Hundreds of race teams and tens of thousands of spectators will converge on Hammertown in Johnson Valley, California, January 31 through February 5 for King of the Hammers week. A bit like off-road racing's answer to Burning Man, Hammertown is built from scratch each year and offers spectators a place to park their rig and watch the race on the Jumbotron set up in its center. Of course, spectators are welcome on certain parts of the course, provided you've got a vehicle capable enough to get you there.
More information can be found on the Ultra4 Racing website.
The first race of the week is King of the Motos, on Sunday, January 31. Last year's King of the Moto race saw racers taking a land rush start towards the hill known as Chocolate Thunder. With very few racing lines up Chocolate Thunder for motorcycles, chaos and mayhem ensued.
No word on if the 2016 King of the Motos race will be a land rush start again this year. Organizer Dave Cole is notorious quiet on the course until the night before the race.
Motorcycle riders are dwarfed by the rocks in Johnson Valley.
Riders must also be proficient in desert racing. While it's slow going in the rocks, racers can use these sections to make up time.
If riders go up, they must come down...steeply.
No mechanical assistance is available for motorcyclists, even in the pits. They must perform any and all necessary fixes. Fuel jugs must be kept on a tarp per Bureau of Land Management rules. If teams are caught with fuel sitting on the dirt they are disqualified.
Riders will have to navigate huge boulders in the hopes to be the King of the Motos.
A rider celebrates finally making it to the speed section of the course.
The top teams from 2015 automatically qualify for the big King of the Hammers race in 2016. Additional drivers qualify by racing in the 2015 Ultra4 Racing Series or via a partnering race series. Everyone else must participate in the 4-Wheel Parts Qualifying Rounds on Tuesday and Wednesday, February 2 and 3.
The 4-Wheel Parts qualifying course is no joke. It may only take the top 10 less than 2 and a half minutes to navigate the terrain, but that's 2 and a half minutes of outright craziness.
Hey, we see you over there!
Observant folks may notice something different in the front end of this rig. It's got an independent front suspension, instead of the more common straight axle. An IFS set-up is faster in the desert, but often loses time in the rocks. A straight axle gets the rigs up and over large obstacles easier, but has a difficult time maintaining speed in the open desert.
The UTVs get their chance to strut their stuff on Wednesday, February 3, in the Polaris RZR UTV race. What started in the industry as a souped-up golf cart, some of these little rigs have a top speed of 85 mph.
This year Robby Gordon, fresh from a disappointing Dakar Rally, and Baja race champion Rob MacCachren will both participate in the UTV category. It will be interesting to see how these two racers, used to piloting 800 horsepower trophy trucks, will do in these very capable, but much smaller, UTVs.
The UTVs will race over a 100-120 miles race course. Like the motorcyclists, the UTV teams will not see a course map until the night before the race.
Patience can be a virtue when it comes to racing in the rocks. Although it's often difficult to not take the pass, overtaking another rig at the wrong time could have disastrous results.
The Smittybilt Every Man Challenge puts stock and modified stock vehicles out on the race course. This year the crowd-pleasing contest will be held on Thursday, February 4.
In each race during the week, drivers and co-drivers are allowed to exit the vehicle. Co-drivers, however, have the brunt of the work. They are responsible not only for navigation, but also for working the winch should the driver get into a sticky situation.
In the Smittybilt Every Man Challenge, a finish is a win.
The virtually indestructible 4x4 system in the old Suzuki Samurai makes for an excellent Smittybilt Every Man Challenge rig, especially when you drop an LS1 engine into it!
Dude, does your Grand Cherokee even jump, bro?
Friday, February 5 is the big King of the Hammers race. Rigs are off the line two by two.
Jackhammer is one of the more difficult parts of the course, leaving many teams no other option but to winch up and over the rocks.
Dust can be a big problem for off-road racers. Getting a good qualifying time puts a driver up front with a clear view. Those behind can end up with poor visibility for much of the race.
Just another common occurrence at King of the Hammers.
While there are no chase crews at King of the Hammers, drivers can have a full pit crew. Teams have been known to repair transmissions, weld suspension components, and replace steering racks, all in the middle of the desert.
Two-time King Shannon Campbell is the only driver to win King of the Hammers in a rig with independent front suspension. However, that was in 2008 and 2011. All other winners have used a straight front axle. All eyes will be on Shannon and his team in 2016.
I'd say that's some long wheel travel right there!
Spectators surround Jackhammer to check out the action.
This is why you always put a sponsor logo on your skid plate.