When you see nearly 50,000 people come to watch and participate in a desert off-road race, especially one located in the middle of nowhere, you know you’re on to something big. There are professional sports stadiums that are not large enough to seat that many people. There is no other off-road event of any kind that gathers that many people in one place at one time. So what is it about the King of The Hammers that can draw 50,000 people?
To start with, the event itself is a gathering of just about every type of off-road vehicle you can imagine. Think “Road Warrior” meets “Transformers.” You can walk Hammertown (the square mile or so bordered by chain-link fence set up every year to contain the hot pits, concessionaires, and the start-finish line of the race) and find just about everything from near stock pickup trucks to modified 4x4s to hand-built rigs that look like they could tackle the terrain of another planet.
Walk outside of Hammertown and it gets crazier. The desert floor, including Means Dry Lake at the heart of Johnson Valley, California, is coated with motorhomes, trailers, trucks, buggies, motorcycles, race cars, UTVs, and more highly modified 4x4s than you have ever seen in one place in your life. The mass of instant civilization that springs up for King of The Hammers stretches for miles in every direction, surrounding Hammertown and appearing like a huge swirling galaxy of encircling stars when the sun goes down.
We talked to dozens of spectators about why they drove, some of them more than 1,000 miles, to camp in the desert and watch what the organizing body Ultra4 Racing, refers to as “The Ultimate Desert Race.” There were people that had come from as far away as Idaho and Tennessee. We also met people from Colorado, San Diego, and the Los Angeles area, and even bumped into a bunch that lived nearby in Apple Valley.
You Should Be There
Their reaction to our question, “Why do you come here, and continue to come back year after year?” was nearly the same. All were off-roaders of one ilk or another, and many had been to King of The Hammers before and come back every year. Some, especially those from Eastern states, had little experience in rock crawling, but had been awe-struck by the machinery and what these drivers could do with it.
The vast majority were rock crawlers. This was the sport they participated in back on their home turf, and a few of them routinely came to Johnson Valley to run the 4×4 trails here, but this was different. What they were here to see was a unique combination of endurance desert racing and rock racing. Stop for a moment and remember the last time you were in your 4×4 climbing a boulder-strewn rocky trail. Double or triple that speed, make it steeper, add bigger rocks, and throw in a few near-vertical climbs taller than your rig is long, and that’s the type of terrain these racers face.
It’s Burning Man for off-roaders.
If the enjoyable and inspirational experience of volunteering to work King of The Hammers wasn’t enough incentive, the event organizers at Ultra4 Racing offer a batch of raffle prizes exclusively for volunteers as bait. These prizes include off-road gear ranging from goggles to axles, and this year one of the volunteer raffle prizes was a free trip to your choice of one of the European Ultra4 races. The sport has grown by leaps and bounds not only here is the U.S., but in places such as Portugal, Great Britain, France, and Italy.
The stories of those that compete in the extremely demanding sport of Ultra4 Racing, and in particular, the King of The Hammers event is even more inspiring. This event is so rugged, and so demanding on the machinery and the men who drive it, that anything can happen. It is so unpredictable, no bookie in Vegas would dare make odds on this race.
The Ultimate Desert Race
This year’s King of The Hammers was made up of three loops totaling 215 miles (the longest course in the history of the race), including high-speed open desert racing with more than a quarter of that course covering rocky canyons and mountain ranges. These boulder-filled stretches included locations that can only be described as “obstacles,” and had names as ominous as their terrain. Among them were Jackhammer, Outer Limits, Chocolate Thunder, Wrecking Ball, Boulder Dash, Aftershock, Clawhammer, Sledge, Crowbar, and Backdoor.
Loren Healy, the 2014 Ultra4 Racing series champion and two-time King of The Hammers (2010 and 2014) winner had as good a chance as anybody. Healy, who drove solo this year, told us, “I did a lot of pre-running, and felt ready for race day. Qualifying didn’t go so well, right off the line I lost first gear, and it got worse when I broke a lower A-arm, but I still managed to get 13th out of 130, so it could have been worse.”
“My crew worked hard and had the car repaired and ready to go on race day. I had a slow start, but made up five or six positions by the time I got to Pit 1, where we had to change a flat tire and put out a small oil fire. I lost all the positions gained doing that, but headed out strong and finished Lap 1 in about 7th. During Lap 2, I was driving way too aggressively in Clay Gilstrap’s dust and made the mistake I have dreaded all my racing career.”
Healy went on, “I hit a ditch going about 80 mph and the car flipped end over end around three or four times, but I landed on my tires. It’s a testament to my Jimmy’s 4×4 car that I walked away without a scratch, and still had a functioning race car. Once I got my head on straight again and looked over the car, I drove the next 20 miles to the first rock trail, and then realized I didn’t have 4WD. It’s impossible to do the rock trails with 2WD only, so instead of getting stuck, hurting the car, and becoming a plug in the trail, I pulled off and called it a day.”
Another top driver, Jason Scherer (2009 winner), talked about his day on the Hammers. “I started on the pole and went straight to Backdoor (a 10-foot cliff) and Resolution, both of which I flew over with no winching, and came back into the main course in 14th position. After that I was going so fast across the dry lake bed that the wind pulled the dzus fasteners on the hood loose. I zip tied it down, and the second time it flew up and blinded me, I doubled up on zip ties.”
“My crew removed the hood at the main pit, and gave me some duct tape for my ears because my ear buds were vibrating loose and I couldn’t hear my radio. After climbing Aftershock I felt a hard vibration, and by the time I was coming down the hill from it, the rear U-joint came apart. I ran to the nearest pit, where my guys had packed the 40 pounds of tools and parts I needed into a pack, then ran back with it to my car.”
