A race like no other, the King of Hammers has become not only the race that every racer wants to win, it’s one that brings spectators from all over the world to experience.
Held in the Johnson Valley of the southern California desert, it has everything that a rock racer could want: huge rock uphills with names like Backdoor, wide open desert sections where speeds reach 100 miles per hour, deep sand that swallows even the toughest rigs, and dust. Even though the King of Motos race was run under stormy skies, by the end of the week the sun was out and the dust was rising.
KING OF HAMMERS
Erik Miller is nothing if not consistent. He’s raced the same straight axle car for the last four years with the same co-driver, Rob Ruggiero, and he’s mostly talked about “racing conservatively” in pre-race interviews.
He used this consistency to his best advantage to win the 2016 Nitto King of the Hammers.
“It’s been three long years,” said Miller after the race. “I’ve been dreaming about doing this again since we won in 2012. We’ve been right there every single year, but then we’d have a problem.”
This year was the 10th version of Nitto King of the Hammers and 110 competitors from seven countries and 39 states took the line for the 176-mile race. Only 31 of them finished. With Miller’s win, a total of four drivers have now won KOH twice: Shannon Campbell (2008 and 2011), Loren Healy (2010 and 2014), Randy Slawson (2013 and 2015) and Miller (2012 and 2016).
Jason Scherer and Loren Healy, both racing single-seaters and who finished 1-2 respectively during qualifying, were the first two off the line. Healy’s rig didn’t sound too good as they hit the big infield jump and the two battled in the desert portion and were the first two to make it back to their pits after lap 1. Even though Healy was to lead the race through the first lap, his day would soon end
Healy actually built a new car for 2016, but the engine blew during pre-running. After blowing up his new a two-seater straight axle rig, he pulled up to the line on Friday, he was back in the famous “Red Dragon” a single-seat IFS car. Healy was fast, but he tossed a belt on the third lap and had to walk about three miles back to his pit.
Due to a poor qualifying result, Miller was 27th off the line. It wasn’t until the start of the third lap that he took the lead both physically and with adjusted time. “I will be honest, I was surprised when I saw a couple of checkpoint guys hold up a “1” and I was like, ‘where did they go?’ I don’t remember passing anyone.” One reason for Miller’s success is that the team didn’t change a tire all day and only winched three-times.
It wasn’t a perfect day though as any minute at the KOH could be the last. “We took it easy on the car which was our strategy,” said Miller. “The only real mechanical (problem) we had was at the top of Sledgehammer. We had a drive shaft issue and couldn’t go over 20 mph. Then right in the middle of fixing it, the car pops out of gear, and we start to roll off the ledge. I was scared for my life.”
Miller said he didn’t remember passing him, but second place finisher Jason Scherer was having problems of his own. “Things started overheating. I’m not really sure what it was,” says Scherer. “It’s probably going to be the story of a two-dollar radiator cap that failed and let some water out of the system and the next thing you know we were overheating. I had a great group of guys at pit two and they diagnosed it, and we fixed it. Then we were back out there and in the hunt.” The mechanical problem cost him right around 45 minutes, and likely, the win. “You can’t be disappointed with second,” said Scherer, “I’m really happy to start the season with it because we are going to go hard for the championship.”
It was also turning out to be a good day for the Campbell’s. At one point, it looked like all three (father, son, and daughter) might make the podium. Despite breaking a rear axle shaft on Backdoor during the third lap, Shannon Campbell battled his way back to fourth and almost took down Ruiz Gomez for third. The only woman driver on the 110-man roster, 19-year-old Baily Campbell, had an incredible race moving from 33rd off the start line up to an impressive 5thplace overall, right behind father Shannon. “That was one rough ride, no joke,” said an exhausted Baily, who was racing a straight axle two-seater. “I couldn’t have done it without my co-driver Terry.” Brother Wayland Campbell, 20, was competing in Shannon’s 2105 single-seater and was running second on the third lap when he broke a drive shaft on Sledgehammer. While he was waiting for a replacement, he helped winch both his sister and father up the trail. He went on to finish 15th.
