UTV King Of The World
One of the many remarkable things about Branden Sims is how he’s so nonchalant when describing how he actually “caught on fire” earlier in his race career. “Back in 2011, I was riding my Yamaha Rhino, with a street bike engine in it, out in the dunes with some friends. Suddenly, after bottoming out on a big sand whoop the R1 engine’s oil line ripped off and broke. It spewed oil all over the machine and myself. I stopped to check it out and the next thing I know I was on fire,“ related Branden while talking with us about the incident near his Prescott Valley, AZ home.
Branden continued describing the full extent of his injuries, “I was actually burned about 40% of my entire body, mostly with 3rd-degree burns. I ended up needing a lot of skin grafts after that. I was in the hospital for a month, in the ICU for 3 weeks, and I had a long recovery from the procedures,” added Sims.
“Basically, I had to relearn how to walk. I went through a lot of physical therapy, mainly because my legs were what got burnt the most.”
No Pain, No Gain?
What this incident taught Branden was that nothing was going to stop him from pursuing his dream and ultimate goal. He wanted to be one of the top racers in the UTV Sports world, and wasn’t going to let anything stop him.
Thanks to his strong will, and the complete support from his family and, particularly his father, Dale Sims, Branden did not let his earlier experience of “catching on fire” deter him from, well eventually, “catching on fire” in a figurative sense. The future UTV World Champion was on his way back.
Turn and Burn
The long time Arizona native turned adversity into a rally that would propel him into the spotlight of becoming the new UTV World Champion in the UTV Underground promoted championship event held in Laughlin, Nevada. Brandon beat out the best of the best to take the undisputed crown of UTV Pro Desert Race Champion. A title that also offered him the reward of a brand new Polaris XP1000 Fox Special Edition vehicle (worth $23,000), as well as purse money, contingencies and a host of other benefits.
We spoke with Brandon about his earlier, almost career ending injury, his miraculous recovery, and subsequent run to the top of his chosen profession of UTV racing. His story is both inspirational and uplifting. We think you will agree.
Branden, first a little about yourself. Give us the basics.
My name is Branden Sims, I’m 29 years old, 6’2”, 178 lbs. and I live here in Prescott Valley, Arizona, where I’ve lived my whole life. I have been involved with off-road racing for about 15 years.
How did you get started racing UTVs?
Well, basically I got involved with racing my dad, Dale Sims. He’s a long time off-road enthusiast. Basically, he has owned his own off-road shop for 19 years now. We deal primarily in the automotive off-road business. He was always into the off-road stuff, you know, building trucks, buggies and quads. From the time that I was first able to ride, he always had me on some sort of motor sports program. We went from quads and dirt bikes to finally racing UTVs, which I got fond of when they first came out. My dad purchased our first UTV back in 2003. It was a Polaris Ranger, as I recall. It has slowly progressed from that humble beginning to where it is now.
What did you use that first UTV for, mostly?
It was mainly used for hauling dirt around. But, we changed the shocks on it, like all racers do. I’d take it through the sand dunes and go play around with it like it was a sport machine (laughs), you know, like you weren’t supposed to do….(laughs again). Shortly after that, I bought my own machine, a Yamaha Rhino. At the time that was our new sport UTV. I modified it quite a bit and that was basically the first machine I payed for myself. Not really a sport UTV, but that’s what we used it for.
Did you try any other forms of racing at first?
I did a lot of quad racing. This was back in 2006. I actually was on a team that raced the Baja 1000 on a quad, in the pro division. We went all the way from Ensenada down to La Paz. It was 1,048 miles, split up between four riders and I did about 400 miles of that on a quad. To me, that was one of the most fun things I have ever done. But then again, it was also one of the most miserable things I have done, as well.
You were saying that it was the best and the worst?
You know the experience was awesome, but as far as being on a quad for that many miles, that was the miserable part. I got on the quad about 5 o’clock in the evening, and I didn’t get back off the machine until about 10 o’clock the next morning…(smiles).
So I was on the quad for a very long time, something like 14 hours throughout the night and you know, it was cold, it was hot. I hit every element there is in a race. I was going through rivers; I wasn’t even sure if I was going in the right direction on the course.
