King of the Hammers 101: A Noob’s Guide to KOH 2020

Photography by Harry Wagner

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past decade, you have likely heard of King of the Hammers (KOH).  You know, that Burning Man-meets-Baja race that takes place every February in the desert of Southern California?  Now in its fourteenth year, KOH keeps getting bigger and better.  Unlimited desert trucks?  Last year they were added to the lineup.  This year the Gambler 500 and Jump Champs join the ticket, and King of the Motos is back.  The normal empty Means Dry Lakebed swells with over 50,000 people during the race.  But don’t worry, there is plenty of room for more people, so plan on coming out to see what King of the Hammers is all about firsthand.  

What It’s All About 

What started as a beer bet between friends has turned into a full week of festivities culminating on Friday with the Nitto King of the Hammers Powered by Optima Batteries.  Now one of the biggest off-road races in the world, it is also one of the most difficult.  Sure, Dakar and the Baja 1000 are no walk in the park, but consider that in 2015 only 17 of 129 competitors finished KOH within the 14 hour time limit.  You would think that this would damage the popularity of the event, but the opposite has proven to be true. 

The permitting for King of the Hammers costs six figures, so to recoup that investment the event charges $30 for adults to get into Hammertown for the week and $20 for kids from 11-17 (kids under 11 are free).  Additionally, there is a $20 charge for bringing an RV out to the lakebed.  It is a small price to pay to access in the inner workings of Hammertown, see all of the newest off-road parts from a myriad of vendors, walk through the pits, and check out the action on the Jumbotron.  Bring cash, because there are no ATMs in Hammertown.  There is cell service, but it is spotty.  We suggest that you enjoy the digital detox and just turn your phone off.  If you do have to make a call, ask someone for directions to the “cell phone bush”.

Lodging – Where to Stay for King of the Hammers

Most who attend KOH stay in RVs for the week.  There are water trucks and pump trucks at KOH, so if you like to take long, hot showers all week long you can get away with it without running out of water.  We generally can get through the whole week without RV services by taking short showers and using the Port-o-potties in Hammertown when nature calls.  There are also dumpsters in Hammertown, but they fill up fast so we highly recommend that you plan to take your trash home with you.  We have seen people tent camp, but weather in the desert during winter can be highly unpredictable, with sun and temperatures in the 60s or 100 mph winds and snow.  You might just come back to camp and find that your tent is in the next zip code. 

RV rentals are available from a variety of sources throughout Southern California.  Share My Coach will even deliver your RV to the lakebed so you never have to worry about driving a house on wheels.  Expect to pay a premium for this luxury though.  An RV will also provide you with a place to prepare and eat meals, but you need to bring food with you as there are only limited options available at the event.  Looking for a king-sized bed and porcelain toilet?  The nearest towns with lodging are Yucca Valley, to the south, and Lucerne Valley, to the north.  Each is approximately an hour away from Hammertown, but that time can easily double with heavy traffic on Boone Road. 

Transportation – How to Get to KOH 

Getting to Means Dry Lake Bed is not challenging.  Located between Yucca Valley and Lucerne Valley in Southern California, Boone Road is a well maintained, graded dirt road that is easily traversable by a passenger car or RV and marked with a construction road sign during the event.  That road will get you to the entry gate and on to Hammertown.  If you want to get beyond Hammertown, you are going to want to bring a 4WD.  One of the things that separates King of the Hammers from most off-road events is that you can tackle the same terrain as the racers, albeit not during the race.  Johnson Valley is the largest OHV area in the United States, comprising more than 96,000 acres with elevations range from 2,300 feet to 4,600 feet.  This is the only place in the world that could host an event like King of the Hammers.

