There are off-road races and then there is the King of The Hammers. Some are longer in the number of miles they stretch across the desert. Others are greater in duration of hours or days. But few, if any, are more brutal on the men and machines than this desert race that has been running for just a few years — since 2007 — in a region known as the Johnson Valley ORV Area in California’s Mojave Desert. The 2014 Griffin King of The Hammers presented by Nitto proved ever more so.
The difference is that the King of The Hammers course is laid out over a route that consists of close to 200 miles of high-speed, open-desert terrain as well as more than a dozen tight, boulder-strewn rock canyons that either climb or descend steeply through harshly rugged mountains. These canyons carry infamously descriptive names such as Jackhammer, Devil’s Slide, Hell’s Gate, Aftershock, Wrecking Ball, Chocolate Thunder and Boulderdash.
These rocky obstacles can vary in length from a few hundred yards to a few miles, are littered with stones ranging from the size of a basketball to that of a Volkswagen. They twist and turn, open up and then close down to no wider than a few yards — just enough room to scrape the axle hubs on each side of your vehicle, and sometimes you have to drive on one side of the canyon wall to get through.
It may be nearly impossible to understand just how rough the King of The Hammers race course really is, but even the qualifying course the drivers are required to run in order to gain a good starting position for the main event is incredibly demanding and rugged. In the video below taken from inside 2014 fifth-place qualifier Shannon Campbell’s race rig, you can get some idea of just how rough the race course is as you watch from over Campbell’s shoulder during his qualifying round.
Some of the canyons such as the notorious Backdoor contain nearly vertical ledges greater than the length of a car referred to as “waterfalls.” If your vehicle doesn’t have the power and/or the traction to climb the vertical waterfall, then the only option is to use your winch and haul the vehicle up and over it slowly in an effort to continue the race. Breakdowns and traffic jams are common in the steep canyons, and the rocks are often where races are won or lost.
Every Man Challenge
The day before the main event was the Smittybilt Every Man Challenge, and in its third year, the Challenge has become extremely popular for pro- and sportsmen-level racers. This year a new wrinkle was added — the 4700 Spec Class — a class of identically built vehicles powered by HEMI V8 engines and supported through Mopar. Seventy-seven rigs in four classes took the green flag the morning of Thursday, February 6, 2014.
Competing in the 4500 Rubicon Express Modified Class, John Currie won the overall title in the Every Man Challenge for a third time. Right behind Currie for the win in the Legends Class was Brad Lovell and his co-driver and brother Roger.
Jessi Combs, the only woman competing in the 4700 Spec Class ran a clean and steady race for the victory and her first Hammers win. Combs will also be racing a 4700 Spec Class vehicle for the entire 2014 Ultra4 racing Season.
The 2012 King of The Hammers winner Erik Miller pulled a double-header by not only competing in Friday’s main event but taking First in the Stock Class during the Every Man Challenge driving a ’98 Jeep Cherokee. The Cherokee had been used on the Miller family farm for errands and fishing trips, then handed down to him when he was 16.
The vehicles built to attack the King of The Hammers course are some of the most advanced off-road machines you will find racing in the desert. Suspension travel, power and sturdiness are the name of this game. Among the unlimited class vehicles, powerplants such as hot-rodded LS7 and LQ9 V8s can be found putting out whopping amounts of torque and horsepower; and they use a wide range of race-built transmissions and transfer cases.
Most ride on independently sprung, multi-link suspensions with coil-over reservoir shocks; and Herculean-structured A-arm or solid axle front ends with massively gusseted rear solid axles put the power to the ground through tires ranging from 35 to 40 inches in diameter. Yet nothing is common, as you’ll find every imaginable combination of high-performance parts used to game this race.
Terrain has been driving vehicle development, and specifically, suspension and axle design in the King of The Hammers race cars. Some competitors have gone to IFS, while others have been steadfast in their commitment to independently sprung, multi-link solid axle cars. This was a point of discussion among “The Kings” on the night prior to the race.
… some may think IFS is faster in the desert, but it’s weaker in the rocks, and I am here looking to win. – Loren Healy
2013 King Randy Slawson campaigns a solid-axle car and believes, “The straight-axle car works best in rocks.” Slawson nailed the best time during the “Backdoor Challenge” on the Tuesday night prior to Friday’s main event.
Loren Healy may have made the most prophetic comment of the evening, though, when the 2010 King said, on the subject of IFS versus solid axle front ends, “I had IFS on my last car, but now I have solid axles on this new car; some may think IFS is faster in the desert, but it’s weaker in the rocks, and I am here looking to win.”
Day Of Decisions
The cars left the start line side-by-side in pairs and within a few yards entered a hard left turn before taking a straight line into the desert for the first lap that is mostly a 52-mile wide-open run. Nick Nelson and Tom Wayes were the number one and two qualifiers, the first pair off the line, and while both quickly gained a wide lead, things changed fast.
The especially difficult canyon known as Backdoor is an option that must be taken at least once during any of the three laps. Nelson passed it up on the first lap, again on the second lap, but he also bypassed his main pit and did not refuel. This came back to haunt him, as he later ran out of gas, and then still later suffered a mechanical failure that put him out of the race for good.
