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King of the Hammers May Be the biggest Off-Road Extravaganza in the World

King of the Hammers started in 2007 as a single, fun, and challenging day of off-roading between a dozen friends who had decided to do a single big race through all the steep, rocky trails they knew in Johnson Valley in the mighty Mojave Desert north of Los Angeles. Now the event has festooned into a two-week-long celebration of off-road racing that includes over 1000 registered competitors piloting everything from motorcycles to side-by-sides to purpose-built rock machines built to blast over boulders and rocket across dry lake beds with equal ability. By our count, there were a total of nine different events, some with multiple sub-races and qualifying.

This year’s King of the Hammers – officially the Progressive King of the Hammers presented by Optima Batteries – ran from Thursday January 26 when the gates opened all the way to 10 pm Saturday February 11 when the last official finisher crossed the line in the headlining Nitto Race of Kings. In between there were so many races each with so many classes that it makes keeping track of an IMSA contest look easy.

The Race of Kings is the crowning glory of the weeks-long King of the Hammers fest. It is easily the toughest and most prestigious event in the two-week-long carnage. It’s also the closest category to what those 12 friends started out with almost 15 years ago. The vehicles in this event have to balance rock crawling over boulders as big as school buses with remaining stable on 100+ mph blasts across vast tracts of empty dry lake bed and silty whoop-dee-doos. The engineering alone is impressive, but seeing competitors crawl up boulder-strewn hell-slots like Chocolate Thunder, Turkey Claw and Sledgehammer is a testament to both the design and drivers of these craft.

Raul Gomez on his way to winning his second King of the Hammers in a row.

The first competitor in the Nitto Race of Kings fired off the line at 8:00 a.m. Saturday morning Feb. 11 and the last one finished before 10:00 pm the same day. The course consisted of three laps of a punishing sufferfest that had everything from sand dunes and dry lakes to desperately slow boulder bashing. This year the race once again went to Raul Gomez of Gomez Brothers Racing. It was the second year in a row he has won.

“After watching the UTV race yesterday I kind of changed my strategy a little bit, I was going to hold back the first lap and then really start attacking second and third, but I’m definitely gonna go full get-up first, second and third lap so it’s gonna be a fast race for sure,” Gomez said the day before the green flag.

It was a good thing he kept the hammer – so to speak – down from the start, as his margin of victory, once they corrected times, was less than a minute over second-place finisher Jason Scherer. (Scherer was reportedly down two cylinders toward the end of the race.) Gomez’ 5:25.47 for three huge laps of the desert race course barely bested Scherer’s 5:46:16 for the win. Technically it was Scherer who crossed the line first, but Gomez had started later, so he won. Josh Blyler took third.

King of the Motos is insane!

The Bikes

Perhaps the second-most-prestigious event at KOH started a week earlier with the big motorcycle races, and if you think the four-wheeled drivers are crazy, imagine doing almost everything they do but on two wheels with nothing to protect you but your skill and a really good helmet.

King of the Motos is the first event in the year-long US Hard Enduro season and the AMA West Hard Enduro Series. What is Hard Enduro? Remember motocross? That is done on nice, soft dirt. While there is dirt in Hard Enduro, there are also rocks, and cliffs, and big, steep uphills. Most of the highlight-type videos of Hard Enduro look like a two-wheeled version of Christine, where various riders have fallen off their mounts on really steep terrain and suddenly find their dirt bikes chasing after and crushing them.

“Injuries are just part of the racing side of things,” says a voice in a Hard Enduro YouTube video.

Thus, on Saturday, January 29, 175 possibly insane riders took the landrush start just north of Hammertown and roared off into the surrounding boulder-strewn hills. Hours later it was favorite Trystan Hat of FMF KTM Factory Racing who crossed the finish line first.

“Honestly you gotta get a lucky bounce here, because all the rocks are moving underneath you,” Hart had said before the race. “You get one unlucky bounce and you kick off the trail you’re gonna have a big one. So you need some lucky bounces to get to the finish line first. It’s not about winning so much as just pulling the best out of yourself.”

Five-time King of the Motos champion Cody Webb, racing for FactoryONE Sherco, was second. Webb trailed Hart closely but made a navigation error, descending the depths of the Sledgehammer trail completely before turning around and ascending the boulders to rejoin to the correct course. He took second place on the podium, with Ryder LaBlond rounding it out in third.

The Every Man Challenge allows teams with lower budgets to compete in a race very similar to the big King.

Everything Else

Other events rounded out the two weeks of activities in Johnson Valley.

The 4WP Everyman Challenge, which runs the day before the Nitto Race of Kings, is like the Race of Kings but has some cost caps to make the racing accessible to Every Man, as its title suggests. In all, there were 150 entries in this year’s Challenge, spread across three different classes.

“The rugged 143-mile Every Man Challenge racecourse was made up of a lap of high-speed rugged open desert with a second lap of tire-shredding rocky canyons,” the release read. “Drivers and co-drivers pitched themselves and their vehicles against steep climbs, bottomless sand, and boulders as big as a Fiat 500.”

