines not only run well but keep them from just blowing belts and ruining their race. Time passed as the team waited anxiously for Adam to arrive, he would eventually arrive only two and a half hours before tech was supposed to close. Now with the fear of not making it to technical inspection in time, Adam installed and showed Jason and Ricky how to fine tune their CVT and use their new clutch set up, Jason was good to go.
Before loading the UTVs for tech, Jeremy and Adam began to work on and test Jeremy’s clutch set up. They took a couple of passes around Queen’s shop and the next thing you know he comes around the corner with the tire wobbling. “The rear hub broke the splines inside the hub and got stripped out causing the axle nut to back itself off breaking off the cotter pin. The hub came out of the bearing carrier and bent the brake caliper bracket.” said Ricky Silber. With tech closing in 45 minutes we loaded it onto the trailer with the rear wheel wobbling and barely able to hold the weight. The look on their faces was somewhere in between “what the hell is going on here?” and “no time to cry over spilled milk”. The team had to load and go if they were going to have any luck of passing through tech and being given the OK to compete.
We were now on a late night parts hunt with less than 12hrs to the race while still on our way to tech which was set to close in 45 minutes. Jeremy was able to get in contact with Craig Scanlon who is not only a fellow competitor but is also the man who runs the racing team for Polaris RZR. Craig was nice enough to loan the team one of his back up hubs and supplied the other parts needed to repair Jeremy’s now broken machine. The parts were installed once we got to the parking lot at tech. Jeremy worked feverishly once again, installing the parts as fast as possible and were able to finally make it through tech. The UTV Wolfpack RZRs were the last vehicles to pass inspection at 8:30pm.
After tech the team headed back to the RustFish river house to get some sleep before race day, while everyone was preparing for bed Jason was studying the track to figure out his strategy for the race. I am not sure where these guys get their energy from, but you could tell a lot of it stemmed from their passion and will to succeed. With Jason determined to memorize the track and build out their pit strategy, the team all headed off to get as many hours of sleep as possible.
We woke up bright and early to the cool and crisp Parker air and the smell of the Colorado River. Everyone was excited and ready to start the day. We all loaded up and made our way to the race course where hudreds of racers and their teams were all preparing for the race. The sounds of engines buzzing and warming up surrounded the pit area. The team pulled in and set up shop next to Craig Scanlon and his SMG RZR team. We set up the Rockstar Energy canopy and organized the pit for the race, making our home amongst the fastest UTV racers in the world. You couldn’t help but share in the excitement and feel a sense of adrenaline as everyone crossed into race mode.
Jeremy who races short course suited up, put on his game face and headed to the starting line. His race was the first of the day and he would be starting at the very end of a 20 car wide land rush start. It was a dead engine land rush meaning everyone had their vehicles turned off until the green flag was waved. The countdown begins, 3..2..1 and the engines fire, Mark Queen and Jeremy battled each other off the line for the hole shot going into the first corner neck and neck. The short course seemed to go by really quick, Jeremy was running great up in the front of the pack in 2nd or 3rd until about 30 miles in when he blew a belt on his freshly tuned clutch. After a quick belt change he got back into the race and made it another lap until he stopped after realizing he couldn’t reach top speed any longer. It was during that pit stop that Jason had to tell him that his RZR had a blown transmission seal and oil was all over the primary and secondary clutch. The oil was causing the belt to slip and if he decided to continue to push on he would risk running the engine out of oil thus causing even further damage to his machine. With no ope of now winning the race they decided to call it a day and not take a chance of any further damages. They still had the desert race to compete in so all hope of a podium was not lost.
Jason and Kent’s race was next and was set to start right after noon. Jason began suiting up and taped in earbuds which are connected to the radio in the car. He tapes them onto his ear so they do not move around throughout the race thus causing him not to hear his co-drivers directions and the pits. Jason only brings a small tool bag and a few spare parts when racing; axles, belts and spare tire are in the back and basic tools needed to perform trackside repairs are strapped inside the vehicle. Both driver and co-driver have their own camel packs for fluids and taped on Cliff Bar on the dash just in case they need some energy. Desert races are taxing and this race could take up to eight hours to compete. We would later realize that the winners would do it in less than five. Nevertheless, racing in the desert takes both a physical toll on the driver and mechanical toll on the vehicle. Its important to be hydrated, well rested and mentally prepared. I am not sure Jason was any of that, but he was full of optimism and will, and sometimes that is all it takes!
