King of the Hammers began in 2007 as a single, fun and challenging day of off-roading among a dozen friends who had decided to have one big race through every steep, rocky trail they knew in Johnson Valley in the mighty desert of Mojave north of Los Angeles. Now the event has transformed into a two-week celebration of off-road racing featuring over 1000 registered competitors piloting everything from motorcycles to side-by-sides to purpose-built rock machines to jump over boulders and rocket across the lake dry beds with equal capacity. By our count, there were a total of nine different events, some with multiple side races and qualifiers.
This year’s King of the Hammers – officially the Progressive King of the Hammers presented by Optima Batteries – ran from Thursday 26 January when the gates opened until 10pm on Saturday 11 February when the last official finisher crossed the finish line in the Nitto Race. of the Kings. There were so many classes and races in between that it makes it easy to keep track of an IMSA contest.
The Race of Kings is the toughest and most prestigious event of the two-week carnage. It’s also the closest category to the one those 12 friends started with nearly 15 years ago. Vehicles in this event must balance rock crawling over boulders the size of school buses while remaining stable on 100+ mph blasts across vast stretches of empty, dry lakebeds and muddy whoop-dee-doos. The engineering alone is impressive, but seeing competitors climb hellish boulder-strewn slots like the Chocolate Thunder, Turkey Claw, and Sledgehammer is a testament to both the design and drivers of these craft.
The first entrant in the Nitto Race of Kings departed the racing line at 8:00am on Saturday morning 11 February and the last competitor finished before 10:00pm the same day. The course consisted of three laps of a punishing course that had everything from sand dunes and dry lakes to desperately slow-moving boulders. This year the race once again went to Raul Gomez of Gomez Brothers Racing. It was the second consecutive year that he won.
“After watching the UTV race yesterday, I changed my strategy a bit, I would hold the first lap and then really start to attack second and third, but I will definitely go full first, second and third on the third lap so it will definitely be a fast race,” said Gomez 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, timing correct, was less than a minute over runner-up Jason Scherer. (Scherer was reportedly down by two cylinders near the end of the race.) Gomez’s 5:25.47 just beat 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 finished third.
Perhaps KOH’s second most prestigious event kicked off a week earlier with the big motorcycle races, and if you think four-wheeled racers are crazy, imagine doing almost everything they do but on two wheels with nothing to protect you but the your skill and a really good helmet.
King of the Motos is the first event of the US Hard Enduro season and AMA West Hard Enduro series. What is Hard Enduro? Do you remember motocross? This is done on nice, soft dirt. While there is dirt in Hard Enduro, there are also rocks, cliffs and big, steep climbs. Most Hard Enduro highlight type videos look like a two wheeled version of Christinewhere various riders have fallen off their mounts on very steep terrain and suddenly find their dirt bikes chasing and crushing them.
“Injuries are just part of the racing side of things,” says a voice in a Hard Enduro YouTube video.
So on Saturday, January 29, 175 possibly insane riders took the dirt start just north of Hammertown and thundered off into the surrounding boulder-strewn hills. Hours later it was FMF KTM Factory Racing favorite Trystan Hat who crossed the finish line first.
“You honestly have to have some lucky rebounding here, because all the rocks are moving under you,” Hart had said before the race. “If you get an unfortunate bounce and kick the trail, you’re going to have a big one. So you need some lucky bounces to get to the finish line first. It’s not so much about winning as it is about bringing out the best in yourself.”
Five-time King of the Motos Champion Cody Webb, riding for FactoryONE Sherco, finished second. Webb followed Hart closely but made a navigational error, going all the way down to the depths of the Sledgehammer trail before turning and walking up the boulders to rejoin the correct course. He took second place on the podium, with Ryder LaBlond rounding it out in third place.
All the rest
Other events completed the two weeks of activities in Johnson Valley.
