It started with 12 guys in their trail rigs racing up and down the Hammer trails in Johnson Valley, and now six year later it has grown into a giant spectacle in the desert of Southern California. This year 135 teams competed for the crown as King of the Hammers 2012.
The race combines rockcrawling with desert racing in a real-life contradiction: Vehicles built to go fast often have suspension less inclined to crawl boulders, and vice versa, but don’t tell that to the teams competing in the Ultra Four series, where just these attributes reign supreme. These specially built buggies are pushing the technology to new heights. Lighter, faster, stronger, and more expensive machinery is showing up every year to make a run for the title.
Even more amazing is how well the sport is growing. Compared to other flash-in-the-pan off-road sports that climb then crash quicker than, well, a high-speed rock buggy, KOH and the yearlong Ultra Four series that has grown out of this single race seem to keep outdoing themselves. This year saw the addition of classes for stock 4x4s, stock modified 4x4s, UTVs, and motorcycles. Time will tell whether the sport can keep climbing and growing as fast as the 4x4s on the track.
Want to see how you can get your own 4x4 in this series of high-speed insanity? Check out www.ultra4racing.com, but also take the time to tell your local congressional representative that you are against the proposed Marine base expansion into the Johnson Valley OHVA. To learn more, visit www.fojv.org.
Words of a King
It is exciting to see a new name on the podium. Though Erik Miller has plenty invested in his vehicle, it is not nearly as high-tech as some of the competitors, with its solid axles and healthy but not overbuilt engine and drivetrain. This year’s winner is from the East Coast, reinforcing the fact that anyone can still enter and win this event with hard work, perseverance, and luck. We caught up with King Erik, the 2012 winner of the King of the Hammers, and asked him a few questions about the race, his buggy, and how he prepares.
4WOR: Tell us a little about yourself. How old are you, how did you get into four-wheeling and racing, what do you do for a living, and what types of racing do you do?
Erik Miller: I am 25 and currently in grad school studying to get my MBA. I was introduced to four-wheeling as a child. My grandfather had a ’57 Willys Jeep CJ-5 that he used on the farm and would take me for “jeep rides” in. I learned how to drive in that Jeep, and we are currently restoring it to original condition.
That old Jeep sparked my interest in four-wheeling. I got into the competitive off-road scene after attending a NEUROC event at Paragon (a closed off-road park in Pennsylvania) in 2004. I was hooked and built my ’03 TJ (Jp magazine cover shot, Dec. ’05) up to compete in the Stock Modified class. I competed for three years and started running some XRRA events in the TJ too. I was severely outclassed, but I loved the sport of rock racing.
The road to KOH began in 2009 when Ultra4 brought a qualifier to the east known as Rausche Creek (also in Pennsylvania). Being a Right Coast guy, I was local to the event and it piqued my interest. I made a few tweaks to my Jeep and ran the race on a whim. We finished ninth out of 10 available spots to qualify for KOH. What was once just a farfetched idea quickly became a reality.
Our current focus this season is the entire Ultra4 series. In addition to that, I race back east at RCrocs and the Line Mountain series. I am also planning on going to Crandon this year with Ultra4 for the short-course event and doing the Polish Mountain Hill Climb in my Ultra4 car.
4W: Is there anyone you’d like to thank for help and support of your team win?
EM: I need to thank all of my family and teammates who support me through all of my racing endeavors. Otherwise, none of this would be possible. I also have to thank my sponsors for their continued support. Their contributions are a big part of why this program is successful:
• Dom & John Balducci, Balducci Bros. Racing
• Scott Decker, Bro King Racing for his “Prerunner”
• Eric Startzel and Tom Birster, EMS Offroad
• Thomas Kingston and Eddie Casanueva, Spidertrax Offroad
• Nate Hunt, BFGoodrich Tires
• Mark Pozzuoli, The Axle Exchange
• Will Gentile, HeavyMetalConcepts
• Wayne Israelsen, Alltech Motorsports
• Tim Schwanke, Schwanke Engines
• Vic Carroll, Advanced Adapters
• Jason Youd, PAC Racing Springs
• Scott Santucci, Metro Printing and Promotions
• Lance Gilbert, PSC Motorsports
• Jason Paule, Twisted Customs
• Zac Johnson, BTR Racing Wheels
4W: What advice do you have for drivers or beginner off-roaders looking to get into the sport of Ultra4 racing?
EM: Get out there and race locally. There are smaller races popping up all over the U.S. Learn from the smaller races, work the bugs out of your car, figure out how to finish races, and then take the plunge.
4W: What did you do to prepare for the race? Training, vehicle prep, prerunning, and so on?
EM: I like to cross-train. For cardio I cycle, swim, or run. Strength training consists of mostly upper body and core work. Being fit equates to better focus and decreased fatigue, allowing me to push harder for a longer period of time.
Each year the car undergoes a frame-off rebuild to ensure that each component is 100 percent. Everything is gone through and rebuilt or replaced. We usually begin this right after our Thanksgiving week “prerun” trip to Johnson Valley, which we use to test, tune, and do our homework for the race in February.
I use a different yet very similar car to the 4421 for prerunning duties the week leading up to the race. This allows us to keep the race car in tiptop shape for the main event while providing us the ability to prerun as much as needed. This was key in our Second Place finish at the Stampede and our victory at KOH.
4W: What can you tell us about your buggy?
EM: It is a … [see Tech Specs—4W]
4W: How long have you had the car?
