KOH 2020: Nitto King Of The Hammers Recap

The day started auspiciously. The haze from Hammertown stretched far and wide, as the sun came up to the east. It was a little cold, but racers and spectators alike were hot for the main event – the Ultra4 Nitto King Of The Hammers.

The Marines did a flyover following the national anthem. Flying three abreast, the helicopters floated by as the national anthem concluded. A serviceman got the honors of flying the green flag. Moments later, Jason Scherer and Loren Healy were off.

For the first time ever, the USMC did a flyover at King of the Hammers.

Johnson Valley was once again the battleground for dozens of 4400 racers, sending veterans and newbies alike into the grinder. Here’s how it all went down!

Top qualifiers Loren Healy (left) and Jason Scherer (right) were the first off the line.

Racers Get Rocked (And Rolled)

Looking out from Backdoor.

Once again riding with LGE-CTS founder Louie in his F-250, we aborted an attempt to head off the racers on the first lap before Guacamole. Instead, we went to the ever-popular Backdoor and set up for the leaders to roll through. Was Scherer still in the lead? We would find out soon enough.

Sure enough, there was Scherer. He had a good lead on Healy, about 3-4 minutes behind. Then came two, three, four more cars –Vaughn Gittin Jr., a couple of Campbells, and others. Someone lost a tire coming down the pit of Backdoor. At one point, five cars were bunched up, all revving engines and waiting their turn to go through the hazardous obstacle. All made it across fine.

Jason Scherer, still in the lead in Lap One, ambles over the rocks in Backdoor.

Around 11am, we headed back to camp to get a fresh read on things. The leaders were now well into Lap Two and it was Healy, JP Gomez and Scherer in that order. Louie left Hammertown to go get more fuel, so we had to wait a little while for another shuttle driver to come in.

While we were waiting for another shuttle driver to come in, we saw on the live feed that Healy was still in first, along with JP Gomez in 2nd and Scherer in 3rd. It looked like JP cut the course quite a bit, as did Scherer, going from Upper Sledgehammer into Jackhammer.

All together now – Jeff Mckinlay, Wayland Campbell, Mike Bou, and Erik Miller got bunched up while navigating through Backdoor.

Spicy Guacamole

JP Gomez #82 was the first leader to roll through Guacamole near the end of Lap Two.

Looking again, Scherer was now in 2nd place, and Healy’s lead had shrunk significantly. We were tired of sitting around and waiting for another shuttle driver to come along, so we hopped in my old Explorer and headed to Guacamole.

With scant cell reception, we looked on the YB Races app to see that Scherer overtook Healy in the rocks following Chocolate Thunder. Scherer was back in the lead, with JP Gomez, Cameron Steele, Bailey Campbell, and George Pronesti in a quartet about 1 race mile behind him.

After Gomez, Bailey Campbell was the next race leader to come through Guacamole.

Upon reaching Guacamole, we hoped to catch Scherer in the lead. Instead, who else but JP Gomez #82 rolled through, followed a few minutes later by Bailey Campbell #35. According to the app, Scherer was dead in the water near Race Mile 76. We had no idea what his status was. There were reports that the tracking app was lagging throughout the day, so it was anyone’s guess who was where at what time.

We made our way back to Hammertown to do one more check-in on the live feed. Bailey Campbell was the leader on official time, now on her third lap. Cameron Steele was in 2nd, and he was light years away. Randy Slawson was in physical 4th, but with time corrected, was actually in 3rd. If Bailey kept up her pace and progress, she could become the first Queen of the Hammers!

The Queen Of The Hammers That Almost Was

For a time, Bailey Campbell had a shot at the win. She was almost Queen Of The Hammers!

Suddenly, we saw on the feed that Bailey was stuck on the side of the track at Race Mile 114, just before the rocky sections. Cameron Steele was barreling now and closing the gap. And sure enough, he passed her as he made his way onto the Lap Three detour through Hell To Pay.

