What's the ultimate desert race? For two years now, Hammerking Productions has brought a unique format to the desert that had never been tried before. Traditional desert racing winds its way down washes and through the whoops but avoids the creepy-crawly canyons. By contrast, traditional rock crawling stays in the canyons and drivers often spend an entire afternoon covering three miles or less.
King of the Hammers is unique in that it combines wide-open washes and whoops with tight, twisty canyons chock full of boulders and dry waterfalls. This year, Hammerking co-staffers Dave Cole and Jeff Knoll laid out an 82-mile course that included each and every Hammer trail, connecting them with wide-open sections. Want some trail names? Here they are: Claw Hammer, Wrecking Ball, Jack Hammer, Sledge Hammer, Fissure Trail, Sunbonnet Pass, Aftershock, and Outer Limits. Many non-competition trail rigs would have fits with any one of these trails. Running them all successfully in rapid-fire order would require a well-built rig and a fresh and thorough race prep. Prerunning the course was allowed, and GPS downloads were available.
Another unique feature of King of the Hammers was that it deliberately took place during the work week. This was to make sure that the competition did not get in the way of recreational trail riding on the weekend. After the competition on Friday, the King of the Hammers crew spent Saturday cleaning up and repairing the trails.
We had a twofold approach to covering the race: we wanted to see the rigs in a high-speed section that might be part of a traditional desert racing course, and then we wanted to see the racers again as they tested their mettle on one of the Hammers.
What kind of rig does well both in the whoops and on the Hammers? It won't be a traditional desert buggy or a Trophy Truck. Trophy Trucks and traditional desert racing buggies are way too wide and don't have enough ground clearance for the Hammers, to say nothing of the obvious: most of these vehicles lack of four-wheel drive. A King of the Hammers winner won't be a traditional trail rig, either. Most trail rigs have gobs of un-sprung weight and under-damped suspension. Instead, the winning rig would posses a combination of suspension sophistry, low weight, a low center of gravity, and a drivetrain capable of both haulin' and crawlin'. Last year, Shannon Campbell won in a solid-axle, rear-engine buggy. This year Shannon, the 2008 King, showed up in a fresh rig that sported independent front suspension. Would Shannon get a second crown?
We'll cut to the chase. Shannon roared off the line, only to become sidelined with a fried transmission. A rule change from last year mandated that only crew members could work on the vehicles, and that the vehicles could not receive outside assistance. After Shannon's tranny died, he got towed back into the main pit for a transmission change. The tow back to the main pit was considered outside assistance, and netted him a DQ. This left the door open for a successor to the throne. That successor was Alamo, California's Jason Scherer. Scherer finished 16 minutes ahead of runner-up Casey Currie. The two completed the 82-mile course in 4 hours 42 minutes and 4 hours 58 minutes, respectively.
While competitions are exciting to both watch and participate in, there's another benefit to competitions. Holding a competition in a given location serves to legitimize that place as a venue for an organized activity. The Johnson Valley OHV area, home of the Hammers, is being considered for annexation by the neighboring 29 Palms Marine Base. Running King of the Hammers shows the Marines the value of Johnson Valley to the off-road community. Hopefully, King of the Hammers will give the Marine Corps one more reason to look elsewhere for additional Marine Base land. Jason Scherer may have been crowned the 2009 King of the Hammers, but if K.O.H. helps keep Johnson Valley open, then the whole off-road community wins.