With the maximum number of racers limited to 100, competing in King of The Hammers may appear unattainable to the average person. However, if you consider all the possible routes of entry, KOH is actually one of the only high-profile off-road race events in the country that actually caters to the average Joe. Sure, you have to have a capable rig plus the time and money to prep it properly. But all said, KOH is a lot closer to being a "real world" off-road event than you might think.
We analyzed some of the stories of everyday people who found themselves involved in the toughest one-day off-road race in the world. After doing so, securing a spot in KOH reminded us a lot of our own Top Truck Challenge. Anyone can enter, and virtually anyone can win. Take, for instance, this year's winner, Loren Healy of Farmington, New Mexico. Healy rolled the dice and entered his Jimmy's 4x4-tube chassis crawler into 4 Wheel Parts Last Chance Qualifier, where 35 teams battled it out for 25 coveted final spots in the field. In doing so, Healy earned himself a spot in the main event, finishing Fifth overall in the challenging two-day LCQ event, netting him a 53rd-place start position in the main event.
Prior to race day, nobody would have thought that an 11th-hour amateur entrant had a chance against veteran rock racers with multi-year sponsorship contracts, let alone the star-studded entourage of desert racers who competed. However, at the end of the day Healy and his co-driver, Rodney Woodey, pulled off the improbable, proving that KOH is indeed anyone's game. In the weeks leading up to the race, Healy didn't even get a chance to prerun the brutal 135-mile course as so many others did, which made his accomplishment that much sweeter.
The Media Card
This year, I requested a spot to compete in the main event. I knew that KOH officials sometimes make special allocations for media entries. For instance, in 2009 they let Petersen's 4-Wheel and Off-Road Tech Editor Fred Williams compete in his project Fun Buggy. My strategy was different. A friend of mine, Derek Summers, recently purchased a turnkey recreational rock crawler from Jimmy's 4x4. A few years back, Summers had assisted us with a whole bunch of paint and bodywork on our Project Mega Titan. He'd never asked for anything in return, and despite several attempts to return the favor, I simply could not make it happen-that is, until I got the call from KOH co-owner Jeff Knoll one cold January afternoon.
"Hey Stover, we secured you a spot in the main event," said Knoll.
Summers had never raced in any competitive motorsports events before, nor was he expecting a call from his magazine friend with connections. At first, he didn't believe me. Then, after the news sunk in, he began asking his friends if he could count on them for pit support. His inquires were met with further disbelief, "How did a no-name like you get a spot in KOH?" I still remember one of the many follow-up phone calls Summers made to me. "Dude, are you sure we got a spot? Did they give you a confirmation number or something?" I assured him and encouraged him to advance his grassroots planning strategy to the next level. I knew the effort was going to cost at least ten thousand dollars in parts and labor to pull off. All I could offer was editorial coverage. I left the rest up to him.
Pulling Strings, the Countdown Begins
About two weeks passed, during which time Summers had recruited Toby Lavender of Triple X Traction in Seaside, California, to help prep his buggy for the race. It was not that far off, but there was a lengthy list of tasks that needed to be addressed to ensure that the car would be ready come race day. Mike Deford of Bully Dog Technologies caught wind of Summers' program and offered a hand with pit support and logistics. Goodyear stepped in to provide tires for the effort. Summers contacted the folks at Radflo Suspension Technologies about re-valving his 2-inch coilover shocks to handle the high-speed sections of KOH. A week later, Summers took the car to Pismo State Beach to run it through a whoops section of dunes for the very first time. After a brief shakedown, he felt confident with the suspension system.
A week prior to the race, Team Summers appeared ready to make the 600-mile trek to Johnson Valley. The car was unfinished, but close enough for us to proceed with our effort. Recent rains had increased Summers' shop workload, and he simply couldn't break away from the office in time to accommodate the necessary KOH pre-race prerunning schedule. Our efforts were beginning to look much less professional than we would have liked.
Last Minute Prep Fest
Race week, Tuesday
Our convoy of motorhomes and trailer-toting pickups entered the area I had roped-off near the start/finish line. We were three days behind schedule, and at that moment, the tone turned serious. We had our work cut out for us. The custom window nets from Poly Performance were not installed, the Baja Designs HID lights were rolling around in a box under the pit trailer, and the new thicker aluminum link arms we needed were still unclaimed at the Ballistic Fabrication booth in the vendor area. Needless to say, we did not have time to prerun a single mile of the race course. In fact, we barely made it through tech inspection before the cut-off hour. As the hours ticked by, our car was looking better and better. The crew did not have a clear plan of attack for race day, but I knew that as long as the equipment was in place, our people would likely make it happen.
