Football has always held a bit of a monopoly on the first week of February—just not in Johnson Valley, California. They couldn’t care less what happens to Tom Brady this year.
Historically speaking, sports fans love the first week of February. The BIG game. The half-time show. The commercials with chimpanzees working in cubicles, or toddlers on horseback pounding energy drinks. The nachos, the buffalo chicken dip, the dozen or so light beers. An evening of easy going, hassle-free entertainment from the comfiest seat in your living room. A half-century of American tradition.
But lately, there have been less eyes on the Super Bowl with each passing year. Or at least, the eyeballs belonging to a particularly hardcore off-road racing community. And as the 2019 King of The Hammers approaches, expect their numbers to grow.
That’s because, over the last decade, an entirely new sport has been capturing more and more attention from fans once February rolls around. Equal parts desert racing and rock crawling, it is a far more immersive experience for those that attend than fiddling with that Dorito dust-encrusted remote control. People are now flocking by the tens of thousands to a remote California desert, hours away from electricity and the nearest civilization, to see it firsthand, while another half a million are tuning in to watch the live feed online.
It’s time to get ready, Ultra4’s 2019 King of The Hammers is nearly upon us.
To keep thinking in pigskin terms, King of The Hammers is, for all intents and purposes, the Super Bowl of the Ultra4 Racing circuit. What was started on a lark as a desert race amongst a dozen buddies has become the impetus for an entire year-round league of multiple qualifying races for the main event, complete with sponsorships, rockstar-level professional drivers, and a fan base exploding at an exponential rate with each passing season. A veritable universe all to itself, grown in the arid desert heat, and spawned from a half-serious, “Dude, you know what we should do??” idea fueled, of course, by a few cold ones.
Roots of the 2019 King of The Hammers event trace back to 2007, with a loose plan scribbled in a notepad on a bar top. Dave Cole, the race’s organizer and a competitive rock crawler himself, sat with his friend and desert racing enthusiast Jeff Knoll, at their local Chili’s in San Bernadino, California. They mapped out a general idea for a trial run of the race, and called some friends to participate.
Means Dry Lake in Johnson Valley, California, a vast and varied landscape in the harsh center of the Mojave Desert, would serve as the locale. This massive public landscape, three hours inland from Los Angeles, is comprised of sand dunes, rock canyons, goat paths, and natural obstacles of all sorts, and proves year after year to be the ideal spot for drivers in this burgeoning genre to showcase their skills over a wide variety of terrain.
Could the hardcore rock crawlers move fast enough across the open desert? Could the serious desert racers maneuver their rig over a mountain littered with boulders? The intention is to find out. And just like that, KOH was born.
Ultra4’s Bar Top Beginnings
There were no spectators, no money, and no trophy that first year. The day’s prize is alleged to have been a case of beer (and bragging rights, of course). Twelve rigs showed up to the inaugural 2007 race. (Fun fact: due to a numerical error in printing on their commemorative t-shirts, the original race participants are still erroneously referred to as the “OG-13”. They simply miscounted and stuck with it.)
But even early on, Cole knew that this small time get-together had massive potential. “I told those guys on the lake bed,” says Cole of his promise to the OG-13, “that since you guys raced this race, you won’t have to qualify once we get really big. They just looked at me like I was insane.” But Cole held true to his word, and OG-13 members now not only have a place waiting for them in each year’s big race, but a cemented spot in the history of a sport that is now a global phenomenon.
Growth, Growth, And More Growth
The following year, considered to be the first official King of The Hammers, saw a spike in attendance to roughly 50 participants. Still, spectators, media or fanfare of any kind had yet to catch on. “It was very, very informal,” chuckles JT Taylor, the current race director and original OG-13 member. “No fanfare at the end, no champagne, no kissin’ babies, not even a checkered flag.”
But catch on it did. The race grew by leaps and bounds every single year. King of The Hammers may be a one-day event, but a full year of qualifying events lead the way to this desert odyssey. It is the big race in “Ultra4”, the 4400 Unlimited Class to be specific.
