The Underdog of KOH: Amber Turner’s ‘88 Suzuki Samurai
Photography by Harry Wagner and courtesy of Amber Turner
As the name implies, the 4WP Every Man Challenge (EMC) is the less expensive, slightly easier, slightly shorter version of King of the Hammers. Held the day before the unlimited main race, the EMC race consists of three classes: the 4500 Modified Class, the 4600 Stock Class, and the 4800 Legends Class. No class fits the everyman theme more than the stock class. And no man fits the stock class more than a woman: Amber Turner.
While the 4400 class is unlimited at King of the Hammers, 4600 has very strict rules regarding modifications. Despite these restrictions, they race on the same course as the unlimited vehicles. The Stock Class is regarded as a drivers’ class and has seen involvement from many OEMs including Ford and Jeep, who use the race as a proving ground for their vehicles. The Every Man Challenge race is the grassroots foundation of King of the Hammers and it’s safe to say that the 4600 class is the star of that show when the green flag drops.
About the Every Man Challenge Stock Class
4600 is truly a driver’s class, you can’t make up for lack of talent with more horsepower or bigger tires. Vehicles in the Stock Class have to conform to the strictest rules at King of the Hammers. Full sheet-metal, stock frame rails, and the originally offered engine and transmission are just a few of the requirements. The suspension must be the same design as OEM, so if it came with IFS is has to retain IFS. If the vehicle came with leaf springs it must still use leaf springs. Only one shock absorber per corner is allowed, and it cannot be larger than 2.65-inch in diameter and cannot be a bypass (position sensitive) shock.
The wheelbase must be within three inches of the stock length, but any axles can be used. Similarly, the transfer case can be swapped out for something like an Advance Adapters Atlas II. Steering can use hydraulic assist but cannot have the full hydraulic steering common to 4400 cars. And unlike the 40-inch race tires that are common in the 4400 class, 4600 only allows up to a 35-inch tall tire, and they must be DOT approved. All of this despite running many of the same trails as the main King of the Hammers course.
Jeeps have traditionally done well in the 4600 class, with Wranglers and Grand Cherokees winning on more than one occasion since the EMC race started in 2012. In 2016, Jessi Combs and Chris Rea won the class in a two door Jeep Wrangler JK. Only twelve of 136 entries across all the classes finished the Every Man Challenge that year. Jessi Combs finished third overall, and inspired Amber Turner to race in the Every Man Challenge in the process.
Amber met Jessi Combs on several occasions, including in Moab at Easter Jeep Safari and in Las Vegas at the SEMA Show. She credits Jessi with starting her career as a welder. “I had never seen someone who looked like me in that role before Jessi,” Amber explains. After seeing Jessi win the Stock Class in the Every Man Challenge, Amber made that a goal of her own.
How Amber Got Here
Amber first got involved in rock crawling in 2011 when her father took her to the Rubicon. She bought her 1988 Suzuki Samurai the following year and took a welding class at the local community college in order to learn how to build her own rock sliders. She now lives in Reno, Nevada and works as a professional welder. Amber first volunteered at King of the Hammers in 2014, and she was a course worker in 2018 when she saw Jessi Combs win the 4600 class. When Jessi passed away in 2019 while setting a land speed record, Amber was heartbroken. She knew that she would never again be able to see the woman who had inspired her to start welding, but in her passing Jessi inspired Amber to start racing.
This year, the Jessi Combs Foundation has partnered with Ultra4 to sponsor Amber’s entry into the Every Man Challenge. With their help, Amber hopes to be a part of continuing Jessi’s dream and empower others to smash barriers as fearlessly as Jessi did. The mission of the foundation is to educate, inspire and empower the next generation of female trailblazers & stereotype-breakers. Trades were important to Jessi, the very vehicle that provided so many opportunities for her. The foundation distributes scholarships and in-kind partner donations to educational institutions and learning centers to continually be a driving force behind the next generation of female tradespeople.
Have you ever seen a Samurai get airborne before? This was a common site during the first lap of the EMC race. Hydraulic bump stops became legal in the Stock Class in 2020, and Amber credits them with smoothing out the impact when her Samurai returns to terra firma.
