During the early morning hours of Friday, February 10th, in the Southern California desert, dust from a week of tire-to-tire competition had settled and all was calm. As alarms chimed and coffee makers were fired up, racers and support crews milled around their vehicles making last-minute preparations, checking communication and GPS systems, and mentally preparing for the day ahead. In a few hours, drivers would slip behind the wheel, secure their harnesses, and begin the most grueling one-day off-road race on the planet—the 2017 Nitto Tires King of the Hammers (KOH).
A Brief History
Flashing back to the late 1990s, the American off-road scene had erupted with the introduction of rock-crawling competitions. They provided plenty of action but lacked the high-speed rush of the Dakar Rally, Australasian Safari, and Baja 1000. This opened a portal for an entirely new dirt genre, now known as Ultra4 racing. Around the campfire a few friends came up with the idea for a contest to link up the tough Hammer trails in Johnson Valley, CA, requiring a vehicle and driver to be able to handle the extreme rock climbs and descents combined with higher speed open desert sections. That first event was small and unpublicized, with just 12 teams and a handful of friends. Its success lead to the formation of Hammerking Productions, and word spread fast that there would be a sequel.
During the early years KOH attracted competitors from desert racing and NASCAR such as Robby Gordon, Curt LeDuc, MacCachren, and BJ Baldwin, wanting to try their hand at the brutal course. While the event was gaining traction as North America’s toughest off-road race, the rest of the world was taking notice. Articles published in Australian, Asian, and European magazines caught the attention of not only racers and fans, but also the global media. This year nearly 400 journalists representing 12 countries on five continents arrived in Hammertown to report on the action. Additionally, NBC Sports was on hand in preparation for upcoming features, and complete coverage of the Ultra4 Racing season.
What began in 2007 as a one-day gathering of enthusiasts and a peppering of tents on a dry lakebed, has evolved into one of the largest automotive venues on the planet. More than 130 manufacturers and vendors set up booths on the lighted streets of Hammertown, nearly 1000 competitors suited up during the week, and tens of thousands of spectators packed the sidelines. Helicopters, with camera operators perched on their skids, chased 500-horsepower buggies through narrow canyons and across alkali flats, while tens of millions followed via worldwide live and digital media.
A secondary impact of KOH has been the creation of numerous satellite industries. As speeds and trail difficulty increased, the need for products that could sustain continued abuse escalated. Although industry leaders answered the call, many innovations have been born from on-the-track experimentation. Dozens of small companies have sprouted up to service a public hungry for cutting-edge technology.
Although this year’s main event featured some of the biggest names in the industry, the buzz on the street focused on the five past kings—Erik Miller, Randy Slawson, Loren Healy, Jason Scherer, and Shannon Campbell. With all but Scherer having been crowned king twice, the pressure was on to equal the score. On an international level, teams from Australia, China, and Mexico were also on hand with their sights on the throne. As with many disciplines, KOH has lead to second generations following the tire tracks of their parents. In these ranks were Bailey Cole, Mel Wade III, Casey Currie, Levi Shirley, Gary Ferravanti Jr., and Wayland and Bailey Campbell, each of which are forging formidable careers of their own.
At 0800 hours the first cars, driven by Jason Scherer and Erik Miller, left the starting line. Two more were waved off every 30 seconds for the next half hour. This year’s track included landmark obstacles such as Backdoor, Chocolate Thunder, and Outer Limits, and by midmorning a haze of dust drifted over Means dry lake. The brutal 181-mile course was not for the faint of heart, and by noon several dozen cars were in need of repair or out of the race.
When the dust settled and the final checkered flag was waved, only 50 of the morning’s 122 teams had made it to the finish line within the 14-hour time limit. KOH is a day of a thousand tales, heartbreaks, and celebrations. Tom Wayes, who lead the pack past the 100-mile mark in the LS7 powered Icon buggy, was sidelined by a broken driveline and output yoke. Jason Scherer said at the finish line, “Wayes (Tom) is in a league of his own. At one point he was eight minutes ahead of us, and I was like, ‘I don’t even know where there is eight minutes on this course’.”
Randy Slawson, previous king and one of the most experienced competitors in the field, was plagued by mechanical issues but still managed to complete the race. Three of the five past kings landed in the top five, and while Jason Scherer earned another place on the podium, a second overall victory eluded him. Defending king Erik Miller, driving a new vehicle, jockeyed for the lead through much of the day but was denied a rung on the podium by 25 minutes. Two of the three Gomez brothers grabbed coveted top 10 positions.
As is the case with many of the world’s monarchies, the battle for the throne was a family affair. Blasting under the start/finish arch in a flurry of dust and on only three tires, it was Shannon Campbell that would capture the coveted KOH gold scepter—his son Wayland a mere 28 seconds behind. The 2017 Nitto King Of The Hammers was the largest to date, and as calm settled over the Southern California desert once again, teams were already making plans for next year’s event.
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