EM: 31⁄2 years. This was my third time racing KOH.
4W: We understand this was a previous race car. Did you make any major changes when you first got the car?
EM: The only thing that has remained unchanged is the area between the beltline to the rocker. Otherwise, it has been replaced or upgraded. Each year the car undergoes a full frame-off teardown and rebuild before KOH. Traveling from the east to KOH, it is critical to know that each component on the vehicle is new/rebuilt and in working order.
4W: What changes to it did you make this year?
EM: We upgraded to Fox coilover and bypass shocks, added a custom toolbox (moving weight lower and farther back), lowered the spare tire mount, added a plethora of spare part mounts onboard (steering pump, lines, fittings, driveshaft, yokes, U-bolts, wheel hub, and so on), Alltech Motorsports dual intake fuel pumps, reworked steering system with improved ram mounting with additional steel clamps, retainer plates, and 9⁄16-inch studs, and a new PAC sway bar with fabricated arms.
4W: Anything you would change on the car for the future?
EM: It’s funny; the car is almost fully dialed after four years now, but I am starting to think about building a new one for next year. If I build a new car the formula will stay the same. Keep it simple. Smooth, reliable LS power built with torque in mind, 4L80 for the OD, Atlas, Spidertrax Pro series axles with 50 degrees of steering, Fox bypass and coilovers, and so on. I have a few ideas to improve upon our current car, but you will have to wait until next year to find out!
4W: Tell us about the race itself. Where did you start?
EM: We qualified fourth, which put us second off the line with previous winner Shannon Campbell. I knew that a top 10 qualifying run was important to get out in front early to avoid the dust and traffic jams. I stuck to the game plan and ran a smooth, consistent, relatively issue-free race, and it paid off.
4W: When did you realize you were in the lead?
EM: After passing Shannon, Nick Nelson and Rick Mooneyham, we knew we were physically first. It wasn’t until after starting the second lap that I knew we had some time on the field. Rick was the only car to pass us all day.
4W: Was the race harder than other years?
EM: I think the difficulty was on par with last year. This race was more fun with longer sections of desert.
4W: Did you have any mechanical issues?
EM: The first lap was pretty clean. On the second lap our radiator fans started giving us trouble. They would randomly shut off but were not blowing the circuit breaker. The solution was to hard-wire the front fan on. This was sufficient, but we were not able to push as hard without overheating.
Next problem I can only blame on myself. I somehow flipped the trans cooler fan off at the bottom of the Chocolate Thunder Trail and didn’t realize it until we were into the next rock trail. Needless to say, the trans gauge was buried. We stopped for what felt like an eternity to let the trans cool back down to 250 so we could at least begin moving again.
We hit traffic in Wrecking Ball. As our cooling issues continued to be a problem, Rick caught us for the first time. At that point, running a conservative race went out the window. We were going to catch Rick or smoke the car doing it. We passed him going down Claw Hammer after he got a flat tire. My steering was beginning to act up so I stopped at the last pit to add some fluid. On our way out of pit, Rick was entering. Our serpentine belt blew off 500 yards out of pit. As we were changing it, Rick passed us again. This was the second time I saw the win slip away, and I thought for sure Rick had it.
As Robbie (my co-driver) packed the toolbox back up, I strapped in and peeled out after Rick. I drove full-tilt with no regard for the car, chasing Rick’s dust trail. I knew I was catching him as the dust grew thicker and thicker. I passed him on the last lake bed. I knew we had the win if I could make it through the Resolution and Back Door trails with no issues.
I encountered more lap traffic, but the last bits of rocks were uneventful. I blasted down the wash from Back Door, ready for the last climb before the finish, and then my steering started getting heavy, a telltale signs of a pump about to blow. Sure enough, as I reach the top I lose all steering. The final descent to the finish line was interesting to say the least!
4W: What about the other cars on your second lap? Did they slow you down?
EM: We encountered the worst lap traffic on the Wrecking Ball Trail, but we were also overheating. It was definitely more difficult to deal with traffic on the second lap, but most racers are respectful with passing etiquette.
4W: Did you find the high-speed desert or rockcrawling sections easier or harder? Which was more fun?
EM: I think one of our advantages is being quick in the rocks. I am a rockcrawler at heart and enjoy that aspect of the race. The desert sections were a blast this year, and I look forward to doing more desert racing.
2008 Twisted Customs 54-inch Pro Mod Chassis
Engine: 7.0L Schwanke-built LS3
Transmission: Schwanke TH475
Transfer case: Atlas II 3.0
Axles: Spidertrax Pro Series 9-inch, spool/spool lockers, 5.40 True Hi-9 gears
Springs & Such: Fox coilover/ bypass shocks
Tires & Wheels: 39-inch BFG KRT on BTR Racing wheels
Steering: PSC full hydraulic
Other Stuff: 108-inch wheelbase, Warn 9.0 RC winch, Mastercraft 3G seats, Auto Meter gauges, dual Ron Davis radiators, Ron Davis coolers, Axle Exchange drivelines, wrap courtesy of Metro Printing
It’s Not Over Until You Cross the Line
Mike Klensin of Tuscon, Arizona, in the 4431 car was so excited to finish in Ninth Place (only 48 racers finished from a field of 135) that he took the final jump a little fast. This double barrel ensued, but that’s how rock racers roll. Landing on his wheels, Mike started up his car and cruised across the finish line.