Ask a previous winner what it takes to get to the top step of any King of the Hammers or an Ultra4 series race and they will all tell you things like dedication, commitment and their sponsors. But there is perhaps one bolt on-on addition to a race car that will do more to significantly improve the odds of success more than any other. With 21 wins out of the last 23 races in the USA and victory every Ultra4 Europe series race since it started I am talking about Spidertrax axles.
The bearded and beanied Thom Kingston is one of the nicest and most popular people in any Ultra4 paddock (and not just because sometimes he buys absolutely everyone at the race a gourmet dinner) and before the biggest 4×4 event of the year we got a few moments to find out a bit more about the man under tha hat.
The empire of tungsten and steel that is now Spidertrax Inc had humble beginnings when Thom and co-founder Eddie Casanueva ran a Suzuki in rock-crawling events, and like most people who take Suzuki’s off-roading, usually ended the weekend with a bag full of broken bits. The solutions they came up with for being about to drive home at the end of the day were of course marketable to other Suzuki owners and so a business idea was born.
That’s the beauty of being a young and naive engineering student, with our first creation (The Birfield Ring) the lightbulb immediately went off — Hey, this is a great product, we should sell it. No business plan, no money, but a lot of ambition.
Were other companies doing the same or did you start by looking for niches?
The niche just fell into our laps. Suzuki Samurai’s were well built machines — light, simple, affordable — and they worked great for getting back and forth to school and having a little fun on the weekends. They fit the whole Engineering aspect nicely, so it just worked out. There were other companies involved in Suzuki’s at that time, no question there. Our first product offering (as mentioned above) was unique, every product after that has been unique as well. We try to serve the market where there is a need, rather than the “I can do that to” approach.
The technology and attention that goes into products today far exceeds those of the past. As just one example, we now manufacture axle shafts to very prestigious Aerospace standards, with zero compromise in materials and workmanship. The move into higher quality has pushed the meaning of “hardcore” — hardcore 10 years ago is not the hardcore of today.
How fast is the rate of development in Ultra4? Are you pushed to keep up or do you have products that the scene isn’t ready for yet?
We are constantly innovating, both in terms of new products as well as revising the products we have. The rate is pretty consistent, every day some progress is made in making things better. Some of that is more obvious, some of that is behind the scenes.
We have a full Ultra4 IFS line, http://www.spidertrax.com/products/IFS This is the exact IFS setup on Loren’s Red Dragon, these parts can also be found on the machines of Jason Scherer, Tom Wayes, Clay Gilstrap, Levi Shirely, and Gary Ferrevanti to name just a few.
How impressed are you with how Ultra4 has taken off in Europe?
Very impressed in terms of driver and organization commitment, and I love the venues. It’s early and it will take some time to build up the drivers list, but it’s off to a great start.
How do the European courses compare to the non-KoH courses in the States?
Scotland aside, a lot of similarities. Drivers in the US would be right at home on the courses in Europe, and visa versa.
I’d say Rob Butler gets that honor for Ultra4 Europe specifically. He’s not only a top driver, but he builds the machines to get you there. Branching just a bit outside Ultra4 Europe, I’d also include Jim Marsden. While his Ultra4 Europe record is “still in progress”, last year he commanded the top spots in the French Xtreme, Croatia Trophy, and Breslau Rally with his Ultra4 machine.
Are there and special little design tweaks on the European cars that are different to the American ones?
To date, none. However, the terrain in Europe tends to be, how do I say it, a little muddier at times. So that type of feedback has been useful in testing & improving our products. The Spider 9 axles you see in Europe are the same ones you’ll find in the US though.
How much of Spidertrax’s income is from Ultra4?
The Spider 9 axle line is a big part of what we do, but that line goes beyond Ultra4 so that’s a tough question off the top of my head. I’d say a good portion, but trail riding, rock crawling, and other desert motorsports also play a big role for us.
Both rewarding and a reminder to never stop pushing forward.
What is the company ethos?
In EVERYTHING we do, you’ll find my Mechanical Engineering background playing a large role in our company ethos. Ethics, honesty, and transparency is just how my brain is wired and that translates down to everyone that works here. We don’t oversell, we don’t over-promise, which all makes me terrible at marketing! We let the product speak for itself.
Wow, that’s a good one. I’ll tread on this one carefully, as no place is strange once you learn about it. Malta is the first Country that comes to mind, far from strange but at the time I couldn’t tell you were it was or what it looked like. As far as strangest place, I love The Ship-it Shop outside of Hammertown (King of the Hammers). Just outside the main road into the desert, this little shop literally in the middle of nowhere will accept your precious inbounds in time for race day. You would drive right past the place if you didn’t know it existed.
People at KoH will know you for Spider 9s, but what other popular products do you have?
Our Wheel Spacer product line is quite popular as well, I’d say we are known for that too.
What new products do you have on the horizon?
For shiny new things, always. As to what, you’ll just have to wait.