When the dust settled it was Jeremy Jones in his Class 4800 Branik Motorsports Legends car who took the overall win.

“Winning King of the Hammers EMC has been a goal of mine since back when we started watching this almost 10 years ago. Finally, it paid off and this is incredible.”

The Backdoor Shootout is an uphill boulder-hopping drag race held at night in the freezing cold. Fun!

Uphill Nighttime Freezing Cold Boulder-Hopping Drag Racing

Another event, and a big fan favorite, is the Holley EFI Backdoor Shootout Presented by Action Sports Canopies and King Shocks. The event is like a big, boulder-hopping uphill drag race that takes place at night in the often-freezing cold. Who wouldn’t love that? Fans line the steep and treacherous Chocolate Thunder trail and cheer as racer after racer either bounces all the way up to glory or rolls off the course into ignominy.

“The action began with carnage early, as the second and third competitors off the line ended their race almost immediately by rolling over,” the official roundup said. “There were more broken cars, more rollovers, lengthy recoveries, five DNFs in total, and hang-ups that cost drivers a competitive time through the course.”

When the carnage cooled it was Paul Wolff making it two Holley EFI Shootout wins in a row with a 51.73-second run in his 4400 Class Ultra4 car he later raced in Saturday’s Race of Kings. Chris Kaufman came close to another win of his own with a time of 54.14 seconds to take second place this year, and third-place finisher Corey Holthaus tore up the course in 56.98 seconds with his big-block rock bouncer.

Winners of the Desert Challenge

The Catchall Race

The Toyo Tires Desert Challenge Presented by Monster Energy, meanwhile, seemed like it included among its entries just about anything that could roll across the desert dirt, all rolled into numerous categories. Consider this official lineup, pulled from the KOH schedule for Sunday, February 5: “Limited Trucks and Buggies Race One (B2, B3, B4, T3, T4, Terra Crew 1400 and 1450) and all classes associated with the Triple Crown, or any applicable partnering series),” followed by, “Toyo Tires Desert Challenge Presented by Monster Energy for Unlimited Trucks and Buggies Race Two (T1, T2, B1).”

Adam Householder took the overall victory in this year’s Desert Challenge. Householder’s #24 T1 Unlimited Truck finished two laps of the tough course in 3:19:43, after starting fifth. Behind Householder were racers Dustin Grabowski and Ray Griffith in the Unlimited class driving their T2 Spec trucks. A mere 90 seconds separated them.

The Can-Am UTV Challenge is for those popular SxSs.

Side-by-Sides by Sondheim

Then came the UTVs, or Side-by-Sides, those smaller off-road two seaters that are getting increasingly popular among adventure-minded families and racers alike. They had their own race out at KOH. The Can-Am UTV Hammers Championship had 107 competitors take the green flag on Feb. 9, with Kyle Chaney taking victory over the grueling 142-mile torturefest in 3:45:04. It was Chaney’s third crown in the event. He ran in the Pro Stock Turbo class, which had 31 entries. The race included four classes and featured everything from bone stock amateurs to high-tech pro entries with powerful engines.

Post-race grudge match between Ford F-150 Lightning and Rivian R1S. The Ford won, but just by a bumper.

And Finally…

A much, much smaller but no less fun and intriguing event was the Optima Batteries Soggy Lake Drag Race. It consisted of a somewhat hodge-podge assembly of off-road vehicles all competing in a drag race across a dry lake bed. The starting lineup of eight vehicles poised to go behind an impromptu starting line spray-painted into the dry lake dirt included everything from a Volkswagen ID4 set up for off-roading, a Weistec Turbocharged RZR Pro R SxS, a Jeep set up for KOH duty, a Trophy Truck, a seemingly stock Ford Raptor R, a stock Rivian R1S SUV, a full-size F-150 Lightning crew cab pickup, and a Unimog.

The starter waved the flag and off they tore across the desert. It looked like the RZR SxS won, just barely, over the Rivian, but it was close, so those two raced again heads up, with the RZR winning “by a bumper.” Then they ran the Raptor R vs. the Rivian because it was “what the people want,” according to host Vaughn Gittin Jr. The winner of that run? The Ford, but only after a frame-by-frame video review.

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There were more events,maybe nine in all, and much more happening in Hammertown, the temporary city out in the desert that is home to something like 65,000 fans and racers during King of the Hammers. The two-week temporary city is perhaps the largest assemblage of fiberglass motor homes and fifth wheels anywhere in the world. No one out there minds dust. By now, as you read this, the last of the trailers are loading up and the last of the stragglers are wending their ways back toward their Southern California homes, the better, if slightly the dustier, for the experience.

Mark Vaughn grew up in a Ford family and spent many hours holding a trouble light over a straight-six miraculously fed by a single-barrel carburetor while his father cursed Ford, all its products and everyone who ever worked there.

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