2017 King of The Hammers: Every Man’s Race

    Every Man’s King of The Hammers

    Stuart A. BourdonPhotographer, Writer

    King of The Hammers (KOH) is not just an off-road race. Now in its 11th year, it’s a weeklong venue of off-road racing that includes wide-open desert through which speeds are well over 100 mph, as well as steep narrow canyons that reduce speeds to a walking pace as the racers encounter boulders as big as a VW and rocks so sharp they turn 40-inch tires into rubber bands. It’s a week of all kinds of machines, too. It’s referred to by its promoters as the “world’s toughest one-day desert race.” If you’ve been in it, you’ll find it hard to argue with that.

    The 2017 schedule started with King of The Motos, a dirt bike race that brings world champions to the desert valleys, dry lakes, and legendary rock-pocked mountains of Johnson Valley, just north of Twenty-Nine Palms, California. There was also the Vision X Shootout (commonly known as the “Backdoor Challenge”) presented by KMC, King, and Nitro Gear & Axle, in which full-blown rock-bouncer buggies and highly modified rock-racing machines make an East vs. West timed dash up one of the most challenging obstacle-laden canyons (Backdoor) in the region, at night. There was the Can-Am KOH UTV race presented by RCV. There was also the main event–the Nitto King of The Hammers powered by Optima Batteries on Friday, which draws wildly built and terrifyingly powerful 4x4s that resemble something out of a Mad Max movie.

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    Every Man’s KOH

    However, our favorite event of the week was Thursday’s Smittybilt Every Man Challenge. The Smittybilt Every Man Challenge (EMC) was created in 2012 to allow every man, or woman, to race the KOH course without having to mortgage the house. It included three classes: G2 Legends (4800), Rubicon Express Modified (4500), and Pro Comp Stock (4600). 
The Stock class is, well, stock full-bodied production vehicles with a factory-offered motor and transmission. Minor upgrades to the suspension and axles can be made, but only one shock per corner and a maximum of 35-inch tires are allowed. The Modified Stock class allows 37-inch tires, two shocks per corner, and modifications to the body and frame. The Legends class (which includes some retired KOH main-event rigs) can have significant mods, including a full tube chassis, but the engine must be forward mounted, no independent suspensions are allowed, and DOT-approved 37-inch tires are the maximum.

    No doubt, you have already read that Shannon Campbell sewed up his third (first driver to win three) KOH main-event victory, and how he roared across the finish line even after losing a front tire. As well, the Lovell brothers (Brad and Roger) scored their overall EMC win for the second time in a row. We applaud Shannon, Brad, Roger, and all those who won, placed, or were DNF, for having the guts to race any of the week’s events. However, this year we decided to follow four teams that exemplified the “every man” ethic of the EMC race. Here are their stories.

    Desert Turtle Racing

    There’s an entire dedicated and hard working team behind Desert Turtle Racing (DTR), but the wheelmen are Darin Doucette and Randall Davis. The DTR team runs in the Rubicon Express Modified (4500) Class on a very tight budget, and saved money by starting with a junkyard motor and trans, and built their own custom cage. The Sunday before the race, they were pre-running and lost the trans; it was pulled and delivered to Maximum Transmission Sunday night for rebuild, the next day it was picked up and reinstalled. Practicing on the qualifying course Tuesday resulted in a twisted sector shaft; but they were able to pull off an 11th place qualifying position. That afternoon the steering box was replaced, but the struggle to get the steering and hydro boost system properly working went on throughout race day.

    Two flat tires hampered the team during the first lap. The front lower link and driveshaft broke in Backdoor (about race mile 60) canyon. Randall ran to the main pit (about a mile away) to pick up spare parts, while Darin pulled the broken parts out. Randall arrived (after what seemed like hours) with the new parts, and they made repairs on the course.

    Braking issues surfaced during lap 2 and added to the already occurring steering problems. About halfway through the first big rocky canyon (Aftershock, at about race mile 87) they were headed up one of the bypass lines, when the Jeep struck a rock and the steering completely locked up. They tried everything they could think of to field-fix the system, but nothing worked. They were stopped cold, and decided to call it a day.