“Approaching Jackhammer, I noticed a ‘clunk’ and realized that a suspension limiting strap had stretched so much that a CV over-traveled and fell apart. I knew that with three-wheel drive, winching was inevitable. Jackhammer was like San Francisco traffic at rush hour, so I got permission to take the right-hand line and winched it to the top. Unfortunately, that effort overheated the engine, and I lost all water in the radiator. I tried everything (yes, even that) to refill the cooling system, but to no avail. At that point, I made the tough decision to call the race.”
The entire Campbell clan was in the hunt that day, with father Shannon (winner in 2008 and 2011), son Wayland, and daughter Bailey all racing. Shannon was at the foot of Backdoor, which he decided to tackle during his second lap, when he experienced electrical relay problems. He repaired it on the spot, but the delay put him back, and then his transmission began to overheat soon afterward. He decided to call it a day so their pit personnel could be focused on Wayland and Bailey.
Bailey, a tough competitor and the only woman in the race that day, didn’t make it before the 14-hour limit in her first King of The Hammers attempt, but she drove the entire 215 miles and crossed the finish line 45 minutes after midnight. Wayland had been running neck-and-neck with his dad during the first half of the race, and went on to net the best finish of his three attempts at King Of The Hammers, crossing the finish line in fourth place with an elapsed time of 10 hours, 31 minutes, and 40 seconds.
Levi Shirley, who finished third, was the only driver on the podium with a single-seat IFS car. Shirley dominated the European Ultra4 races in 2014, but his best King of The Hammers finish was 19th before this 2015 event. Shirley said, “I had my share of problems out there, but I just kept telling myself, ‘Don’t stop, just keep moving forward.’ I wouldn’t let myself give up.”
Race To The Finish
The 2012 King of The Hammers winner, Erik Miller had a tough day. He had started second, just outside Scherer (competitors were flagged off the start line two at a time, side-by-side) and led for much of the race. “My strategy was to ignore the first two obstacles (Backdoor and Resolution are required only once during any of the three laps) and use my starting position to get as much room between me and the pack as possible on that first mostly open desert lap.”
“Things were going just perfectly, the car was running great, and we made no mistakes. We had the lead by as much as 10 minutes (physically), then at about mile 198 (of a 215-mile race), our steering pump went out, and the car became nearly impossible to handle. My crew did an amazing job, replacing the steering pump in just 15 minutes, but during that down time, Randy Slawson got past me.” Despite Miller’s quick repairs, he could not make up the time, finishing second with an elapsed time of 9 hours, 20 minutes, and 49 seconds.
Randy Slawson, owner of Bomber Fabrication and with 10 cars in the race, including his own, was the 2013 King of The Hammers winner (and co-driver in the 2007 winning car that JR Reynolds drove), but broke last year, ending up 9th, and wanted this one badly. However, after a mediocre qualifier, Slawson started 45th off the line. “We chased people down through the rocks and in the desert, slowly picking them off one at a time, until only Greg Adler, Clay Gilstrap, and Erik Miller were ahead of us. Gilstrap had electrical problems that eventually took him out, and then we passed Adler, with only Miller still ahead of us.”
“Our race wasn’t a breeze, though, as the engine was acting up and began drinking a lot of fuel. We were having to stop for gas at every pit, and I would say by the end, we were getting about 1.5 miles per gallon. At one point on Lap 2 we ran out of fuel. My brother Mike is my co-driver, and he ran a mile to one of our pits to get fuel. In Spooners (a rocky canyon), we actually took over the lead from Miller briefly, but then got passed and were in second position again on the course.”
Even though Miller had about a 10-minute (physical) lead, Slawson was working on an 11-minute disadvantage due to his start from back in the pack. “We didn’t know how far ahead of us Miller had moved, but when we saw him stopped in the pits for repair, we just pushed as hard as the car could possibly go, hoping to close the gap.” It was Miller’s bad luck, and Slawson’s good fortune that put him in first place when he finally crossed the finish line with a total elapsed time of 8 hours, 52 minutes, and 23 seconds.
Ten Times Harder
This year’s King of The Hammers may go down in history as one of, if not the toughest one-day off-road race in the world. It typically has one of the highest attrition rates of any off-road race, and this year set a record for the event, with just 17 cars out of 129 starters making it to the finish line before the 14-hour limit.
Rob MacCachren, SCORE and LOORRS off-road racing champion gave King of The Hammers a try this year, and his experience speaks to the race’s reputation.”This race is a far greater task to finish than any other race I have been involved in, even the old Mint 400 with its rock garden. It is 10 times harder to finish than other desert races, as the attrition rate bears out.”
“In some ways, it’s like short-course racing where another driver can hit you and ruin your day. Here they can break down or get stuck in tight spots and make you lose valuable time. We had our own set of mechanical problems and bad luck that kept us from finishing (MacCachren was driving the Poison Spyder “Crispy” Jeep), and I feel like we left things undone. I want to come back and finish this.”
Want to be a part of this? You can get to Johnson Valley’s Hammertown in almost anything, as is witnessed by the thousands of motorhomes present, but you will need a very capable 2WD or 4×4 vehicle, or a motorcycle to easily reach the three best viewing locations, Jackhammer, Chocolate Thunder, and Backdoor.
Be prepared with lots of water, snacks for the trail, and protection from the sun. Most years, it’s been chilly in the morning and very cold at night, because it is February after all. Most of all, be prepared for an unparalleled motorsports experience and the time of your life. As one volunteer described King of The Hammers, “It’s Burning Man for off-roaders.”
For information on the next King of The Hammers event, check out the Ultra4 Racing website; and to see even more carnage, check out our full Gallery of photos below!