By Rob Tygart
Driving down Boone Road just short of milepost 6, you might have noticed a vinyl banner with the logo and name Rusty Nail Racing 4619. Behind it a circle of motorhomes, tents, campers, and trailers. The team comprises over 40 people from six different states with various mechanical skills, backgrounds, and ages. All coming together once a year with one goal in mind. Do whatever it takes to see the 4619 cross the finish line.
The 4619 is a Family operation, and not in the sense, they are all related—co-workers, off-road enthusiasts, friends, and family. Over the years, folks just stopping by to offer whatever help they can from holding a stop sign in the pits to re-torquing bolts, cooking for the team, or packing a mobile radio to the top of Fisher Mountain and acting as a human repeater. No one gets paid; everyone is donating their time to be a part of something bigger. And this is what makes the Rusty Nail Family special.
Months prior, in a shop in Grand Junction, Colorado, Justin Reece, owner/driver with his wife Kelly, brother Cameron and local friends, began getting the 4619 – a 1985 extended cab Toyota PU ready. Hours of prep, tuning, rebuilding, and cleaning go into getting it prepared for what lays ahead. There is never a dull moment at the Rusty Nail HQ; smiles and laughter with music in the background and Buckey, the shop dog. There is a whiteboard sitting on the windshield of the 4619 listing everything that needs to be replaced or checked. Highlighted at the bottom, “Give Kelly a Hug. “
Most Team members arrive a week before the race. Brittian McNeil, Crew Chief, and his wife Sarah, Communications, have started designating pit Captains and crews. Captains will assign each crew member a specific job according to their skill level. Co-drivers for this year’s race are Ryan Jordan and Christopher Bird (co-driver in the 2019 Win). Prior co-drivers over the years were Mat Carpentier and Cameron Reece, with the Team growing and the new Rule changes, we needed their experience in the pits.
As more Team members arrive, Justin and his co-drivers begin pre-running the course. Justin Page drove from Colorado with his camp kitchen, feeding everyone a hearty breakfast and dinner. Nights were spent around the campfire sharing stories and catching up. This year we even held a desert wedding reception for Brittian and Sarah, complete with cake, a tux jacket with tails for the Groom, and a hand-made wedding veil for the Bride; they were married in 2020.
Monday of race week, a call comes in from Christopher Bird’s wife, Audra, in Oregon. Audra is expecting twins, and her water has broken. Everything in camp shifted from racing to getting Chris back to his wife and the birth of their twins. Flight arrangements were made, a truck was unhooked – deadline was three hours to get to LAX. The next couple of days were a bit stressful for many extended Aunts and Uncles focused on the Birds and the health of the twins being born two months early. I am happy to report the Mom and Dad are doing well, and the babies, Braxton and Brody, are doing even better. The Rusty Nail Family just got a bit bigger.
With Chris away, Ryan will co-drive in the desert section and Cameron in the Rocks. Race day would be here before we knew it, so even more pre-running was done over the next few days. Pre checks on the 4619 were going well, Pit crews were in order, and pit boxes with spare parts and whatever else we might need had been checked and re-checked.
Thursday night, Brittian has two large grease boards breaking down everything: from each team member’s job to tools needed, parts and locations. He starts briefing us all on new rule changes and the expectations of each Team member, and most of all, HAVE FUN. Yes, we’re in this to win. No one gets hurt, and at the end of the day, we walk away knowing we did the best we could for the team and the 4619. After the meeting, we break off into our specific groups. Each Pit Captain assigning jobs, departing times in the morning, and from there, it’s an early night for those in camp. As most of us head off to bed, the camp kitchen is in full swing. Team members are making breakfast burritos for those of us leaving before the sun comes up.
Race day. 0500 hrs pit crews are up and warming up Pit and Chase trucks preparing to head out and secure our pit areas. The 4619 has been staged in Hammertown; we’re starting 124th out of 134 between all classes and 20th out of 30 in our class. The Team members not stationed in one of the remote pits stood watching as the green flag dropped,
the 4619 slow rolls through the short course. All we could do now is get to our pits and stand by. Team members listened over the radio to the progress. Patiently waiting at each pit for the thumbs up as the 4619 rolled through with no issues. First pit cleared. Next stop: Main pit for Fuel and Driver change As the 4619 gets closer, Justin calls in his comm mic is loose. The guys worked like pros at Main pit, driver swap completed, fueling completed, six people were in, under, and around the 4619 checking bolts, looking for leaks and anything else that might be an issue. Some electrical tape took care of the loose com mic. We let Justin know they had climbed into 5th place, with the leader only 20 minutes ahead. The pit crew cleared and the 4619 headed towards Spooners ( the first of 13 rock trails.)
As we started packing up, everyone was all smiles. We met with the other team members in Hammertown in front of the Jumbotron. A dozen Rusty Nail shirts could be seen sitting upfront. As the hours rolled by, we heard that 4619 would be stopping at Pit 2 manned by Kurt Williams and his crew for a quick once over. With no issues found, they were off again. That would be their last pit, and within an hour the entire Rusty Nail Family was gathered in Hammertown.
While Justin and Cameron were pushing the 4619 through the desert and rocks. The Rusty Nail Family was waiting for updates. A portable BBQ was fired up, and soon we were all enjoying Brats and Dogs enjoying every moment. Kelly and the girls arrived after breaking down the human radio repeater they had set up and manned since 0800 that morning. We were now without radio communication with the 4619. That’s when you could see everyone getting nervous and excited at the same time. Then Cameron radioed in they had crested Heartbreak Hill and could see the lights of Hammertown. Everyone in a Rusty Nail shirt jumped to their feet, Handshakes, Hugs, and Smiles. We all lined up in front of the stage as the 4619 rolled onto the platform—2021 First Place winner of the 4WP Every Man Challenge. Thirty rigs in our class started, only two finished.
This story is about a Race team and even more about a Race Team Family. The night after the race, everyone knows once we pack up, it’s going to be a year before we see each other again. Win, Place or Lose: No one regrets the vacation time used or time spent on the road getting there, Johnson Valley’s sometimes brutal wind, rain, snow, and dust. This is a Family reunion no one wants to miss. Justin Reece started with a dream to race King of the Hammers; I honestly don’t think when he bought that 1985 salvage title Toyota pickup, he would have ever imagined where it would take him and his family. Or how big his family would become. The dedication each team member brings to the table is a testament to the Heart of this race Team.