It's called Ultra4, or unlimited four-wheel-drive racing. The few rules that are written down address safety, environmental, or team-behavior issues, but vehicle construction generally falls to the builder's innovation and boldness.
The showcase for this new breed of motorsport is the Griffin King of the Hammers (KOH), a winter race staged in the beautiful but harsh Johnson Valley Off-Highway Vehicle Area in Southern California. In only its fourth year, the event's popularity has grown to attract teams from Europe, Australia, and Japan through intense Internet chatter among hard-core off-road enthusiasts who follow both desert racing - which began with Jeep and Meyers Manx owners finding the fastest way down the Baja peninsula in the 1960s - and rock crawling - a relatively new extreme sport of precision driving that confounds the laws of gravity as cars scale sheer rock walls.
KOH challenges racers to set up for both disciplines, but there are conflicts. Should the suspension compress to absorb the desert terrain to increase speed, or should it droop to maintain contact with rocks and increase traction? Air shocks or coil-overs? Straight axle or independent fron t suspension? Powerful V-8 or lightweight turbo four? Single seat or run with a navigator? And don't even mention the countless tire options. Strategy is also key: Win in the rocks and survive the desert? Or pick 'em off in the desert and pray in the rocks?
The 2010 Hammer race covered 135 miles, of which about 100 miles were over high-speed lake beds and mound-filled desert washes. The remaining distance included eighteen rock-canyon trails with names as brutal as the conditions: Aftershock, Crowbar, Claw Hammer, Wrecking Ball, Sledgehammer. Even more menacing, the rowdy fans use their own modified four-by-fours to reach the secluded public trails and find the closest viewing rock, including those directly on the racecourse.
One hundred vehicles started this year's race, with just forty-three finishing inside the fourteen-hour time limit. The New Mexico-based team of Loren Healy and Rodney Woody won with a time of 6 hours, 57 minutes, and 53 seconds, just 28 seconds ahead of 2009 world rock-crawling champ Brad Lovell and co-driver Bill Kunz from Colorado.
Highlights of the Griffin King of the Hammers course.
1 Soggy Lake. Desert racers usually have the bravado of a fifteenth-century explorer, especially with precise GPS in their cars. But when rains turned the normally dry Soggy Lake bed into a real soggy lake bed, officials designed a "re-route" for that section. Concerns were raised in the drivers' meeting that some racers wouldn't be able to find their way. A KOH official then quipped, "Perhaps they might want to consider circle-track racing."
2 Spooners' CANYON. New to the KOH, this trail was blazed for the first time on New Year's Eve 2008. Two off-roaders looking for another trail got lost during the night and broke down. Fortunately, they were rescued the next morning. The trail gets its name because the pair kept warm overnight by "spooning" together in subfreezing temperatures.
3 Hero of the day! A lone spectator from Washington named Joe "Bunk" Bunker hiked to the top of Aftershock, hoping to watch his friend drive by. Instead, he saw Ken "Doc" Mercer become trapped after rolling his single-seat moon buggy. Transmission fluid leaked over the headers, igniting a large fire. Bunker ran to the accident scene and used a multitool to cut Mercer's safety belts and pull him out before the fire completely engulfed the vehicle.
4 Twentynine Palms. One stretch of the racecourse bumps against the border of the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, better known as Twentynine Palms. With more than 930 square miles, it's already the military's largest base, but the Marines want more and are considering adjacent properties. Officials say they need the land to support a massive, live-fire training exercise that could involve three battalions - or 15,000 Marines - moving abreast.
5 Means Dry Lake. Access to this area is off State Highway 247, or Old Woman Springs Road, named after one of the area's Native American settlers when government surveyors arrived in about 1850. Mining, ranching, and farming in the area were all unsuccessful for the next 100 years. After World War II, hundreds of five-acre homesteads were settled but most failed to prosper, and the few that remain eventually established the Johnson Valley community.