Jason Scherer: Three Times A King
Photography: Boyd Jaynes
Some people think off-road motorsports is all about who can mash the throttle the hardest. They see a racecar and driver streak by in blaze of dust and noise and don’t see much else. Those in it though will tell you there is a lot more to it than that. Winning a race requires way more than just a throttle-happy driver. To win a race as notoriously difficult as King of the Hammers a lot has to go right and absolutely nothing can go wrong. And, this applies not just to the racecar and the driver, but to every single aspect of the effort.
When it comes to King of the Hammers, Jason Scherer is a force to be reckoned with. His victory at this year’s King of the Hammers race made it the third time he has claimed the crown and bested the field. He joins Shannon Campbell as the only other driver with three wins to his credit. The two of them combined have won almost half of the King of the Hammers ever put on. The 2019 victory also made Scherer the only driver to ever win it back to back. It also made for the fourth year in a row that he has stood on the podium. All of those are pretty staggering statistics given that the race only started in 2007. They are even more jaw dropping when you factor in the absolutely gnarly terrain of KOH that can destroy even the strongest of parts and drivers.
We sat down with the highly likable Scherer to see what it takes to win the King of the Hammers. He was able to clue us in to the massive amount of effort that it takes and what it is like to cross the finish line first. Check out the video below for the condensed interview and read on below for the full story.
So the dust has finally settled and you have had some time to let it all sink in. What does it feel like to win King Of The Hammers back to back and three times?
I know it has been awhile, but it hasn’t even felt like it has sunk in yet. It is such a life goal that you try to accomplish. Sometimes when you check the box that you have completed it, it doesn’t even feel real. That is certainly how I feel right now. To have all my friends and family able to celebrate it has just made it a remarkable time in my life. Everybody has just been so stoked and it is so cool to see everyone come together and be able to enjoy it. It hasn’t stopped either. On the lakebed I got text messages and on social media. Then I came home and, it doesn’t matter if I am dropping my kids at school or walking to my office, somebody is stoked for me. The win hasn’t ended yet. That might sound kind of funny but everyone is in great spirits. It is all you can ever hope for.
What’s it like to be a three-time winner? It is only you and Shannon Campbell that have won it three times.
I take that in the highest form of being able to compete with Shannon. He is still my hero. It is funny when you look up to someone so much and then hit their milestones. It doesn’t seem feasible really. I still look up to Shannon and we have raced together for 12 years at King Of The Hammers. Ever since I started off in rock crawling, Shannon was the guy everyone came to watch. I was in that same boat and I am still one of his biggest fans. I love the Campbell family, so to be able to do that is really cool.
There is something else I am equally proud of. It is probably not a statistic anyone will follow, but for me it means something. We have had four podiums at King Of The Hammers in a row. If you ask the 85 to 100 teams that don’t finish the race every year, they will probably agree that is pretty incredible. To get four podiums in a row is the epitome of car prep, practice, prerunning, testing and everything that goes into it. I have had years where you make it a third of a way, you break the car, and you are done. It is such a crazy statistic to me to be able pull off.
The big question is what does it take to win at King Of The Hammers or even podium? Is there some magic formula to it? People see the driver and the car, but they never see the support crew and all the stuff that goes into it besides hauling ass.
It’s a great question. The thing that is appealing to me about off-road racing is everything has to work together. You can’t just be really fast if you don’t have good pit stops, good parts, or the right strategy. If you aren’t in physically good enough condition where you can’t stay sharp the duration of the race you won’t be fast either. There are just so many components to off-road racing. That, to me, is what it makes it one of the best forms of any sport in the world. You have to have all those pieces to do really well. I think, from our team’s standpoint, we are still peaking and getting better. You see it in our test sessions, our partners, and the parts on the car. The tires are better than ever, the wheels are better than ever, and the shocks are better than ever. The cars are also faster. If we brought the same car that we brought to the lakebed last year, Erik Miller would have beat us by 15 minutes. And that is absolutely true.
Secondarily to that is getting in shape physically. I have known my co-driver, Jason Berger, since he was 270 lbs. and out of shape. He went from being a truck driver and owning a trucking company to owning a CrossFit gym in Truckee. He went through a total life transformation and influenced me to get in better shape. I was never in bad shape, but I was a pretty typical ex-athlete. I went from riding dirt bikes every weekend to doing it once a month. Then having kids and skipping a few months and realizing I wasn’t in great shape anymore. Now, it has gone back to eating clean, being healthy, getting rid of all my vices, and working out every day. The hardest day of CrossFit I have had in six months was coming back after KOH because I was still tired. I haven’t missed a day this week because it is time to do the work again and be in shape for when it counts during the race. It doesn’t end when you finish the race and that goes for everything. The better we can get in shape, the better we can practice, and the more we can do on the development side of the car, the better we will be.
