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Get ready for King of the Hammers, the toughest offroad race in the world

Next week, Johnson Valley, California, hosts a whole week of races -- from motorcycles to UTVs to stock trucks -- and it all culminates in the big finale, the King of the Hammers. Many will start, but few will finish.

2015 King of the Hammers
Paolo Baraldi Fotografo

What happens when you combine unlimited 4x4 rigs with steep rock faces, open desert and a blatant disregard for physics?

You get one of the toughest off-road races in the world, the Nitto King of the Hammers Powered by Optima Batteries. And lucky you, you're reading up on it just in time. The Hammers are thrown down this year from January 31 to February 5.

The race brings together some of the best drivers in the world piloting sophisticated rigs that can handle it all: whoops, mud, dirt, dunes, sand and rocks. From triple-digit speed in the open desert to low-gear ascents crawling up rocks bigger than the car itself, these rigs and their drivers are like nothing you've ever seen.

2015 King of the Hammers

Drivers start side by side at King of the Hammers

Nicole Dreon

The birth of Ultra4

In 2007, 13 drivers raced to the top of a technical trail of rocks and boulders in Johnson Valley, California. The winner took home a six pack of beer. Now in its 10th year, that small race has evolved into a full-fledged race series featuring the infamous Ultra4 rigs.

The only requirement of this class is that they be four-wheel drive; other than that, the class is unlimited. That's right, there's no limit on tire size, no limit on wheel travel, no limit on power.

There are no chase crews allowed at King of the Hammers, so driver and co-driver have to do any repairs on the course, or they need to be able to limp back into the pits.

Race organizer Dave Cole brings a whole week of racing to the lake bed in Johnson Valley. Motorcycles, UTVs and even stock vehicles all get the chance to try their mettle on the notorious King of the Hammers race course.

Moto mayhem

The competition starts on Sunday, January 31, with King of the Motos. Over 85 riders will compete over a two-part race, one long loop in the morning and a slightly shorter afternoon course that racers will continuously loop for at least 3 hours. The course, defined by GPS, will not be given out until the riders' meeting the night before the race, so pre-running will be next to impossible.

2015 King of the Hammers

A rider chooses his line carefully at the 2015 King of the Hammers.

Nicole Dreon

Tuesday and Wednesday will be qualifying rounds for the big race through the 4-Wheel Parts Qualifying course, which determines the starting order for teams that have already earned a place in the lineup. There is even an opportunity for a Last Chance Qualifier contestant to win one of five open spots for King of the Hammers. The 4-Wheel Parts Qualifying course offers excellent spectator visibility and promises to be an exciting two days.

Tricked out golf carts

Wednesday, February 3 brings the Polaris RZR UTV race, a 100-120 mile course of both high-speed desert and technical rock crawling sections. As with the motorcycles, teams are not given the map until the night before. There are two classes (Sportsman and Pro) and over 50 teams are expected, including trophy truck drivers Robby Gordon and Rob MacCachren as well as X Games medalist Sara Price and her co-driver Erica Sacks.


Sara Price and Erica Sacks are bringing the Gazelle Rally winning Kawasaki TeryX UTV to their first King of the Hammers race.

Attain Media/UTV Underground

Run what you brung

Thursday, February 4 is the popular Smittybilt Everyman Challenge, where off-road enthusiasts can test their driving skills with their stock and modified stock vehicles on many of the same elements as the Ultra4 cars. More than 100 vehicles are expected across four classes. Drivers to watch include short-course and Baja racer Casey Currie, 2012 Dirtsports Driver of the Year Brad Lovell, and Jessi Combs, the fastest woman on four wheels.

2015 King of the Hammers

Stock and not-so-stock vehicles compete in the Smittybilt Every Man Challenge.

Kathy Durrett

King of the Hammers

The final race happens Friday, February 5, with the cars lining up at 6 a.m. PT for an 8 a.m. PT green flag. Drivers have 14 hours to complete the brutal, nearly 200 mile course. How brutal? Last year only 17 out of 129 cars finished in the 14-hour time limit. This year, over 100 teams from 39 states and seven countries are expected.

Shannon Campbell, Randy Slawson and Erik Miller are all two-time winners, and each has dedicated this season to bringing home a first ever three-peat. They face stiff competition from the likes of Levi Shirley, Derek West and Cody Waggoner, who built his rig at a rumored cost of $500,000.

You can follow along live at starting January 31, or watch in person for a mere $20 donation. Directions to Hammertown and more information can be found at