KOH 2019: Desert Trucks Invade For Toyo Tires Desert Invitational

The off-road world was abuzz when Ultra4 Racing broke some surprising news last August. They had added a new race on the King of the Hammers Week schedule. The name of this new race was the Toyo Tires Desert Invitational presented by Monster Energy. It would feature the kings of desert racing – unlimited trucks.

A New Name, Same Desert Beasts

“Ballistic” BJ Baldwin gave the crowd a show during the prologue.

Some call them “Trophy Trucks,” others call them “Trick Truck”; Ultra4 called them T1 Desert Trucks. No matter the name, expectations were met when these monsters rolled out into Johnson Valley.

Racing for a purse of $125,000, the event was an invitation-only race reserved for those drivers who had dominated the desert the last few years. The race was scheduled for Thursday of KOH week. A 280-mile course was drawn up in the landscapes of Johnson Valley and a unique format was created. A 16-mile prologue loop that was part of the race course was created to determine the starting order. In the words of Ultra4 owner Dave Cole, drivers would have to rely on their skills and not the truck if they wanted that coveted pole position spot.

The prologue would kick off at 8 a.m. The trucks were sent off one at a time, with a large enough time space that the chances of a racer being a factor in another’s run were slim to none.

Electricity and anticipation filled the air around the start/finish. Numerous yellow media vests and spectators lined pit row to watch the spectacle. This forced race officials to do crowd control; thinning the herd, so to speak. Even after all of the unauthorized people were removed from the area, there was still a large crowd on hand.

Race For The Pole

“RobMac” was making his rivals sweat as he made his way around the course.

With obnoxious horsepower under the hood and mountain-absorbing suspension travel ready to do work, the green flag flew as Andy McMillin was the first off the line. Off-road legend Rob MacCachren, who has raced King of the Hammers before (not in a T1 truck, mind you), was second to go. One by one, the T1 trucks were sent off into the desert. It was not long before the casualties started to stack up and head back to Hammertown.

With a shredded left front tire, Andy McMillin’s Red Bull truck looked out of placem but he managed to negotiate the rocks of Jeep Arch. The show continued as BJ Baldwin went “ballistic” and up on two wheels for the infield crowd. Other drivers used the Jeep Arch area to blip the front end, or pop a tire into the area.

And just like that, the prologue was over. Bryce Menzies took the pole. Unfortunately, the prologue whittled done the number of drivers from the main race. Cole Potts was unable to answer the bell for the main race due to transmission issues; he, along with Justin Matney and Raul Gomez, would not be attending the big race.

With the clock ticking down, team frantically checked over the trucks the best they could before the main race. Since the race was short, the key for the winner would be who could keep the truck together without suffering any mechanical issues, including flat tires.

The Race For $125,000

Robby Gordon gets towed back to Hammertown.

The trucks were lined up not long after the last truck completed the prologue. Many of the trucks were sporting memorial stickers for fellow racer “Pistol” Pete Sohren. Sohren was tragically killed in Mexico just a few weeks prior to the race. Chad, Pete’s brother was on hand and in honor of Pistol, Chad waved the green flag and a minute went by before Menzies and Apdaly Lopez left the line to tackle the harsh terrain of the desert. Menzies, with his four wheel drive machine, was able to leap to the lead in front of Lopez. But like all things desert racing, it is a race against the clock, and to keep the truck together by knowing when it is time to hammer the go pedal and when to practice restraint.

Scattered through the field was Cameron Steele. Steele was coming off a class win at the 2018 Baja 1000. On top of that, he is a regular during KOH and spends time on the mic for Ultra4 throughout the week. Off-road legend was Robby Gordon. Robby has raced KOH before, plus he had entered the UTV race on Sunday and drove half the EMC race piloting the new Jeep Gladiator the day before. Also entered in the field was Jesse James, who ran a beautiful black truck with yellow flames.

A battle quickly broke out on Lap 1. Joshua Daniel, Luke McMillin, Apdaly Lopez, Bryce Menzies and Andy McMillin were well within sight of each other. A reported crash forced Robby Gordon to make an early exit.

Luke McMillan claimed the title at the inaugural Toyo Tires Desert Invitational Presented by Monster Energy. Justin Lofton would claim second in a fast and short desert race. Apdaly Lopez claimed 3rd place after a hard fought battle in Johnson Valley.

Menzies was forced to stop at Remote Pit 1, located just over 70 miles after the start/finish line. Menzies had an extended pit stop while the crew changed the right front tire. A lot of other competitors chose to drive through the pit area so they could get back up to speed in the desert.

The first 17 or so miles of the course was somewhat open, with the trucks able to run 120 miles an hour plus for an extended amount of time. The course then led the trucks up into some hills. The course then became tight, at places barely wider than the trucks racing through them. There was also a fair amount of sand on the track. Johnson Valley had receive some moisture in the past week. Couple that with the cold temps, the ground held that moisture which held a lot of the dust down; allowing the drivers to enjoy clean air.

At around Mile 74 right after Remote Pit 1, the course opened up allowing the trucks to set sail. Sustained speeds of over 120 miles per hour were common in some of the open areas. The course closed up again after about 10 miles,  forcing the trucks to slow down while they headed back to Hammertown to complete Lap 1. Lap 2 would be completely different. Although the trucks did not have to negotiate the same rock canyons as the 4400s would the next day, the course took them on the scenic route through the area. Finally at about Mile 131, the trucks would reappear on the flats on the eastern side of the course. It would be here that they would be able to put gas pedal to floorboard. Lap 3 would be a replay of Lap 1 and Lap 4 would be a reply of Lap 2.

Andy McMillin was the first driver to complete Lap 1 and return to Hammertown. Foregoing a pit stop, the Red Bull driver headed back off into the desert. Just a few short minutes later, pole sitter Bryce Menzies came in. Just like McMillin, Menzies headed back out into the desert. Both Luke McMillin and Lopez came in just a few seconds after Menzies left Hammertown. Luke was the first truck to pull off to the side and undergo pit service. Luke was in the lead at the time of the pit stop, according to adjusted time.

McMillin Takes Point

Andy McMillin brought his truck in from Lap 2 with the physical lead. Pulling into the pits, he took on two rear tires and headed back out for Lap 3. His cousin Luke was not far behind.

As with desert racing, attrition began to take its toll on the field on Lap 2. Andy McMillin would be out of the race on Lap 3. Taking over the physical lead, Luke would pull ahead with Justin Lofton and Apdaly Lopez giving chase. Four hours and four minutes after the green flag fell, Luke McMillin was the race winner. Lofton would come in second with Lopez third.

Ultra4 had to deem the inaugural Toyo Tires Desert Invitational a rousing success. Ultra4 will be presenting the race for the next two years, adding to an already powerhouse week of off-road racing.

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About the author

Stanley Harper

An Oklahoma native, Stanley started in off-roading with a Chevy K5 Blazer. He now lives in California, where races and trail rides let him have fun and hone his photography.
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