Thursday evening: With less than eight hours until the green flag dropped, I called our crew into the camping area for a quick meeting about what to expect during the race. This was the first race for many of our all-volunteer pit crewmembers, and they needed to know some basic guidelines regarding safety procedures and radio communication. I explained that our first goal was finishing the race, and that anything above that was icing on the cake. With an inexperienced driver, no prerun time, and an amateur pit crew, simply finishing was all we could hope for.
The early morning silence was shattered as our campground erupted into a frenzy of action. Summer and Lavender were still attempting to sleep in, knowing that it was going to be a long day. On the other hand, I knew that my ride-along was going to be over before lunchtime. Our plan involved me riding with Summers from the start until the Masters Pit at race mile 52. At that point, I would get out and allow Lavender the opportunity to co-drive for the remainder of the race. As I zipped up my race suit, I thought to myself, "All you have to do is help keep the car together."
As we pulled away from the start line, the massive crowd of onlookers surrounding pit row encouraged us to hammer the throttle. Nowhere else but the Baja 1000 have I seen as much fanfare at an off-road race. Thousands assembled alongside the course to witness the drag race-style start. Each team was staged side-by-side with another car, and when the green flag dropped, the deafening roar of sixteen cylinders at a time filled the air.
Once on the course I instructed Derek to stick to his plan and settle into a comfortable pace. Everything was going well until we hit race mile 8. At first, it felt as though a spark-plug cable had dislodged, or something like that. A quick glance at the coolant temp-which read 245 degrees-verified that we were already pushing the car too hard. We pulled over to investigate the problem. All systems appeared fine, and the car did not exhibit any obvious signs of a problem. We got back into the car and ran a conservative pace until the Bessemer Pit at race mile 12. Once there, we instructed our crew to remove the fiberglass hood and splash the fuel cell. We set out of the first pit area with the car back in normal operating temperature. Evidently the placement of the hood had restricted airflow through the radiator, causing engine coolant temperature to climb. Once removed, our cooling concerns seemed to subside.
At race mile 15, we encountered our first logjam. There were about seven rigs waiting to drop off a 12-foot tall waterfall in a section of course known as the Crowbar trail. With little drama, Summers managed to get through the slowdown with a little creative driving.
We continued around the Western loop near Soggy Dry Lake. About halfway around, we came upon car number 4411 of Dean Bulloch. Both Bulloch and his co-driver Tom Allen were out of the vehicle, picking up parts of their car that were scattered on the course. It was obvious from the trail of evidence that they had suffered a high-speed rollover. We pulled up and stopped to ask if everyone was alright. Allen gave us the thumbs-up and motioned us to proceed. Summers, thinking sarcasm was appropriate for the moment, asked Allen if they wanted to trade cars. (Allen's company, PSC Motorsports, played an important role in getting our steering system up to par before the race.) We pressed on, wondering why nobody had passed us during the brief exchange.
By race mile 23, we were just getting into a groove when we reentered the Bessemer Pit area. We stopped to let the crew give the car a once-over to check for loose bolts or other obvious signs of trouble. The car was starting to feel as if the front shocks were bottoming out too much, so we informed the pit crew to prepare a nitrogen tank to increase the pressure in the front shock reservoirs. We didn't have a tank handy, so we instructed our crew to arrange the shock service back at the main pit, some 17 miles away.
Our primary goal at the main pit was to resolve the front shock issues. Our crew worked diligently to increase the nitrogen pressure in both front shocks and bumpstops. At the same time, additional crewmembers added another four gallons of fuel to the car. As we resumed race speed just outside the pit, the car seemed to soak up bumps much better than before-the nitrogen was working. Then, about two miles outside of the main pit, the engine began cutting out again. Initially, we thought it was the overheating problem again. However, the gauge read 210-no problem there. We pressed on, evaluating every possible cause of the problem. The fuel pressure gauge read low, so we decided that the best action plan was to swap in our auxiliary fuel pump. Upon disconnection of the primary pump, we found the inlet was clogged with debris. About 15 minutes later, we had the backup fuel pump plumbed and wired and were ready to get back on the trail. At mile 38, we took off again. For the first time in the race everything felt perfect with the car.
We made great time to mile 45. Then, at the base of Aftershock Trail, a six-vehicle backup just before a steep climb ceased our momentum. A large crowd of spectators lined each side of the canyon, and some were getting in the way of alternate lines. About 15 minutes passed, and we hadn't moved forward much. As the car in front of us got hung up, we decided to attempt a pass. The driver in front of us was hung up with a passenger-side rear tire buried under a large rock undercut, and as we attempted to pass him, he hammered the throttle, resulting in a broken passenger-side rear axleshaft. Now was our opportunity to get by him-but I would need to get out and spot Summers. Just then, another co-driver of another disabled rig came over and took on the responsibility of spotting us around the disabled vehicle. We pressed on, motioning thumbs-up to the spotter for saving us time.