Since I didn’t have a GPS on the quad, I was basically following trails, with ribbons hanging around branches on different bushes and sticks. I was hoping I was going the right way….(bigger smile).There was no communication with my pits either, back then. Hopefully, when I got to where I needed to be, the pits would still be there. That was before a lot of the modern technology; GPSs and the like were used regularly in the quad ranks. Nothing like the tech and equipment that we have now.
What was your biggest break in racing?
I talked to my dad about moving up to a Polaris RZR XP 1000. I had a Polaris XP 900, and the XP 1000 had just came out. I told him I wanted to get serious in the desert racing series, and he told me that if I was going to be competitive, I needed to be in the newest, latest and greatest racing machine. So at that point, I went out and purchased my own XP 1000. I had to get a loan for it, I didn’t have a ton of money, so I went and got a loan and purchased my new race car, which was kind of scary at the time. From then on, I went to every sponsor that I could think of for support.
Who did you line up sponsor wise?
Lonestar Racing became one of my biggest and best sponsors. That was probably my biggest break racing (another big smile). Getting Lonestar Racing as a sponsor helped make my career. The owner, Dan Fisher, took a chance and sponsored me. He has taken very good care of me ever since then. I think he believed in me from the very beginning. From that point on, everything has kind of fallen into place. Once I got that big break, Polaris obviously, picked me up as a sponsored athlete and that was also the next biggest thing to happen in my racing career.
What series do you like racing in the most?
I definitely like the Best in The Desert and SCORE series; they’re both great. I like the desert. I’ve raced a lot of different style events, and desert is where I feel most at home.
What is your favorite type of track?
I kind of like the long loop races. That enables me to stop in the pits a little more often, and you get to memorize a little bit of the track, even though it might be only a couple of laps. I also like almost any type of desert racing. Events that have a few different laps, like the MINT 400, are always cool. We went through the main pit three times, but it is still a desert race.
What’s the toughest thing that you’ve ever had to overcome?
The toughest thing I have had to overcome was the serious burn injury way back in 2011. It was very painful.
I built what they call an SR1. It is a Yamaha Rhino with an R1 motor in it, which is a street bike engine. I planned on doing short course racing with that car. I was at the sand dunes with my friends, and we were just doing some recreational riding. We were going down the sand drags and I didn’t see a whoop; it was a little bit bigger than I expected. My machine bottomed out, and when it hit the ground it ripped off an oil line. It sprayed oil all over me, and all over the engine.
As soon as that happened, it just engulfed into flames. There was not even a little bit of smoke. You couldn’t even tell I was on fire. It was just instant, a ball of flames. The legs of my pants caught fire. I was covered in oil and burning. I jumped out of the car and I was rolling around furiously.
No one else knew you were on fire?
I guess not. It wouldn’t go out either, because of the oil. I was on fire and burning. Fortunately, since we were at the sand drags, somebody in the crowd ran over with a fire extinguisher. Luckily, they put out the flames with their fire extinguisher.
What happened after?
From that point, we took my buddy’s truck over to Brawley, California (located near Glamis Sand Dunes) which was the nearest hospital. We got there and they told me I needed to fly out of there, because they couldn’t do anything for me. They said I needed to go to San Diego. I declined and told them that I needed to be in Phoenix, near my home. I guess I was being stubborn (another smile).
I don’t know what it was, but I told them that I wasn’t going to fly. They wheeled me to my buddy’s truck, and all I remember is going in and out of consciousness all the way from Glamis to Phoenix. We got to that hospital, about 1 AM, and it had happened about 6 hours earlier, about 4 PM. That is where they proceeded to tell me how bad my injuries were, and that I could be there for 3 months at least, and hopefully keep my legs because there was so much talk about having to amputate them. I nixed that thought right away. So, easily, that was my biggest obstacle that I have ever had to overcome.
When was this?
In 2011. It was on New Year’s Eve 2010, so it was 2010/2011, that day. I was in the hospital New Year’s Day.
How long did it take for you to come back?
I was in the hospital for a month. I got out of the hospital and I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t do anything, I mean, because I had so many skin grafts over me. They didn’t stretch. I had to go to physical therapy for another 2 months. I was out of work for 3 months.
I’d go to physical therapy and they’d expect me to be in a wheelchair and I would hobble my way in there, and they’d be like, ’Where’s your wheelchair?’
