King of the Hammers (KOH) is the toughest off-road race in America, and some will say that it is one of the toughest off-road races in the world. This event started out as a group of guys racing for a case of beer, and has turned into a week-long event that teams and spectators alike plan all year for.
Taking place in Johnson Valley, California KOH combines high-speed desert action with technical rock crawling sections. This year, the event hosted King of the Motos, Vision X Ultra4 versus SRRS Shootout, Polaris KOH UTV Race, Smittybilt Every Man Challenge Race, and the Nitto King of The Hammers presented by Optima Batteries.
Off Road Xtreme headed out to the dry lake bed to check out the week’s ending events; the Everyman Challenge, and the mother of them all — the King of the Hammers race. If race teams have to attend one event all year, it is this event.
Upon pulling into Hammertown — the fastest-growing town for one week of the year — it is evident tens of thousands of people caught the off-road bug. We headed to the finish line to catch the end of the Everyman Challenge.
This race has restrictions on what the vehicles can have, unlike the unlimited race the next day. There are three classes that participate in this race; Stock (4600), Modified (4500) and Legend (4800). In addition, there would be an overall race winner for the Everyman Challenge.
This year, the overall winner came down to a battle between Brad Lovell and Jessi Combs. Each driver was racing in a different class, but both fought for the overall win. Lovell edged out Combs to the finish line, but on corrected time Randy Slawson beat out Combs for second. Combs was still on the podium for the overall race, but came out on top in the Modified Class with an overall time of 5:01:38.
“The car ran great all day, we did blow a couple tires which set us back, but other than that it was a good day. If we did not have that downtime, who knows how close we would have been to the Lovells,” Combs explained after crossing the finish line.
The story of the day, though, was about the Lovells, and their overall race and class win. “We were pushing so hard out there. I kept looking back for Randy [Slawson], as I knew he was out there somewhere. I did not think we were doing this well, but we were running like a sprint race to stay in front of these guys,” Lovell explained upon exiting the vehicle.
“This car is really fast in the rocks, it is nice and narrow. We got about 10 miles from the finish and realized we had a flat, but what were we going to do? We had to keep running it. We hoped that we would have been able to get up the last sand hill with it. Shortly after that we shredded the tire and kept on going. It was a rough race on tires,” Lovell continued. “It is very vindicating to be first across the line with the drivers what we were up against.”
With the Everyman Challenge race completed and the desert night upon Hammertown, it was time to call it a night and get some rest before the Unlimited race the following morning.
On the dawn of a frigid desert morning it was time for the big boys to line up and head out to conquer the rocks. Jason Scherer would lead the pack after qualifying first, but the day was far from over for any of the drivers.
For those who have never been to a race of this caliber, the day’s action comes in waves as drivers reach remote parts of the desert. Lead changes and breakdowns are heard over the radios at each major obstacle.
We headed out to remote pit one to catch the action on a part of the course that the drivers would only experience during their first lap. The top drivers made the trip in around 15 minutes from their starting time.
The beauty of this pit was the fact it was a crossover section of the course. Drivers would enter the pit around race mile 14, and then again around mile 48. Sirens and horns could be heard as vehicles entered the pit with a car in front of them, signaling that it would be a battle upon exiting the pits.
We did spot Levi Shirley exiting the pit on the way out of loop with a shredded belt. He pulled off of the course and hopped out to change it. Since he had no co-driver, it was up to him to get the problem fixed. He would later suffer a broken steering box that would end his day.
KOH is a race that requires drivers to be well-versed in all aspects of off-roading. You must to be able to drive fast on the flat stuff and keep your head on right during the rocks, otherwise you will not make it to the finish line.
One takeaway from the event is the bond and attitude of the drivers participating. We heard on the radio during the race that one team had broken down and could not get their vehicle started because they dented it on the rocks. The driver exited the car and started running backwards on the course and found another vehicle down with broken axles. Their day was done, but removed their starter to allow the other team to continue.
Another story like this from the race was from the Campbell family. Shannon, the dad, son Wayland, and daughter Bailey all raced in the Unlimited class. Wayland was on his third lap going up Sledgehammer as the rear driveshaft broke. He was on the podium at this point of the race, but laid down his position to help his sister and dad get through the obstacle that otherwise would have required single-handed trial and error. The favor was returned as another team’s co-driver helped Wayland through after he had fixed the driveshaft. Even with his selfless act to hope, he still finished the race in 15th place.
The race also had a rarity as, the Lasernut Racing team brought an independent front and rear suspension car to the race. “Instead of doing the same thing everyone else is doing, we decided to do something that could move the sport in a whole new direction,” explained driver and Lasernut Racing president Cody Waggoner after the race.
At the end of the day, everyone back in Hammertown was waiting to see who finished the race first. This year, Erik Miller took his solid-axle, Miller Motorsports vehicle to the top, finishing the race in 7:30:55. “It’s been three long years,” said an emotional Miller after the race. “I’ve been dreaming about doing this again since we won in 2012. We’ve been right there every single year, but then we’d have a problem.”
“I had no idea where we were in the race,” recounted Miller, who said the team didn’t change a tire all day, and only winched three times. “I will be honest, I was surprised when I saw a couple of checkpoint guys hold up a ‘1’ and I was like, Where did they go? I don’t remember passing anyone.”
“We took it easy on the car, which was our strategy. The only real mechanical problem we had was at the top of Sledgehammer. We had a driveshaft issue, and we couldn’t go over 20 mph. Then, right in the middle of fixing it, the car popped out of gear and we started to roll off the ledge. I was scared for my life,” laughed Miller after the race.
Jason Sherer came across the line second saying, “Things started overheating. I’m not really sure what it was. It’s probably going to be the story of a two-dollar radiator cap that failed and let some water out of the system, and the next thing you know, we were overheating. I had a great group of guys at pit two and they diagnosed it and fixed it. Then we were back out there and in the hunt.”
The clock everyone was watching was the one between Bailey and Shannon Campbell. If Bailey finished under a certain amount of time she would end up beating her dad. It seemed closer at the finish line, but when the final results were released Shannon had taken 4th place while Bailey had taken 5th.
“That was one rough ride, no joke! My dad has been teaching me a lot, that’s for sure. I love the competition between our family,” explained Bailey, who is only 19 years old and the only woman to take on the rocks in the the 2016 KOH unlimited race.
The 2016 King of the Hammers would have 104 entrants, 102 vehicles starting the race, 15 drivers not finishing the first lap, and only 31 drivers finishing the entire race. Off-road racing legend Rob MacCachren participated, saying, “I’ve been racing off-road for 30 years … I do short course, did the Mickey Thompson series, I just won the Baja 1000 for the second time, but this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done to finish. It’s a testament to how tough it is out here.”
The sun had set and the final cars finished the race with their lights on. With the conclusion of this year’s event, you could feel the excitement extending into next year as drivers were already talking and thinking about it. We also had a great time, and look forward to attending in 2017. Check out the gallery full of pictures from the race below!