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History in the Making

Posted in Features on May 1, 2013
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BJ Baldwin was among a host of desert drivers who tried to tackle King of the Hammers this year. None would finish. Author: Harry Wagner Lead Photo: High Rev Photography

BJ Baldwin KOH Photo 68808531 BJ Baldwin was among a host of desert drivers who tried to tackle King of the Hammers this year. None would finish.

In one particularly memorable scene of the infinitely memorable Dust to Glory, Vic Wilson is quoted as stating “As you go through life, if you knew you were making history you would have paid more attention to it.” While it is still a mere baby compared to the four decades of racing in Baja and Crandon, it is safe to say that the Griffin King of the Hammers (KOH) is here to stay. From a single boutique race that started seven years ago an entirely new series and genre has been created, Ultra4 racing. Yet KOH is still the crown jewel of the series, eclipsing all the other events combined. Last February on Means Dry Lake Bed, more than 30,000 people gathered to be a part of history, whether they knew they were making it or not. Part of the appeal is the ability to bring their own rock crawlers and travel over the same trails used in the race, making them more than just spectators. King of the Hammers is a full week of activities now, and includes motorcycle and UTV races, a limited class race, and two days of qualifying prior to the big show. All rely on the same basic premise: navigating not only across whooped-out desert terrain, but also through some of the most difficult rock-crawling trails in the world. As it has grown, KOH has attracted the attention of notable off-road racers from other genres, including Rob MacCachren, Brian Deegan and Robby Gordon. Much to their chagrin, yet to the delight of many rock-crawlers, none has ever reached the finish line.

Desert Racers Dominate Qualifying All of that looked like it might change in 2013, as TJ Flores and Robby Gordon qualified in the third and fourth positions, respectively. Both men raced in KOH in 2012, and after their races ended early they had all year to prepare for their return, but was qualifying really representative of the race? Despite the popularity of Chocolate Thunder last year, qualifying was held on a new course this year located on the hillside behind Hammertown. At just over a mile long, the course had loose climbs, hairpin turns and rutted turns, that put more than one competitor on their lid. Rocks, by contrast, were in short supply. Not as entertaining, nor as challenging, as Chocolate Thunder, but the course did allow qualifying to run smoothly over two days without having to spend hours extracting broken and rolled vehicles from the rocks. A premium has been placed on keeping on schedule since last year Ultra4 kingpin Dave Cole came up with the clever idea to have the biggest names qualify at the end of each day. This “Power Hour” is then broadcast on the Ultra4 website via a live stream. Top drivers on the qualifying course put in times under four minutes, and the leader had the opportunity to sit in the “Hot Seat” and provide commentary on whoever was on course. Qualifying was dominated not only by desert racing veterans but also by IFS cars, with seven of the top ten qualifiers favoring independent front suspension to a traditional solid axle. Once again, one had to wonder if this would mirror the results during the 185-mile race on Friday.

Randy Slawson seemed to come out of nowhere letting the race come to him to take the 2013 KOH win. Photo: Chris Collard While Slawson's success at King of the Hammers might have seemed like a fluke to the uninitiated, his path to the top was a long one and result of years of hard work. Photo: Art Eugenio Robby Gordon was back at the King of the Hammers and qualified well, but the result was the same as last year's with a broken steering box leading to another DNF. Photo: High Rev Photography Every Man Challenge On Thursday, the Smittybilt Every Man Challenge (EMC) was held for the first time in conjunction with, and on the same course as, the HCR UTV Race. The EMC is for Stock and Stock Modified vehicles, limited to, among other things, 35-inch and 37-inch DOT-approved tires, respectively. There were only four official finishers in Stock Mod, three in UTV, and just one Stock Class vehicle out of 94 total entries. A harbinger of things to come in the main race? “I ran KOH in 2009 in a buggy with 39-inch stickies, and that course was easier than this,” one EMC competitor was overheard commenting. Veterans fared well in the EMC, with longtime rock racer Matt Peterson taking the win in the Stock Class with his Grand Cherokee. The victory got him a spot in the main race on Friday, but it is debatable whether this is a blessing or a curse. Last year the EMC was held at the beginning of the week, leaving the winner time to prepare for the main race, but no such luck in 2013. Mitch Guthrie, another old hand in the rocks, won the UTV race for the fourth time in five years. Everyone else appears to be racing for second place in the UTV class at this point, which is remarkable in a race where the smallest problem can easily end your day. John Currie also repeated his victory from the EMC last year, adding LS power and 37-inch Falken tires to his Wrangler and moving up to the Modified Class. Currie ran away with the victory once again, though it was not without some drama. Near the end of the race, with a huge lead, Currie got stuck up to the frame in the sand with a malfunctioning winch. It was a perfect opportunity for British competitor Jim Marsden to show off the $7,500 Gigglepin winch on the front of his Rover, and with two starter motors it is powerful enough to pull Charlie Sheen out of a room full of hookers. After helping free Currie, Marsden was the first across the finish line, but hydraulic steering and sticky tires disqualified him from the Modified Class, handing the win to John Currie. “Jim shipped his rig over from England, and even though it was not legal for Stock Mod we let him run as an exhibition,” Cole explained.