As I began to gather my gear, I turn around and next thing you know Jason and Kent were off to the start. Wow, I am over here trying to prepare myself and quickly realized there is no time to slouch. I hustled to the start line where racers would all be lining up for their Parker 250 race. Its called the Parker 250 because its obviously in Parker, and racers will compete on a course for a total of 250 miles.
With the racers now leaving the line in pairs every thirty seconds, we prepared for Jeremy and Kent to leave the line in their RZRs. With the teams now off the line, listening over the radio we were able to keep on top of Jason’s status in case we may need to prepare for any repairs when they pit on the first lap. We hear over the radio he is 30 miles in and reporting a CEL code and a experiencing a loss of power. An hour or so passes and Jason is in for his first pit. Jeremy checked the code in the service manual and it came up for over-boost. We could see Jason from afar pulling into the Parker Python which is the infield section of the race course. Everyone got into their positions ready to fuel the RZR and check out the boost problem. RJ Anderson, one of the most famous UTV racers in the world, offered a helping hand and started looking for causes. A solution for the problem was not found. With help from RJ, the Wolfpack pit crew and the neighboring SMG crew they performed a fast pit which Joey D. himself streamed live on the UTVUnderground.com Instagram. It was cool to see the factory Polaris team of SMG, the face of Polaris RZR in RJ Anderson, and the sports biggest media representative in Joey D. all hanging out to lend a hand to the UTV Wolfpack. You could tell, this was a tight nit community and everyone had a lot of respect for the Merrell’s.
With Jason back out on the course, Kent running the UTV Wolfpack / RustFish #1992 followed not to much later. They wheeled the #1992 into the pits and after fueling and accessing the car, one of team members noticed the sway bar links had become loose and were rattling around. The team jumped in to work on the RustFish RZR while Jason was out battling the course and his competitors on his second lap. Jason was keeping a steady pace, his new clutch was great and did not break any belts, but because of the Over Boost code was only able to drive the RZR up to about 50mph which was definitely putting a damper on his overall time. It was talking some time to get Kent’s RZR back on the track and before the team finished repairing his machine they had to push his UTV out of the pit because we hear over the radio Jason coming in for his last fuel stop. The team took a break from the RustFish RZR to get Jason in and out as quickly as possible. A quick splash of fuel and few jokes later, Jason was back on course for his third and final lap. The team pulled the RustFish RZR back in and got it up and running. Kent’s sway bar end links were being tightened and the guys headed back out for their second lap which would also be their final.
With the sun starting to set the team packed up the pit and made way to the finish line at Blue Water Casino to meet Jason and Kent. Jason crossed the finish line and completing all three laps and placed 11th in his class. Kent finished with two laps and placed 6th in his class. The team celebrated finishing the race and talked about how it went out on course, trading war stories and talking about all the “what if’s”. After saying our goodbyes to the other racers we loaded up and hit a local Mexican restaurant for some food and beer while watching Supercross on the barroom television. I learned that racing isn’t everything with these guys, hanging out and spending times with friends and family is really why they do it. The racing almost gets in the way of the laughter and fun that is had in preparing.
Finishing a BITD race is a feat in itself and everyone who competes and finishes should be proud they made it to the finish. One team only went three miles before totally wrecking their machine beyond repair while others fought for the win only to suffer a mechanical miles from the finish. Its as much a mental battle as it is a physical and not always does the best man win. Sometimes the guy who had the most luck does. Desert racing is insane, its cool and fun and you can’t help but feel like you are part of a family when taking on a race together. The UTV Wolfpack is a race team yes, but they are much more a family when its all said and done. Witnessing this whole race from a team’s perspective from prep to finish has been eye opening. The story of sacrifice and commitment that it takes just to get to the race is one that deserves recognition. To witness it first hand and to be a part of it with a close knit and small team like the UTV Wolfpack has given me a whole new perspective on desert racing, it has also given me a whole new level of respect for the Merrell’s, their volunteers and competitors. I will forever be a fan.
Thank you to everyone at UTV Wolfpack for having us along on this journey, we can’t wait to see you take on your next challenge, we know you will succeed!
Photos & Words by Daniel Schenkelberg // UTVUnderground.com
Follow the UTV Wolfpack on Facebook & Instagram @UTVWolfpack
Check out their products at www.UTVWolfpack.com