Even if you don’t have 40-inch tall tires and one-ton axles, a high clearance 4WD is useful to get to locations such as Backdoor and Chocolate Thunder, where you can get a close-up view of the action on race day.  Bring your chair and cooler and plan to stay for a while. Many families make KOH their yearly vacation and bring out their recreational rockcrawlers and UTVs to try their luck on trails like Jackhammer and Outer Limits.  Make certain that your vehicle has a license plate or a California Green Sticker and that all occupants in your UTV have helmets or you might come home with a ticket; several law enforcement agencies have a big presence at KOH.  Bring extra gas too, as the nearest fuel station is an hour away from Johnson Valley.

2020 King of the Hammers Schedule

  • Friday January 31, 2020: Hammertown opens
  • Saturday February 1, 2020: UTV Qualifying
  • Sunday February 2, 2020: Can-Am UTV King of the Hammers presented by HCR
  • Monday February 3, 2020: 4WP Qualifying for EMC, Holley EFI Shootout presented by King Shocks & Action Sports Canopies
  • Tuesday February 4, 2020: 4WP Qualifying for 4400, Pit Crew Challenge presented by ProEagle, Buggy Whips, and Boxo Tools
  • Wednesday February 5, 2020: 4WP Every Man Challenge
  • Thursday February 6, 2020: Toyo Desert Invitational presented by Monster Energy
  • Friday February 7, 2020: Nitto King of the Hammers Powered by Optima Batteries
  • Saturday February 8, 2020: Progressive King of the Motos, GenRight Off Road KOH Experience Presented by Vision X, Gambler 500 / HooptieX, Monster Energy Closing Ceremonies

What To Bring

  • Sleeping bag
  • Pillow
  • Water
  • Food
  • Warm clothes
  • Sturdy footwear
  • Goggles
  • Headlamp
  • Extra fuel
  • Course map
  • Water bladder
  • Gloves
  • Camera
  • Folding chair
  • Ice chest
  • Binoculars
  • Sunscreen
  • Lip balm
  • Eye drops
  • Tissue paper
  • Scarf
  • Wet wipes
  • Towel
  • Soap
  • Fire wood (not pallets!)
  • Race radio
  • Cell phone
  • Cash

Vehicles leave the starting line two at a time in 30 second intervals at KOH. As a result, the first vehicle across the finish line is not always the fastest based on adjusted time. There are advantages to starting up front though, including less dust in the desert and less traffic in the rocks.

A Jumbotron in the main camp with a live feed and commentary on race day make it one of the best places to watch from. We like to jump back and forth from the action in the main pit and the Jumbotron nearby. Jumbotrons can also be found at Chocolate Thunder and Backdoor as well if you want to see live action as the race unfolds.

Typically, the KOH course has a long desert loop followed by technical rockcrawling. This allows the fast drivers to get to the front of the field before entering narrow canyons that often only have one line through them. Josh Blyer placed 11th last year and went on to win the Ultra4 Championship.

Just because it is winter doesn’t mean you don’t need to drink water. The desert can dry you out in a hurry, so we recommend carrying a water bladder with you. This also gives you a place to put your hat, sunscreen, lip balm, and other small items that you will want to keep with you at all times.

There are street signs in Hammertown to help you find your way around. They can be cross referenced to a map, where each vendor and team has an “address”. CartoTracks even has a cool app that will allow you to download a map and show your position on it using your smartphone.

The UTVs run the same course at King of the Hammers as the Every Man Challenge, and the same first two laps as the Unlimited (4400) cars. This is arguably the most talent-rich class in the whole event, with dedicated UTV drivers such as Mitch Guthrie and Phil Blurton mixing it up with desert racers like Bryce Menzies and Cameron Steele, short course drivers like Johnny and CJ Greaves, and Ultra4 drivers including Loren Healy and Shannon Campbell.

Chocolate Thunder is located across the valley to the east of Hammertown. This makes it easy to access for spectating or recreational wheeling prior to race day. At night the whole hillside is lit up with LED whip antennas and the sound of revving engines fills the air.

King of the Motos is back for 2020! Justin Leineweber takes the reigns as Course Director for the most technically challenging motorcycle race in the world. This year the Progressive King of the Motos (KOM) is a District 37-sanctioned race and adds a women-specific class to the pro and amateur classes.

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