This is it. The main event. A dusty sun rises over Backdoor and Resolution. 200 people flank each canyon wall – media, spectators, men, dogs, all waiting for the action. The bars on every cell phone are blanked out, and no data or Wi-Fi is getting through. It’s a waiting game at this point.
The anticipation is giving some second thoughts, glancing at their watches and nursing coozie’d beer cans. “When are they coming through here?” is a common question. It’s one I’m asking myself, too. People look at me like I have some idea of how the race is going. Somehow, my fluorescent yellow vest gave me the power of omniscience, and I can see with perfect clarity when they’ll be arriving.
But I am at a loss. I have no radio, no map, no GPS; just a camera, a water bottle, and some chapstick. I’ve been to King of the Hammers five times now, but I’d still regard myself as a noob when it comes to sensing the race’s progress. I expect a usual suspect to be in front, be it Randy Slawson or one of the Campbells. For them, King of the Hammers is speed and sweat; for me, it’s shoot and scoot.
And scoot I must, if I’m to cover the race effectively. The scooter of choice this year is a Colorado ZR2, courtesy of Titan Fuel Tanks – 2.8-liter Duramax engine, locking diffs, buff axles, big tires, and a massive fuel tank. The latter is to be expected, and is a must for the long-distance driving on the menu today.
Titan’s representatives at this KOH, Mike DeFord and James Patience, are my chaperones today, carting me around the expanse of Johnson Valley. We seek the hard-to-reach hotspots, ones that I ordinarily have to bypass because they’re either too far or too tricky to get to in a bone-stock, 17-year-old Ford Explorer. James is careful not to give too much throttle, lest the turbo kick in and jet us forward against our will. The wastegate is thus constantly on, venting charged air out of the system before things get out of hand.
As we veer left of Chocolate Thunder to head toward the more distant spectator areas, I can’t help but think of getting stranded. I absent-mindedly ask Mike, “How are we doing on fuel?” “We’re doin’ great,” he replies. “And if we do reach empty out here, we’re not telling anyone.”
The first stop of the day is the start, 7:30 am. I’ve driven an hour each way the past three days, so getting up early (and skipping breakfast) is a practiced routine at this point. Behind an arching inflatable Nitto banner, over 100 rigs sit quietly as the opening ceremony goes through the motions. They then start up loudly and proceed forward.
I attempt to take a place close to the starting line, but King of the Hammers founder Dave Cole is having none of it. “I’d prefer it if you stayed here,” he says, gesturing toward a plastic K-rail behind him.
Two by two they go, barreling around the first of many turns and launching sand skyward. A dozen have launched (including Jason Scherer; more on him later) before I walk to James and Mike and the Colorado. We navigate the tight roads of inner Hammertown, and before long, we’re free to venture across the desert.
Or are we? An expanse of unsettled dust clouds the area between Hammertown and Chocolate Thunder. We can’t see beyond 100 feet or so in any direction, so thick and opaque is the airborne dirt. What was once somewhat navigable with a map, is almost impossible now, save for the Lowrance GPS leading the way. Wind is usually plentiful in Johnson Valley, but it’s strangely missing on the day of the big race.
Nevertheless, we make our way.
I lead us toward where I think a waypoint is. King of the Hammers naturally has hammer-related nicknames for some of these, like Sledgehammer or Jackhammer. Others are just plain cheeky; Backdoor, Upper Big Johnson, etc. The one I had in mind was called Boulderdash.
Boulderdash starts with a left turn in deep sand. The rooster tails alone are worth the drive out this far from Hammertown; racers just can’t stand to lose traction and respond with ever more throttle when they sense they’re slowing down.
The path leads racers into a ravine filled with basketball-sized stones. They have to pick the right line or get bucked out of control. It sometimes creates logjams for the racers, as they pile on in the tricky uphill section. They can see the telltale plumes of dust up ahead and judge how close or far they are from the next racer, and it fills them with the determination to catch up.
Between Race Mile 81 and 82, a straightaway cuts through a valley, starting downhill and ending uphill. It makes for quite a vista when the dust is settled, and along comes Shannon Campbell’s famous fastback 4×4.
Nearby is Remote Pit 2. Organized and chockablock with people, tools, and trucks, racers slow to a stop and either take their break or speed up and over a hill, bypassing the pits. Michael Trebino (#4449) limps to his pit, the passenger front tire blown apart and flailing.
His trouble worsens with the overheating engine, which he addresses by letting the coolant gush out and refilling the radiator with bottle after bottle of purified water. His eyes constantly watch the temperature gauge, the needle seemingly stuck in the red. The anguish of the team is palpable, losing time and place the longer they spend time trying to fix the blasted machine (sadly, they would be DNF’d after the first lap).
From Remote Pit 2, we make our way to Chocolate Thunder. Easily the most popular spot at King of the Hammers, it’s effectively packed by the time we crest its peak. It’s the first time in five years of covering King of the Hammers that I’ve been up this high on CT, and the angles I see are terrific. I can get a sense for what a struggle it is for the drivers to get up this mountain, battling loose rocks and tight spaces all along the way. It’s slow and fighting gravity, and it no doubt puts a strain on the engine to stay cool while doing so.
It’s now nearing 12:30 pm and I’ve stopped at several waypoints on the course. It’s time to head back to Hammertown and check on the status of the race overall; I’m nothing if not starved for information (as well as just plain starving). At the gate, we’re waved through to drive back to the Titan Fuel Tanks booth and settle down. I thank Mike and James for their help and driving, and secure some grub – a burger and beans.
Back at the media tent, over a dozen yellow vested folks laze about. They’re talking to each other about past races, or reflecting on the viability of print media with so-and-so’s recent departure. It’s not long before I hear of Jason Scherer, one-time KOH champion, and his gigantic lead on Erik Miller. The tense waiting for Scherer’s arrival gets people’s ears perked up. A roar emanates from the northern mountains; is it him?
Down zips Scherer in his white and blue Starwood Motors 4×4, no one behind him for miles around. He takes the win as he watches his elapsed time beat that of Erik, and rolls onto the podium to take his righteous glory. It’s been nine years since he last won the King of the Hammers, and he has every right to be as loud and celebratory as he wants.
He’s followed by Miller and Wayland Campbell, both of whom share the look of winning defeat, if that makes any sense. Perhaps it’s just being tired and worn out after six hours of ungodly hot, challenging, and sweaty driving.
But they’ll be back next year. They’ll all be back next year, and even more will come. As for myself, I don’t see how I could ever miss a King of the Hammers. The work, the setting, the action, and the narratives are all too wonderful to miss out on. Maybe I’ll take a pass on getting hosed down by a water truck, though.