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From Napkin Notes To World Phenomena: King Of The Hammers

Posted in Events on March 29, 2017 Comment (0)
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During the early morning hours, dust from a week of tire-to-tire competition had settled and all was calm on the Southern California desert. As the sun crested the eastern horizon, racers and support crews made last-minute preparations, checking fluids and GPS systems, and mentally preparing for the day ahead. It was a scene that has played out every February for the past decade, and in a few hours teams would slip on race suits, secure their harnesses, and begin one of the most punishing off-road events on the planet, the Nitto Tire King of the Hammers (KOH). Although the event has gained traction as one of the world’s premier automotive venues, few understand its humble beginnings. To get the lowdown on how passion can fuel an entirely new industry, we spent time with KOH cofounder Dave Cole after this year’s event.

One night over a couple of coldies, friends Dave and Jeff Knoll came up with the concept for a dual-sport race that would not only demand supremacy in technical terrain, but also a mastery of high-speed desert racing. They jotted their thoughts on a napkin and later shared the idea with an inner circle of friends—the response was good. A few months later they found themselves in Johnson Valley, California, for beta testing.

Backdoor, a trail known for its heinous, eight-foot vertical ledge and regular carnage, has become a regular fixture in the route maps for all races.

The Early Years

That first event was small and unpublicized, with just 12 teams and a handful of friends. It would become known as the OG13 (it should have been the OG12 but there was a misprint on the shirts), and incorporate eight of the famous Hammer trails and the desert sections between. The goal, of course, was to finish in the shortest time possible. Cole was the sole marshal, and there were sign-in sheets at the top and bottom of each route to ensure compliance. When the dust settled JR Reynolds would be crowned the first King of the Hammers. The event’s success led to the formation of Hammerking Productions, and word spread fast that there would be a sequel.

The year 2008 marked the first official KOH, and it too was a semiprivate event. Although all of the off-road magazines were invited, only Crawl responded and thus received an exclusive (save a few renegades). There were 43 teams, seven trails, and the course was expanded to 55 miles in length. Shannon Campbell, who started dead last, would school the competition on how to pass 42 vehicles and take the crown. This victory, along with a life of achievement and contributions to the sport, would provide fodder for Campbell’s 2015 induction into the Off-Road Motorsports Hall of Fame.

Any city worth its weight in silt has a welcome sign, and Hammertown is no exception.

In 2009 Raceline Wheels sponsored a massive, carnival-style tent for driver and press meetings, dozens of manufacturers showed up with semitrucks and product displays, and vendor alley was taking shape. GPS tracking for all racers was incorporated, Pirate 4x4 provided live streaming web broadcasts, and a couple thousand spectators showed up. We asked Dave Cole about the key components of their early successes. “Tom and Steve at Griffin Radiator believed in us from the beginning, as well as Genright, Spidertrax, and smaller shops. They had our backs early on and sustained us at our core. Nitto Tire and 4 Wheel Parts gave us opportunity through financial support to take bigger chances and grow to the next level.”

KOH began to attract competitors from SCORE and NASCAR such as Robby Gordon, Curt LeDuc, Rob MacCachren, and BJ Baldwin. While the event was gaining traction as North America’s toughest off-road race, the rest of the world was taking notice. Articles published in Australian, Asian, and European magazines caught the attention of not only racers and fans, but also the global media.

The Royal Family: Shannon Campbell with son, Wayland: 2008, 2011, 2017 Shannon Campbell, the only driver to be king three times, has created a racing dynasty. This year his daughter, Bailey, and son, Wayland, gave him some stiff competition, Wayland coming within 30 seconds of steeling the crown.

Growing Pains

In 2011, Jeff Knoll left Hammerking Productions to pursue other ventures. Dave took the ball and ran with it, but there were dark clouds on the horizon. A tragic accident at the MDR California 200 the previous year put KOH in the Bureau of Land Management’s crosshairs with regard to spectator safety. Over the next few years, Cole and his team worked closely with BLM to address potential issues and establish defined safety protocols for future events.

Cole said that the most critical threat was presented the following year when the 29 Palms Marine Base annexed a large portion of the Johnson Valley OHV area for training. “That was by far the most serious. We knew that the only way to save the public land was to make the race grow and the public aware of it. We created press releases, worked with our congressmen, and generated petitions that went to the White House.” With the help of hundreds of volunteers, thousands of dollars were generated to fund the land use fight.

Loren Healy scales the Sledghammer Trail amongst a mass of spectators on his way to victory in the 2010 event. After getting bumped off the throne in 2013 he reclaimed the title in 2014.