The King of Hammers draws racers of all kind, and off-road racing legend Rob MacCachren gave KOH another try. With two DNF’s (2010 and 2015), it seems that 2016 was better as he crossed the finish line in 13th driving Larry McRae’s Poison Spyder Jeep. “I’ve been racing off road for 30 years,” said MacCachren. “I do short course, did the Mickey Thompson series, I just won the Baja 1000 for the second time, but this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done to finish. It’s a testament to how tough it is out here.” Miller may have taken a cue from Curt LeDuc, as to cap off his victory and in front of hundreds of fans and thousands of viewers watching online, he got down on one knee and proposed to his girlfriend of two years, Leah Light. She said yes.
1. Erik Miller--7:30:55
2. Jason Scherer--7:55:32
3. Raul Gomez--8:23:57
4. Shannon Campbell--8:26:18
5. Bailey Campbell--8:45:18
6. Jason Shipman--8:49:15
7. Brian Caprara--9:09:41
8. Randy Slawson--9:22:48
9. Macy Higgins--10:49:52
SMITTYBILT EVERY MAN CHALLENGE
When the green flagged dropped for 2016 Smittybilt Every Man Challenge, Jessi Combs—driving a car that she has won with for the last three years, sped off onto the 116-mile course.
Sitting 72 cars back behind Combs was Colorado’s Brad Lovell. Lovell, who was racing in the Legends class, was in the same car that he raced his first KOH race nine years earlier. Really flying during the desert section, Lovell went from 72nd to 7th by the end of the first lap. Then he headed into the rock trails known as Jackhammer, Wrecking Ball, and Chocolate Thunder. Ahead of him, Combs started running into trouble. First she lost her GPS and then she flatted twice.
“We finally caught up with Jessi on Jack North,” said Lovell. “We kept trailing her but still we couldn’t grab her.” Nearing a checkpoint at the bottom of Jackhammer, Lovell overtook Combs and didn’t see her again until they stopped to winch at Highway 19 and 20. “She got up it without winching” said Lovell, “and that put her right back in the game again.” Combs problems continued though and she soon had transmission woes. “We lost sight of her then,” Lovell said, “but boy did she give us a good race.”
In the end, Lovell finished in 4:30:18, almost 20 minutes ahead of Randy Slawson. Slawson, who despite finishing physically third, ended up beating Combs with adjusted time. Slawson, who was splitting driving duties with his brother Michael, climbed from 54th off the line to 2nd overall. 2016 was the first time the former King had competed in the EMC and he spent the last four months building a car specifically for this race.
Combs, who was the first woman to win a KOH class back in 2014 (Spec), finished physically second, but she ended up third overall. Still, she won the 4500 class. At only 17 years of age, 2016 marks the third time Jordon Pellegrino, has competed in KOH. He just missed the podium in fourth while Kent Fults rounded out the Top 5.
It was Lovell’s first overall EMC victory. He won the Legends class in 2014, and in 2010, finished only 28 seconds behind the winner in the main KOH race.
1. Brad Lovell
2. Randy Slawson
3. Jessi Combs
4. Jordan Pellegrino
5. Kent Fults
4500 class (Rubicon Express Modified)
1. Jessi Combs
2. Jordan Pellegrino
3. Brandon Heyes
4800 class (Legends)
1. Brad Lovell
2. Randy Slawson
3. Kent Fults
4600 class (Pro Comp Stock)
10. Brian Behrend
POLARIS RZR KOH UTV
If there was a favorite in the Polaris RZR KOH UTV King of the Hammers, it was undoubtedly six-time KOH UTV Champ Mitch Guthrie. It seemed that record seventh win was not out of the question, but first he had to beat a huge UTV class.
One driver used to winning too is Blake Van de Loo from Phoenix, Arizona. Van de Loo, who won the UTV class of the 2015 Baja 1000, started five positions behind Guthrie and used those desert racing skills to quickly close the gap on Guthrie on the first lap. “I definitely took some risks in the desert,” said Van de Loo. “I pushed a little harder than I probably should have, but I kept it in control, and we got out in front and that’s what we wanted to do.”
