Arriving in Hammertown.

To say that the King of the Hammers is hard to describe is an understatement.  Even with a clear and concise description, you’ll still fail to see just how incredible and impossible this race really is until you get here.  Just thinking about the scope of this event makes my head spin.  It’s really that big.

It's big...
It’s big…

If I had to use just a few adjectives to describe it, I would have to say Insane is right at the top of the list.  Amazing, incredible, impossible, outrageous…those are all applicable, but still fail to illustrate just how compelling this event really is.  The best I can tell you is that you MUST find a way to get here and experience it for yourself.  I don’t care if you live in a remote village in Tasmania…you need to get here.  It’s just that good.   Now, I can tell you think I’m overselling this just a bit – but I’m not.  Trust me – this is one of the best things you can do while your pants are still on.

A sea of RV's and people fill the once empty lake bed and give rise to Hammertown.
A sea of RV’s and people fill the once empty lake bed and give rise to Hammertown.

I’ve never been out to cover this event before so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.  I certainly didn’t expect to come up over the rise that separates the valley floor from the main highway and see a vast expanse of RV’s filling the valley and dry lake bed below me.  There must have been well over 30,000 RV’s, travel vans and trailers down there, and each had at least a few occupants with their associated toys.  Big kid toys in the form of Jeeps, trucks, side-by-sides, ATV’s and motorcycles.  As I crested the rise and saw the mass of humanity assembled in “Hammertown”, I recall saying to myself that EVERYONE must be here.  Seriously, this place currently has more residents than most medium sized cities in America.  The sea of recreational vehicles just seemed to go on and on.

Just your average camp site at KOH
Just your average camp site at KOH

As I drove down into the fray and passed through the main “gate”, I found myself wondering how it was even going to be possible to keep my bearings.  The main road seemed to devolve into an abstract patch of dirt that may or may not be the path I was supposed to take.  As I plow ahead with fingers crossed, I finally come to the fenced in “pit area” of Hammertown.  I had a vague inkling of where I should be going to check in and get my credential, but it would take some driving around and strategic question asking before I could be sure.  By luck or supreme navigational instincts (I’m not really sure which), I was able to find the media tent and get checked in.  I was a bit apprehensive for a couple reasons, One: this place, and the event course itself are huge.  I had no idea how I was going to get where I needed to be to actually cover the event.  And B: I only have the family truckster – a two wheel drive, bone stock Expedition – to make my way around the circuit and from obstacle to obstacle.  As soon as I saw the valley, and the challenging terrain, I knew that I’d have some trouble. After viewing the course map and listening to the safety briefing, I was certain of it.

The vast expanse of Johnson Valley filled to capacity by 100,000 like minded enthusiasts.
The vast expanse of Johnson Valley filled to capacity by 100,000 like minded enthusiasts.

That’s where Emily Miller came to my rescue.  This tiny, soft spoken woman has a big job and does it exceedingly well.  Emily coordinates much of everything for King of the Hammers, including how to get poorly prepared, or inexperienced media just like me, out to where they need to be.  They absolutely LOVE and appreciate all of the media that comes out to cover the event, and it shows.  She immediately got me connected to a “Race Embassador”, an experienced off-roader that knows the course and, more importantly, how to maneuver from place to place safely and quickly.  Ask me if I think Emily is a complete bad-ass.  Why yes.  Yes, she is.

My Ambassador for all things King of the Hammers was not only an experienced off-road racer, he had actually been a competitor in the race at one time.  That’s pretty cool.  Ryan Kennelly is his name, and even cooler than him being a former competitor is that he’s in the R&D department at 4Wheel Parts Performance, which if you don’t know is one of the largest off road parts distributors on the planet.

My race ambassador, Ryan Kennelly of 4Wheel Parts.
My race ambassador, Ryan Kennelly of 4Wheel Parts.

Ryan has what must be a dream job – basically, these guys develop new parts and accessories to distribute in their stores.  If these guys can think it up, it’s probably going to get built and sold.  That’s pretty cool. Our ride for the day, which was provided by Rubicon Express, was a perfectly capable Rubicon Express Hemi KJ outfitted with all the best bits to get the job done, including having it’s factory lump replaced with a 400+ hp Hemi from which it gets it’s name.   This thing was nuts.  Not completely nuts like the vehicles in the race, but appropriately nuts for a vehicle that actually drove to the event from it’s home in San Diego.  This thing was great, and really had my adrenaline and smile muscles working overtime.  You’ll see a separate feature on the Jeep and my time riding around with Ryan very soon.  It’s so overloaded with cool bits that I figured it should have it’s own story.  So keep an eye out for it.

Rubicon Express Jeep TJ - My Media Ride for King of the Hammers.
Rubicon Express Jeep JK – My Media Ride for King of the Hammers.

