It’s grown from a group of 12 guys out in the middle of the desert to a literal tent city. The Ultra4 Racing King of the Hammers is the off-road experience you can’t miss out on.
With the 2018 Nitto Tires King of the Hammers powered by Optima Batteries only six weeks away, we’ve decided to do dedicated coverage on all things off-road. From talking about Ultra4 to tech pieces to interviews, Carbage is going to be your source for KOH in 2018. However, with the off-road, truck, and SUV markets growing seemingly daily, maybe we should start coverage with an introduction. What is the King of the Hammers?
How It Got Started
As cliché as it sounds, KOH started in 2007 with a group of guys lead by Dave Cole and Jeff Knoll who decided to have a race. On a Friday in the middle of Means Dry Lake, a path was drawn on a napkin and invites were sent out. From the group of 50 to 60 drivers that were invited, 11 drivers showed up with rock crawling rigs while one happened to be there. They weren’t specialized like we see now. They were just trucks built for fun and hobby driving. Some rigs just had air shocks and leaf springs, something you don’t see now. Of the 12 racers that ran, John Reynolds with Randy Slawson co-driving won the first ever KOH.
What did John and Randy win from the first ever event? A congratulation from Dave who had drove up on his quad on the last trail. No checkered flag, no trophy, but there was a promise to those 12 drivers. They would never have to qualify or worry about an invite to race in King of the Hammers. Dave knew something big was going to happen after this. From that moment on, those 12 drivers were known as the OG13 and the King of the Hammers was born.
For following year, the Hammers was an invite only event. There were no media, no spectators, and no vendors. Of course, when you make something hard to get, you make more and more people want to join. That’s when Griffin Radiators was invited to come out to the 2009 King of the Hammers. From that single experience, Griffin became the first title sponsor until 2015 when Nitto Tire took over.
Every Man Challenge
As the race grew in spectacle and in the spotlight, more and more people wanted to enter the race with their own rigs. In the middle of 2011, Ultra4 announced that a new event would take place the Monday before the 2012 King of the Hammers – the Smittybilt Every Man Challenge. This was the opportunity for non-professional drivers to earn their way into the big event. It was open to only 100 vehicles and the list was filled before the start of 2012.
The first ever winner of the was John Currie, co-owner of Currie Enterprises who would go on to become the winningest driver in the EMC with overall wins in 2012, 2013, and 2014. John would then pass the torch to son, Brandon, who would win the 2015 EMC Overall in the same rig while John moved up to the 4400 Unlimited Class.
From those humble beginnings, the King of the Hammers has become one of the largest one-day off-road events in the nation and possibly the world. Every year during the first two weeks of February, Means Dry Lake becomes a literal tent city. Roads and cross streets, temporary power, fencing, and security are all there. There is even WiFi connecting everyone across most of Johnson Valley during the Hammers. Even if one can’t attend in person, Hammerking Productions does live broadcasting over the web with video from popular rock features.
There are also Motorcycle and Side-by-Side races through the week all declaring their own Kings. The West and East Coasts fight it out in the Holley EFI Shootout. It’s a challenge between Ultra4 Racing and the Southern Rock Racing Series (SRRS) and their Bouncers, with the top ten given an invite to enter the big race. To simply call the King of the Hammers an off-road race is not doing it justice. It’s an experience akin to Coachella, just with less drugs and more families.
However, despite that growth, one thing has stayed the same with the event: it always takes place during the week. Why is that relevant or even important (other than being odd for most racing around the world)? Dave Cole started as an off-road enthusiast and has remained that way even now. With that, he sets up the event so that other enthusiasts can come out and drive on the Hammers and Johnson Valley without worry during the weekend. The time when most enthusiasts come out to enjoy the OHV park. Jeff Knoll remained active with Ultra4 since its start, but in March of 2011 he left. He stayed to his off-road roots by joining the Off-Road Business Association (ORBA) as well as working with Lincoln Electric as a Marketing Manager and started RallyVenture in 2014.
Big Highs, Hard Times
During the growing years of the Hammers, there has always been a shadow that loomed behind it – the expansion of the 29 Palms Marine Base. There were persistent rumors that the base would expand to take over a majority of Johnson Valley’s 100,000-acres. This came to a head in January 2012 when the Marines drafted the initial release of the Environmental Impact Study before there was a final decision to be made. From the way things were going, all seemed lost for off-roaders.
Then a light flashed and on December of 2012, the US House and the Senate passed HR 4310. It was a section 2856 that saved the day as it required the United States Marine Corps (USMC) to study the feasibility of the use of the OHV area of Johnson Valley under a permit, much like how the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) does. Then in December of 2013, the National Defense Authorization Act of 2013 (NDAA) ensured that Johnson Valley would remain open to public access for a minimum of 305 days. However, a portion of the 100,000-acres (55,000-acres) of the OHV would be allowed use by the USMC for a maximum of 60 days of the year. Since that time, all has been well between Ultra4, Off-Road Enthusiasts, and the USMC.
The Trail Ahead
The off-road market continues to grow, and much of the industry says that’s thanks to the King of the Hammers. If you look at many of the parts now offered to off-road enthusiasts you’d probably agree. Axles and differentials once thought of as only for rock crawling are now built to withstand the type of rock racing Ultra4 brings. Shock design for these rigs has gone from simple air shocks to staged coilover designs and By-Pass dampers. We’re starting to see improved durability and turning radius in Independent Front Suspension (IFS) rigs and there are more of them thanks to the Hammers. If you’ve bought something for your truck to off-road with, this event has most likely been thought of in its design.
The atmosphere of the Hammers also continues to pull in more growth. While there is racing during the day, at night enthusiasts and racers alike will come out and hit the same rock features. Racers test while enthusiasts are out to have fun and celebrate the week of racing and fun. In Hammertown, families gather around the large bonfire while teams wrench on their trucks. Nearly everyone visits the vendors for parts and services. Outside of Hammertown, enthusiasts camp out and enjoy the desert while watching the mountains light up like Christmas from the LED and HID lights of the rigs climbing around.
Then, it all disappears like a storybook ghost town. After Friday, Hammertown begins to tear down. Vendors and racers pack up. Many move on to the next event while others just head back home to get away from the desert for a little bit. The King will have been crowned and celebrations will have been had. Once everything is packed and away, the rumors, what-ifs, and hype begin again for the next King of the Hammers.
The 2018 Nitto Tires King of the Hammers powered by Optima Batteries takes place from February 2nd to the 10th, 2018. Now that you know the history and the hype, you hopefully won’t feel so lost.
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