Wayes was driving solo in a single seat car for the first time and was blazing along. His performance in Backdoor, as seen in the video below, will go down in King of The Hammers history as legend. But then somehow (possibly due to the lack of a co-driver/navigator) he missed a checkpoint while on his second lap and never completed one of the other necessary canyon obstacles called “Elvis.”
This was tragically ironic, because despite maintaining a valiant effort, that included physically crossing the finish line first with a missing tire, Wayes was assessed a one-hour and 10-minute penalty for short-coursing per race rules. His corrected time put him in seventh place.
Driving solo in a single-seat car, Campbell began the day strong, but was one of the first of those expected to do well to find trouble. After successfully winching his own car up a section of Backdoor, a transmission failure later stopped his efforts while he was still on the first lap.
Campbell returned to the pits once he knew he was out of the running to spend the day helping crew for his son Wayland, who was also piloting a car in the race. Wayland went on to finish 15th, after suffering his own set of problems — a busted shock mount during the third lap and a driveshaft failure on Backdoor.
The third and last lap was like a giant sifter. It shook out some cars and kept the winners. Bill Baird, Healy, Tony Pellegrino, Miller and Derek West were all bunched up. West battled hard all day but had rolled in Wrecking Ball early on. Recovery crews on site helped get his car back on the rubber side, and he would eventually begin moving steadily forward on his competitors again.
In the lead by almost 10 minutes on the third lap, Miller seemed like he might have it in the bag, but in this race, nothing can be assumed, not even a few miles from the finish line. That’s when the canyon known as Clawhammer got ahold of his race car and made a mess of the steering system’s orbital valve.
Not having a spare in the car, he chose to run back to his pit and get one, then return with it. Miller worked on the car to repair it until long after the sun set, finally taking the checkered flag 12 hours and 30 minutes after starting. He was 25th of the 32 King of The Hammers finishers for 2014.
Slawson was running in second position with just 30 miles left to cover, scrambling with the likes of Miller, Healy and West. After suffering problems with his throttle cable, and getting stuck on the rocks in Chocolate Thunder, he had been fighting hard and now had a darn good chance to get a second crown.
At the last minute, however, the power steering on his car blew, and that had him by the side of the trail making repairs before he could get moving again. If it’s any indication of the toll the course took on other cars, Slawson still finished ninth after two hours of down-time!
A huge favorite among many spectators as well as his fellow competitors, Bill Baird at 64 years was the oldest to take the green flag at the 2014 King of The Hammers.
In his prior two attempts, he didn’t finish, but this time around Baird nailed the third place spot on the podium, and did it driving a single-seat car.
After climbing out of the car, Baird said, “You just keep digging in. Just because you’re getting old, doesn’t mean you can’t do things.”
Pellegrino and his co-driver Bryan Lyttle had very little trouble and were physically fourth across the finish line, but after Wayes’ and Tom West’s (who would later be moved to fifth) times were corrected for penalties, Pellegrino was declared the official second place finisher.
Pellegrino, who made this his fifth King of The Hammers race, said it was “brutal. We just tried to pick people off. Our goal was to get to the end without beating up the car.”
Although it may have seemed that way at first, Healy was not in for a cake walk. For the first 150 miles or so, Healy and his co-driver Casey Trujillo passed slower cars one-by-one seemingly with ease. Starting ninth, they found themselves out front by Lap 3. That’s when things began going wrong.
“Half-way through the third lap, the jack came loose and the handle poked a hole in the radiator,” said Healy. “I thought we were done, but we kept pouring in fluid and drove to Remote Pit 2 where the crew made repairs.”
Not long after that Healy’s transmission lost a gear, so the car was only driving with three gears. Healy and Trujillo had to winch through terrain they normally would have been able to drive through. Farther into the race, a U-joint broke and now the car was also running in just three-wheel drive.
Just because you’re getting old, doesn’t mean you can’t do things. – Bill Baird
Healy crested the very last hill and roared down to the finish line to the cheers of the crowd, taking the green flag almost a full minute ahead of West.
Because Healy had seen Wayes at the finish line and was unaware of the time penalty being assessed, he thought they were cheering for Wayes. He didn’t know that he had won the 2014 King of The Hammers until race director Dave Cole told him so.
Healy’s most telling comment concerning the race came upon first removing his helmet while still seated in the car. “That was the worst race I have ever finished. It was brutal, brutal, brutal.”
Brutal is right. Out of the 158 vehicles that started the King of The Hammers race on the morning of Friday, February 7, 2014, just 32 finished the race in the 14 hour time limit. That is only a 20 percent finishing rate.
The thing about King of The Hammers is that you have to drive fast and carefully, you can’t just do one without the other, or you won’t make it to the finish line ahead of all the others without penalties. Even so, sometimes it takes all that, and good luck. Healy had it all that day.
To see the full list of finishers in all classes and their times, go to the Ultra4 Racing website; and check out the Off Road Xtreme Gallery of photos below from the 2014 Griffin King of The Hammers sponsored by Nitto.