Is it an epic race or an epic party? I’d wager both could be argued correct for the huge event known as the King of the Hammers (KOH). For us though things started long before the green flag fell on the first race of the week as we loaded up in Washington state, gathered food at Costco and began a near 3 day trek south via totterhome towing our Nitro trailer stuffed with our buggy, a ton of shirts and swag, lots of Nitro water and the soon to be very dirty displays.
Backing up a bit first though for those unfamiliar with KOH i’ll attempt to explain exactly what officially happens in the desert every year in early February. The Hammers are a series of rock trails located in an around Johnson Valley California. Arguably some of the toughest rock strewn 4×4 trails on earth running just a single one of these canyons is extremely taxing on even the most well prepared offroad machine. Rocks and ledges measured in feet here are the norm with some of the biggest “waterfalls” climbing near vertically over 10 feet bottom to top. During KOH the competitors race through these rock trails and race in between them through a series of laps and checkpoints with support pits along the way. The result in the top 4400 class are speeds exceeding 140mph across the desert, with low range rock sections traversed often at 10-25mph. It’s absolutely brutal on both the equipment and the operators as they wrestle 600-800Hp race machines over the course for up to 14 hours.
It’s 1100 miles from our home office in Washington to the lakebed and we had left with time to spare for the drive south. We left town early Thursday afternoon knowing we wanted to arrive sometime midday Saturday. Then weather. We made it as far as Baker City Oregon when we learned highway 84 was closed to traffic due to snowfall and accidents ahead. Pulling into a truck stop it was snowing hard and we hoped we’d catch a break, grab some dinner and find the highway reopened. No luck. We ended up spending the night in Baker city, hopeful that the highway would be open by morning and knowing we had just lost our time cushion to the heavy snowfall and ice around us.
With the morning light there was a couple inches of fresh snow laying on top of compact ice in the parking lot. The highway was open, but looked sketchy as semi trucks struggled up the nearby onramp spinning tires helplessly if unchained. We spoke with the employees at the truck stop and learned that on the south end of town was another ramp, this one not quite as steep. With 5 axles under us we locked in both drive axles and both diff locks and crept through town carefully. It was slippery, but we were moving. Eventually we clawed our way onto the interstate and found it was at least partially plowed. Slow going until we finally dropped out of the mountains near Ontario Oregon and back up to highway cruising speeds. We were well behind schedule, but determined to make Las Vegas for the night.
14 hours later we rolled into Vegas, tired, but pleased to be there. After getting a bite to eat we took our only Vegas “Virgin” out to see the strip and the amazing sites that one has to see to believe in that town. A late night, but with the prospect of getting to the lakebed looming we were in good spirits when we rolled out of town just a few hours after falling asleep.
A stop at the nearest market to ‘Hammertown’ found us buying more than we would likely need. No doubt we’ve all had that feeling that if we don’t get it now and we run out over the next 7 days we will be really unhappy. Food and Liquor backups were high priority as well as 60lbs of ice which we tossed into an ARB fridge ensuring it would survive the duration.
Hammertown. On Saturday morning the primary big race was still 6 days away and yet there were clearly 10-20K people camped in and around the main venue. It’s kind of crazy to see. Just a big wasteland with very little vegetation covered by trailers, RV, tents, ATV’s and racers. Hammertown and the surrounding “suburbs” would grow to an estimated 50K people by weeks end.
More weather. Saturday when we arrived there was quite a lot of dust in the air and a steady 20-30mph wind with higher gusts. A meeting had been called by the organizers to batten things down further as the forecast called for gusts in excess of 60 that evening. We opted to leave everything in the trailer as a precaution and like most others spent the evening inside the RV. It got ugly out there, but not as bad as predicted.
Sunday, it rained mud. Then more wind, followed by some more rain and sideways snow. The forecast called for more high winds that night and this time they were correct. I can honestly say i’ve only seen winds like those a few times in my life. It was blowing steady 40-50 and gusting well above 70mph. Anything not bolted down wanted to fly and the very heavy motorhome sitting on leveling jacks was rocking enough to wake us during the night. By morning the air was clearer and things had settled down, but it was still cold and breezy even with the occasional sunbreaks. We were fortunate to not suffer any damage and amazed that the commercial grade tents were still intact and attached to their obviously very well secured stakes.
The Shootout! This is an event Nitro Gear and Axle has sponsored the past few years. Dubbed Ultra 4 vs Rock Bouncers it’s sort of a east vs west showdown of highly capable race cars and buggies through a short timed course in a rock strewn canyon. Bottom to top the fastest wins. It’s spectator friendly and the walls were lined with people hours before the start despite the ever blowing wind (and sand in it) and very chilly (low 30’s) temps. We set up our flags and parked the Nitro buggy up on a ledge in the canyon, sat back and enjoyed the show. Lot’s of carnage is the norm and despite well built rigs there we blown motors, broken gearsets and shafts and at least one rollover as the 30+ entrants gave it hell to get up the fastest.
Here’s a great video on Drivingline of the action that night.
The next few days the weather improved, we were able to set up our booth, sell some shirts and sweatshirts and meet a ton of people who had made KOH a week long vacation that we got to be a small part of. We watched the ATV race, Everyman Challenge race and final King of Hammers race on the big screen set up near us under sunny skies and in clear air after all that nasty wind early in the week. We even did a few giveaways for our cool Nitro Track Mat products and a Nitro diff cover.
King of the Hammers is really something every offroader should try to see at least once. It’s extreme in everyway. The weather, the course, the racecars and even some of the drivers fit into that category. Add in what amounts to Burning Man at the same time and it’s one serious week long party in what is pretty much the middle of nothingness. Expect to be dirty lots of the time, cold and hot both, sleep deprived and super excited you got to be apart of what has become the biggest week long offroad race in the United States.
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