UTV Torch Gets Passed At King Of The Hammers

The Can-Am King of the Hammers (KOH) presented by HCR takes place in the open desert, and rugged rock trails in Johnson Valley, California. This year’s event was especially brutal as only 12 out of 118 teams finished the course within the time limit. Hammerking promoter Dave Cole’s goal was to lay out the toughest course ever, and he accomplished it with lots of help from Mother Nature.

The Polaris RZR of Robert Forrest Smith is dwarfed by the rugged mountains in Johnson Valley, California.

Cody Currie (left) dodges boulders during qualifying for the Can-Am King of the Hammers presented by HCR.

In 2015, there were only three that finished on time, (Mitch Guthrie Sr. won), but the cars have progressed quite a bit from then, so the challenge needs to be increased as technology advances. Despite advancements in the drivetrain, and suspension, they are still riding on only 32-inch tall tires. It’s amazing that the UTV’s get through the same trails that challenge the high horsepower Ultra4 cars with their huge 40-inch tall tires but they do.

Two-time Ultra4 King of the Hammers Loren Healy (left) drops down through the big rocks on Jackhammer at the Can-Am King of the Hammers presented by HCR. Overall winner Mitch Guthrie Jr. (right) launches his Polaris RZR off an infield jump at King of the Hammers.

Mitch Guthrie Jr. took his first win as a driver at KOH. He had a great mentor, as his father has won the race back to back, and four times in a row; all with Mitch Jr. riding along as co-driver.

Mitch Jr. drove his own car for the first time last year but was denied the win by another family team, Shannon, Bailey and Wayland Campbell. Shannon finished first and Wayland second. It was the Campbell’s first time racing in the UTV class but all are seasoned competitors at KOH. Shannon Campbell is the only driver to win the Ultra4 race three times.

Wayland Campbell picks his way around the boulders on the sandhills at King of the Hammers.

Mitch Jr. also competes in desert racing. He has won prestigious events like the Mint 400, and the UTV World Championships. “I don’t know what to say, it’s been a long road getting here riding with my dad a lot and we had a few wins but I really wanted to do it by myself,” said Guthrie Jr, “I was trying to keep a level head. I won the race in Sledgehammer. CJ (Greaves) was ahead of us and he rolled it. We didn’t know if we could get by him because it was super tight, but we squeezed by him. We got the lead and then had a clean run.”

Mitch Guthrie Jr. (left) descends Resolution on his way to the win at King of the Hammers. Branden Sims (right) stands it on the front bumper dropping off the waterfall on Backdoor.

Second place was Branden Sims. Sims is no stranger to the podium at KOH. He finished 2nd in 2014, 2016, and now in 2018. At the awards ceremony, Guthrie Jr. called him the Queen of the Hammers. It wasn’t a slight; it was an acknowledgment of his three times finishing in the runner-up position. He has not won yet, but Sims is always a contender.

Short-course racing champion Johnny Greaves (left) is chased by the sun as he makes his way through the sandhills in Johnson Valley, California during the King of the Hammers race. Ultra4 racer Bill Baird (right) showed up with a Polaris RZR to race at King of the Hammers.

“We qualified 19th so not the best place to start, but we got out in the desert and were catching people, said Sims, “The desert is where I’m from. I run Best of Desert and SCORE, and I feel like I can make up time there and keep the car together. I fought back and forth with the Curries and the Greaves. I wasn’t expecting there to be that many waterfalls and cliffs on Outer Limits, and Spooners. Once we got through there it was the desert section and home. I think I went back and forth with Casey Currie, four or five times. We swapped positons a lot on those limited width trails.”

Casey Currie battled all day with Branden Sims. Currie finished in fourth place.

In 3rd place was Mitch Guthrie Sr. He rolled his Polaris RZR coming down the waterfall drop on Backdoor, but still managed to pull down a 3rd place finish. There is no question he has the skills and the strategy to win every time out.

Mitch Guthrie Sr. in his element negotiating the rocks on Jack Hammer.

