Cliffhanger 2019 was held in April out at Mt Gap Station pulling teams and spectators from all over Australia. What makes Cliffhanger special is it’s long stages and rough terrain. Teams raced over 800klm in 6 days spending hours every day behind the wheel. Stages varied from high speed rally on farm trails, gruelling rock climbs and belts along dry sandy creek beds day and night. In fact all of that would be in just one stage. Cliffhanger again lived up to its reputation of long challenging stages brutally breaking 25% of the field just in stage 1.
But Cliffhanger’s greatest achievement was to totally win over the buggies with all of them vowing to return and bring friends. Owner of Superior Engineering, Michael Hayes said it was the most fun they have ever had in their Ultra 4. In fact not only is Michael returning but he has agreed to increase his sponsorship and support for the next event convinced this style of racing for all buggy types and 4wds is as good as it gets. Long seat time, hard and fast stages and a base camp with family friendly facilities including flushing toilets.
Three classes make up Cliffhanger. Entry level class is Super Tourers where teams start with a stock standard 4wd, add some lockers, winch, 35” tyres, a basic roll cage and a GPS and they can be competitive in an affordable class. This year we saw a leaf sprung hilux, GQ patrols, 80 series and the diesel powered 60 series on leaf springs was pretty much hardest to beat. This is a very fun class. The next class is that of Winch Trucks where the gloves come off, the V8’s go in and the suspension, driveline and winch mods go well beyond budget. The good guys showed they can take it right up to the Ultra 4’s chest to chest with speed and ability. And thirdly, buggy class is any type of buggy and there are no limitations other than safety specs to keep things safe. The buggies are promised no mud and stages specifically built to excite.
Cliffhanger uses adjoining stations 90 minutes north west of Cobar NSW. Chosen not only for it’s varied rough terrain but it’s central to Adelaide, Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne.
Cliffhanger uses Rallysafe to not only know where everyone is but also to start and finish stages and register having made it to a way point location. Imagine there are no tracks, just scrubby desert terrain and lots of rocks. Your GPS arrow points you to a waypoint which is like an invisible circle on the ground 30m wide and when you drive into that circle your Rallysafe unit says the waypoint is achieved and you’re off to the next one. What seemed a bit daunting to those new to navigation turned out to be easier than google maps on the road. The Engel 40 waypoint stage was on open fast terrain and teams raced at top speed from waypoint to waypoint in their own sequence barely slowing at each. They were about 1klm apart so its about 40 klm of furious action and it was in the dark. Michael Hayes was quickest in his Ultra 4 but only just with Jesse Gleeson in his 4.8 Turbo GQ Patrol only seconds slower. By the way, Jesse blew a motor earlier in the week and replaced it with another engine at camp.
Another navigation stage was the AXT Turbo 100 stage – 100 waypoints made easier by being in day light but this time there were rocks so 100 klm of rocks over 5 hours. Chris Hummer and Neil Cooper took this out with a 30 minute gap over second place Carl Johannessen and David Gregg. Incidentally, Chris and Neil started out driving the hard stuff like their King of the Hammers buggy except they were in their street legal patrol so not surprisingly broke their driveline to pieces in stage one starting their debut Cliffhanger with a DNF.
There was a big rock climb each day and these proved to be just as difficult for the buggies as the winch truck teams with every team having to winch. And credit where credit is due, the better winch truck teams showed the buggies how the big rocks are done. Sure the buggies with their taller 40” tyres and rear wheel steer were advantaged but when it came to the navi’s running like greyhounds and moments later the amazingly fast winches hauling the rigs up at jogging speeds the top 10 times were dominated by the winch trucks. Mick Adams was probably the most experienced and prepared buggy for this having raced Winch Trucks at Cliffhanger over several years.
But Cliffy debut Bruce Fraser also demonstrated ability and experience also taking it to the winch truck boys. But it’s hard to beat the Queenslanders like Jake Chislett, Andy Beatty, Carl Johannessen, Mark Thomas, Greg McDonald and Olly Clews in their Winch Trucks when that rope comes out. Victorian Chris Hummer and local Rob Fing were amongst them.