We took a shuttle over to Chocolate Thunder, quite far the busiest place in all of Johnson Valley. The nearby jumbotron broadcast said that Bailey Campbell’s breakdown was due to the water pump pulley failing. As of yet, no one knew if she was still in the running.

Brent Goegebuer was blocking the way for race leader Josh Blyler at Chocolate Thunder. As soon as Cameron Steele's car rolled up, Blyler put the pedal to the metal!

At about 2pm, Josh Blyler was now in front, with Cameron Steele close behind. The rocks are notorious for trading places among racers, and at any moment, misfortune could befall one of these drivers. We waited with anticipation for who would come into Chocolate Thunder first. However, the broadcast pointed out that Blyler needed to get a minute in front of Steele in order to win.

We saw Blyler and Steele rumble in. Blyler was in a mad rush to get through, but Brent Goegebuer #4473 was blocking the way. Once Steele came up into Chocolate Thunder, Blyler mashed on the gas. He went up and around the massive boulder on a lousy side, kicking up a dust storm in the process. Steele was stunned for a bit. With the race this close to the finish, we headed back to Hammertown to see how it would all shake out.

Blyler Rolls His Way To The Win

Despite rolling his rig in Backdoor on the last lap, Blyler still took the win for the 2020 King Of The Hammers.

Blyler was set to become the champion, but he suffered a serious mishap in Backdoor, flipping his rig onto the passenger side. He still had a healthy lead on the other racers, but losing it this close to the finish line could be a massive upset.

Thankfully, Blyler got back upright thanks to support vehicles. He blazed through and got into the finish line in one piece. But his adjusted time almost spelled defeat.

Blyler celebrates his win. Erik Miller was there to congratulate his fellow racer, and took 2nd place himself.

Fortunately, that wasn’t the case. Erik Miller came in and took 2nd. Marcos Gomez rolled into 3rd place during Blyler’s podium spotlight.

It's all smiles and champagne for Blyler and his co-driver as they accept the $65,000 grand prize.

We caught up with Blyler during his podium spotlight. Asked about what happened in Backdoor, he said, “That was just really dumb, is what that was,” he joked. “We drove in there too hot and too hard. But we got winched up and got here and saved it.”

Reflecting on the events that led to his win, Blyler commented, “For the most part of the day, we were just having a blast the entire time. This car works. It’s silly, it’s fast, we spent two days tuning this thing, but in the end, we were just here to run our race, no matter how it shook out.”

Miller Motorsports accepts the 2nd place prize and takes pride in a respectable podium finish.

In 2nd place, Erik Miller rolled up onto the podium for his interview. “I’ve never been this happy to be in 2nd place,” he beamed. “The win couldn’t have gone to a better guy in a better car. He’s put his heart and soul into this.”

Reflecting back over his performance in the race, Miller said, “I had some bad luck today. I lost a fan relay and that cost us a ton of time as we sat waiting for things to cool down. But that’s King Of The Hammers, it’s a crapshoot sometimes. Hopefully, 2021 will be the year for #21!”

Despite a broken control arm and starting in nearly last place, Marcos Gomez still managed to get third place. He's eager to prove himself again next year.

Lastly, Marcos Gomez’s limping 4×4 rolled up to accept the third-place award. His mood was regretful, but happy. “Man, I almost had it!” he yelled.

His finish was all the more remarkable when the announcer pointed out his start in nearly last place. “I left nothing on the table today,” said Gomez. “Even when my heim let loose, I didn’t give up, I limped it all the way in. What a day!”

What a day, indeed. In a field of 97 racers, only a select few made it through the finish line. At the time of this writing, some three hours after the podium has been declared, other drivers are still running their third lap. 47 others are on the DNF list. If we learned anything from King Of The Hammers 2020, it’s this – the will to win isn’t enough. Skill, reliable cars, and a good dose of luck are required as well.

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About the author

David Chick

David Chick comes to us ready for adventure. With passions that span clean and fast Corvettes all the way to down and dirty off-road vehicles (just ask him about his dream Jurassic Park Explorer), David's eclectic tastes lend well to his multiple automotive writing passions.
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