I would say, I am going to get better. There’s no way, I’ve got to get better. So they said okay. We’d go stretch, and do running and bicycling and leg presses. I was always an athlete before that, but I was amazed at how much strength I had lost.
What kept you going?
They would tell me to do 10 reps of something and I would do 20 reps instead. I was trying to double up everything they told me to do, whether it hurt, or not. I just wanted to get back better.
I ended up selling that machine for parts, and I bought a new one. A Polaris RZR XP 900. So I was only out for 3 months before I couldn’t live without having another one. I got right back into it, you know. It didn’t scare me. It was a one in a million thing, I thought. So, it didn’t faze me about racing or riding UTVs. I got right back out there just as soon as I could.
Awesome! Great story.
There is a pretty cool YouTube video about it. One of my buddies did a documentary on me. It kind of goes over that whole scenario I went through. I’ve got pictures and videos. You can view the documentary by clicking on the photo/video that’s embedded in this article.
Now the big question. Can you make a living racing UTVs?
You know, what I’ve always heard is that if you want to become a millionaire racing, you’ve got to start as a billionaire. I’ve always been told that you can’t make money racing and it is a losing proposition. Fortunately, with the way it’s been going, I work a normal 8-5:30 job with my dad, every day at the shop as an auto technician. So, I don’t make the most money at my day job.
It’s enough, I have a great time, I have a good life. But this year, I’ve had these bigger sponsors step in. They’ve given me product, they’ve offered to pay my way, and I’ve also had machines given to me. I’ve had salaries offered, too. So, at this point, is it possible to make a living racing? I still continue to do my day job, but at this point I am making money racing.
Do you see UTV racing becoming a sport where several guys can make a living doing it?
Fortunately, the businesses that build these machines are the ones offering contingencies, so that is what is so cool about this class (Pro Production).
The manufacturers are able to be such a big part of it, unlike all the other classes, where you start with a chassis which is not really manufactured by any big company. Polaris, Can-Am, they all want their machines to win, so they’re offering racers incentives, to do whatever is necessary for them to win. It’s awesome. The involvement that the manufacturers have in UTV racing is what’s making this class continue to grow so much.
Name some of your racing heroes growing up.
Oh, it would definitely be Ivan Stewart, Walker Evans, Larry Ragland, those are all the off-road legends that I grew up admiring. Even playing the video games those guys were in….(smiles and laughs). That’s who I wanted to be while playing those games. Then, obviously, my dad’s always been one of my heroes. He has always taken care of me and he has gotten me where I needed to go.
Tell us a little bit about your UTV racing championship. Did you expect to win?
You know I come into every race expecting to win. It hasn’t panned out yet, until the UTV World Championship. I’ve always gotten a lot of seconds, including the 2014 Baja 500. I’ve also gotten a lot of third place finishes. Last year was my first year in the big leagues, you know, I was a rookie in the Best In the Desert series. We had a lot of great finishes.
I was second and third so many times last year, but I could never get that first. I always knew that there was that chance. I knew it was going to take having a perfect race to get it, and finally at the UTV World Championships, everything came together.
So no problems at all during that race?
I didn’t have one issue, and I knew that when that happened, we would pull up on the podium first. There were people at this race from all around the United States. All the major teams were there and they brought out all their big stuff to go for the win. I didn’t think it was going to happen but we hung in there and took the Walker Evans Desert Race UTV World Championship win.
That is like a $23,000+ payday because you got a new Polaris RZR, right?
I did get a new Polaris for that one. It just showed up this weekend. I got a new Polaris Razor, the Fox Edition and then Best In The Desert gives you a payback as well. There were also other paybacks and contingencies. I also raced the second race that day. The Holz Racing Short Course Production Class championships.
I hopped in my other car and raced that one, too. I ended up getting 4th in that race, after starting dead last. It was a good day for us. I got a lot of cool prizes for that. Also, in that Best In The Desert race, Walker Evans offered the winner a signed autographed helmet that he wore in the Nora 1000 with. It’s in a glass case and it’s autographed and etched. That’s awesome. That’s not something you can just go out and buy. That’s something I will have forever.
Tell us a little about your dad. How important has your dad been to your career?
