Stop! It's Hammers time

Get ready for King of the Hammers, the knock-down, hands-down gnarliest race in the United States.

Emme Hall Former editor for CNET Cars
I love two-seater, RWD convertibles and own a 2004 Mazdaspeed Miata for pavement fun and a lifted 2001 Miata for pre-running. I race air-cooled Volkswagens in desert races like the Mint 400 and the Baja 1000. I have won the Rebelle Rally, seven-day navigational challenge, twice and I am the only driver to compete in an EV, the Rivian R1T.
Emme Hall
3 min read
Kathy Durrett

Are you ready for some seriously crazy off-roading? Then get ready for King of the Hammers!

The week long Burning Man for racers started this weekend with the King of the Motos race, where some seriously insane moto racers had a land rush start... at night. Exactly 107 racers from across the United States, Canada and Mexico endured rocks, silt and sand as they battled through three heats for the coveted first place trophy. In the end, Endurocross and Superenduro champion Colton Haaker won on his handy Husqvarna 350.


Racers make their way through the rocks at the 2017 King of the Motos.

King of the Hammers

Wednesday marked the UTV side-by-side (think of them as souped-up golf carts) race, where the tiny little Polaris Rzr and Kawasaki Teryx side-by-sides tried their hand at the Hammers. At time of writing, it looks like two-time Ultra4 King Shannon Campbell has unofficially added another trophy to his case, followed closely by his son Wayland. Rounding out the Campbell racing dynasty was daughter Bailey, finishing 15th. X-Games medalist Sara Price, who was doing well in last year's race until her UTV lost its drivetrain, finished 18th. With 74 teams starting, only half finished and all those who took the checkered flag can be proud of their accomplishment.

Taking place in Johnson Valley every February, King of the Hammers (KOH) brings more than 35,000 spectators, racers and crew support to the desert. A makeshift metropolis called Hammertown springs up on a dry lakebed and an entire week is devoted to racing everything from motorcycles and side-by-sides to regular trucks and unlimited four-wheel drive rigs. Competitors of each race find their way through boulder-strewn sections with names like Clawhammer, Wrecking Ball and my favorite, Chocolate Thunder. Find a good line and you can slowly pick your way up. Make a mistake and you have to winch your way up.

Coming this week


Only the strong survive the boulders of Johnson Valley.

King of the Hammers

Thursday is the popular Smittybilt Every Man Challenge race (EMC), where mostly stock trucks running only 35-inch tires compete, sharing the course with modified rigs that have unlimited engine, transmission and transfer case options, 37-inch tires but very limited suspension choices. Also on hand for the EMC is the Legends class, which allows stock or modified trucks, with teams racing for a trophy instead of prize money.

Friday is the big show where the unlimited Ultra4 rigs vie for the title of the 2017 King of the Hammers. The final race is the longest, with over 200 miles of impossibly rocky terrain standing between racers and the finish line. Some drivers finish by sundown, many come in long after dark. With beefy axles, 40-inch tires and plenty of torque, these rigs defy physics as we know it. But to make things even more difficult, racers must also traverse vast sections of open desert at speeds of up to 100 miles per hour.

Usually off-road vehicles are set up to do either slow-speed rock crawling or high-speed whoop bashing, but the custom-built Ultra4 rigs must to do both. Most teams choose to work within the confines of solid front and rear axles, betting that the stronger and more nimble components will give them the edge in the rock crawling. Others opt for an independent front suspension; not as good in the rocks but way better at soaking up whoops in the open desert. Since the race's inception in 2007, Shannon Campbell has piloted the only independent front suspension rig to a win in 2008. He did it again in 2011, proving that his first IFS win was not just a fluke.

The King of the Hammers is the largest off-road race in North America and the toughest one-day off-road race on the planet. With over 100 teams entered and an attrition rate often as high as 75 percent or more, King of the Hammers is not to be missed.

King of the Hammers

The differences between an independent front suspension, left, and a solid front axle, right, are clear.

Nicole Dreon

It's easy to watch in person. Just search for King of the Hammers on Google maps and go to www.ultra4.com for more information about camping and entry fees to Hammertown. If you can't make it to the California desert, the Ultra4 website offers a great live-stream with multiple views of the course.

See ya in Hammertown!

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