    B&B Racing

    Brian and Billy Behrend are B&B Racing, and are backed up during the race by a large group of family and friends who handle pit duties and help co-drive. The guys told us their plan at every KOH was to go fast where they can and slow where they have to in order to save the Jeep. They took first in the Pro Comp Stock (4600) Class in 2016, so spirits were high.

    Coming across DTR making repairs in Backdoor, the B&B Cherokee XJ had to descend the more challenging of two routes. With no time to waste, but worried that they could end up on their nose and possibly flip while descending the 10-foot cliff, and with no one behind them to assist with a winch cable, co-driver Joey Etter climbed out, hooked up a tow strap and hung onto it in case he had to tug on the Jeep’s rear end to keep it from going over. Joey ended up getting pulled on to his rear end, but the Cherokee safely cleared the cliff.

    On lap 2 a front driveline vibration turned into a failure, they pulled it, left it, and went on to keep up the pace. Knowing they would need four-wheel-drive for the rock canyons ahead, they stopped just before the first major obstacle. Again Joey jumped out, this time to run the six miles to and from a remote pit for tools and hardware to bolt in the spare shaft they were carrying. Deep into the steep canyon section, the brakes all but faded away, and were never resolved. With only 17 miles to go, the guys hit a boulder the size of a small car. The impact to the driver front wheel was so great that it broke the knuckle clean off. At that point, B&B Racing had to inform race comm they were a DNF.

    Jeep Thrillz

    Albert Contreras and Robert LaVoie are Jeep Thillz Off Road Racing, and runs in the Pro Comp Stock (4600) Class. After breaking and fixing a rear driveshaft yoke and slip joint pre-running, the guys were ready for race day. A blown tire slowed them a bit on lap 1, but they made good time all the way to the first major obstacle at Backdoor, and were right on Varozza’s tail. However, the tranny pan was crushed during their descent and all the fluid poured out. Robert ran to and from the main pit, bringing back a spare pan and six quarts of tranny fluid, but the on-course repair cost them about three hours of downtime.

    Once the repair was complete, the team was again making good time, but after running through a number of the really hairy rock canyons (including Aftershock and Devil’s Slide/Hell’s Gate) on lap 2, a hydraulic steering line ruptured. It was already 6:00 pm, dark, the vehicle was stopped, they were too far away to get a spare hose and more fluid (there’s no outside assistance allowed in this event, you’re on your own), and they were beyond exhaustion. Albert and Robert decided to call it a day.

    Varozza Racing

    Ben Varozza and Jacob Pacheco lead this racing team and share driving duties. Like DTR, B&B, and Jeep Thrillz, a crew of family and friends was on hand to help. Ben has a background in fabrication and four wheeling (and runs Verozza 4x4 Outfitters shop), and his friend Jacob has some dirt track racing history. They fielded a Jeep in the Pro Comp Stock (4600) Class and finished third their first year out. In their sixth year racing, they were still looking for that first place win.

    The ignition module gave them trouble in the early stages of the race, but a spare already mounted up helped keep them going with very little downtime, until later when steam started coming out from under the hood because the electric cooling fan fried. That fan was soon replaced, but the left rear shock began leaking oil. They also replaced the alternator, as they suspected it might be part of the electrical problem.

    They continued passing competitors, even though the leaky shock felt dead. They had regained the lead by the time they hit race mile 101, and were soon catching up to slower rigs in faster classes. Just a mile away from the finish, with only two small hill climbs to go, the engine began sputtering again.

    Fearing the worst, they shifted into low range, and with the engine stumbling, pushed the engine hard and barely made it up and over the two remaining hills. The Jeep limped across the finish line, but the team had to wait nervously for some time before race officials could confirm that no other class competitor could post a better elapsed time before declaring Varozza Racing the Class 4600 winner.

    Toughest Day

    This event is claimed to be the world’s toughest one-day desert race. The growing number of competitors who come from all over the US, as well as from around the world, to test themselves and their vehicles against the sand and rocks of Johnson Valley are a testament to the veracity of that boast. More importantly though, is that regardless of which race, class, or vehicle a competitor chooses to run during the week of King of The Hammers racing, or whether they win, place, or DNF, the story and the glory is in the trying.