Johnson Valley, California. The first week in February. Since 2007, this was the location and time when an off-road king is crowned. In the short history of the Nitto King of the Hammers Powered by Optima Batteries, only six drivers total have laid claim to the title.
Who Would Be King?
On top of the heap is off-road legend Shannon Campbell. A three-time winner of KOH, if he is not winning races, he is a contender. Erik Miller, ever since his 2016 win had been lurking in the shadows. Could Jason Scherer, who won way back in 2009 and finally scored a repeat win in 2018 entered the rarefied air with Shannon. Add in Loren Healy and Randy Slawson, would 2019 be the year that this elite group of drivers kept the crown in their inner circle?
Or would one of the “outsiders” finally ascend to the throne? Wayland Campbell had spent the last few years coming close. In fact, the 2017 race was his closest finish to claiming the title, coming in just 28 seconds after dad Shannon. Among the other young guns in the sport was Dodge City, Kansas driver Levi Shirley. Shirley had always had the speed, would he be able to complement that speed with minimal issues during the day. There were others such as Tom Wayes who showed up with a new car and the Texas-based Clay Gilstrap, always a threat with the devilish speeds he races at.
No matter how the results shook out at the end of the day, there was always a certain amount of hype that came with the annual race. And the excitement of the day always exceeded the expectations of the hype and 2019 proved to be no different.
The Racers Speak
Like many of the other drivers he was competing against, Levi Shirley in his #81 Campbell Chassis car had already seen parts of the track earlier in the week. He had competed in the 4WP Every Man Challenge. He also arrived on the lake bed a few days before most. I talked to Shirley before the race to get his thoughts.
“I’m feeling pretty confident. The only thing I’m worried about my starting position. All of the heavy hitters are in the top 15.”
I asked Shirley what he believed the three keys were to winning the race would be. He replied,
“perseverance, persistence, and luck.”
I had the opportunity to chat with one of the “Voices of KOH”, Miles Hasselquist, about his thoughts on the race.
“Smooth and consistent is going to be key. Fast in the desert at first to get out front, but save the car because the race will be won in the rocks.”
I also asked Miles if he had any predictions on who would win. He stated that he thought a current king would take it, but guys like Paul Horschel and Levi Shirley could not be counted out.
“I have quite a bit of desert seat time in it. Gonna drive it fast where it excels and just cruise in the rocks.”
Qualifying Format Change
Even though the King of the Hammers was on Friday, one of the more important aspects of the race took place on Wednesday. Qualifying in the past was held during a two-day block in the middle of the week. Ultra4 changed things up a little by holding qualification on Tuesday.
When everything was said and done, Nick Nelson claimed the #1 position for Friday’s race. Two-time (and last year’s) champion, Jason Scherer, took 2nd. Another two-time winner, Loren Healy, would start 3rd. Two-time Baja winner Casey Currie would be off the line in 6th. Jordan Pelligrino was able to snag a top ten slot in 9th. Shannon Campbell rounded out the top 10.
Qualification provided a little race day drama when the results were sorted. Fast cars and drivers were shuffled back into the pack for 2019. Levi Shirley, Clay Gilstrap, Randy Slawson, and Erik Miller had drawn starting spots that would force them to battle through traffic if they wanted to be crowned King.
The Race Begins
Lap 1 would take the field out into the desert and to Cougar Buttes before they would come back to Hammertown to tackle the infamous rock canyons that put Johnson Valley on the off-road map. For the fast cars shuffled back, they would have to push it on this lap to get in front of a field that could end their chances very easily in the rock canyons.
Another part of the race strategy drivers had to decide was when would they tackle Backdoor. Backdoor is a rock canyon located right near Hammertown. The drivers have the option to run Backdoor on any lap they wished. The canyons are notorious for being traffic jams later on in the day, yet taking it early could put a driver further back in the field.
Josh Blyler, starting in the 26th spot, was the first racer to tackle Backdoor. He was quickly joined by a host of additional drivers. What KOH drivers fear is to be caught in a traffic jam in the rock canyons and Backdoor quickly became one. Mechanical malfunctions stacked the cars up and it took several minutes to get out and back on the flats. Clay Gilstrap was able to slip through the jam and get through Backdoor with relative ease. Unfortunately, Gilstrap would fall victim to a broken axle later on in the race.
Up front, the race was on, with speeds north of 100 miles per hour across the desert to Cougar Buttes. Cody Addington was an early exit out of the race, making it to Mile 6. The first car to the rocks was Nick Nelson, with two-time champ Scherer right behind him and Healy just a little further back. Just before Mile 59, Scherer was able to slip by Nelson for the physical lead. With Healy starting third and running physical third at this point, he could have possibly been in the time-adjusted lead. Nelson retook the lead, though, right after the cars left a checkpoint.
Other names that made time in the desert included Shannon and Wayland Campbell, as well as Greg Adler. Lurking just behind the leaders out of Cougar Buttes was Paul Horschel and JP Gomez.
Different Strategies, Different Results
Nelson and Scherer continued running 1-2 when they came back to Hammertown to compete Lap 1. They wasted no time and headed back out for Lap 2. Nelson decided to take on Backdoor and Scherer followed him into the rock canyon. Nelson quickly came to a stop at the waterfall, forcing his co-driver to exit and start pulling winch line. Scherer tried to scoot past Nelson on the right, but he stopped and his co-driver bailed out also. The rockcrawl became a foot race as the two co-drivers raced uphill to snag the winch point. Scherer’s co-driver Jason Berger won the foot race, allowing them to take the lead in the rocks. The move by the two leaders allowed Horschel and JP Gomez to bypass Backdoor and move out front. Levi Shirley, having started way back in the pack, was in physical 5th place when he came back to Hammertown.
Lap 2 started to lay claim to racers. Both JP Gomez’s and Nick Nelson’s day came to an end not far into the lap. This allowed Scherer to move out front once again. At Mile 145, the race for Shirley and Pelligrino came to an end.
Scherer came into Hammertown to start Lap 3 with a sizable lead. He would have to head out back out to the rock trails, but this time he would have to deal with lapped traffic. Horschel, who was in second, had to deal with Backdoor on Lap 3, allowing Scherer to stretch his lead. This proved to harm Horschel’s progress as he went upside down. Wayland Campbell came into the canyon behind Horschel. Campbell moved into physical second after passing Horschel. Two-time champion Erik Miller came into Backdoor and made short work of it, moving into physical third.
The King Is Crowned
All of the chaos in Backdoor allowed Scherer to set sail on Lap 3 and not look back. Scherer was crowned king when he crossed the finish line in his BF Goodrich-shod machine.
He also achieved some impressive milestones. The fastest KOH time since 2012, and the third fastest of the decade. He also became the second three-time champion along with Shannon Campbell. Scherer also became the first ever back-to-back winner. Erik Miller came in just a few minutes later to claim second. Shannon Campbell racked up a third-place finish, while Marcos Gomez was 4th and Tom Wayes 5th.