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Matthew Peterson was the winner (and the only finisher) of the Stock Class in the Every Man Challenge which earned him a ticket to the big show. Two huge days of racing proved to be too much and he would DNF in the King of the Hammers. Photos: Chris Collard Even with cold temperatures and an impending snow storm rolling in, tons of spectators still turned up to take in the action. Even more would watch online with 270,000 unique visitors watching the live webcast. Photo: Harry Wagner A Monster Battle After a week of perfect weather, racers lined up on Friday morning in freezing temperatures and high winds. The wind made dust a non-issue during the race, which was comprised of nearly 50 miles of desert before it reached the first rocks. Cole has perfected this formula, allowing the faster vehicles to get out front and problems to rear their ugly heads before plugging up the rocky canyons. It worked, and several contenders were by the wayside within the first hour with blown engines, roasted transmissions or other mechanical carnage. They say this race is won in the desert, and lost in the rocks. Shannon Campbell battled Nick Nelson for the lead while Robby Gordon and co-driver Lance Clifford watched from the best seats in the house. “We had the power to run up front, but we felt that it was best to save the car for the rocks,” Clifford explained. In the end it did not matter for Gordon, as a failed steering box ended his race. “I have been in this race twice and it has kicked my ass both times,” Gordon confessed. “Next year will be different!” If it was any consolation, Robby Gordon was not alone. Only 27 of 129 drivers finished KOH, and four of those were after the official time limit of 14 hours. And, instead of seven of the top ten being IFS cars, as in qualifying, only three of the top ten sported independent front suspension. Dave Cole has developed a reputation for pushing vehicles and drivers alike as they progress each year, and this year was no different. The amazing part is that in this day and age, in a society where everyone gets a trophy just for participating, the difficulty of King of the Hammers is the main appeal. Don’t expect it to get easier any time soon, but a 20 percent finish rate? We heard a lot of teams grumbling about the time limit after making lengthy repairs in the pits. After Nick Nelson bowed out with suspension failure, Campbell had to fend off Kevin Sacalas in his turbocharged, LS-powered buggy. Shannon Campbell took a sidehill around the waterfall at the top of Wrecking Ball, and when others tried to follow many of them ended up on their roofs. The debate between IFS and solid axle cars still rages, and one of the biggest advantages emerging for the IFS cars is not their prowess in the rocks, but rather their stability in navigating around the rocks on canyon walls. As 30,000 fans on the lakebed watched Campbell on two Jumbotrons, and nearly half a million people at home followed the race on their computers, Randy Slawson was quietly executing his game plan. No one was really paying attention, but if they are up to date on their KOH history they should have been.

