Robb Pritchard, Off-road correspondent
Looking out over the vast tent and trailer city set up in the eastern Californian desert it's hard to believe that only 6 short years ago this massive event consisted of just a few friends out for a fun weekend's 'trailin'. From such humble beginnings it has turned into a week-long festival with 150 vehicles in the main race, a separate event for more 'stock' trucks, as well as one for bikes, with competitors coming from as far away as Japan, Italy and Belgium. There's not just dust and petrol in the desert air around Hammertown, you can really feel that King of the Hammers is something special.
“With 15 guys out on the trails of course we all wanted to say 'Hey, I'm faster' or 'my rig is more capable that yours' so a race started,” says event founder Dave Cole. “I thought about doing something with lots of rock crawling, but linking up all the trails with sections of fast desert racing. Basically an event that no one has done before with cars that no one has built before... and no rules!”
It's funny to think that just a few years ago it started with just a bunch of guys having fun...
And perhaps it's those last little words that are the key to KoH's meteoric rise in popularity. No rules means a unique class of vehicles has been spawned especially for this event, known as Ultra4. The only real requirement is 4-wheel drive, other than that, it really is anything goes. Some have portals, a few run with IFS, everyone has lockers, most have spaceframe chassis with bodywork kept to an absolute minimum so the wheels are as exposed as possible to scramble over the largest rocks. Suspension is generally coil-over with bazooka sized shocks and for torque when crawling and speed out in the open desert power comes from large V8s which put out around 650bhp. Some even manage a staggering 800bhp!
“A Hammer truck has got to work well in the rocks and and the fast sections so it has to be a compromise,” explained Shannon Campbell the only 2-time winner. “It doesn't have the tail weight that you would want in a desert truck which makes it buck and kick in the 'whoop' sections, but it works well in the rocks. This year I am running with a thing from the army called 'tyre balls' which keep the tyre up so I can run at race speed even with a flat,” he added. “It's funny to think that just a few years ago it started with just a bunch of guys having fun... and now we are developing stuff for the military!”
And the course for these beasts... Well, fittingly for some of the world's ultimate competition 4x4s, it's widely regarded to be the toughest on the planet. An 80 mile long lap run twice adds up to 160 miles of treacherous rock-strewn mountain tracks, open desert where speeds of over 100mph are common and 22 insane rock crawls where car sized rocks wait to bash axles, smash transmissions and create a unique spectacle for the crowds of spectators. These sections are known as the 'Hammers' which is where the event gets its name and it's here that you get to see the incredible sight of cars on their sides scuffling around like upended beetles trying to right themselves. And often, to appreciative applause, they do.
For anyone who followed the Dakar rally this year, bright orange machines in the desert should be familiar sight and Indycar winner, NASCAR driver, 3-time Baja 1000 champ, and Dakar hero Robby Gordon brought a lot of exposure to the event. If any doubted his ability on the rocks all were silenced when he qualified an amazing 5th, even though he was complaining about an underpowered engine. However his race ended before most other competitors had even started... his Torchmate TTB buggy grinding to a halt with engine failure after just 14 miles.
Campbell's hopes of a good result also went up in dust right at the start when he took a wrong turn and spent what seemed like an eternity driving around in circles until he found someone to ask the way. “But when I got back on the track there was just so much dirt from the other runners and I just got caught up in it and smashed too many things and got too many punctures on rocks from trying to get by.” Although a third victory was out of the question, his was the come-back drive of the event as amazingly he managed to battle back up to 3rd. “For sure I didn't think that there would be any way I’d be in the top 10 but I guess this race is so brutal for everyone and the attrition so high... so keep on truckin’ and you’ll end up in there!”
Behind the favourites were a select bunch of intrepid foreigners who had made an epic half way around the world trek to the desert. Axel Burmann, well known on European Challenge events such as the Croatia Trophy, didn't have such a successful trip over the ocean though. In his Jeep-based buggy he DNF'ed on the qualifying run after hitting a rock hard which broke the hub and twisted the axle. In the race itself he had over-heating problems and decided that it was just too dangerous to stay out on the course driving slowly when other competitors were tearing past at over 100mph in the blinding dust. “But it was a special experience!” he smiled.
Italy's Fabio Manno had a bit more to write home about, “We were the only European car to finish but it was not easy, the race was very brutal!” he said. “We wanted to change a flat tyre but we found that we had smashed the spare tyre somewhere so we had to drive 8 miles through the rocks to get back to the pits. Like this we found out that the BFG Crawlers are very strong, and so are the Walker Evans wheels... Also it doesn't help if your co-driver wants you to drive for 2 miles the wrong way down the course! But the car is very good in the rocks and the Tom Allen PSC steering was brilliant. We finished 37th, which out of 137 cars is not so bad! But next year I will do something to make the car faster in the desert. We were only touching 90miles an hour... and that is not enough!”
The 80 mile course is just a handful of miles from Death Valley, one of the most inhospitable places on Earth, so it's quite understandable that they don't have live timing or FIA style real time GPS tracking... and actually the anticipation of not knowing exactly who is where gives another edge to the event. Also, because the cars are flagged off two at a time it's impossible to know who is really leading, or has won until at least a few have crossed the line. Sporadic updates came over the loudspeakers from the commentators, at a climb that was for some reason called Chocolate Thunder, for a long time relaying how big Erik Miller's lead was... but then Rick Mooneyham started to catch up... and fast. A ripple of excitement buzzed through the crowd as it came down from 10 minutes to 5, until three quarters of the way around the 2nd lap we heard that Miller had stopped. Suddenly Mr Consistency, with two 3rds and a 4th in previous years was out in front in the 'physical' lead... and incredibly after nearly 6 hours of all-out competition on the extreme trails the top three were almost in sight of each other.
All Mooneyham had to do was keep going... which is exactly what he didn't do, as a tyre deflated just a few moments later. He tried to continue, to drag his truck to the finish, but once Miller got back past he had to stop and change it. 2nd was also about to be lost but less than a mile from the end Adler rolled heavily, broke a driveshaft and couldn't make it up the next climb. And so it was Miller who lurched uncertainly across the line to a bewildering finish, but it was a fire extinguisher that was sprayed before the champagne as his car was nearly on fire!! “The car is finished,” he gasped when he managed to get his breath, but he had to wait a few minutes to celebrate before it was pointed out that as he started after Mooneyham at the start he had to be the winner! “I couldn't have done it without my team,” he beamed. “They were out prepping the truck until 6am. They came down with me and we've been in the desert practicing as I'm from Maryland and we've got nothing like this, just trees, woods... nothing like the desert!”
13 minutes later Moonyham came in. “We definitely earned 2nd place today. The car was fast, maybe a bit too fast as apparently I couldn't keep it straight and hit rocks and wiped out 6 or 7 tyres. It was awesome, absolutely amazing race and I'll take second, especially against a driver of the caliber of Eric Miller. That guy is fast!”
137 cars started, 49 made it back before the cut off time as darkness fell, including Mike Klensin who scored points for artistic impression as he barrel-rolled over the line. And so the dust settles, more names are etched into the growing KoH legend, more tyre rubber and body paint streak the rocks up the Hammers and already talk has started about how teams can make their cars faster, more reliable and better suited to tackling the course of 'The toughest one-day off-road race in the world'. If you've never heard of it before, stay tuned because this amazing event is only going to get bigger and better!!
1 Erik Miller 6:03:51
2 Rick Mooneyham 6:16:48
3 Shannon Campbell 6:33:40