International Phenomena

During the next five years, KOH experienced exponential growth. A power grid was developed to light the streets of Hammertown, Smittybilt sponsored the Every Man Challenge, and King of the Motos and King of the UTVs were added, as well as a full day of qualifying. Cole also created the nationwide ULTRA4 series, which would eventually expand to include events in Europe, Australia, and China.

A secondary impact has been the creation of numerous satellite industries. As speeds and trail difficulty increased, dozens of small companies have sprouted up to service a public hungry for cutting-edge technology. It is clearly evident that Cole has a close personal connection with those around him. “I think that everyone who runs their own shop, pulls their own weight, and has created their own success is a part of this community. It has taken everyone’s desire to see this succeed, and we all grow together as a family. Another important aspect is the drivers’ commitment to making ULTRA4 the best community in the world.” Of the original OG13 racers, most are still involved. Bart Dixon and Randy Slawson (2007 king JR Raynolds’ navigator and 2013 king) still compete, JT Taylor is the event’s race director, and Hobie Smith manages television media.

It has been amazing to watch KOH grow over the years. What was once a few Jeeps and toy haulers on a dry lake has turned into temporary city with grid streets, lights, and tens of thousands of spectators.

When asked what the future holds, Dave said, “I want to continue grassroots racing and Every Man Challenge-style events while exposing ULTRA4 to as many people around the world as we can, as well as continue to make the safest and most brand-friendly motorsport. A goal of mine is to offer a bounty of $1,000,000 to the first person who can win KOH with an electric vehicle.” He closed in saying, “The other challenge has been that the guy leading all of this is just a stupid racer himself. Senior leadership is just dumb.” This is a pretty humble statement from a guy who has literally changed the industry.

This year more than 130 manufacturers and vendors set up booths, nearly 1,000 competitors suited up during the week, and an estimated 60,000 spectators packed the sidelines. Nearly 400 journalists from five continents arrived in Hammertown to report on the action, and NBC Sports was on hand to film an upcoming 15-episode series. Helicopters with camera operators perched on their skids chased 500hp buggies through narrow canyons and across alkali flats, and tens of millions followed via live, worldwide digital media. What began just a decade ago as a one-day gathering of enthusiasts and a peppering of tents on an alkali flat, has evolved into one of the largest automotive venues on the planet. It has literally become the Burning Man of the off-road world.

See you on the lakebed!

One of the most notable aspects of KOH is that it is not for sissies. On average, less than a third of the competitors make it the checkered flag in the 14-hour time limit.
When the adrenaline is flowing and the clock is ticking, a canyon traffic jam is often the catalyst for tire-to-tire warfare. Such was the case on the Chocolate Thunder Trail 2012, which turned into a vehicular dog pile to get to the top.
Two-time king Erik Miller (2012 and 2016) and his team during the 2012 event.
Although the Outer Limits is far removed from Hammertown and receives few spectators, it is one of the one of the best places to find dozens of vehicles stacked up and waiting to pass its narrow, boulder-strew exit.
Backdoor, a popular spectator draw, hosts the main event, Smittybilt Every Man Challenge, and King of the UTVs.
Teams are waved off the starting line two-by-two every 30 seconds. Kings Shannon Campbell and Jason Scherer fly out of the first turn in 2013.
Robby Gordon is one of many NASCAR and desert racers to try their hands at this dual-discipline race. Most have commented that KOH was one the toughest events they had competed in.
Although the top ten usually see the checkered flag by early afternoon, dozens of teams race into the night in an attempt to finish within the 14-hour maximum time limit.
One of the unique aspects of KOH is that to be successful you must not only master the rocky sections, but also be skilled at 100-mph charges across open desert.
King Randy Slawson (2013 and 2015) with codriver Michael Slawson during the 2009 event.
While this may look like the start of a smoke-bomb scramble, or a scene from Road Warrior, it is actually spectators (who often think they are racers) blasting across the Means dry lake to catch the action at Chocolate Thunder.
After tireless work with the BLM, KOH organizers developed strict precautionary measures to keep spectator a safe distance from the vehicles and flying debris.
As KOH grew and garnered the world’s attention, major media outlets and network television began to show up with helicopters and full-tilt video teams.
When the sun goes down, Hammertown develops a Burning Man carnival atmosphere. Thousands gather around the Bestop bonfire to watch the live action on the massive jumbotron monitor.

Competition is fierce, and there is a fine line between pushing the limits and running out of talent. Mike Klensin found himself in this predicament at the finish line of the 2012 event when he nosed down into a dramatic pirouette barrel roll. Miraculously, he landed rubber-side down and was able to drive into the pits. This sequence shows that the competitors are pushing hard at all times. Sometimes, maybe a bit too hard.

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