Amber’s Samurai Race Car
In the true spirit of the 4600 class, Amber upgraded her existing Suzuki Samurai from a recreational rock crawler to an Ultra4-legal race car. That required the addition of a fuel cell, window nets, and related safety items, but the foundation of the vehicle is still surprisingly close to stock. The factory 1.3L engine is carbureted and backed by the original transmission and transfer case, although 6.4:1 low range gears have been installed in the transfer case for more torque multiplication and control in the rocks. As an added bonus, the high range is also 17% lower than stock which helps the mighty Suzuki deliver more low-end torque to power through the harsh racecourse.
While Toyota axles are a common upgrade under Samurais and legal in the 4600 class, Amber is a die-hard Suzuki fan and upgraded the factory axles with RCV axle shafts and Lockrite lockers. Similarly, 35-inch tires are allowed, but wouldn’t be prudent with the small axles so Amber runs 31-inch Falken Wildpeak M/Ts. When that isn’t enough to keep forward progress, a Warn M8000 winch wrapped in Warn’s new Spydura Nightline synthetic cable with reflective material ensures the little Samurai can navigate obstacles even while on the hook after the sun goes down. In the rear, a Warn ProVantage 3500-S helps lower the Samurai down the dry waterfalls that are taller than the Samurai.
Last year Amber raced in the Every Man Challenge with a spring-over-axle suspension and factory leaf springs. After the first lap she actually had to swap out all four springs when they were flattened and broken. She has since returned to a spring under configuration with Deaver leaf springs damped by Fox 2.0 remote reservoir shocks which has significantly improved the Suzuki’s handling. Hydraulic bump stops are now legal in the 4600 class, so Amber and her co-driver Jason Berry added King short body hydraulic bump stops at all four corners to smooth out the whoops. The upgrades have made the Samurai significantly faster through the desert.
Amber was all smiles leading up to the race. She had the opportunity to shake the Samurai down in the desert and run it up through canyons including Jackhammer prior to race day, so she had a good idea what was in store for her and co-driver Jason Berry.
So How Did She Do?
Race day got off to a rough start for Amber when she overshot the very first jump on the short course and bent both front leaf springs. This slowed progress through the desert, which was in rough shape since the first lap of the EMC race used the same course that had been run by unlimited desert trucks earlier in the week. The rear shocks were bottoming out and broke the upper shock mount and had to be removed in Remote Pit One, further slowing progress on the course, but Amber never gave up.
The crew from Tribe 4×4 motioned Amber into their pit at the end of Lap One. A spectator named Matt with a Samurai offered up the springs on his Samurai to help Amber finish the race. Within fifteen minutes, Adam Scherer and his Tribe 4×4 team had the leaf springs swapped out. (Matt’s Samurai sat on jack stands until after the race, when the springs were swapped back to their rightful owner.) Amber then entered the rock lap of the race, but traffic in the notoriously difficult Outer Limits trail stopped her progress. With only an hour and a half left before the end of the race, Amber was still in Outer Limits. Knowing that it would be impossible to finish in time, she made the difficult decision to call her race at that time. Despite these challenges, Amber made it closer to the finish line in 2021 than she did the previous year and has no plans to give up on fulfilling her dream of finishing the Every Man Challenge in a little Samurai with 31-inch tall tires.
Recreational rock-crawlers often shy away from winching for fear out of bravado, but at King of the Hammers everyone winches, including the winners. Amber knew there would be places where winching would be faster than taking multiple attempts at an obstacle, and the Warn M8000 helps preserve the Samurai’s drivetrain.
Dori Lacey is an artist and fellow Samurai enthusiast who hand painted the logo of the Jessi Combs Foundation on Amber’s roof panel prior to the 2020 Every Man Challenge. The next year the foundation sponsored Amber’s entry into the race.
Amber competed in the 4WP Every Man Challenge in 2020 in the 4600 Stock Class. Being a volunteer at King of the Hammers for years gave Amber a good idea of what to expect, but racing uncovered some weak links in her Samurai. She took what she learned and applied it to her 2021 race effort and we have no doubt that she will continue to take on the challenge and take the little Suzuki all the way to the finish soon enough.