The Dust has settled in Johnson Valley and King of the Hammers 2023 is in the books. This year KOH was bigger than ever. With 1,000+ registered racers and over 65,000 fans on the lakebed, it was possibly the largest off-road event in history. All of this is, of course, centered around the toughest one-day race on earth, The Nitto Race of Kings. Join Off Road Xtreme as we take a look at how this year’s competition played out.
Qualifying: The Racers Tackle Chocolate Thunder
This year brought qualifying closer to the fans than ever. With the new qualifying venue, thousands of eager spectators lined the rocks of Chocolate Thunder. Each eagerly waited to see who would earn those early starts on race day. With the inevitable traffic jams that would occur during the main race, every driver was ready to lay down a fast time as they ripped over the mountain.
Last to run on the qualifying course, the exotic 4400s were met with a torn-up and rutted course. The first man off the line, David Oliver learned this the hard way. Only making it a few hundred yards before breaking and having to back down the course for a DNF. While the course claimed more than a few rigs, it wasn’t long before drivers were able to find fast lines and lay down some blistering times.
Paul Wolff was the fastest man on the track finishing eight seconds ahead of the next driver. That next fastest was three-time Hammer King Champion Jason Scherer in his brand-new Ford Bronco racer. That new rig for Scherer was purpose-built for one thing, to bring Jason his fourth crown. Qualifying in second, he found himself in a great starting spot to do just that. The second row on race day would consist of last year’s Hammer King Champion Raul Gomez. Lining up next to him would be the #9 Campbell Engineering car of Bryan Crofts. Crofts had held the fastest time on the day until the very last hour of qualifying.
Despite not getting the starting position he wanted Shannon Campbell stole the show during qualifying. After having a problem halfway through his run, Campbell went full send after getting his rig going again. His big roll and recovery plus the rest of the Power Hour qualifiers can be seen below.
King of the Hammers 2023: Nitto Race Of Kings Qualifying Power Hour
Lap 1: Hitting the Desert
As the sun rose on Hammertown for the last day of racing, the sounds of big power could be heard echoing through the valley as the trucks came to life in the pits. Race day was here, and with 104 drivers all looking for the crown, the day promised to be epic. Luckily, the fans didn’t have to wait long for the green flags to fly.
Starting on the front row were Jason Scherer and Paul Wolff. Scherer flew off the line, as he was determined to get clean air. The second row of Crofts and Gomez, went a similar way. Raul jumped out and started putting distance between himself and his competition. Then, two by two the drivers left the line for the next hour heading out into the desert loop that would be Lap 1.
Paul Wolff ran into trouble early and fell way off pace as the miles clicked down on that first lap. This left Scherer to lead the pack. When they filed back into Hammer town, Jason and Raul were separated by only four seconds on adjusted time, the hunt was on. Crofts and Healy were the next pair in, from there it quickly became obvious that Healy’s Fun Haver Bronco was showing some wear. He sat in the pits getting repaired while one by one the other racers came through and headed out into the second lap.
Lap 2: Problems In The Hammers
Halfway through Lap 2 is when the attrition really started to show. Sledgehammer was a rough spot for several rigs, starting with Croft. Overheating left him parked on the rocky hillside watching other teams go by for several precious minutes. Loren Healy was next, after finally getting out of the pits his race ended in Sledge due to a loss of steering. Vaughn Gittin Jr also got held up in the same spot, getting some help from Healy and harvesting parts from his teammates Bronco to get back underway. Tad Dowker had his share of problems navigating the narrow race line as well as rolling his truck. This left other racers with no other options and forced them to find new ways around.
As the times were added up after Lap 2, it was Raul Gomez still chasing the #76 of Jason Scherer. Behind the two leaders, it was a completely different scene from the start. The Solid axel cars of Rusty and Josh Blyler had started climbing up the pack. Moving up to fifth was also former king Randy Slawson charging hard.
Lap 3: Last Time Through The Rocks
When the leaders headed back out for the last lap, the crown was still very much up for grabs. With multiple former Hammer King Champions in the top five, the whole race could be decided by one bad line or a tire going down. At this point, lap traffic was also stretched all over the course. Areas like King’s Veto, Jack, and Thor’s Hammer were becoming clogged with stuck trucks, blocking the lines.
Here is where the leaders started to show why they are former victors. Blowing through trails with insane speed and making quick work of lap traffic was the only option. But with every great line that Scherer picked through, Gomez matched. Behind them the two Miller chassis rigs piloted by the Blylers were right there as well, ready to pounce on any mistakes. It looked like the race would be coming down to seconds after 200 miles of brutal racing.
Fighting To The Finish
With about 20 miles left, Jason hit the last stretch of desert with Raul Still right on his heels. That’s when you could see something was wrong. A lap car in front of the #76 was pulling away, Scherer couldn’t match the speed he had shown all race long.
As the cars came into Hammertown for the final time, it was clear that we would not be seeing a new king this year. Raul Gomez physically finishing 10 seconds behind Scherer would have Gomez taking the win and remaining the Hammer King Champion.
“It felt just like we were in a short course race. Full send on the rock trails. That’s pretty much how it was today. It wasn’t like we were cruising and just crawling. When I didn’t see his (Scherer) dust, I knew this guy is really moving fast, so I had to start picking up the pace.” – Back-to-back Hammer King Champion, Raul Gomez
So how hard were the top finishers pushing? Well, coming across the line we counted two down cylinders, three flat tires, and a completely broken rear suspension, and that was in just the top five finishers. It is absolutely incredible what these machines are put through, and to see them race at speed over this crazy ruthless terrain is what makes King Of The Hammers special.
King of the Hammers: 2023 Nitto Race Of Kings Video Replay
Overall, the track was brutal, with only 32 drivers managing to finish. Here is what some of the Drivers had to say about this year’s race.
“It was a little bit of a bummer at the end of the day to lose a couple cylinders It put us down on power and not able to do our thing by saving the car to have that late run. It stings but we did everything we could. Ironically, this is how we finished last year. We’ll be back.”- Three-time Hammer King Champion, Jason Scherer
“It was a very fast course. You could just let the car eat. Pop pulled me off the line, and we didn’t catch him until lap three. He was winching in Aftershock. That was the first time we got to him, and I got around him.” – 2020 Hammer King Champion, Josh Blyler
For the full list of results for all the classes, visit the King of the Hammers Official site. Also, stay tuned to Off Road Xtreme for more KOH coverage and we hope to see you on the lakebed next year.