Out on course.

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I have trouble recalling another event that I’ve attended that can match the adrenaline rush that comes from seeing large off road vehicles tackling obstacles that, at first look, seem impossible to overcome.   With names like Sledgehammer, Jackhammer, Clawhammer, Chocolate Thunder and Backdoor, you know the race is going to be tough.  Driver and machine are forced to navigate sheer walls over ten feet tall which rarely come just one at a time, and crawl through endless fields of boulders that, on average, are the size of a compact car, with many reaching much larger proportions.

Tackling "Backdoor" is not for the feint of heart - with sheer waterfalls to climb, this is one tough task.
Tackling “Backdoor” is not for the feint of heart – with sheer waterfalls to climb, this is one tough task.

Narrow canyons, long climbs up the side of mountains, and then a fast blast through open desert to reach the next obstacle.  This race includes all of that – the demands placed on mind, body and machine are more than the average person could or would want to handle.  These folks relish the challenge.  They feed on it like a sweet from the corner candy shop.  You can see it in the way they walk and interact with their fans.  Confidence in spades – in search of a good time doing something most can’t.  It’s the kind of energy you want to be around – the “anything is possible – nothing can stop me” attitude that we all wish we could bottle and use for the days we have trouble getting through.  I really love being around people like that.  I bet you do too.

Ready to head out on the course. What lies ahead is a full day of work.
Ready to head out on the course. What lies ahead is a full day of work.

Then there’s the fearless nature with which these drivers and co-drivers attack the course.  Fearless, I said.  Fear-less.  Yes – it’s a word worth repeating.  Slow it down and chew on it for a second…it’s a powerful word.  I can recall at least a dozen times over the day and a half I was able to attend where I witnessed a team do what seemed to be impossible and caught myself saying out loud, “holy crap – I would have shit myself”.  Pretty sure a few of those comments were actually accompanied by a little bit of pee coming out of me.  It was absolutely nuts.

he might save it...
he might save it…
nope.
nope.

As you can see here in the photos, it doesn’t always go as planned.  It goes wrong more often than not, actually.  Last year, of the 120+ vehicles that left the start line, only SEVENTEEN managed to finish the 215 mile race.  This year, the organizers decided to “ease up” on the field – but just by a little – a smidge, even.  This years race was cut down to a “manageable” 170 miles.  Despite easing the length and the entire route in general, only about 30% of the vehicles that started the race managed to cross the finish line.

Your eventual winner, Erik Miller, makes his way up "Chocolate Thunder"
Your eventual winner, Erik Miller, makes his way up “Chocolate Thunder”
KOH16-1-18
Erik Miller making quick work out of “Chocolate Thunder”.

Two requirements for competing in this race: a reasonably large checkbook, and a shit-ton of patience.  Good humor will also serve you well while out on course, with the odds of getting your feelings hurt by the exceedingly tough environment being right around, maybe 5-2 in favor of mother nature.  In other words – This place is going to kick your ass and bitch slap you at every opportunity and if you can’t come to terms with that fact, then you should probably park your junk and consider a new hobby.

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Climbing the silty soft sand dunes after completing “Jackhammer” made for a long afternoon for some. Several competitors took multiple tried before making the sandy summit.
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Deep and soft – more traffic just made the sand that much more tough. Ruts swallowed up these monster machines as if they were a childs toy.
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The tough climb through the sand meant varying lines. Competitors used as much of the area as they were allowed.
KOH16-1-20
One more blip of the throttle and success!

I left the area of the course named Jackhammer for a bit to go see the action in the dunes and upon my return I was surprised to find two vehicles stuck together on the precipice of a sizable drop, maybe twenty feet, mid way through the huge boulder field.  This should be interesting…  The drivers were working on finding a solution to their unwanted frame meld while other competitors made their way past.

Ben Swain and Scott Foley are unintentionally connected at the bumper.
Ben Swain and Scott Foley are unintentionally connected at the bumper.

Finally the determination was made to remove the sub-frame that protects the winch fairlead on the front of the truck.  That should separate them.  The tool kits were pulled out and the drivers went to work.  Once the bar was free the expectation was that the rear driver could just back off his position and the two vehicles would be on their way.  Ummm…not so fast…  As soon as the rear vehicle backed away the (then un-manned) front vehicle tumbled down the precipice rolling several times before coming to rest several feet below.

Once released, there it went.
Once released, there it went.
Tumbling down the cliff...
Tumbling down the cliff…
coming to rest between two boulders which left it propped up like a bridge between the two.
Coming to rest between two boulders which left it propped up like a bridge between the two.