All important. I mean, without my dad, I wouldn’t be where I am. He has offered me the tools in life, he has offered me his shop, he has offered me anything I have ever needed.
He has done everything for me. He never told me no you can’t do that. Without him, I wouldn’t be in the off-road business like I am. He has taught me everything I know. He has always pushed me to keep going. He has always told me to go faster, do this better. Never to the point that I didn’t want to do it anymore, just to the point where I wanted to get better. Without his involvement in my racing, I wouldn’t be here. That’s the plain and simple truth.
Any plans to race trucks?
I would love to race trucks and that’s usually a goal, when starting out. Race the trucks. The crowds love the trucks. So if I could ever get to the point where I was offered the chance to drive a truck, be a part of a truck team, I would love to take that chance.
I would still like to continue to race UTVs. I would love to do them both. If I could race one or the other or both, you know, pick some races where we could do the truck. That would be a dream come true. We’ve already gotten pretty close to the dream, the truck would be the dream come true.
Describe your best and worst days racing.
As far as the best day racing, there is never a bad day racing. Any day racing is better than being at work.
When we pulled on top of that podium at the World Championships, there was the media, the crews. Everybody was down there, you know. I pull up on that podium, you’ve got the banner behind you, everybody’s cheering for you, you’ve got all the people that believed in you. Who knew it was going to happen? And we finally saw it come together.
At that location I had all my family; all my friends were there, that was the one race that I actually had a ton of family and friends!
So, as far as a great day racing, the very best day racing? Well that was definitely it. Then, obviously, the worst day was getting the injury, literally being on fire and having to go through that. The docs told me it was going to be real bad, and it was real bad. But I had great doctors. They took care of me and got me through it.
Why do you race UTVs?
I race UTVs for pure enjoyment. That’s why I do it. That’s why anybody should race. For fun. I just enjoy doing it. I enjoy going out on weekends and driving UTVs. Why not go out and race them at the same time?
Tell us a little about your UTV setup. What are you doing with the RZR XP 1000 suspension?
Basically what I’ve got is a 2014 Polaris Razor XP1000. I went down to the local dealership and I bought it straight off the show room floor. I took it to my shop and basically, I didn’t change a lot of things. To meet the race organizations specs, we basically had to cut off the cage, per the race rules and make a cage that was legal to pass tech and safety inspections.
At that point, Lonestar Racing, which is one of my sponsors, offered to put their long travel suspension on the car. It works better through the desert at high speeds. Fox Shocks provided me up with their new factory 3.0 internal bypass shocks, which are really cool.
How about wheels & tires?
Wheels and tires. I went to ITP for the tires, and they set me up with what their Ultra-cross tire. They have been phenomenal. My car has almost 3,000 race miles on it, and I have only had one tire failure in 3,000 race miles.
That’s including racing Baja, one of the most brutal races you can think of! Awesome tires. Method Race Wheels set me up with their Bead Lock rims, and they’ve also been phenomenal. They take care of me as far as all my wheels go. They’ve been a great company to work with.
Engine. I obviously started out with the best engine out there, which is the XP 1000. For the first part of last season, I ran it stock. I didn’t do anything to it. I talked to some people and you always want setups to go a little bit faster then the next person.
I contacted Queen Racing, located in Lave Havasu, and they set me up with some parts for the top-end of the motor. Mostly head work for a bit more top-end power. We didn’t change anything else on the bottom end.
Pistons are stock; all we did, was create a little bit more flow in the head, changed the cams a bit, and changed the valves. I have been driving it like that all season, and it has been running awesome.
Do you have pipes?
Yeah. Muzzy Exhaust systems came up with a set for me. It’s a full header, all the way back to a dual exhaust. They’ve been great, working with the guys at Muzzy. They also take good care of me. They never complain. They obviously have a fantastic product. You see it on every vehicle out there, just about.
We use a filtration system for my helmet. We run the Rugged fresh air system that pumps the fresh air into our helmets, which is a real plus. I’ve never really gotten to use that luxury before.
I always had the bare minimum to race, because that’s what I could afford. Fortunately these other sponsors have come on board and sent me products to try out…a perk of winning I guess…(laughs and smiles). My life is a little bit nicer now. Before, I’d be racing and I’d get headaches from breathing so much dust. Having the luxuries now is just awesome.