The 4WP Everyman Challenge, which takes place the day before the Nitto Race of Kings, is like the Race of Kings but has some cost caps to make the race accessible to Every Man, as the title suggests. In all, there were 150 participants in this year’s Challenge, spread across three different classes.
“The rugged 143-mile Every Man Challenge racecourse consisted of one high-speed, rugged open desert loop with a second loop of tire-wrecking rocky canyons,” the release reads. “Drivers and co-drivers hurled their vehicles against steep hills, bottomless sand and boulders the size of a Fiat 500”.
When the dust settled it was Jeremy Jones in his Class 4800 Branik Motorsports Legends car who took the overall victory.
“Winning King of the Hammers EMC has been a goal of mine ever since we started watching it almost 10 years ago. In the end, it paid off and that’s amazing.
Uphill drag race
Another fan-favorite event is the Hollyy EFI Backdoor Shootout presented by Action Sports Canopies and King Shocks. The event is like a big uphill endurance race that takes place at night in the often freezing cold. Who wouldn’t love it? Fans line the steep and treacherous Chocolate Thunder trail and cheer as runner after runner bounces up to glory or tumbles off the course to ignominy.
“The action started early with carnage, as the second and third competitors over the finish line finished their race almost immediately by tipping over,” the organizers said. “There were more broken cars, more flips, long recoveries, five DNFs total, and lockups that cost the drivers competitive time en route.”
When the carnage cooled off, it was Paul Wolff who won two Holley EFI Shootouts in a row with a run of 51.73 seconds in his 4400 Class Ultra4 car which he then raced in Saturday’s Race of Kings. Chris Kaufman came close to another win 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 on his oversized rock bouncer.
The cash race
The Toyo Tires Desert Challenge Presented by Monster Energy, meanwhile, seemed to include among its entries just about anything that could roll over desert dirt. 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 & 1450) and all classes associated with the Triple Crown, or any series applicable partnership agreement),” followed by “Toyo Tires Desert Challenge Presented by Monster Energy for Unlimited Trucks and Buggies Race Two (T1, T2, B1).”
Adam Householder took overall victory in this year’s Desert Challenge. Householder’s number 24 T1 Unlimited truck finished two laps of the difficult 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. Just 90 seconds separated them.
Side by side
Then came UTVs, or Side-by-Sides, those little two-seat off-roaders that are becoming increasingly popular with families and adventure-loving racers. They had their race at the KOH. The Can-Am UTV Hammers Championship saw 107 competitors take the green flag on February 9, with Kyle Chaney winning the grueling 142-mile torturefest in 3:45:04. It was Chaney’s third crown in the event. He raced in the Pro Stock Turbo class, which had 31 entrants. The race spanned four classes and featured everything from bone-crushing amateurs to high-tech professional entries with powerful engines.
A much, much smaller but no less fun and intriguing event was the Optima Batteries Soggy Lake Drag Race. It consisted of a somewhat confusing group of all-terrain vehicles all competing in an endurance race on a dry lake bed. The starting lineup of eight vehicles ready to roll down a spray-painted makeshift starting line included everything from an off-road-ready Volkswagen ID4, a Weistec Turbocharged RZR Pro R SxS, a KOH-ready Jeep, a Trophy Truck, a Apparently 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 they took off across the desert. It looked like the RZR SxS had won, just above the Rivian, but it was close, so those two raced heads-up again, with the RZR winning “by a bumper.” Then they raced the Raptor R against the Rivian because it was “what people want,” according to host Vaughn Gittin Jr. The winner of that race? The Ford, but only after a frame-by-frame video review.
There were more events, maybe nine in all, and many more happening in Hammertown, the temporary desert city that hosts some 65,000 fans and runners during King of the Hammers. The two-week temporary city is perhaps the largest assemblage of fiberglass motorhomes and fifth wheels in the world. No one out there cares about dust. By now as you read this, the last of the trailers is loading and the last of the latecomers are making their way back to their homes in Southern California, better if slightly dustier for the experience.