Piru, Calif., --
Like attendees at a giant family reunion, steel shooters from around the world flocked to Piru, Calif., Aug. 17-21 for the 30th Anniversary of the World Speed Shooting Championships — known fondly as “the” Steel Challenge.
“For a week, this is the happiest place on earth,” bubbled Jim O’Young, one of Steel Challenge’s most ardent fans. “I can’t believe it’s the last one in Piru.”
O’Young hung out in his “office” – one of the stats-shack-like buildings on the practice range — working on guns, and chatting with other Steel Challenge vets as they came by. When I came through he handed me a slick-copy coffee-table book from “back in the day” showing pictures of the Steel Challenge, Bianchi, and USPSA greats doing their thing 20 years earlier. My eye went right to a shot of a young Brian Enos, popping a wheelie on a 3-wheeler down the road adjoining the main match stages. Not only did the now-bald-Brian have hair flying in the wind, he was definitely exceeding the Thompson family’s famously-enforced 15mph speed limit!
Invitations to many of the past champions shown in that book had gone out months earlier. Many couldn’t make it, but John Shaw, the original Steel Challenge Champion from 1981 showed up, bringing his .45 and his talented son Huston with him. Likewise past champions Rob Leatham (1985, 2002), Tetsuya Sakai (2004), Max Michel (2005, 2007, 2009), JJ Racaza (2006), and K.C. Eusebio (2008, 2010) were here as well. That’s six former champions vying for the top prize. Now add Dave Sevigny, the “Iron Sight” division champion, plus ladies’ Steel Masters Jessie Abbate (now Harrison) and Kay Miculek, and you’re looking at a compilation of greats not seen in the modern history of Steel Challenge.
Leatham in particular looked extremely strong, moving across “Outer Limits” with a new grace thanks to a pair of successful knee operations. He laughed at himself regularly, saying (to John Shaw) things like, “It feels a little weird competing against my friend’s kids at one of these things!” Leatham dominated the Stock Service Pistol division, and shot it so well he crowded out most of the field, displacing many of the Open-gun-shooting “super squad” types. He finished 17th overall (95.57), with a Production gun!
Along with the shooters, the classic characters of Piru were here as well. Range owner and benefactor Mike Thompson was on hand, all cowboy boots, straw hat, moustache, and smile. Mike Dalton served as match director, and match co-founder Mike Fichman showed up for the awards banquet. The range officer corps amplified the “family reunion” idea, with everyone from Tammy Hast to Eugene “Gunny” Ramey on hand for the 30th.
While most people think the beating heart of Steel Challenge can be found on the main ranges, the actual center of gravity is the practice ranges. Here the top pros strip off their logos and blend in with the rest of us, all getting down to the sweaty, dirty business of prepping for a world championship. Here people hang out with the range officers, chat at the back of their rental cars, and share notes with shooters of every stripe as they work out the kinks in their gear that inevitably show up. Two years ago I ran into Angus Hobdell here, the back of his car ringed with steel ammo cans. He’d brought 7,000 rounds to Piru. He had a couple days to practice, and he didn’t plan to bring any of it back. He was here again this year, burning up a heavy volume of ammo as he honed his skills to a razor’s edge.
In the week prior to the main event, the practice ranges are busy all day. Once the match begins, the practice ranges fill up mostly in the late afternoon, with shooters using the gear they’ll need the next day. You’ll see the same faces cycling from rimfire, to iron sight, to full-on Open race-blasters Saturday morning.
Rimfire Thursday: Brute Speed and Mechanics
The rimfire match is a required part of the overall “Steel Master” contest. To win the big trophy and the $1,000 bonus, you need the fastest aggregate time, including one score each from Rimfire, Iron Sight, and Open division.
Just keeping all three guns running, much less maintaining world-class skills with them makes Steel Master far and away the hardest title to achieve. Some shooters duck the “lesser” contests to focus on the main event. Others go after the hardest title with gusto, battling the signature unreliability of the rimfire pistols all the way.
Yes, even at this level of expertise, jams are common.
“With rimfire, there are so many things to worry about,” says Dave Sevigny. “Is it a light strike, wax on the bullet, a problem with the priming on that part of the head… You can have one (jam) in a stage, but if you have two, or add a miss —” Sevigny shook his head, emphasizing the scoring catastrophe that would befall him. “The guy who has the gun that runs, he’s generally the guy that wins.”
The rimfire match runs crazy-fast. With no draw to worry about, and negligible recoil, rimfire guns fly across the course. The .22 doesn’t create much of a “ding” on the plates. Combine that with madhouse speed and tricky lighting, and you see plenty of misses on the score cards.