These racers are the top dogs, free to build and experiment with their rigs’ style, although most call to mind a mutant Jeep Wrangler, stylistically. They are generally home-built, V8-powered, four-wheel-drive machines on 40″ tires that can tackle all of the aforementioned desert terrain. There are one-hundred mile per hour desert sprints, interspersed with short-course style racing, and technical crawls that can get all the way down to a 100:1 ratio. The Ultra4 series’ road to the KOH consists of seven lesser races across the country, all effectively serving as qualifiers for the main run, usually held on the Friday of the first week of February.
A Pop-Up City In The Desert
Now, the main race may be only a day long, but the business of Hammertown, as they call it, fills up over a week on spectators’ calendars. Johnson Valley sees a town pop up overnight, recently numbering as many as 60,000 people, simply there to camp in the desert and enjoy the festivities. And the remote location hasn’t deterred anything. Electricity and WiFi are brought in. So are vendors, sanitation needs, VIP campsites, and professional quality camera crews to capture and help grow the entire experience. The schedule is packed with other events leading up to the main race, too. UTV races, amateur off-roading, a Legends series featuring obsolete KOH vehicles from years gone by, and even RC race cars help to pass the week.
Not surprisingly, the 2019 King of The Hammers is poised to be the biggest yet. The race itself has grown from 50 miles long in 2008 to several hundred nowadays (roughly three massive laps around the desert), and gets longer every year. This year’s KOH will also feature open-desert truck racing, featuring some of that sport’s most elite drivers that have, in earlier years, languished in events that don’t showcase their full potential. Fans look forward to seeing drivers like Shannon Campbell, Rob MacCachren, BJ Baldwin, Robby Gordon, and Tavo Vildosola in full-speed desert truck sprints.
2019 King Of The Hammers: The Biggest One Yet
As for the 2019 King of The Hammers main event? There is quite a lot to be excited for. The stakes are higher than they’re ever been, as is the level of media exposure. MSNBC and Top Gear have both come calling, giving valuable airtime and a national audience to this off-road phenomenon, dumping gasoline on the fire of America’s smoldering new Ultra4 obsession. Big time aftermarket sponsors like Nitto, Optima Batteries, Pit Bull Tires, and Spydertrax continue to invest in teams and the event itself, bringing much needed funding to a pastime that is- shall we say- NOT cheap.
And speaking of finances, the driver crowned 2019 King Of The Hammers gets some of those, too—$100,000, to be exact. (The highest the prize has ever been.) And of course, guaranteed entry into the main race for the rest of time. Additionally, the KOH trophy, a literal hammer (though ‘scepter’ would be an accurate descriptor, too) is so badass that it might be enough to prompt a full day trek through one of earth’s most unforgiving climes for just the hardware itself. But the money is certainly a nice touch, and much-needed to survive in a game where total destruction of one’s equipment is completely expected, virtually all of the time. It is no wonder that so many will be vying for the coveted title again this year.
Loren Healy, a perennial threat to win, will be in a brand-new car this year, with his trusty old rig handed down to Cody Addington, a young upstart in the sport with unlimited potential. KOH legend and multi-year winner Shannon Campbell is also back for another run at the title. The man has some good genes—his son Wayland will contend in the main event as well, and his daughter Bailey (an undeniable rising star in the sport) has a brand new, family-built rig ready to roll, switching from her old solid-axle ride to one with an independent front suspension and an additional 200 horsepower.
“I want her to learn how to get to that edge,” Shannon says, “and ride it. Not go over it.”
In such a wildly brutal event as the 2019 King of The Hammers, where a majority of competitors take such a beating that they cannot even finish the race, that may be the most sound advice one could offer.
The 2019 King Of The Hammers will kick off today, February 1st, in Johnson City, California. Can’t make it to the Mojave this year? No problemo. The whole thing will be broadcast online, where well over half a million people tuned in last year. And as with virtually every other statistic associated with the 2019 King Of The Hammers, expect those numbers to go up. Way, way up.
So what do you think? Is all this fanfare diluting the sport? Or possibly attracting new talent? Let us know in the comments!