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01 1985 Toyota 4Runner Rock Crawler

Racing Vs Recreation

Worlds Collide at King of the Hammers
Photography by Richard Giordano

In just over a decade, King of the Hammers has exploded into the biggest off-road event on the planet. In fact, the only larger event held on BLM land is Burning Man. And the two have more in common than you might think, from the city-on-a-lakebed vibe to the fact that people don’t just come to spectate, they come to participate. We aren’t just talking about the 500 teams that compete in the series of races during the week (for UTVs, desert trucks, limited class 4x4s, and the unlimited 4400 vehicles). Tens of thousands of people bring their own vehicles out to King of the Hammers to run the same trails that are used during the races. This is what separates KOH from the typical off-road race., you don’t just have to spectate at the Hammers. Racing and recreating are both encouraged, but they do have different requirements. We talked to several competitors in the 4WP Every Man Challenge about their transition from recreational wheeling and volunteering to competing at King of the Hammers to get a better idea of the similarities, and differences, between the two.


Racing in King of the Hammers is a huge time commitment. Not only do you have to build a race car leading up to the event (or prepare it for the race if you already have a vehicle to race in), it is necessary to arrive early to the lakebed in order to register, qualify, set up logistics, prerun, and attend drivers’ meetings prior to race day. Prerunning in particular can be time consuming, and somewhat tricky as the same course is used for several different races, taking it out of play for prerunning. Several larger scale 4400 teams enter the UTV race solely to become more familiar with the course under race conditions. By contrast, recreational wheeling is much more relaxed. While you cannot run the course when it is in use either, there are plenty of other trails in Johnson Valley that are not used for the race that can still be enjoyed. And you can wheel at any time, in fact, trails like Chocolate Thunder and Backdoor are often more crowded at night than during the day.


We always wear our seatbelts on the trail, but casual four-wheeling can be done in shorts and a t-shirt. By contrast, racing requires a race suit, helmet, and head and neck restraint. We recommend racing gloves and shoes as well, although these are not requirements (many people compete in hiking books and leather welding or mechanics gloves). For off-road racing, helmets typically have provisions for pumped air and are wired for an intercom to communicate between the driver and navigator, as well as to the pit crew. Many items like a fire extinguisher, first aid kit, and water that are required by Ultra4 should already be in your rig whether you are competing or not. A stock rollbar and gas tank won’t cut it for racing though. The vehicle needs a cage that meets the Ultra4 rule book, along with SFI-rated harnesses, window nets, a kill switch, and a fuel cell, amongst other items. These items don’t make your vehicle any faster, but they do make it significantly safer when racing. While disaster can strike when out wheeling with friends, the odds go up when you put 100 vehicles on a race course competing against one another.


One of the best things about wheeling is the chance to spend time with your friends, and to make new friends. You can stop whenever you want on the trail to hang out, have a snack, and watch each other work your way through an obstacle. On race day you will need all of those friends, but don’t expect to have a lot of time to shoot the breeze. The King of the Hammers race course has three pits, and in each one you would want a minimum of two people. Wheeling buddies make the best pit crews because they are typically mechanically inclined and aren’t afraid to get dirty. You need a lot of those friends though to race. Five people per pit would be ideal, with two to fuel the vehicle, one to hold the fire extinguisher, one to stand in front of the vehicle to let the driver know when it is safe to leave the pit, and another to provide the driver and navigator with water, snacks, and anything else they might need. All that assumes that no tires need to be changed and nothing else needs to be addressed on the vehicle. 


Wheeling isn’t the cheapest hobby around. Lift kits, lockers, bigger tires… there are always more upgrades to make. And that is assuming that you don’t break something when you are out on the trail. The costs associated with racing are significantly higher though, both in terms of initial investment, upkeep, and also the fees associated with race entry, tracker rental, USAC insurance, wrist bands for your crew, and more. You could likely wheel every month for a year for the cost it takes to race in King of the Hammers. Many racers tell us that the feeling you get when you cross the finish line make it all worth it though.  

Most of us started out wheeling with our friends. As time goes on you modify your vehicle further to make it more capable. Many people are content to do this for a lifetime, as it provides plenty of enjoyment for a reasonable cash outlay. For those looking for a bigger adrenaline fix though, racing is often the next step.
When out with friends it isn’t uncommon to stop and watch people attempt optional obstacles. You might even spend the entire day on one trail. In contrast, at King of the Hammers multiple trails are run in one day. Racers aren’t looking for the biggest challenge, they are looking for the fastest way through the trail.

Brad and Roger Lovell have been racing for years, but they first got into the off-road scene by wheeling their Ford Ranger on the trails around Colorado Springs. We ran into the two brothers coming down Bender Alley during pre-running. The Lovells devoted a lot of time to prerunning, and it paid off as they won the 4WP Every Man Challenge this year for the third time.

While some teams prerun in their race vehicles to shake them down and get a feel for how the vehicle works on the course, others use a different vehicle in order to preserve their equipment for race day. Amber Turner drover her father’s 4Runner on the rock trails prior to the 4WP Every Man Challenge in order to get more familiar with the course. Amber’s brother co-drove the first lap of the race in the desert and her father hopped in for the second lap in the rocks.
You never know who you will run into when you are out on the trails at King of the Hammers! Racers share the course with recreational wheelers during prerunning, so it is important to be courteous to others who are moving at a different pace than you. We were driving up the waterfall on Wrecking Ball when three-time KOH winner Jason Scherer came past us in his race car. Scherer appeared out of nowhere and was gone in the blink of an eye. And this is just when he was prerunning, this was less than 50% of his pace on race day!

Monday night’s Shootout is a great way to get involved in competition with less cost and commitment. This event was actually the result of recreational wheelers trying to get up Backdoor as fast as possible for bragging rights. Now people come from all over the country to be the fastest through the course, with stadium lights, a Jumbotron, and timing lights. You don’t need a full blown Ultra4 car for the Shootout, but most of the vehicles involved have huge engines, giant tires, and full tube chassis.

Amber Turner likely had the least expensive entry in all of King of the Hammers. She raced her Suzuki Samurai in the Stock Class (4600) at the 4WP Every Man Challenge. Amber has wheeled her little Samurai all over the country in places like the Rubicon and Moab, so she is very familiar with what it can and cannot do. She has volunteered at KOH in the past for years so she had a good idea of the financial and time commitment necessary to race.

One thing that is rarely discussed in racing is the potential for damage. We don’t mean a dent or a scratch, but the possibility of rollovers, blown engines, bent chassis, and more. You can take your daily driver out on the trails for fun, but don’t plan on racing anything that you need to rely on to get you to work on Monday morning. The more competitive you are, the more likely you will need to replace major components such as tires, axle shafts, and ring and pinions after the race.

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