Most of the 90 rimfire competitors shot with optics, shooting times that would undercut the centerfire record handily. Sevigny would come within three seconds of victory in the rimfire match, hot on the heels of past rimfire champion BJ Norris. The race for Steel Master would be tight!
Pressure, Pressure, and Bad Lighting To Boot
During the rimfire event I overheard Jerry Miculek advising two young men from Washington on why they shouldn’t expect to get the same performance here that they might expect at home. On top of the usual match nerves, he and Phil Strader both pointed to the lighting.
“The lighting on this range is so intense, it slows everybody down,” said Miculek.
Put a white-painted plate against the light tan backstop in bright sunlight, and finding the edges of the plate at speed is “like finding a polar bear in a snowstorm,” Miculek quipped.
Several of the top shooters were using the dark-colored post that holds the plate up as a reference, since it stuck out from the background better than the actual target.
“When you see your sights hovering over the stick, you’ve got to go for it,” Miculek said.
Speaking of nerves;
“I haven’t been this nervous in 10 years,” said Finland’s Vesa Jumpannen. Jumpannen competes in Steel Challenge in Europe, and made the long flight to California to shoot his first World Championships this year. While nervous during the rimfire event, he settled in and shot an impressive 33rd in the main match (102.48), where he was joined by another European Steel Challenge vet, Holland’s Mario Siemeling (3rd Optic Revolver, 104.67).
“Iron Sight” Friday:
The moment the last rimfire shots go downrange, a fresh pilgrimage to the practice ranges begins. The “Iron Sight” pistols come out, and a bunch of new competitors show up, preparing for Friday. My favorites among them are the Japanese delegation led by the amazing Tetsuya Sakai. Sakai stands as one of few practicing masters of the Weaver stance. With bent elbows, bent knees, and a holster mounted out and forward of his appendix, Sakai is a joy to watch shoot. At the buzzer his hands flash down to the gun and back, sucking a Bondo-crusted 1911 in close to his face, where he marches it across the targets with alacrity. He’s a perennial in the top 10, including winning the main match outright in 2004. Elsewhere you’ll find experts like Kazunori Shoji (9th Open, 90.92), plus another dozen Japanese nationals in all ranges of ability, making an amazing showing considering the outright ban on firearms in their home country.
On Friday, the RO crews take their final form. (Many of the ROs shoot their scores early, but the last few finish up on Thursday.) By Friday morning, the main match has begun.
Today, everyone is here to beat last year’s champion David Sevigny, running his full-on SJC custom Glock 17L.
“This is the match I put the most interest in, the Iron Sight,” says Sevigny.
That interest paid off, as Sevigny began steadily undercutting the rest of the field. Sevigny wasn’t shooting noticeably faster than the other top guns, but shot “as fast as” the others, with more consistency. He might give up a tenth here and there on the fastest runs, but he’d make half a second back when his opponents would mis-cue.
As Sevigny explained, where a few years ago the drive was to beat the 80-second mark with an Open gun, the new goal is to beat 90 with an iron sighted gun.
“We all know any one of us can do it,” Sevigny said, waving his hand at the Super Squad. “It’s just a matter of the execution.”
Todd Jarrett holds the Iron Sight record at 90.23, but by the mid-point in the match, he was trailing.
Angus Hobdell posted some great stages, but crashed on Outer Limits, earning a scored miss, then a creeping penalty, then a slow time thanks to a flurry of extra shots at the last. JJ Racaza ran into equipment problems, most notably on 5-to-Go, where a rare flash of anger penetrated his usually happy-go-lucky attitude.
BJ Norris shot his way into a strong second position, with Phil Strader and Rob Leatham swapping back and forth for third.
On their last stage, Rob had the lead over Phil, but didn’t shoot especially well on his last few runs.
Phil tried to seize the moment, joking to Rob “was that the sound of a door opening?” as he went to the line.
Phil tripped over the threshold of that door on his first two runs, nailed his third run solidly, but couldn’t capitalize on the 4th or 5th.
As Todd Jarrett told me, “it’s been a rough day.”
BJ Norris stepped up, hoping to displace Sevigny. He had to make up a little over two seconds – that sounds like a lot, but it’s very doable given BJ’s speed. He slammed home a couple of runs under the three second mark, but left the door open by taking extra shots on the others.
Sevigny wrapped it up, posting a brace of strong-enough runs in the low 3 second range. As the group started to congratulate him, he lost none of his match day intensity. He’d shot a personal best at the match (90.51), and won the division title, but there was no joy.
“It’s not over yet,” he said, his jaw set. “Besides, I really wanted to break 90.”
