The King Of The Hammers is usually described as “Burning Man meets Mad Max” because everyone’s filthy and the cars look like metal monsters heading to war. Now that you’ve seen Top Gear’s Chris Harris and Sabine Schmitz take it on, you need to know more, right?
In case you haven’t caught the latest episode of BBC’s Top Gear, I’ll break it down in spoiler-free fashion: Matt LeBlanc drives an American car, some guy who’s big in Europe hangs out in the studio, Rory Reid wears a lot of red and Chris Harris races against Sabine Schmitz in a Legends class race at the 2017 King Of The Hammers Ultra 4 event.
KOH is an enormous outdoor desert festival, but the scene is a lot less whimsical than the often-referenced Burning Man or a Mad Maxian cosplay event like Wasteland Weekend. It’s about real cars and serious competition.
There are professional drivers, big-brand sponsorships and colossal resources coming in to take home trophies and get things sold. That said, the event also welcomes newcomers and amateurs to get in the mix with a big range of competitive classes. Also the spectating scene, well, that’s a whole other moshpit of madness.
The King Of The Hammers itself is the title one-day event, but “KOH Week” takes up a quarter of February every year. There’s a King Of The Motos, UTV races, amateur off-road racing, heck even R/C racing on the days leading up to main event, which is essentially the Super Bowl of the Ultra 4 racing series.
What makes this particular type of racing so interesting is that it features both technical rock crawling and high-speed desert racing. That means the competing cars have to be able to claw and winch their way over boulders and then immediately blast up to triple-digit speeds in the open desert.
The race lasts for hours, doing three big laps around the California desert adding up to about a couple hundred miles.
While enormous off-road machines are battling the Earth and each other, a makeshift city of RVs, campers, vendors, race teams and fans consume the Johnson Valley lake bed to party and cheer the sound of unfiltered exhaust.
Ultra 4 cars are basically Jeeps that crush steroids like Corn Flakes and never, ever skip leg day. Huge V8s, solid axles, four-wheel drive and 40-inch tires make them extremely strong and versatile.
While certain classes restrict the layout and components of competing vehicles, the most elite racers in the 4400 Unlimited Class are free to experiment. We’ve seen front and mid-engine mounting, independent suspension and all kinds of creative architecture here over the years.
The Legends class where two of Top Gear’s heroes battled it out is a little more technologically restrictive. As you might have noticed in the episode, all KOH Legends cars run front-mounted engines and solid axles and pretty much look like the demon spawn of Jeep Wranglers. The Legends race is also much shorter than the title event, buzzing around a little loop near the pits while the pros will drive deep into the desert and out of sight.
Still, this is no soft-grass RallyCross hootenanny. The Legends race is nothing to trifle with.
In the show, Chris Harris calls race organizer Dave Cole “the king of the hammers himself.” Technically that title is reserved for the winner of the race, however, Cole is the king of the lake bed and KOH is his baby.
Over a decade ago Cole, a competitive rock crawler, and Jeff Knoll, a desert racing character, scribbled the idea for an extreme rock-and-sand race down on a notepad in Chili’s bar.
As recounted by Driving Line, a publication produced by one of KOH’s main sponsors Nitto Tire, Cole and Knoll ran the first race you could call a “King Of The Hammers” unofficially, with 12 known rock racers duking it out with no publicity or spectators in 2007.
After the “non-event,” the two started stirring hype up on local off-road forums about how fast people had made it through known trails and KOH snowballed from there. In 2011 Cole took complete control of the event and runs it today with organizer Shannon Welch and a huge team of people doing everything from setting up fences, keeping spectators off the course, keeping time, shooting video and running a livestream video feed.
Johnson Valley, California is a barren spread of land about a three-hour drive inland from Los Angeles, or six if you’re driving my 1975 International Scout.
The place is open to off-roaders all the time. But for one week a year, it becomes “Hammertown” and home to thousands of fans, a full schedule of crazy races and of course, epic after-parties.
If you missed the mayhem this year, don’t sweat it. The King Of The Hammers is already green-lighted for 2018. Festivities begin Feb. 2nd with the big show going down Friday, Feb. 9th. Race organizers report that “nearly 500 competitors and 40,000 fans” showed up in 2017, including four Top Gear hosts and one Jalopnik writer. Who knows, you might even catch Bill Caswell out there.
I’ve made it to the lake-bed myself for the last three years, and even in that short time span, I’ve seen the event explode in scale and awesomeness. Johnson Valley’s big enough to find a parking spot no matter how big this thing gets. Just plan on being patient if you want to leave at the same time as everyone else—the exit road to the freeway is a long two-lane.
You can make it to the main spectator area in something as basic as a Chevy Corsica, but you’re going to want knobby tires and a little ground clearance to make the most out of your visit to Johnson Valley. Since the race is held on open off-road-able land, you can pretty much hop in your rig and tear off any direction you please when you’re done watching trucks whiz by.
So pack your cooler, get yourself a truck and come see it for yourself next year!