I have also been fortunate enough to hire a crew chief and have him fully embrace it. He lives the life and goes to sleep every night thinking about the car. That was probably the biggest failure for myself. I really wasn’t mechanical enough. I wanted to be and I love it but I was literally zip tying things wrong. It is like the dumbest stuff. It gets down to the point where people that are experts in their craft are going to be better than you will ever be at it. Once you start to realize that, you can build a really good team. You are not training them to do it your way. You are letting them learn to do it the best way and trusting them.
Our team has no drama and everyone gets along. That can be a really hard dynamic with paid guys and volunteers to get the best out of everyone. Sometimes, in motorsports, there can be a bit of macho chest pumping where some guys think they can do some things that others can’t. We broke that mold and we don’t have that. We are all there with the common goal of trying to get the car to the finish line. There is zero drama. It is a group of guys that are self motivated to make the best decisions and are super passionate about it. That might be a long answer, but there is a lot going on. It is a really dynamic thing.
One of the keys then is constant evolution right? You don’t just do build a car and let it sit there.
That’s exactly right. I wish we could just put the car on the shelf and race it again next year. That would be nice, but it doesn’t work that way anymore. I got a call last year from Fox and they said they had some new shock technology. They wanted to know if I wanted to try it out on my car. My knee-jerk reaction was to say that I don’t think so. I mean my car had just won King Of The Hammers and it was badass. Before the phone call was over I realized that mentality can really get you in trouble. If you are resting on your laurels, your competition is still coming after you. If you don’t do anything then they are going to beat you. You have to be developing and you have to be working on trying to make it better.
The same goes for me, I need the practice too. It might sound silly, but I am not a natural. I am a practice driver. The more I practice, the more comfortable I feel. I am not as naturally talented as a lot of the guys that can just jump in any car and go fast. That is not going to be my jam ever and I am okay with that. But testing different parts not only develops the car, it gives me more seat time to get faster.
When I went out there with Fox, what they had was badass and I could see why they wanted me to try it. That is why I am so stoked on them. They are picking up the phone and calling their team guys and saying they have something they want us to try. They want to get better and we want to get better so it makes a great combination. If I hadn’t picked up that phone call and done all that testing and trips down to the Hammers, there is no way we would have picked up that 10 mph that we needed to stay ahead. I can barely believe we picked up 10 mph. It is almost scary to me that was our speed increase. That is a big change in one year. I don’t think we have had that big of change in a year since we went from air shocks to bypasses. From 2008 to 2009 we probably picked up 30 mph but that was because we were probably only going 15 mph before (laughs). But everything else gets taxed more whether it is the brakes, radiators, or the engine. If you are going to go faster, you are going to use more of every aspect of the car so everything else has to get upgraded. Every single thing starts to have a positive effect on the car. It is kind of wild, but welcome to racing.
Speaking to that your first win was in 2009. How much have the Ultra4 cars changed in those 10 years? Are they completely different now?
They really are. I look back at it and, in 2009, the reason we wanted to build a new car is that we started of with a Pro Mod rock crawling car. We were still competing in rock crawling competitions, but I gave up on rock crawling at the end of 2008. I had tried to make the car we built previoulsy both a King Of The Hammers and Pro Mod rock crawling car. I realized it wasn’t going to be great at both of them and I had to pick a sport. As much as I loved the rock crawling scene, I wanted to be a desert racer and I wanted to do the faster stuff. And, I had felt like I had a good run with rock crawling. I wasn’t unhappy with it, but it was just time for a new chapter of life. So, I made that decision to put bypasses and coilovers on a rock crawler and try to go faster.
The downside was we didn’t realize we were going to be going 100 mph in a 1.5-inch, 0.90-wall tube-frame buggy. I couldn’t crash it or I would die. After the 2010 and 2011 race, we knew that car wasn’t it and it was time to build a real racecar. I always go back to Shannon Campbell being the innovator of how to build a racecar. He showed us that you can build it like this and, if you can crash it, you will be fine. You will be sore as shit, but you will live through it. And, he started building independent front suspension cars. I was a rock crawler and remember the first year when Toyota pickups showed up on the Rubicon with IFS and it was so lame. Then I went all the way back to being how cool IFS is. I laugh at it because we have gone full circle.
