This year’s course was 202 miles long and divided into three big loops: the first loop was the more or less “normal” high-speed desert stuff, where competitors hauled off as fast as they could over wide-open but largely flat desert. That helped spread out the field a little. That was followed by two more, far slower loops of tortured, sometimes near-vertical, desperate rock crawling up the convoluted boulder-bashing canyons that make up the infamous “Hammer Trails.”
Those trails have been around for years and many locals know them: Sledgehammer, Jackhammer, Claw Hammer and at that point they ran out of hammers and started using other names like Back Door, Outer Limits and a few others. But only a handful of driver daredevils dared to actually try and get up them. The Hammers traverse gigantic natural drainage culverts packed with boulders the size of — pick your favorite kitchen appliance: washing machines, refrigerators, dishwashers. They bear no resemblance to the graded dirt road you just “made it up” in your fwd Nissan Rogue. These are monsters, terrifying even to experienced off-roaders.
Then one day someone said, “We oughta try and do all of them in one day.” Thus was born King of the Hammers. At first it was just a few friends, about a dozen or so, who did it. Or tried to do it. It was about 12 years ago that it became a more organized event. It grew every year and now it and the four events leading up to it make for a week-long desert celebration that has been called the four-wheel-drive Burning Man (though with far less — if any — nudity and drugs).
The week started with King of the Motos, a two-day, three-race event for motorcyclists that starts with a Dante-esque night race. Next is the Holley EFI Shootout, a sort of boulder-bashing drag race. Then a 134-mile Can-Am UTV King of the Hammers presented by HRC race for UTVs, what you and I might call side-by-sides, that covers a lot of the same terrain as the feature event. The final feature, the main event, is what you’re reading about here, the Nitto King of the Hammers Powered by Optima Batteries.
This year saw 102 starters in highly specialized vehicles made just for this kind of race. These rigs must be able to crawl up those near-vertical rock slabs, bash over boulders as big as Beetles, and then hightail it across dry lakes and desert dirt. Every car builder has a different take on what to build. Some say solid axles are best, some independent is the way to go. Tire sizes range from 30 to 40 inches. LS3s are popular engine choices but powerplants are all over the map. Whatever works, works. And then, starting at 08:00 on Friday morning, the KOH racers are released into the desert, two at a time, every 30 seconds. Only a handful will come back under their own power and while there is still some sun left up in the sky. The rest will struggle, curse, patch and fix their rigs through the night, some in futility.
This year it was past-winner Jason Scherer and co-driver Jason Berger, the two Jasons, who won, but it did not come easily. For almost the entire 202 miles Scherer was locked in mortal combat with two-time former winner Randy Slawson, as the two traded the lead over and over again. Once, in a particularly difficult boulder bash, Slawson actually drove over the top of Scherer, right over the top of his car.
And it was. With Scherer just in the lead as the finish lined loomed four or five miles ahead and the pair drag-racing across the flat, hard surface of Melville Dry Lake, Slawson’s car suddenly lost its transmission and coasted to a stop. Scherer took the checkered flag. Slawson was listed as a DNF. Racing giveth, and racing taketh away.
Scherer’s time of 7:08:25 for all three laps was 13 minutes ahead of second-place finishers, and another two-time former winning team, Erik Miller and co-driver “Rugged” Robert Ruggier. A minute and a half behind them was Wayland Campbell, who last year finished second to his dad, three-time-winner Shannon Campbell in the event’s first 1-2 father-son finish.
As you might guess, no one thought it was an easy race.
“It was a challenging day,” said Scherer. “You go fast in the desert but not so fast that you break the car. Our car was working well and we got our suspension right. It wasn’t hard to drive the car so you could focus on the terrain, there are some huge G-outs (spots where the suspension bottoms out hard), it was an interesting thing to go back to the rocks and have to find that pace. You’re hot and sweaty in the rocks and then you go out to the desert and everything is great and then you have to go back to the rocks.”
Miller, meanwhile, was battling an undetermined illness all day but still managed to cross the line in second.
“It’s bittersweet,” Miller said. “We built this car all last month and pushed hard to get it here. We pushed ourselves to the limit all day. I woke up feeling like hell and battled that all day. It was a bad luck kind of day. I’m just grateful to be here.”
For his part, Wayland Campbell was happy to have finished third. Or just happy to have finished.
“It’s been a rough one and I’m glad to be out of the car. One of the (seat) belts has been hitting my sternum and all over I hurt pretty bad. I just tried to catch everyone. I couldn’t see anyone, I just heard chatter on the radio about where people were and then I would try and go faster. Eric Miller got hung up at one point and I saw another line and took it. Then he was right back up on me, and he got around me in the pits. The trails have changed significantly over the course of the last few days, thank you God we have 40-inch tires.”
And with that, a giant dust storm enveloped Hammertown, blowing awnings around and making sure that every earlobe and nostril was completely full of dirt before the 50,000 or 60,000 residents of that big desert berg pulled up stakes and got in line to file out of Johnson Valley and head back to suburban L.A., already making plans for their return next year.