As empires and kings adapted throughout history, some rulers became antiquated while others evolved to maintain their relevance and reign supreme. This idea of evolution permeates our society as we look for the latest in technology, commodities, and especially our entertainment. The things that adapt, press limits, and capture our imagination are what continue to reign in today’s ever-changing world. It is no secret that motorsports are constantly evolving. When the 24 Hours of Le Mans first took shape in 1923, only thirty or so cars left the starting line. These vehicles were fitted with spoked wheels, skinny tires, and no sign of safety devices. Needless to say, much has changed in the world of road racing.
Likewise, off-road racing has developed since its birth in the late sixties with the Baja 1000. Off-road shocks, lights, tires, and vehicle designs for the epic race have come a long way to help racers complete the treacherous journey faster and safer. Today, competitive Baja or Formula 1 teams are nearly all extremely high dollar corporate machines working to secure sponsorship, advertisements, and most importantly victories. While there is nothing wrong with racing under such a format, it is no wonder that average racing enthusiasts often lose touch with motorsports they could never afford to be a part of. Keeping in touch with grassroots enthusiasts and the commoner is why the Hammers is king today.
The King of the Hammers race has grown into the second largest off-road race in the world in only eight years, and is arguably the most grueling one-day off-road race anywhere in the world. The race was first run in 2008 by 13 friends hoping have a good time and gain bragging rights for running all of the major rock trails in Johnson Valley, California in one day. Over a few short years, King of the Hammers has evolved into a massive race that any off-road enthusiast should beg, borrow, or do whatever it takes to be able to attend.
KOH was the first motorsport of any kind to combine hundreds of miles of open California desert with the most demanding rock crawling trails in the country. This new and never-before-attempted style of racing terrain enabled high dollar fabrication shops and your average weekend wheeler with hand tools in his garage to start on equal turf. New designs and parts have been developed every year as racers try to create their own formula of what is required to win this daunting competition.
[Above left: One of the interesting aspects of the race is that vehicle tech inspection takes place in the middle of the vendor area. This location makes it possible for spectators to get up close in personal with all the competing vehicles and even talk with willing drivers. It was not an uncommon occurrence for drivers to walk over to their cars and find me underneath checking out pinion ages, cage tie in points, and other goodies.]
[Above right: Because the race brings thousands of people out to the lake bed, redneck fun is sure to take place. Park rangers were kept busy busting drunk drivers, fireworks, and Christmas tree fires. While authorities are busy chasing those down they didn’t mind a little diesel tug-of-war on the main road. Here Kevin Collier learned the hard way that good traction and gobs of Cummins torque expose big weaknesses the front AAM 9.25 axle.]
What makes King of the Hammers more than a race is the way it has grown into a packed week of racing, vendor shows, and trail riding for anyone willing to get some dirt on their tires. While the main race of Ultra4 cars has taken place every year, new racing classes have arisen, such as the side-by-side race on the Wednesday before the main event, or the King of the Motos, which pits professional dirt bike riders against the vicious rock trails and miles of open desert.
Because event co-founder Dave Cole thought the race was beginning to evolve out of reach of the “everyman,” two new classes surfaced a few years ago; the Stock class, and the Stock Modified class. These classes were made to make the race more accessible for the non full time racers and fabricators. In these events everyday 4×4 owners can have a chance at a King of the Hammers title.
King of the Hammers is not a set course. The routes taken and the direction racers travel through the desert change every year. Purpose-built vehicles have become more and more sophisticated every year, but the race changes to get seemingly harder every year. In the main event of the Ultra4 cars, Randy Slawson took the crown.
Out of 127 cars that started the race, only 17 vehicles finished. In the Pro Comp Stock class Mathew Peterson in his Jeep WJ was the only driver to finish the race. Even the identically prepared, Gen III Hemi-powered, Spec class cars only produced two finishers. With finishing rates so low, onlookers can begin to understand just how unique this nearly unbeatable race is.
[Above left: The race is a large and well organized effort that would not be possible without a couple hundred willing volunteers to help run race check points. This year to get a different perspective of the race Clint Cunliffe, Kerry Shaw, and your author signed up as course workers. Anyone can sign up to help and will be eligible for the volunteers raffle that is held every year before the race. Just be sure to put on sunscreen before heading out to sit at a checkpoint for the day!]
[Above right: Not all trucks are created equal.]
The event takes place on California’s Bureau of Land Management terrain that is generally a desolate desert visited by the occasional 4×4 club. But for one week in February this lakebed becomes known as Hammer Town as it fills with over one hundred race teams, dozens of vendors, and thousands of spectators. Off-road vehicle manufactures and aftermarket companies, such as Mopar, 4 Wheel Parts, Nitto Tires, and Currie Enterprises, set up tents in Hammer Town to support their race teams and show off their new products to consumers.
The fans and sponsors came out to support the race as well as those novice drivers that take advantage of the trails after hours. For racers and wheelers alike, trail carnage in this punishing terrain is not uncommon. Fortunately, the off-road community was there on stand-by to get drivers back on the trails. This year, Ruff-Stuff Specialties brought their truck, welders, grinders, and any fabrication parts they would need to keep racers and spectators vehicles in working order free of charge.
Whether you’re a hot rod guy that enjoys seeing ground shaking horse power in action, or a die hard off-roader, King of the Hammers is a must-see event. Long gone are the early days of Baja, Dakar or the Indy 500, but King of the Hammers is still growing in incredible ways every year and you have a chance to be there on the ground floor.
Enthusiasts have the ability to get right down next to the action out at Johnson Valley, see all the latest and greatest off-road parts and vehicles in action, and try their hand at conquering the gnarliest trails in the country. Only time will tell how the Hammers will adapt and grow to continue to reign supreme.