A dense cloud of dust stretched over Means Dry Lake. The nearby mountains were nothing more than dim silhouettes beyond the fog-like haze. The fifth annual Griffin King of the Hammers race was just minutes from starting, and the anticipation of nearly 25,000 spectators had reached its peak. Near the starting line, things appeared well-organized, with barriers separating race fans from the active area. Clans of photographers in fluorescent green safety vests were hustling back and forth between cars, searching for that-last minute scoop on which teams were most poised for the win. The morning air was a chilly mixture of spent race gas and dust plumes stirred up by a pair of hovering helicopters. The sound of 40,000 horsepower serenaded our ears as the engines of 100 competitor vehicles danced chaotically throughout rpm bands.
In staging, the teams were arranged into groups of two, set to battle for position at the drop of the green flag. Since the race’s inception, spectators have flocked to watch the drag race-style start, and this year was no exception. When the first pair of cars left the line, everyone’s adrenalin began to rush, and an epic battle between man, machine and the surrounding desert landscape erupted in biblical proportions. King of the Hammers was under way, and our staff was there to capture the action.
TTC Winner Goes to KOH
One of the perks of winning the Buggy Class at Top Truck Challenge 2010 (Dec. ’10) was an invitation to compete at King of the Hammers. Buggy Class winner Mike Karwath, made the long trek from his home in Union, Kentucky, to Johnson Valley to give KOH a whirl. This time around, he left his TTC-winning YJ buggy at home and ran a custom rig built by his friend and co-driver, Kirby Kirby. He noted that the weight and gearing of his YJ buggy wasn’t KOH-friendly, but Kirby’s custom buggy was built specifically for Johnson Valley. It featured a tube chassis, LS1 V-8 engine, NV4500 transmission, Atlas transfer case, Dana 60 front axle, 14-bolt rear axle, and 43-inch Interco tires. Karwath started in the 66th position, and by the end of the first lap was sitting in a respectable 45th position even after suffering clutch failure due to fluid loss. The fluid, and a faulty helmet radio, were replaced at the first pit. Unfortunately, things didn’t go so well on the second lap. At the Backdoor obstacle, the rear locker and the pulley on the power steering broke. Karwath and Kirby fixed the power steering while perched on the rocks and then attempted to continue. Sadly, three-wheel drive just wasn’t going to get them through the rest of the course, and all the needed repair parts were back at their pit. After analyzing how long it would take to walk to their pits and back and then fix everything, they made the decision to end the race. The fire is lit though, and Karwath says he’ll attempt to qualify for KOH 2012.
TTC Winner Goes to KOH . . . and Wins (Again)!
Is there something in the water at the Tank Trap that produces champions at King of the Hammers? We can’t say for sure, but this year’s KOH winner, Shannon Campbell, is no stranger to longtime fans of Four Wheeler’s Top Truck Challenge, having won the fourth running of our signature event, in 1996. Since then, Campbell has gone on to establish a successful fabrication business (Campbell Enterprises in Gilbert, Arizona), and he’s carved out a reputation as a legend in the world of competition rock racing; he’s captured top honors at events on the W.E. Rock and XRRA circuits, as well as last year’s Reno Stampede. And with his victory at KOH 2011, Campbell has written his name in the record books, too; he’s now the only two-time winner in the history of the event.
Name: Shannon Campbell
Family: Wife, Tammy; son, Wayland; daughter, Bailey
Hometown: Gilbert, Arizona
Occupation: Mechanic, fabricator, race-car driver
Wheeling experience: 21 years
First 4x4: 1972 Jeep CJ-5
Current daily driver: 1993 Ford Ranger 2WD
If I could go wheeling right now, I’d go: Anywhere. TDS is a blast!
Race rig: Custom-built, one-seat, LS3-powered, with Hughes TH350, Atlas 3.0, Fox shocks, Goodyear tires, Currie axles, ARB Air Lockers
Most challenging section of the KOH course: Outer Limits
Last movie watched: Little Fockers
Last book read: Not much of a reader. I’m slow, but love looking at the pictures, though.
In your CD/MP3 player: Whatever Wayland and Bailey put on it.
How it feels to be a two-time King of the Hammers winner: It still hasn’t sunk in yet. All I can think about is how I’m going to win my next race. Sometimes I feel like a machine that’s programmed to just win, so having a beer and hanging with friends is very relaxing and takes it off my mind. Winning is great, but I know it was friends, family, and sponsors that got me here. Thank you!
Last words: I’m happy as hell. I proved the A-armed car is a force to be reckoned with. Several people said it wouldn’t work, but I knew the first year it was the shiznit. I just had to prove it. I have no secrets and love to help others. I remember when I first started, the people I dealt with, the trial and error, and the headaches. I was determined to learn. Being innovative and breaking several parts got me where I’m at today. I love to share my experiences with people who have the ambition and drive.
I hate to see anyone struggle. It’s no fun. I’ve been there. If you read the magazines and watch TV, you would think I was a millionaire. I struggle to pay bills and keep my job every day, but I’m chest-deep in family and friends and that will get you a lot further than a wad of cash. See ya at the next race!
New for 2011: Spectator Education
New this year, Hammerking Productions partnered with the California Association of 4WD Clubs to create the largest education program any desert race fan has ever witnessed. All spectators entering King of the Hammers were asked to donate an entry fee of $10, which was good for the entire week and included camping. All told, the initiative raised $65,000. We’re told that 10 percent of the proceeds went to fund land use issues, and the remainder went to offset increased logistics needs of the event. Cal 4-Wheel members manned the entrance of the event, 24 hours per day, for five days. Spectators were given information that ensured that every attendee was aware of spectator areas and schedules.
|KOH 2011: The Top 5|
|Name||Start position||Elapsed time|
|1. Shannon Campbell||62||6:11:54|
|2. Tony Pelligrino||41||6:42:31|
|3. Jason Scherer||36||6:49:50|
|4. Randy Slawson||3||7:01:13|
|5. Greg Adler||1||7:09:40|
The Future of KOH and Johnson Valley
We spent a few minutes on the phone with Dave Cole, president of Hammerking Productions, to pick his brain and understand what his organization has planned for King of the Hammers in the next five years. His response surprised us. Despite record-shattering attendance at the 2011 event, both by spectators and vendors, Hammerking and KOH are just beginning to capitalize on what could be the fastest growing form of motorsport in the U.S.
First and foremost, KOH is a business, Cole said, and we have to treat it as such. We’re set on producing the highest-caliber events the desert racing community has ever seen. To do so, we may find that our current venue (Johnson Valley) is the biggest limiting factor.
With so many variables outside of our control, such as BLM use permits, and spectator access to terrain and facilities, KOH has become a monster of an investment to pull together. What cost us $2,700 to permit in 2010 cost us nearly $40,000 in 2011and that’s just permits. The real game-changer that caused the fees to increase was the tragic California 200 off-road race.
Despite a grim outlook in Johnson Valley, Ultra 4 racing has a bright and economically stable future. Cole told us he expects their Reno, Nevada-based Stampede event to outgrow KOH in just three short years. You simply can’t expect to expand the fan experience, Cole said, without having things like hotels and restaurants nearby. FW