Erik Miller wins his second Nitto King of the Hammers desert race
This is not to say that Paris-Dakar, the Baja 1000 or Vegas-to-Reno are not tough race events, but you really have to at least see The King of the Hammers before you call any other race the toughest in the world.
This year was the tenth running of the King of the Hammers, an event so gnarly they have to spread it out over five days. An event so tough that winching your craft front and rear at various points is almost mandatory to avoid ending into ignominy down steep canyons. A race so rough that to get through it, the racers actually have to help each other (imagine that in Formula 1!).
Yes, it’s a desert race, with vehicles that look much like desert race cars you may have seen in other off-road competitions. But it goes up terrain so rugged that, when the idea for it was conceived, various hecklers said the course was impossible. Internet posers dubbed it so. Then 12 guys, calling themselves “The OG 13,” (one guy didn’t show up so it was only 12 but they’d already printed the T-shirts), devised a course that connected all of the infamous “Hammer” trails of Johnson Valley Off-Highway Vehicle Area out in the desert way north of Palm Springs. The Hammers were some of the most difficult problems that local four-wheelers could think up. They ran up and/or down boulder-strewn desert canyons that guaranteed damage to even the most tricked-out off-road rigs. In fact, most of the vehicles that could hope to succeed on any of The Hammers were made specifically for them, with over-beefed drivetrains, massive wheel articulation and gobs of power.
Specifically, The Hammers were: Jack Hammer, Sledge Hammer and Claw Hammer, followed by a bunch of other trails that didn’t have Hammer in their names but which could still destroy your vehicle and leave you wimpering into the radio for a chopper extraction. The idea, first drawn on a cocktail napkin in a bar by off-roaders Jeff Knoll and Dave Cole in 2007, was to connect all of The Hammers, throw in some non-hammers for good measure, and do them all as a single event in a single day. They put the plan up on the internets and were mocked for such an absurd idea. Then they went out and did them.
That was ten years ago. From the original 12 guys in Jeepish rock crawlers, the entries this year numbered 110. That was for the big race on Friday. There are actually five races spread out over the whole week with a total of 387 off-road entries and 92 motorcycles. The spectator crowd is so big that an entire city of fiberglass motorhomes springs up on the Means Dry Lake bed in Johnson Valley, forming the biggest city between LA and Vegas for an entire week. The city itself is called Hammertown and it looks like a combination Mad Max Thunderdome, Burning Man and a more family-oriented Hell’s Angels Biker Stomp. All that was missing was an iron-masked Tom Hardy handcuffed to a pole sticking out the front of the biggest Jeep.
This is the kind of articulation you need to win the King of the Hammers.
So it’s more than just another desert race. It combines elements of several types of off-road competition: ultra-slow-speed rock crawling, medium-speed boulder-bashing, high-speed trail running and plowing through deep desert sand. While traditional desert racing began with modified VW Beetles running tuned versions of air-cooled flat fours, The King of the Hammers started out with Jeeps, because Jeeps can crawl up just about anything. To be successful in King of the Hammers means building something sort of like a Jeep but with ultra-everything. Winning vehicles are all tube frame monsters that could roll over a few times and be fine. The engine of choice seems to be the GM LS3 and LS7. Horsepower estimates go as high as 800 ponies. Some builders put the engines in front, some in back. There is much debate about whether to use solid axles front and rear, independent suspension, or independent front and solid rear. All that innovation that people say isn’t in open wheel and stock car racing nowadays? It’s all out here in the desert.
Red Bull Factory KTM rider Cody Webb won King of the Motos
The racing itself takes place over five days in five different categories. The first is not on four wheels but on two, with the KLIM King of the Motos, run on Saturday, January 30. After many miles in the dirt, which this year included riding headlong into a raging rainstorm, it was Red Bull Factory KTM rider Cody Webb who rode out on top, his third win out of the five total Kings of the Moto races.
Scott GoForth won the Vision X ULTRA4 vs SRRS Shootout, an off-road, rock-hopping drag race.
The next night, under bright lights just outside the big city of Hammertown, Scott GoForth won the Vision X ULTRA4 vs SRRS Shootout, blasting up a boulder-strewn canyon called Chocolate Thunder in 38.343 seconds. It’s the Hammertown equivalent of the Sunday night drags.
Side-by-sides are a fast-growing category of off-highway fun and they are celebrated at King of the Hammers with their own race, the Polaris RZR KOH UTV Race on Wednesday February 3. Blake Van de Loo traded the lead with Mitch Guthrie throughout the 115-miles but was ahead where it counted to win it.