I tried a whole bunch of different styles of clutching. I think, for these UTVs, that might be a trickier part to figure out. It’s a learning curve and I am still learning, actually. I don’t know if I’ll ever stop learning, but from what I’ve realized, I’ve tried big, expensive after-market clutches and had nothing but problems.
This year, I went back to stock, and changed the clutch kits, inside of them. I use the stock clutches, but I changed some of the internals on them. I called a company called Dalton. They are out of Canada, and they set me up with some different weights and that’s what I’m using now.
Ever since I put those in there, I have had nothing but good luck with my clutches. I tried all the big expensive, $3,000 kits and had nothing but problems. So I went back to stock, like Polaris Engineer’s suggested….and they seem to work great.
Do you use the stock Polaris drive belts?
I’ve never tried anything different. I have always heard the factory belts were the way to go. So I’ve always used them and continue to do so.
Any other special items that you might have on your car?
The Rugged Radio is actually their intercom system. Their radio systems have been flawless for us. We use it for all of our communications, whether it be for pits or other cars. This year, I have switched to KC lights for all my lighting needs. Another great company. I see how they handle their business, and their customer support, and racer support, is first rate. Jason Cobb, who handles racer support, has been great and their lights are fantastic.
What is the best and worst thing about the new XP 1000?
You know, I think that when Polaris came out with the XP 1000, they really stepped up the game as far as the suspension goes. You can have the biggest motor in a car and without the suspension, you can only go so fast. So, they obviously went with a good motor and they stepped up their suspension.
Now, with the speeds that we are getting through the desert, where I’m hitting 85 MPH through the roughest stuff that you can think of, and I don’t feel it, that’s just incredible! Everything they’ve put into the XP1000 has been awesome.
As far as the worst part of the XP1000? It might sound like a PR plug but, the truth is, I don’t have enough time to go out and enjoy recreational riding as much. That is the only thing that I can think of. It’s just been a fantastic vehicle.
What about the new FOX Shock silver edition? What are your feelings on that? Is that the best Polaris that they’ve ever built?
It has a sway bar in front and the back. How important is it having a sway bar on both ends of the new XP 1000 Fox special edition?
It does have a sway bar front and rear, which is new. I have noticed a lot of the cars that I race against now are switching to a front sway bar. I haven’t done it to mine yet, but it may be in the plans in the near future. It seems to be working pretty good for everybody and Polaris must have seen something there when they added a front sway bar to mix on the new chassis. I think what they do is loosen up the rear a little bit, and add the front sway bar. It seems to be working well.
Do you own any other off-road vehicles?
Yeah. I just went out and bought a Ford Raptor, so that’s my new daily driver! It’s very capable off-road as well. I love that truck. I’ve just been enjoying it so much lately. I actually have four Polaris XP 1000s now. I’ve got one 4-seater and three 2-seaters.
My dad has a rock crawler he lets me take out whenever. We built a chassis for it, and it’s a competition rock crawler. We take it out to the King of the Hammers from time to time, or anywhere we want. It’s amazing what those things can do. We try to have a little bit of everything at the shop.
Any dirt bikes?
You know, I used to have dirt bikes. Those things got me hurt so I figured I’d go back into the cage, where I am a little safer.
What is the most important asset to be a successful UTV racer?
To be a successful UTV racer takes a lot of dedication. Literally, everyday. I work 8:00 AM to 5:30 PM every day. When I get off work, I usually work another five hours a night. I usually work until 10 or 11 PM because, that is the only time I have to prep and build my race cars. Either that or on the weekends.
I used to love going to the lake. I had a boat. I loved wake boarding. I loved relaxing at the lake. Well I got rid of that boat and put that toward my race program. My relationship is really tough with the girlfriend because she wants me home and I am always at work.
The dedication part is tough, and that’s what it’s got to come down to. I don’t think you can be a successful racer unless you have a ton of money to pay everybody to do something.
In my position, I think dedication is the biggest thing, and of course preparation. Being prepared every race. Doing a great job prepping your vehicle, so you don’t show up and make it 10 miles out and break down. So for me, dedication and preparation is where it is at.
By Dennis Cox
Photos by Fox-Bryan Harrold, Mike Ingalsbee and Jack Wright