You couldn’t have asked for a better competition between two very different vehicles. The solid axle cars are so much better in the rocks. The guys that are really good at driving in the rocks have stayed with solid axles. Erik Miller, Randy Slawson, and all these guys that are driving solid axles make up so much time on the IFS cars that suck in the rocks. But then the IFS cars make it up in the desert. There is no rulebook really and we have built two completely different styles of cars that excel in different areas of the race and are as competitive as hell against each other. I have never seen that happen with any other sanctioning body in the history of racing. It is amazing and it has made for such a great sport. If I had to start over and build a new car today, I honestly don’t know what style of car I would recommend. You couldn’t have scripted it better.
There is a high attrition rate at King Of The Hammers, but to win are you pacing yourselves or running flat out?
This year’s King Of The Hammers had a bit of a different feel. We have been fortunate to have six front row starts. For previous years I have had a good sense of balance and where I needed to be. Nick Nelson and Lauren Healy would both be top Trophy Truck drivers. If you put Lauren in a Trophy Truck he would be a top ten contender at any race he showed up at. The dude can absolutely drive and is fearless. So I have Nick Nelson in front of me and Lauren Healy right on my bumper right off the start. I can see his red lights breathing in my mirrors and I knew that this wasn’t going to be a passive race. It was going to be on right out of the first corner.
Then you have guys like Tom Wayes starting in 40th and you know they are going to be pushing so hard that it can screw you up on adjusted time. That 40th start spot can actually be really strategic where he can pick off 30 cars on Lap 1 and then be right behind us on the course, but 10 minutes ahead of us on adjusted time. That is a really interesting dynamic to deal with as a driver. Erik Miller really did have that scenario this year. He was 10 minutes off on adjusted time so we were balancing all that.
When we talk about pace it really comes back to communications. When we started the race this year we were pushing pretty much flat out. We weren’t going to overshoot corners and it wasn’t a pace we were going to make mistakes. But we were going about as hard as we could drive and the car could take. We got done with the first lap and it didn’t get any easier. We had a winch race with Nick Nelson up Backdoor, but we didn’t have any pressure from behind because Lauren Healy had a part failure. But that race with Nick didn’t end and continued on into the desert and into the remote pits where his co-driver had to get out of the car with a broken ankle. I had the siren on and was on Nick’s bumper for 20 miles and he repaid the favor on me for the next 20 miles. It was a real race.
When we went into the rock trails we still had guys ahead of us. We had guys like Paul Horschel that hadn’t done Backdoor yet. When we caught up to him and we had done Backdoor, we knew we had him, but you still don’t want to get held up. That is where it can get really crazy. You are racing somebody who is one of the best drivers in the sport in one of the best vehicles in the sport. You are sitting there putting the pressure on yourself because you know if you get held up a bit you can get caught up by everyone on adjusted time since we started out up front. You wind up putting a lot of pressure on yourself because I wanted to get past Paul to take the physical lead so I could control my own destiny.
This race is super mental. I almost feel like it is easier in a desert race. There might be a silt bed in the desert, but most of the time there is another line through it. At KOH there is no other line through some of the harder trails that you won’t be out of the car winching. If you are getting out and winching, you can give up 5 or 10 minutes easily. That can totally change the outcome of the race. Then, there are guys in front of you that are lappers on the final lap. That is totally out of your control.
Luckily Berger and I have put ourselves in a position where we have done everything we could and if it doesn’t work out we don’t beat ourselves up. We can only make decisions based on what happens in front of us. I feel like we have matured that way. We used to drive over people’s hoods and all kinds of shit. But it wasn’t worth it because if you cut a tire on their sway bar arm or something, you lose five minutes changing a spare. It is better to let them go and pass them somewhere you can. And I have to hand it to all the guys we race against. They are so respectful and they know the leaders are coming through and stay out of our way. They don’t want to be to change the outcome of the race. I definitely tip my hat to them.
What’s it like in the car during the race? Is it really stressful? Or is there a ton of adrenaline?
It is pretty stressful. A perfect example is it was 22 degrees when we left the starting line. I had put some surgical gloves under my racing gloves to act as a little bit of a windbreaker against the cold. I figured I could take them off once I got to the rock trails so my hands didn’t get too hot. I never got a chance the whole race to take my hands of the steering wheel long enough to take the gloves off. Berger forced me to drink water out of the Camelbak twice. I never ate anything or had any other sips of water. That is how little time there was where it wasn’t fully on. It is insane, but it is only 6.5 hours. It is not like Baja where you are in the car for 20 hours. But it is still a full on sprint for 6.5 hours and that is a long time.