The Main Event: Open Saturday
On Friday afternoon and Saturday morning, the wave of Open specialists blows in, men like past champions Max Michel and KC Eusebio. They merge with the tide of shooters already here, and the competition reaches its peak. Today is about maximum speed and power, with full-race technology pushing you ever faster.
The winner will take home the $5,000 main purse, trophy, and an assortment of $700, $500, and $300 checks, corresponding with placing first through third on any given stage. If someone were able to sweep all the stages and win, the total purse would reach $10,600. Typical winner’s purses are closer to halfway between.
As you might expect with any “race” event, hardware problems frequently decide the match, often in ways that seem cruel. JJ Racaza had his scope lose its zero on Outer Limits. He withdrew and got the problem fixed, only to leave a miss by accident on a subsequent string. Having to use up his “throwaway” on a hardware issue meant that 3-second miss penalty would appear in his final score.
KC Eusebio took his shooting too much for granted, and when his second run on Outer Limits went very badly at the start, he WALKED from one box to the next and finished up in slow motion, laughing and clowning about it. His 9.28 second time would surely be his throwaway. He’d shot a 4.12, and his third run was a 3.74. But when the wheels came off on his fourth (and final) run, he had to eat a 6.66.
It wasn’t until after lunch that the top group finally found their groove. KC had set a fresh world record on Showdown (7.99 total, displacing BJ Norris’ 2007 record of 8.11), and small crowds were starting to form, now that the group was being tracked both by NROI Chief John Amidon and by an unofficial scorer with his leader board.
On 5-To-Go, Rob Leatham was again shooting crazy-fast times with his Springfield XDM, aiming for yet another IDPA Division title. He nailed down four beautiful runs, faster than many of the Open shooters, prompting Phil Strader to shout a joke at him, mimicking a rap artist.
Leatham, for his part, laughed and intentionally launched a wild hail of bullets on his last string, missing three of the five plates.
“I think they’ll throw THAT one out,” he joked.
By the time they reached the last stage, Roundabout, everyone was shooting like they had the gun on rails.
BJ Norris had built up a decent lead, but not enough to be totally safe. To cap it off, he marched out a beautifully matched set of ~2.3 second runs. No one could touch him now. The 2009 Steel Master had the lock on his first Open match victory.
During the early congratulations, KC Eusebio came to the line to try to match BJ. When he hammered in a set of fast early runs in the low 2 second range, someone laughed and cried out “okay, you need a 1.5 to beat him.”
Eusebio didn’t have a 1.5, but he snapped out a 1.98! The crowd roared, and it looked like he might have set a single-string World Record! BJ would keep the title, but KC had won the stage – he thought.
Forgotten amid the jubilation for BJ and KC, Max Michel stepped to the line. The speed of his shots stilled the chatter. Time = 2.02 seconds.
Beep! Time = 2.06 seconds. Now everyone was watching. Beep! Time = 1.98 seconds — all talk stopped. Max’s fourth run, 1.91 seconds! His fifth run would founder, but Max Michel had won another moment in the sun. His aggregate of 7.96 seconds set a new world record, beating the previous record of 8.00 set by BJ Norris in 2010, and netted $700 for the stage win in the bargain.
That afternoon on the range, and later that night at the awards, BJ credited the support of many. BJ’s father topped that list, followed by his sponsors, especially SPR ammunition. However, he also credited Todd Jarrett, who’d come to his rescue when a firing pin failed on the practice range.
“I’m obliged to Todd for helping make this happen,” said Norris.
As the crowd began to dissipate, the final results lay in the hands of the official scorers. BJ would win the Open (81.18), Rimfire (67.12), and the Steel Master title (239.78), with David Sevigny taking “Iron Sight” (90.51).
The ladies’ contest was almost foreknown. Jessie Harrison shot close to her usual pace (18th overall at 95.60), creating a steadily-growing gap between herself and top challengers Randi Rogers (105.62) and Kay Miculek (115.31). Harrison shot well enough to sweep all three ladies’ contests and beat one of her own world records on Speed Option, lowering the bar to just 12.27 seconds for four runs. In rimfire, Harrison has become a distant threat to win the *overall* title, placing fourth overall at 76.70.
The next day, as shooters streamed in to collect their portion of the Steel Challenge’s typically luxuriant prize table, the question on everyone’s lips was “will I see you next year in Florida?”
SCSA moved the match to the Universal Shooting Academy range in Frostproof, Fla., for 2012 to avoid the ever-more-oppressive gun laws of California. For West Coast-based steel shooters, that’s a huge change, but I’m glad to say that for many, the answer was “I’ll see you there!”