The opening PJ’s Prologue stage was a mix of everything. It started with most teams winching in a nasty gorge, then off to get 15 waypoints a few klm apart in very extreme terrain and finished with a 6 klm belt along a sandy river bed to the finish.
The favourite stage was the TPH 100. This is a 100 klm point to point pretty much following the boundary fence lines. Plenty of high speed farm trails, but also thick scrub, creek runs and lots of rocks. Again the recovery crews were out late that night rounding up break downs but Hummer again dominated with a convincing win, Adams was quickest buggy and Daniel Beckham in his GQ ute now being consistent with more stage wins in Super Tourer class.
Rally stages along farm trails or dried creek beds were a real adrenalin rush. It didn’t matter what class you were in but if you had plenty of horsepower and great suspension and you can steer, then you did well. Hayes in his Ultra 4, Mani Kafantaris in his turbo GQ, Hummer, Beatty, Chislett, Johannessen and Thomas seemed to be the ones to watch.
Cliffhanger has its version King of the Hangers which is 1 klm dry creek, up a steep rocky climb with most winching and back to the start for another 2 laps. Two teams started side by side and yes the rocks got crowded with sometimes both teams winching or a team trying to pick a harder line around the other stuck team. Spectators at the top of this stage are not only close to the winching but get to look down upon the drag in the dry creek and beyond that another motorkhana stage running with jumps and high speed drifting.
A motorkhana stage stretched out over 2klm x 3 laps among sand hills had tight off camber turns one of which claimed Mark Fowler but luckily no damage to speak of.
The Figure 8 is just 1 car at a time but a V8 screaming or fully boosted drift with great big sweeping bends in both directions and on flat relatively smooth ground yet that inside front wheel spent a lot of time off the ground while the engines sang on their limiters.
Another typical Cliffhanger stage was 11 Summits, sponsored by Roadsafe. Teams started in groups of about 5 vehicles side by side and scramble through a thick forest 1 klm wide and once out the other side stay inside the confines of a dry creek bed for 4klm. They get the ground anchors out and with their winches they pick at the vertical 3m river bank wall and winch or launch up. Then off to get 11 waypoints all a few klm apart and all on the very tops of nearby hills and back to the finish.
The event finished with the iconic signature Cliffhanger Wall. Teams raced up a creek of 6 klm at 2 minute intervals arriving at yet another vertical wall in front of the spectators.
Despite their opening DNF in the first stage Hummer and Cooper clawed their way back to the top of Winch Truck class with both their sons sharing the podium in 3rd. Carl Johannessen and David Gregg also proving very strong and consistent with their second. Super Tourers Daniel Beckham and Max Walbridge did consistently well to take out 1stin class, Joel Mongan and Mal McCalman placed 2ndin their orange General and 3rdwent to Steve Graham and Simmo in the hilux. Bruce Fraser and Matt Funnell were 1stin Buggy class followed by Michael Hayes and Angus Cathcart then Mick Adams and Kelvin Richardson.
Moving forward to the next event we will see the bar being lifted yet again to over 1,000 klm of racing and even more big rocks and winching. Although we shall retain the class results Cliffhanger will merge the Buggies with the Winch Trucks more side by side to see just which code is best. Sitting back at home you might think the Ultra 4’s have got this in the bag but just wait until you get close to the action and see the Winch Trucks perform before you place your bets. Cliffhanger 2021 will not only be a 1,000 klm event but the scene is set for the battle of the codes.
Cliffhanger is held every second year and the next is in April 2021. So that’s plenty of time to build a rig and save up. Nominations are open and already over half full. If you can see yourself either racing, supporting a team, spectating or even marshalling be sure to like Cliffhanger 4WD Event on Facebook or jump online and check out www.cliffhanger4x4.com
Words by Event Director Steve Hobbs
Photos by Shantyl O’Donnell & SS Photography
Full Results Available Here