The 2016 Nitto Tire King Of The Hammers is raging in Johnson Valley, California right this second and will be going strong through February 6th. If you’re interested in things that go fast, make noise, crash a lot and get driven by the same guys who build ‘em, you’re going to want to see this.
This year, you’re invited to come hang with myself, Freddy “Tavarish” Hernandez and a horde of other fans on the lakebed or stream the insanity from the comfort of your computer.
The main event goes down a 8 a.m. PST on Friday, February 5th but the lakebed will be buzzing all week.
If you already know about KOH, I don’t have to explain why thousands of people steel themselves against wind, rain and storm to spend a week camping in the middle of a dry lakebed.
For everyone else, it is my sincere pleasure to break it down:
“What the is King Of The Hammers?”
The “King Of The Hammers” race is like the Superbowl of an off-road racing series called Ultra4. But the event is a week-long throwdown in the desert.
Basically a big chunk of the lakebed at Johnson Valley in Landers, CA becomes “Hammertown.” There’s a stage, food, bar, tons of off-road parts vendors, and all kinds of cool crap on wheels roaming around.
Think Mos Eisley Spaceport with slightly less scum and villainy. Gets pretty wild at night, too.
Over the course of the week there are motorcycle races, ATV races, R/C car races (adorable, I promise) and finally the Ultra4 race. The Ultra4 website has a complete schedule.
“What do you mean by ‘Ultra4?’”
Ultra4 cars are something like the bastard offspring of Jeep Wranglers and Indy Cars. They race on extremely varied terrain; the King Of The Hammers forces competitors through rock-crawling sections as well as wide-open desert over a day-long gauntlet of couple hundred miles. Some obstacles pretty much require competitors to winch each other to get through.
You can read the rulebook if you want to learn specifics, or come on down to Hammertown if you really want to see what this is all about.
“If I drive out there, what am I actually going to see and do?”
Alright; obviously one option is to stand on the side of the race course and watch people whip by. There are a few spots that are particularly hairy, with lots of crawling, rolling, and winching. Just follow the loudest thumps of exhaust!
You can also poke around Hammertown and see what kind of bumpers, lights, accessories and snacks people are peddling. Be on the lookout for free energy drinks and stickers, I know you love that shit.
But what makes the Hammers so much fun for me is the nature of Johnson Valley. Since the whole joint is designated as off-highway vehicle land by the Bureau of Land Management, you can pretty much drive wherever you want. (But don’t forget to air down!)
Storming across the sand in your truck is absolutely as much fun as you think it is. And when you’re all hyped up from watching race cars whip by it’s even more exhilarating!
“What’s the culture like?”
Some say the more hostile an environment, the nicer the people. That might be why folks in the desert racing community are always so friendly.
There’s a strong spirit of camaraderie on the lakebed. Park your truck with the hood up and you’ll always be offered help. Stumble into a campsite and you’ll probably be offered a beer.
Now I’m not telling you to barge into a race team’s work tent while they’re welding, but if you politely introduce yourself to the “celebrities” on scene when they’ve got a free moment you can bet they’d be happy to meet you.
The pros of Ultra4 are elite athletes to be sure, but they also work for a living and are some of the most easy-going individuals I’ve ever spent time with.
“What should I bring?”
Beer and firewood.
We’ve already detailed how to have an awesome time at your first desert race. But basically you want lots of clothing layers, good sun protection, and way more water than you think you’re going to need.
A 4x4 or dirt bike is the best way to see the sights. A lot of the most interesting spectating spots are too far from Hammertown to walk to and too deep off-road to take your daily driver, but if your little car can’t make it you can probably bum a ride from somebody with a lift kit.
The “road” to the lakebed is hardpacked enough for a sedan on street tires to get through. Just be prepared for you car to get very dusty.
“Is it safe?”
The Barstow Fire Department, ambulance services and law enforcement will have a sizable camp of their own set up to step in if things get too heavy. Last year the officer in charge told me folks “mostly take care of themselves,” though be warned; they do have an LS-powered buggy for running down hooligans who cause trouble.
“Alright, I’m in. How do I get there?”
You can literally pop “King Of The Hammers” into Google maps and get sorted out. Keep in mind there’s not a lot of food and fuel available out there; stock up while you’re still on a major highway!
“Will we really see Jalopnik there?”
Freddy and I will be cruising around the lakebed, soaking up the sights and driving people’s rigs from Thursday afternoon to Saturday night or Sunday. Look for a white 2016 F-150 extended cab, my old white Tundra or a guy falling off a blue dirt bike with an orange safety vest on (that will be me) and say hello!
See you out there.
Images via Nitto Tire King Of The Hammers