Thursday February 4 was the Smittybilt Everyman Challenge, with 106 vehicles like those in Friday’s main event but with slightly different tire sizes and shocks. Brad Lovell came from 72nd place to win that one, driving the same car he’d used at his first King of the Hammers nine years before.
It’s tough out there.
Then, Friday morning it was time for the big enchilada. This year the official course for Friday’s King of the Hammers was 176 miles long. Potential frontrunners included several past winners – Randy Slawson, Loren Healy, Erik Miller, Jason Scherer and the entire Campbell family, including past two-time winner, patriarch and pal-to-all Shannon Campbell. Campbell’s son Wayland and 19-year-old daughter Bailey Campbell were also in the race.
“I think about my kids all the time when I’m racing,” said Shannon beforehand. “They’re on the radio. We are all on the same frequency so if I need to help them or if something comes up where I can help them or if they need something brainwise I can help.”
The problem is, as for all parents, the kids don’t talk much.
“It bugs me when I’m in front of them and I’m like, ‘Are you guys back there?’ because they don’t talk much on the radio and they’re like, ‘Yeah dad, we’re right behind you.”
But he would help, he reiterated.
“If it is something I can do without hindering my race, or if I was doing crappy, I would take my car apart and give it to them. But I’m a racer, if I’m out front I don’t stop for nobody unless they’re dying and even then it might be a hard decision.”
Racers Shannon Campbell and Randy Slawson have made careers as fabricators, creating innovative chassis that others look to for design direction. Some of the front runners have rear-mid-mounted engines, others stick with front engine. All have four-wheel drive with transfer cases for the low-range rock-crawling that makes up many of the obstacles on the course.
Shannon Campbell launches off another berm.
“I think the race is won in the desert, lost in the rocks,” said Miller. “I can make up a lot of time in the rocks with a straight axle. It’s a disadvantage in the desert, but the desert is something you really have to just survive.”
Indeed, the 176-mile course this year was laid out over three big looping laps of desert. That included several parts so steep that the only way to get up was with a winch. We watched many teams try to get up Back Door, a dry waterfall that was maybe 10 vertical feet tall, without winching. They all roared like crazed T-Rexes several times, tires spinning on the rocks and dirt, whole rigs bouncing like little radio-controlled cars from Toys R Us and in danger of tipping over backwards, before stopping and sending the co-driver out to unwind the winch. Those who drove alone had to handle the winching themselves. We heard that one guy, maybe it was Raul Gomez, got up Back Door without the winch. Everybody else had to haul.
For the first lap, it was Jason Scherer, Bailey Campbell and Loren Healy who traded the lead out in the desert. Then Healy broke down. Shannon Campbell, who had been close to the front, broke a half shaft going up Back Door. He spent an hour replacing it with a spare he kept onboard, stopping to help others winch up the waterfall as he worked.
“You really need to be nice out there because you’re going to need help yourself soon enough.”
Racer Tom Ways worked his way up from a 96th-place start to lead for a good portion of Lap 2, or a third of the race, before a driveshaft put him out. Tony Pellegrino’s steering broke out on an 80-mph stretch of dirt road, sending him on a terrifying end-over-end pitchpole that ended his day (luckily a damaged wrist was all he suffered). Then it was Erik Miller, who had started 27th, who took the lead, with Jason Scherer following him. Raul Gomez and Shannon Campbell were battling for third but by then Campbell had no brakes.
So that was the podium, with Miller roaring down the hill and across the finish line in first, finishing in 7:30:55, almost a half hour ahead of Scherer and almost an hour ahead of Gomez, who finished third with a whapping flat tire at the end. Shannon Campbell was fourth (“I’m brain-dead right now,” he said, though still smiling). His daughter, Bailey Campbell, finished fifth. Son Wayland was 15th.
Miller, who has started and finished this race seven times, was so happy to have won that he grabbed the mike on the podium, got down on one knee and proposed right there to his girlfriend, Leah Light. She said yes. Everyone cheered.
As we type these words, 13 hours after the race started, there were still 38 cars out on course. More than half of the entries had already dropped out, beaten back to Hammertown by mechanical gremlins or parts that the trail bit off.
What’s the allure of all this dust and suffering?
“It’s freedom,” founder Dave Cole told us. “You’re stuck in a concrete jungle all the time and here you can come out and you’re doing something cool.”