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Qualifying this year would be different with a shorter, faster and less technical course. It made for a much smoother process, but the lack of rocks left some wondering if it would be any prediction of race day. The successful King of the Motos returned this year with Larry Roeseler dropping the flag on the brutal race that would be won by Cody Webb. A Long Road At the first King of the Hammers in 2007, before it was the Griffin King of the Hammers presented by Nitto Tires and fueled by Red Bull, Slawson was the co-driver for winner John Reynolds. He returned from that event knowing that King of the Hammers would be something big, and the wheels were already turning. A fabricator in the sand car industry and instructor at Troy Johnson’s The Fab School, Slawson has an appreciation for craftsmanship and an understanding of unsprung weight and the effect it has at speed. When others were building rockcrawlers with increasingly larger components a decade ago, Slawson was embarrassing them at the Hammers with his elegantly simple “Bash Buggy.” By 2008, Randy’s wife had graduated from nursing school and he had the opportunity to go into business for himself. He raced a customer’s car in King of the Hammers that year and they were out front early on, only to have a steering pump failure end their race. This is a theme that would repeat itself for Slawson, and he led KOH in 2009 and 2011 only to see the win slip away due to trivial problems. In 2012, a serious motorcycle accident laid Slawson up for three months and resulted in the loss of several toes. He had recuperated by the race, but a broken input shaft in his transmission ended any hopes of victory that year. “I am probably not as competitive as a lot of the other guys out there,” Randy confessed, “but this is enough of an endurance race where that trait can be a benefit instead of a limitation.” Slawson got into this year’s King of the Hammers through the 4Wheel Parts Last Chance Qualifier (LCQ), as he has done in the past. While many competitors run the entire Ultra4 schedule, often in an effort to pre-qualify for King of the Hammers, this has never been a concern for Slawson. He has used the LCQ to get in three times in the past, preferring to spend his time shock testing with longtime sponsor King Shocks and wheeling at the Hammers to prepare for the race. This is part of his unconventional strategy, which also had Slawson run the vertical climb at Backdoor on the second lap instead of waiting until the third lap like Campbell and many other competitors did. Slawson ended up beating Campbell by over 20 minutes and third place finisher Chicky Barton by nearly winning King of the Hammers demand has gone way up, and Slawson already has orders to build four new Bomber buggies. Being in the spotlight is not always a good thing though. Slawson has not been immune from the post-race drama that seems to have become a standard in the age of YouTube and Internet forums. A video showing an aggressive pass and Slawson eventually driving over the hood of a broken racecar got keyboards across the nation fired up in backlash. “I would like to apologize to the guys in car 4490 and share my side of the story,” Randy posted on Facebook after the video surfaced. “We came up on them sitting in Elvis and they were out of their car, I signaled to them what to do and they moved to the driver’s side of the car. This led me to believe they thought my best shot was the high line on the pass side. When I rolled into it I got diffed at the rear and slid down into the car. At that point we were committed and I played the hand the best I could at the time. I thought I could just pop over their front tire, but as I turned into it, the hillside pushed us up and over the hood. If there is any damage to your car I would be happy to repair it at my shop free of charge. Hope you guys understand that I had no idea how close Campbell was and didn’t want him to catch us.” Keyboard racers everywhere had the wind taken out of their sails, with nothing else to speculate about. Success has a way of doing that, but Slawson is still adjusting to the spotlight. “I am a good fabricator and a decent driver, but I’m not real good at self-promotion,” he shares. The unique thing about King of the Hammers is that those traits are still enough. This time in KOH’s history reminds of us Vic Wilson, not only for his memorable quote but also for his grassroots success in early Baja races. Despite concerns about the influx of energy drink sponsorship money and tire wars, a talented fabricator can still win King of the Hammers if he has enough patience, skill and desire. Randy Slawson proved that to everyone.

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Chicky Barton ran a clean race to come in third behind Slawson and Campbell. Photo: Art Eugenio John Currie stepped up to the Modified Class and would again take the Every Man Challenge win. Mitch Guthrie and Mitch Guthrie Jr. took an amazing fourth win in five attempts in this year’s UTV race. The UTVs The King of the Hammers has a reputation for the most grueling race in North America. It was comprised of the original 13 racers, who could drive rock buggies like Mad Max on steroids. Well, there were some guys in the UTV division like Mitch Guthrie and Jon Crowley who can do that too. Guthrie, who has won it four out of the race’s five years, and Jon Crowley, who has raced it five years in a row only ever to be the bridesmaid, were both out for blood this year. As the King of the Hammers drew nearer, the anticipation grew much more intense. In talking with some of the racers, we found they were worried that there would not be enough time even to finish this grueling race. Founder and promoter of King of the Hammers, Dave Cole decided he was going to make this year’s KOH for UTVs one that would go down in the history books as the toughest race yet, and had laid out the course on the same one as the Ultra4s with only minor variations. They would all be going through infamous sections like Aftershock, Fissure Mountain, Jackhammer, Chocolate Thunder, Wrecking Ball, Claw Hammer, Upper and Lower Big Johnson and Elvis. All of these trails are known for swallowing up competition rigs on 40-inch tires let alone UTVs. Guys like Crowley and Guthrie had spent weeks before the race prerunning these trails over and over until they knew every good line by heart. This year, Crowley commandeered the co-driver skills of Blake Van de Loo from Polaris’ factory-backed racing team Jagged X. With his knowledge of rock crawling and Jon’s driving skills, it looked as though they were the best prepared team out there. Well they were, but second best was going to be their best, again losing to Guthrie Racing by only 16 seconds after nearly eight hours of body-pounding and machine-beating racing. Thirty-five brave souls started and by the end of the race there would only be three who would finish in the allotted time frame. Rick “Wallyworld” Wallace

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2013 King of the Hammers Results Driver 1. Randy Slawson 4448 7:28:10 2. Shannon Campbell 5 7:48:41 3. Chicky Barton 144 8:23:50 4. Erik Miller 4421 8:36:52 5. Ben Napier 4461 9:37:12 6. Derek West 4420 10:14:32 7. Craig Ross 4138 10:25:21 8. Jon Cagliero 27 10:54:24 9. Jason Blanton 966 11:27:48 10. Matthew Messer 4417 11:50:08

Smittybilt Every Man Challenge Winners John Currie (Modified Class) 88 5:38:39 Matthew Peterson (Stock Class) 4608 8:18:22

HCR UTV Race Winner Mitch Guthrie 1 7:51:52

King of the Motos Cody Webb (Pro Class) 247 4:50:38 Steven Deines (Expert Class) 514 4:26:15

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