Desert racing and rock crawling may seem similar to the layman, but the equipment and skill sets required for them are as different as NASCAR and autocross. Robbie Gordon’s Baja 1000 truck or Stephan Peterhansel’s Dakar Mini would be next to useless on a rock course. And your crusty uncle’s low-geared Jeep crawler wouldn’t come close to qualifying for a high-speed desert race.
But sometimes people have strange ideas. Let’s put a duck inside a chicken inside a turkey, they say. Let’s give cross-country skiers guns and make them stop to shoot them, they suggest. Let’s put a Nissan GT-R drive train in a Juke, they laugh. And the results are often wonderful.
The King of the Hammers is one such idea. It’s a 165-mile high speed desert race, interspersed with several rock climbing obstacles, and even watching it will deepen your voice. It all started five years ago, when friends Jeff Knoll and Dave Cole gathered a group of mad racers for the challenge. That year, there were around 50 teams. At this year’s race, held earlier this month, there were 120 who qualified. Why? Because it’s awesome.
Following a week of prerunning and qualifying, and a race for dirt bikes, is the Last Chance Qualifying, a losers’ bracket for one final shot at getting in. It’s run on a short, two-mile course, and the fastest handful get into the big race.
When the sun comes up on race day, washing Means Dry Lake, California in winter light, the racers take their marks. They’re released side by side, 2-4 vehicles at a time, in 30 second intervals. Then it’s only the desert, the rocks, and 14 hours to complete the course. Racers can’t wander more than 100 feet from the center line, and must cross all seven checkpoints to finish. And unlike many desert races, King of the Hammers allows no chase support trucks. If you and your co-driver can’t fix whatever you broke with whatever you can carry in your rig, you’re washed. So the crawling sections are especially dangerous to contenders.
You might imagine that with such varied terrain, the trucks themselves would take some level of customization. So did the race organizers. So they made King of the Hammers an unlimited race, starting a new class they call Ultra4, which has spawned many strange and wonderful machines. Trucks can go as fast as 100 mph, but can be geared as low as 100:1. Some are mid-engine, all are purpose built, and very few bear any resemblance to actual production vehicles.
But this year’s winner drove something that did. Erik Miller and co-driver Robert Ruggiero took their (extremely) modified CJ Jeep to victory, crossing the line after just 6 hours and 3 minutes, beating teams from all over the US, and others from as far as Italy and Australia.
Miller’s Jeep runs on a 7 liter Schwanke LS3 linked to a TH475 transmission. There’s an Atlas II 3.0 transfer case, a set of 9” axles from Spidertrax, and 2.5” Radflo coilovers. As for rubber, it rolls on 39” BFGoodrich KRT-Bs.
The King of the Hammers is a dusty orchestra of rollovers, wailing V8s, and tires the size of tugboats. While we can’t quite call it the king of desert races, that throne still belonging to the two-week Dakar Rally, it might make a worthy successor. It’s insanity, loud and awesome. For proof, check out racer Mike Klensin’s rather memorable 9th place finish.