Six-time King of the Hammers winner Mitch Guthrie Sr. rolls his Polaris RZR while dropping into Backdoor. The recovery crew got Mitch Guthrie Sr. back on four wheels after a rollover on Backdoor.

“This race is so special because I’ve been coming up here forever doing these rocks and four-wheeling; it feels like home,” said Guthrie Sr, “It doesn’t get any better having my son enjoy an event that’s so important to me. It’s unbelievable (that he won), and I knew he had it in him. He’s so fast. I have no words, I’m speechless. It’s going to be a question about returning next year. I would like to, but I don’t know if I’m a top guy anymore with the young guns coming up. This was the worst one ever so far this year physically. There is no way to explain how brutal it is out there. My brother and I were like, “This is insane.” It’s so hot and you never get a chance to breath.”

Robert VanBeekum (top left) getting crossed up while dropping down the upper waterfall at Backdoor. SCORE UTV champion Marc Burnett (top right) had a great run at King of the Hammers finishing in sixth place. The no. 1930 of Kyle Anderson (bottom left) drove his Yamaha YXZ to a ninth-place finish at King of the Hammers. Ross Pilgreen (bottom right) runs portal axles in the rear of his unique UTV to give him more ground clearance in the rocks. He finished the race in tenth place.

King of the Hammers is referred to as the toughest single day offroad race on earth. You won’t find anyone who’s done it to dispute that claim. Despite the remote location, the unpredictable weather, and the brutal challenge of the races, there is a huge family participation every year.

Like Mitch Guthrie Jr, and Wayland Campbell, 33 CJ Greaves raced against his Father Johnny in the race. CJ finished fifth, and Johnny was seventh.

You see it with the Guthrie’s, Campbell’s, Currie’s, Pellegrino’s, The Scherer Brothers, the Gomez Brothers and their kids; the list goes on and on. The list of Ultra4 drivers and past Kings of the Hammers that are racing in UTV’s gets longer every year. Joining three-time King Shannon Campbell in the UTV race was Erik Miller (crowned in 2012, and 2016), and Loren Healy (2010 and 2014).

Two-time Ultra4 King of the Hammers Erik Miller races in the UTV race with other Kings Shannon Campbell, and Loren Healy.

The UTV race also had a few women competing. Bailey Campbell has had solid results at KOH racing her UTV and her Ultra4 car. In 2016, Bailey finished the Ultra4 race in 5th place, one position behind her father. She is the first female to win an ULTRA4 Qualifier. Former X Games competitor and Supercross racer Sara Price was back at KOH with co-driver Erica Sacks and their all-women team to compete. Sacks is a Rally Racing co-driver and competed in the all-women’s Gazelle Rally in Morocco.

Bailey Campbell races in UTV’s and in the Ultra4 cars at King of the Hammers. She is also a member of the Amsoil “Rock Royalty,” that promotes and encourages a young generation of racers and future racers.

There are also some young stars on the horizon including Robby Gordon’s nine-year-old son Max, who races in the desert, and 9-year-old Cash LeCroy. Also known as “Cash Money,” Cash drove a custom RZR to an eigth place finish in the Holley EFI Shootout. It would be nice to see him competing in the UTV race soon. There is plenty of new talent in the wings, young, and old. For anyone who has never been to KOH, you have to experience it. Everyone who attended KOH this year is still a little tired and perhaps dusty, but already busy making plans for 2019.

Ricky Farmer was the last official finisher of the race. Only 12 out of 118 teams finished the course within the time limit.

About the author

Mike Ingalsbee

For more than two decades, Mike Ingalsbee has worked as an automotive writer and photographer and covered just about everything that burns fuel or throws dirt. His writing and photography has been published in over 20 magazine titles and websites in North America, Europe and Australia. He has worked as a design engineer for several manufacturers in the automotive aftermarket and is a founding member of the Association of Motorsports Media Professionals, (AMMP), an organization that consults with racing sanctioning bodies on safety and media issues.
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