No Tougher Test Than KOH, King of the Hammers

No Tougher Test Than KOH, King of the Hammers

The Ultra4 series, King of the Hammers race, (KOH) is touted as the toughest single day off-road race in the world. Anyone who has witnessed it will back that up. The course changes every year, but always includes a mixture of grueling desert terrain, and punishing rock trails. It’s a brutal, soul crushing endeavor that will test the resolve of even the most hardened competitors.  The racer who conquers the terrain, and the competition is crowned King, but many competitors hope to merely finish the course without timing out. The challenge and spectacle of KOH draws competitors, fans, and media from all over the globe. A desolate dry lakebed in Johnson Valley, California is transformed into a makeshift city of over 50 thousand people during the event. Part high-speed desert racing, and part hardcore rock crawling, it has created a whole new category of motorsports; rock racing.

landscape shot of a sunset setting on a mountainous desert
Photo Credit: Mike Ingalsbee

The first gathering in 2007 was to see if the assembled competitors could even survive the course. Known as the O.G. 13 run, there were actually only 12 cars that could make it, but O.G. 13 sounds better, so it has stuck to this day. Those original competitors, and anyone who is crowned king, are entered into the race; everyone else needs to qualify. In the decade that has elapsed, KOH has expanded into the Ultra4 series that holds racing events across the country. Each Ultra4 event is unique to the terrain found at its location. Top finishers earn a spot in the big race in Johnson Valley.

a crowd of people spectating the king of hammers race
Photo Credit: Mike Ingalsbee

The unique nature of KOH, and its incredible challenge, attracts a very diverse pool of competitors. Recreational four wheelers, competition rock crawlers, short course and desert racers, adventure seekers, even some celebrities have taken the green flag. Despite the miles of desert that have to be negotiated, most agree that the race is won in the rocks. Maybe that’s why the professional desert racers that have competed over the years have failed to finish in the top tier. In fact, the same 5 racers have shared the crown over the last 11 years. Erik Miller, Randy Slawson, Loren Healy, and Jason Scherer all have 2 wins, (Scherer joined the 2 time winners club this year). Shannon Campbell has three titles to his name. Had Randy Slawson won this year, he would have joined Campbell with 3, but a crack in his exhaust pipe cooked the transmission fluid and left him on the side of the course only a mile from the finish. He was in an intense, wheel to wheel battle with Jason Scherer all day long and came up just a little short. It might seem like a safe bet to pick one of these drivers to win any given year, but as Slawson proved, anything can happen. In fact, both Slawson and Loren Healy got wins after earning the only remaining starting spot during the last chance qualifier race. Slawson is considered a local, spending years 4 wheeling in Johnson Valley. Healy hails from New Mexico, and was a recreational trail runner before being elevated to a King of the Hammers.

white and black buggy rock crawling up a steep and rocky path
Photo Credit: Mike Ingalsbee

As diverse as the drivers are, the cars are even more unique. Ultra4’s premiere class is unlimited. Rules exist to ensure safety for the competitors but nearly everything else is left up to materials, technology, and imagination. Desert racing has taken 50 years to get where it is today. Ultra4 has taken advantage of desert racing technology, namely in the area of shock technology, but the evolution of the cars has progressed at a staggering pace. The cars that participated in the first “Race” in 2008 would have a hard time qualifying for the race today. Rock crawlers with air shocks would not be able to match the pace that competitive cars are running today. Huge bypass shocks, mega horsepower engines, and bullet proof driveline components have become compulsory. In order to be in contention for the win, you need to be continuously moving. Stopping to winch, making repairs, or suffering flat tires are all serious setbacks. No outside assistance is allowed outside of designated pit areas. If a driver has problems, repairs need to be made in the field with spares carried on-board. If other parts or tools are needed, they have to be retrieved from a pit area and carried back to the stranded vehicle. The only exception to this rule is if a fellow competitor offers to help. Most competitors will help other others because they know it could be them and someday they will need the favor returned. Every year some poor soul has to hike through incredibly brutal terrain and retrieve some ridiculously difficult component to carry like a driveshaft, battery, or spare tire. This race is not for the weak. It’s also not for the timid. One rule that has caused tempers to flare, but is entirely legal, and necessary, is the bottleneck rule. If a vehicle becomes stuck or incapacitated in the course, competitors are within their rights to drive over them. Whether it’s a huge rock, or another car, Ultra4 vehicles are capable of going over either one in short order.

black and yellow UTV crawling over rocks on a rocky and dirt road
Photo Credit: Mike Ingalsbee

In the beginning, there was only one class. Now the program has expanded to include several races that take place over an entire week of events. King of the Motos is the two wheeled version of KOH and is similar in its extremely challenging nature. 2018 winner Cody Webb was the only rider to complete all 140 miles making him the obvious winner of the toughest King of the Motos races to date. It was Webb’s fourth KOM win of his career. Next up on the schedule was the UTV race. It’s unfathomable that the UTV’s can traverse the same trails as the Ultra4’s but they do. This year’s UTV race was especially brutal as only 12 out of 118 teams finished the course within the time limit. Mitch Guthrie Jr. took his first win as a driver at KOH, but he is no stranger to the race. His father has won the race 6 times; all with Mitch Jr. riding along as co-driver. Mitch Sr. suffered a rollover on backdoor but recovered to finish in 3rd place behind Branden Sims who was 2nd.

black jeep racing down a sandy road
Photo Credit: Mike Ingalsbee

In order to broaden the opportunities to compete at KOH, the Smittybilt Everyman Challenge was devised. The EMC has three classes of limited cars competing; offering a class for almost anyone. Incredibly, the top three finishers on the podium were all from a different class. 1st overall was Baja 1000 winner, Dan Fresh racing his 4500 class Jeep Wrangler. The second truck to cross the line was driven by Casey Gilbert. Gilbert was driving in the 4800 legends class. The third truck to cross the line was driven by Jessie Combs who was competing in the stock class, 4600. She was the 59th truck off the line in the morning, and worked all the way through the pack to take the stock class victory and 3rd place overall. In addition to being the fastest woman in the world after an official run of 398.954 mph in the North American Eagle Supersonic Speed Challenger in the Alvord desert, claiming the women’s 4-wheel land speed record in 2013, she is a KOH veteran, and would also run the Ultra4 race on Friday.

silhouette of a buggy crawling up some rocks on a dirt path during a sunset
Photo Credit: Mike Ingalsbee

King of the Hammers has evolved into one of the most incredible motorsports events in the world. It attracts thousands of fans, the most elite racers in the world, as well as the average Joe who builds their own car in the garage. It has spawned a completely new genre of racing, and remains one of the toughest tests on the planet. If you’ve never been, make plans now. You will be treated to nothing less than the most amazing experience ever.

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