About ten minutes later, we were at the summit of Sunbonnet Trail. Everything on the car felt perfect, and the only bummer was that we were closing in on the Masters Pit at mile 52, where I would be relieved of my duties as co-driver. My ride would be ending too soon.
As we came into the pit, I released my harness and helmet, and it didn't take long for Lavender and I to swap positions. The car was in great shape and we were still ahead of more than half the field. I could see the excitement in Lavender's eyes. He was in for the ride of a lifetime.
The Waiting Game
Once I was out of the racecar, I started taking photos of the car, and the team, during pit procedures. I rode with our chase team to the Wrecking Ball pit area. The action stopped cold, until the race leaders came through about the Wrecking Ball pit about one hour later. At this point, Team Summers was still among the top 50 vehicles in the race. We waited, and waited, and waited-with no communication from Summers or Lavender.
About two hours into our wait at the Wrecking Ball pit, I decided to hitch a ride back to the main pit area to see what I could find out, looking to secure another team's powerful radio to ask about our car's status. Just then, FW Senior Editor Brubaker came along on a side-by-side in search of a good shoot location. I flagged him down and asked if he could get me back to the main pit. He was happy to help.
Back at the main pit, our crew was waiting patiently as information trickled in slowly. Evidently, Summers had hit a rock at mile 88 and was attempting to drive the car on a flat passenger-side front tire. (We didn't have a spare tire onboard because we figured that the weight savings would give us an advantage over other teams.) In addition, the extra drag of the flat tire caused the car's cooling system to keep running hot. As a result, Summers and Lavender had to stop and let the engine cool every five to seven miles.
At race mile 93, they were out of the car, waiting for the engine to cool at the start of steep dirt hillclimb, when the distant roar of small block V-8 was heard approaching-it was the Blue Torch buggy the piloted by BFG-sponsored veteran desert racer Rob MacCachren. MacCachren's buggy was looking really good as it attempted to climb the hill. Then, moments later, a catastrophic failure occurred with the engine. Apparently a large portion of the side of the engine block gave way as a connecting rod busted outwards, falling to the ground. A large volume of engine oil splashed against the exhaust system and instantly a bright flash of flames was seen. Summers and Lavender took action. The two each grabbed a fire extinguisher from the interior of our car and proceeded to run down the hill towards MacCachren's buggy.
Fortunately, MacCachran and his co-driver Larry McRae were able to quickly extinguish the fire on their own. Once at the bottom of the hill, the two teams exchanged greetings and swapped stories of the failures. For MacCachren and McRae, a blown engine meant their race day was over. However, quick-thinking Lavender noticed that MacCachren's spare tire shared the same backspacing and lug pattern with our car. A short time later, Baja racing legend Rob MacCachren was jacking up the front of our car while co-driver McRae assisted Lavender with the removal of our shredded passenger-side tire and bolting up Team MacCachren's tire in its place.
"Get in and get belted up," MacCachren shouted, "You got a race to finish, buddy!"
As Summers fastened his harness, MacCachran reached into the cab and starting assisting Summers with the radio plug and window nets. The display of sportsmanship floored Summers, "I can't believe a living legend is helping us finish this race, Toby." By then their engine had cooled off and they were back in the race.
One Final Pit Stop
As Summers and Lavender came into the main pit for a final fuel stop, the sun was starting to sink beyond the western ridgelines. The BFG spare tire that MacCachran let the two borrow was promptly replaced with a brand-new Goodyear MT/R, and the two were off again. This time, HID lights lit the path in front of them. The approaching darkness would bring new difficulties. We had roughly five hours to complete the remaining 30 miles-which were the roughest rock sections of the course.
A Fitting Finish
Summers and Lavender rolled across the finish line to a well-deserved checkered flag surrounded by hundreds of fans, media and event organizers. The smiles on the faces of Summers and Lavender's wife's were massive, and tears of pride welled up. The moment was sweetened when we caught word that over half the participants of the 2010 King of the Hammers race were still unaccounted for. When the finish line closed at 10:00 pm, we knew we had pulled off something big. Only one additional car crossed the line after ours.
For our team, the finish was everything. Despite the many challenges that Summers, Lavender, and I faced throughout the day, we were able to keep the car together and achieve what nobody expected for a first-time effort.
Not only did we beat the odds, we also demonstrated that persistence, planning, and preparation-mixed with a hint of luck-are all you need to finish at KOH.
The KOH Eco Challenge
Anytime 15,000 people assemble in an undeveloped area for an event, residual litter is almost unavoidable. Last year, KOH generated an amazing amount of trash that was handled properly by event staff. For 2010, KOH partnered with Cal 4 Wheel to provide special containers for recyclable items in addition to the trash. The money generated by the effort was added to a fund designed to help keep our public lands open. All said, the program raised nearly $4,700 in recycled aluminum, glass, and plastic. Who said four wheelers couldn't be green?