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.