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Roads optional: Dacula drivers tackle world's most extreme races

Photo by Brian Giandelone

Photo by Brian Giandelone

DACULA — The silence in a small Dacula pasture ends as a stroked 4-0 engine roars. A heavily customized black jeep with massive 33-inch tires and an Al-Qaeda Hunting Club bumper sticker tears through the overgrown weeds, kicking up clouds of yellow dust in its wake. Under the 100-degree sun, the jeep bounces up and down and swerves sharply.

The Dacula drivers, Ted Holt and Gary Cann, aren’t out for a leisure ride. They are the founders of Peak Empire Racing, a local off-road racing team. They’re heading to Nevada for the TSCO Vegas to Reno Race that begins on Thursday. It’s the longest off-road race in the United States, giving riders 21 hours to conquer 535 miles of scorching desert terrain.

“It’s going to be epic,” said Ted Holt, a salesman at Lawrenceville’s Klassy Kars.

Peak Empire Racing started in 1993 as a mountain bike racing team before turning its focus to extreme sports and rock crawling. In 2007 the group decided to start off-road racing by competing in the Baja 1000.

“It’s like saying ‘Hey, let’s play football’ and going out and playing in the Super Bowl,” said Cann, a software engineer.

The Baja 1000, a 1,000-mile race in Mexico, is the biggest off-road race in the world. It also ended up being Holt and Cann’s baptism through fire. Three tires blew in an hour and the pair was stranded in the desert for 10 hours. They didn’t finish. But their luck has picked up in other races, including a fourth-place finish in their class in the Parker 425 in Arizona last February.

Holt and Cann grew up in Dacula and played football together in high school. They live a half mile apart and use their homes to work on their jeep and test run it. They used to have a shop in Lawrenceville but closed it after the economy went sour. During the Vegas to Reno, Holt will drive the vehicle while Cann monitors its conditions and navigates using a GPS system.

“He’s been my navigator for the last 30 years, who else would I have with me in the car?” Holt said about Cann.

They’ve used the same car since they started racing in the Baja 1000 in 2007. It was a repo-ed two wheel drive jeep ready to go to the junkyard. They stripped it down and gave it new tires, wheels, transmissions and “all the goodies to go racing.” After each race, the pair kept touching up the jeep, spending more than $50,000 to date.

“It could be a pretty sweet Porsche sitting there,” Cann said.

The two headed to Reno earlier this week.

“Getting to the starting line is the hardest part,” Holt said. “It’s all about the prep and having your ducks in a row before you start.”

Just the fuel to lug the car to and from Nevada costs about $2,000.

But it’s not a rosy road after the race starts. Especially with extreme temperature. In 125-degree heat, lug nuts and suspense bolts can loosen and nitrogen can leak from the shocks. Holt and Cann have to fix anything that goes wrong with their car, so they carry one or two spare parts for everything but the engine. Their six-man support team has to stay in the designated pit stops.

The car isn’t the only one feeling the heat. Wearing full race suits and helmets, off-road racers brace 150- to 175-degree weather by day, and below freezing temperatures by night. They can lose 10 pounds in water weight in a race.

“It’s all about preparation, we exercise and we can get acclimated to heat here in Georgia since its 150,000 degrees every day,” Holt said. They also start hydrating a week in advance and make sure to eat right during the race. “We do what marathon runners do.”

But the drivers say the hardest thing about the race is persevering as people. Even a bouncy, adrenaline-filled ride can get boring — especially at night when all the drivers can see is the little patch of land the headlights show.

“The best thing everyone will see is sunrise,” Holt said. “When the sun comes back up, it gives you renewed life because you can see what’s going on. Or sometimes you see it and you realize you are in the middle of freaking nowhere.”