Not far out of Hammertown, we were stuck in a boulder-filled gully called Chocolate Thunder, the kind of California desert gulch that seems more suitable for potty-training a rattlesnake than driving a buggy. Our current view was straight up at the azure blue sky, as if the intent was orbital launch.
The engine had died again, but not before the brake pedal went to the floor. I was thinking about releasing the five-point harness, releasing the window net, and trudging across Means Lake, through the pits and campgrounds, to my car parked on Boone Road. I might get there by dark. It would beat spending the night out here, which seemed probable.
“If we had forties, we would walk right over this,” driver Steve Adams said through the intercom. Indeed, the rock crawler, being set up for Adams’ participation in the Legends class of King of the Hammers, had 37-inch tires. Although we were only a short distance into Chocolate Thunder, the lack of three inches of clearance had already caused problems. And Adams had forgotten to re-map the fuel pump, so the 5.7-liter V-8 engine wouldn’t idle when he let off the accelerator. The brake problem was due to a loose nut at the right-rear wheel.
Such was my introduction to the 2017 Nitto King of the Hammers. Billed as “The Ultimate Desert Race,” KoH is under way for the 11th time in Johnson Valley, a large tract of public land that abuts the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms. The event’s name comes from obstacles known as Sledgehammer, Jackhammer, and Clawhammer, although others are just as colorful and evocative: Backdoor, Aftershock, and Wrecking Ball, to name a few.
With a course covering more than 200 miles through desert basins and over craggy ranges, a low percentage of competitors manage to finish. Classes range from side-by-side ATVs to the unlimited boulder-pounders of the 4400 category. It’s the UFC of motorsports and anyone who sees one of these buggies will want to drive one.
That’s why guys like Andrew McLaughlin have been successful. McLaughlin’s Letz Roll Offroad Racing, based in Mesa, Arizona, is hosting me today. The Letz Roll buggies, numbers 4493 and 4893, have gone through tech inspection and done some shock tuning. Then McLaughlin invited me to ride along in 4893 with his driver Adams.
About 65 teams were expected to compete in the Legends class, which is restricted to front-engine two-seaters with solid axles and one shock absorber per corner. Number 4893 looks somewhat like a Jeep, but it’s entirely purpose-built. The fuel-injected 450-hp Chevrolet LS1 V-8 is mated to a Turbo 400 automatic and Atlas transfer case with a Currie Dana 60 front and 70 rear differentials. McLaughlin rattled off the rest of the specs, but the spiel got esoteric in a hurry. Nevertheless, the general idea is everyman type of racing. Although some competitors are said to have $500,000 wrapped up in their 4400-class rigs, it’s still more about the driver than the equipment.
The drivers I spoke to all made their livings by — how else? — manufacturing rock crawlers. Having become used to polished presentations by IndyCar and NASCAR stars, I was charmed by the “aw, shucks” reactions of this bunch. Known for her smoothness and ability to pick lines through obstacles, 20-year-old Bailey Campbell (below) is the event’s emerging star. Although she showed the most polish in a Hammertown interview, Danica Patrick’s endorsements appear safe for the time being.
Likewise, Hammertown itself was filled with people who were just darned impressed with the bigness of this thing. The burgeoning legend asserts that it started with a dozen drivers who were competing for a case of beer. Now, the Ultra4 series that sanctions KoH has events in Europe and is expanding to China. KoH cofounder Dave Cole says he spent just 42 nights at home in 2016.
While Steve Adams and I were still pointed toward the heavens like the crew of a Gemini mission, he remembered to recycle the fuel pump. He restarted the engine and backed us down a bit, and the Letz Roll crew tightened the screw to restore brake pressure. Adams got us over the most treacherous boulders ahead, and then the terrain eased up, allowing us to crawl out of Chocolate Thunder.
On the descent from that summit, I saw billowing curtains of dust gleam in the late-afternoon light of Johnson Valley. From here and there came the hoarse roars of engines, while spectators who lined the edge of Chocolate Thunder cackled with excitement. In its way, it was idyllic.
Whatever else King of the Hammers may be, it’s the cure for self-driving vehicles. And if anyone had a device in hand, it was probably a rock.
Events continued throughout the week. For results, visit https://ultra4racing.com/2017-king-hammers-race-week-results.