Deserts are one of Earth’s greatest anomalies. Across a planet covered in water and green plant life, there are vast expanses of land that have been subjected to centuries of climate conditions so harsh and dry that survival has become a monumental challenge. It is here that we find some of our most ferocious and unforgiving weather behavior. Temperatures routinely eclipse 100° Fahrenheit during the day, while at night they can plummet below freezing. Wind gusts frequently exceed 70mph throughout the day and night. These winds carry with them large swaths of sand, which erodes everything it touches. So why not have a race there? All aboard the crazy train that is the 2019 Nitto Tires King of the Hammers powered by Optima Batteries.
Several months ago my phone buzzed with an opportunity, and a previous client asked me if I was interested in doing something kinda crazy: “Would you like to come with us to King of the Hammers and shoot the race then spend a couple of days after the event doing a photoshoot of our truck in the middle of the desert?” Sometimes I wish every question was this easy to respond to, and the words accepting the job invitation couldn’t have come out of my mouth more easily.
After what I can only describe as the most terrifying flight of my entire life, I was picked up from the Palm Springs Airport on Wednesday in a lifted diesel Silverado making all the right turbo noises. It was a good start to the trip as we made our way to the Hammertown campground from the city. After roughly an hour and a half of driving, we rolled onto the incredibly unpaved Boone Road of the California Valley dry lake bed in the pitch-black night. I could make out what appeared to be a massive installment of RVs and campers, silhouetted off in the distance by a slew of campfires. I liken it to the images seen of Ewoks dancing on Endor after the second Death Star met its demise. Directly to the left and right of the truck were bouncing lights from hundreds of late night off-roaders looking to catch some nocturnal thrills. The mood was set properly and I encourage everyone to arrive at night to share this splendor.
As previously mentioned, my flight and day of traveling was pretty difficult and I was looking to find a pillow as soon as possible. Sounds from the surrounding campers were poorly dampened by our RV walls, but that didn’t prevent me from catching a quick nap. A couple hours into counting sheep, the RV door burst open with my friend asking me if I wanted to grab food with him. I obliged the offer and met up with the rest of the team in the VIP dining tent. A company called Daddy’s Famous Foods was there to cater and serve the thousands of hungry off road junkies. This tent became an oasis in the desert for all of us, as they cooked fresh cracked egg breakfast every morning—including their infamous French Toast Sticks—and delicious lunches and dinners every night.
After a couple days wandering the lake bed, it was pretty clear that this was not like anything I had previously experienced. One of the drivers jested that it was essentially “the Burning Man of off road racing,” and it wasn’t difficult to see the correlation. Fireworks, alcohol, race gas, and Jeeps with giant lift kits are everywhere, no matter which direction you turn. Some spectators hold beer-fueled races on tiny three wheelers while onlookers light off Roman Candles—a sight to behold to say the least.
The extracurricular activities of the spectators were certainly entertaining, but I was still most interested in the race that would begin on Friday morning. While I’m sure many gearheads are familiar with Baja, King of the Hammers has been the newcomer to the off-road game. In its 13th year, this punishing race has grown from the OG13, no spectators, “just out having some fun for some beer and bragging rights”-type of event to one which includes hundreds of racers, roughly one hundred thousand spectators, and blossomed into a sponsorship goliath. Each year, the race course changes by digging into Johnson Valley’s wealth of trails known as The Hammers to create a unique circuit. Popular trails such as Chocolate Thunder, Outer Limits, and the terrorizing climb of the Backdoor course are as synonymous to KOH as their names are suggestive sexual references.
The trail names may bring you to chuckle under your breath, but the drivers and teams spend thousands of hours preparing their Ultra4 4400 class vehicles to take them quite seriously. One miscalculation at any of these obstacles can result in irreversible damage to the truck and potential injury to those inside. Ultra4 and the staff at KOH have done a great job keeping its enthusiastic spectators out of harm’s way, and has made the safety of its teams and drivers a leading priority. Taking these precautions still doesn’t eliminate the risks the drivers will endure as they traverse the 300-plus mile course. Some areas of each lap take them into extremely remote locations that force Ultra4 to require drivers to pack proper nutrition and water to survive getting stranded—it happens!
On paper, the race sounds incredibly terrifying to comprehend; I was told that the attrition rate for previous years has been around 80-percent. I was even told that a team last year bailed out of the race and found their way to the main road and went to get pizza in the 4400. The drivers were later seen pulling into Hammertown with slices of pizza hanging from their faces. This year, 111 teams showed up to race and only 105 made the grid. Of those who started, only 29 vehicles were able to cross the line before the time cutoff, with the remaining competitors listed as DNF—and the majority of those competitors couldn’t even make it three hours.
All said and done, the race lasted just beyond 13 hours for the final teams that rolled in before the buzzer. As a photographer traversing some of the cliffs and hills to get the perspectives I wanted, it took a toll on the body and really added fatigue. I feel like a complete chump admitting this and knowing that the competitors battled it out for hours on end driving over ridiculous terrain and dreadful conditions. To think I had to take a break? Sounds like I need to man up because I couldn’t compete in KOH with my dad bod.
Everyone I met at King of the Hammers told me that after you attend the event once, you keep coming back. It made a lot of sense to me because there really isn’t anything like it. The tremendous growth of the event has been exponential each year and it has matured into one of those races everyone has to experience. The Daytona 500, 24 Hours of LeMans, Indy 500, and Bonneville have history on their side. Now, I truly believe the King of the Hammers should be considered for the “you’ve gotta go” list. As someone that gets paid to travel and cover motorsports events, the atmosphere is unlike anything I’ve experienced. It was a wild and crazy weekend and I had a blast, but please excuse me while I cough up sand for the next two weeks!