In it’s new location, the truck was acting as a bridge between two huge boulders.  That’s probably not the intended result.  The driver/owner of the tumbling craft, Ben Swain, could only look down the cliff, throw up his hands and laugh.  This is where that good sense of humor comes in to play.  An official, who had turned his attention to another incident up the hill, heard the commotion, as Bens truck did it’s best impression of a four ton tumbleweed down the hill, and quickly made his way back down to see if everyone was OK.  Ben, with a smile on his face, looked at the official and said, “Yeah – my feelings are pretty hurt!”

All Ben can do is laugh after seeing his buggy tumble down the cliff.
All Ben can do is laugh after seeing his buggy tumble down the cliff.
A good sense of humor is a requirement here.
A good sense of humor is a requirement here.

What else can you do?  If you come out to play with the big kids, sometimes this kind of shit is going to happen.  Eventually, Ben was able to winch out of his bridge-like precarious position and continue on his way, but unfortunately was unable to finish his second lap.  Better luck next year Ben.

The tough climb up Chocolate Thunder.
The tough climb up Chocolate Thunder.

Post Race.

The same excitement and energy is witnessed at both the start and finish of the race.  You would expect that the seven to thirteen hours of being beaten and battered by the terrain would show itself in the faces of the competitors as they cross the finish line, but instead what you see is massive amount of joy.  Happiness and relief are on tap and they are abundant.

Crossing the finish.
Crossing the finish.
KOH16-1-3
A satisfying finish.
KOH16-1-2
A congratulatory hug for dad after a tough day.

The exhaustion of the driving teams and support crews, and the relief of family and friends waiting for their safe return are all present here.  It’s pretty special to witness the mass of humanity that congregates at the finish line and see them all cheer as another competitor crests the last hill, and makes their way across the finish and onto the interview stage.  Everyone who ends up on this stage is a hero.

KOH16-1-11
The “heart” of Hammertown includes a big TV that shows a live feed from the course. A great way to catch all the action if you’re not equipped to get out on course.
KOH16-1-12
The view from the interview podium that all finishers get to roll across. Must be a very satisfying feeling to look out over the massive crowd after finishing this incredibly tough race.

They just spent the better part of a full day taking on the toughest motor race on the planet.  Each and every one of them earned the right to stand here and thank their sponsors and family for the incredible experience.  Think about it – if you finished this year, you were one of just 31.  With over 110 teams that started that morning, that’s one hell of an accomplishment, don’t you think?

Another thing I want everyone to understand about this truly unique event, is just how huge it is – it’s way more than just the main event which we covered this year.  The entire event is spread across a full week with each day seeing a new race or activity.  Obviously, over 30,000 RV’s don’t just show up for a single day of racing.  This thing is so much more.  It starts a week before the main event and is kicked off with the King of the Motos.  That’s right, kids.  There are some serious off road motorcycle types that run a motorcycle version of the race.  I can’t even imagine what kind of gear head it takes to complete that race. We’ll find out next year, though, because My Life at Speed plans on setting up camp for the full week.  Also on the calendar for race week is the Vision X ULTRA4 vs. SRRS Shootout (not sure what that is, but I’ll find out!), the 4Wheel Parts qualifying day, the Polaris KOH UTV Race (which I hear is a total yard sale – broken parts everywhere), and the Smittybilt Every Man Challenge Race.  And remember that these races are run on public OHV trails, so in between all the action the course opens up to anyone that decides he or she has the stones to give these obstacles a go.  And from what I hear, the action tends to go all night long, all week long.  So there’s plenty of time to party and get ten kinds of stupid out here in the wild wild west.

There is so much more to tell and I already know next year we’ll be splitting this into multiple days and multiple parts, but suffice it to say that this was one of the best, most exciting experiences of my life.  I know I’ve said this before about other events, but seriously – if you’re a gearhead and just love being outdoors around a hundred thousand other like minded people, get yourself out to witness the amazing spectacle that is King of the Hammers.  I promise you won’t regret it.

GREAT SAVE!
GREAT SAVE!

Full results for this years race can be found here.

Here are more of my favorite photos form the event:

KOH16-1-17 KOH16-1-16 KOH16-1-25

KOH16-1-4 KOH16-1-24 KOH16-1-25 KOH16-1-26 KOH16-1-29 KOH16-1-31 KOH16-1-39

Written by Ken Stouffer

Ken Stouffer

I've been around some form of racing since I was a kid. First hanging around Ascot in Southern California. Then, after moving to Texas as a teen, I got hooked on drag racing and did that for almost fifteen years. In between I have raced Dirt bikes and Quads.
2011 Marked my 8th and final year racing up Pikes Peak: Five in the Pro Quad division and three in Time Attack. Future racing plans are in the works, but until then I'm at the track shooting for My Life at Speed as much as I possibly can.

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