Van de Loo and Guthrie then headed into the second lap neck-and-neck. “We caught Mitch after lap one, but then we were battling in the rocks going back and forth,” said Van de Loo. “Mitch is such a classy driver though. We’d catch up and he’d let us by and then he’d catch us, and we’d let him go by. We traded positions about 10 times.”
It wasn’t until Guthrie broke a front heim on his lower A-Arm coming down Jackhammer that Van De Loo took the lead for good. Guthrie estimates the mechanical cost him about 40 minutes; an amount that let Van de Loo run away with the race.
In the end, Van de Loo tackled the 115-mile course in a time of 4:22:53, 30 minutes faster than the next competitor. After recovering from the mechanical, Guthrie battled his way back to 5th. An impressive feat considering two-thirds of the field DNF’d, including 2016 Dakar Rally winner Marcus Patronelli.
1. Blake Van De Loo: 4:22:53
2. Branden Sims: 4:55:19
3. Chad Hughes: 5:05:52
4. Dean Bulloch: 5:11:44
5. Mitch Guthrie: 5:14:19
King Of Motos
In what is becoming a must-race event for the fast motorcycle guys, the King of Motos can now be mentioned in the same breath with Erzberg hard enduro and the best off-road riders competed to kick off to the annual King of the Hammers week. It was Red Bull Factory KTM rider Cody Webb who outlasted them all to take the win and crowned 2016 Champion at the 5th running of the KLIM King of the Motos.
A total of 95 entries began the day, though only 78 made it to the afternoon race. It was a mixed field as 22 pro riders, 51 Sportsman riders and 5 teams tackled the 9-mile course. And ala Ersberg, the afternoon’s starting line was at the base of one of the steepest, rockiest sections, and sent the riders straight up it. It also sent a majority of the riders tumbling back down to try again.
Red Bull KTM’s Taylor Robert had secured the first pick in the afternoon race by being the top finisher of the first loop, followed by Webb. They came together at the top of the dead-engine start before heading onto the course. “That first lap was just like being in the peloton,” said three-time KOM Champion Webb. “We were just pacing and carrying a good momentum. There were like 4 or 5 of us just really pushing it. Colton started taking off on us and really started pushing it on the second lap.”
The rough weather was a big factor in this year’s King of the Motos as a high winds, cold temps and rain dogged the racers.
“The wind blowing you off the mountains, the dust, then rain came in. That made everything really slippery for a few laps,” Rockstar Husqvarna rider Colton Haaker recalls. Haaker was leading at one point when he hit a rock buried in the sand sending him over the bars. With a few scrapes, he was able to get back on the bike after a minute or two and finish third behind Webb and Taylor. Cory Graffunder and Kyle Redmond rounded out the Top 5.
1 Cody Webb
2 Taylor Robert
3 Colton Haaker
4 Cory Graffunder
5 Kyle Redmond
4 Wheel Parts Qualifying
1. Jason Scherer
2. Loren Healy
3. Derek West
4. Shannon Capbell
5. Clay Gilstrap
One of the coolest things was that there was a big screen in the vendor area that gave the assembled crowds a first-person view of all the action.
Erik Miller overcame being stuck with a bad starting position to take the win.
Loren Healy and Jason Scherer wait patiently on the starting line
Healy’s rig didn’t sound too good as he leaped the starting line jump. It cleaned out some but wouldn’t finish the race.
Brad Lovell may have finished with less than 4 complete tires, but he still outlasted a talented field to take the overall win at the “Smittybilt Every Man Challenge.”
Persistence paid off for Blake Van Den Loo as he piloted the Jagged X Racing Polaris RZR to the win in the
With the weather nearly as tough as the course and competition, Cody Webb had his hands full, but still beat everybody to the line at the King of Motos.
Is there anything that Rob Mac doesn’t race? The multi-time Baja and LOORRS champion drove to a 13th place finish at the KOH.
Sand isn’t the first thing you think about with the King of Hammers, but there is plenty of it in Johnson Valley.