EVENT KING OF THE HAMMERS
DURING the early hours, the dust from a week of tyre-to-tyre competition had settled and all was calm on the Southern California desert.
As the sun crested the eastern horizon, racers and support crews made last-minute preparations – checking fluids and GPS systems – and mentally prepared for the day ahead. It is a scene that has played out every February for the past decade and in a few hours teams would slip on race suits, secure their harnesses and begin one of the most punishing off-road events on the planet – the 2017 Nitto Tire King of the Hammers (KOH).
Waiting in a queue of more than 100 rock buggies were Aussies Ben Napier and Pete Antunac, ready to fight to the last piston stroke to bring home the coveted crown and sceptre. They weren’t strangers to Southern California’s Johnson Valley, as both had suited up for KOH in the past but neither had claimed a place on the podium for the Australian flag.
KOH has gained traction as one URI outhern of the world’s premiere automotive venues, but few understand its humble beginnings.
This year marked its 10th anniversary, and in addition to chasing Napier and Antunac around the track, we caught up with KOH cofounder Dave Cole for an inside scoop on the event’s successes and challenges.
ONE NIGHT over a couple of stubbies, Dave and friend Jeff Knoll came up with the idea for an off-road race that would demand both supremacy in technical terrain and a mastery of desert racing. They scribbled their thoughts on a napkin and shared the concept with a few friends as a litmus test. A few months later they found themselves in Johnson Valley to test their theory.
That first event was small, with just 12 teams and a handful of friends. It would become known as the OG13 (it should have been OG12, but there was a misprint on the shirts) and incorporate eight of the famous Hammer trails. Cole was the sole marshal, and sign-in handfu OG1 w
sheets at the top and bottom of each route substituted for formal checkpoints.
When the dust settled, JR Reynolds was crowned king.
The event’s success led to the formation of Hammerking Productions, and word spread there would be a sequel.
The first official KOH, also a semi-private event, was in 2008. There were 43 teams, seven trails, and the course was expanded to 55 miles (88.5km) in length. Shannon Campbell, who started last, would school the competition on how to pass 42 vehicles and take the crown.
In 2009, Raceline Wheels sponsored a carnivalstyle tent for driver and press meetings. Dozens of manufacturers showed up to display their products, and vendor alley was taking shape.
GPS tracking for all racers was incorporated, Pirate 4x4 provided live streaming web broadcasts, and a few thousand spectators lined the courses. We asked Dave about the key to their early successes. “Tom and Steve at Griffin Radiator believed in us from the beginning, as ation d well as Raceline, Genright, Spidertrax, and smaller shops. They had our backs early on and sustained us at our core.
Nitto Tire and 4 Wheel Parts gave us opportunity through financial support to take bigger chances and grow to the next level.”
KOH then began to attract competitors from other racing genres, such as SCORE’s BJ Baldwin and NASCAR’s Robby Gordon.
While the event was gaining traction as North America’s toughest off-road race, the rest of the world was taking notice. Articles published around the world caught the attention of not only racers and fans, but also the media. e Ni oppo bigge th
IN 2011, when Knoll left Hammerking Productions, Cole took the wheel and hit the accelerator. During the next five years the event experienced exponential growth. A power grid was developed to light the streets of Hammertown, Smittybilt sponsored the Every Man Challenge, and King of the Motos and King of the UTVs were added. Cole also created
WE introduced you to Sydney-based Ben Napier’s KOH career in 2010. With a strong track record at home, he had borrowed a Bomber Fabrication buggy and gained sponsorship from King Shocks, Raceline Wheels, BFGoodrich, and CTM. He only made it to race mile 80, but he was hooked on KOH adrenaline. He followed up by serving as an apprentice to Bomber Fabrication owner Randy Slawson; paying his dues and learning from one of the industry’s best. Napier went on to be a force in ULTRA4, landing a second place overall in the 2011 series, and he has competed in every KOH since 2010. He landed a fifth place finish in 2013 and won the Legends Class in 2015.
Rolling into the 2017 season, he is easily considered a seasoned veteran in the ULTRA4 circles. We spent time with Ben to get the low-down on what it takes to compete in the toughest one-day race on the planet.
There’s nothing like it in Australia – Outback Challenge is about as close as it comes. There’s some amazing terrain at Broken Hill, but nothing rivals the Hammers. KOH is, and always will be, the longest and toughest race out there. It’s become more difficult and serious. It’s no longer a week to go party and play around – we are racing to win.
We didn’t get to do much prerunning, as Top Gear was using our vehicle for filming.
We got it back right before qualifying and, unfortunately, the Atlas transfer case must have been damaged. It grenaded during qualifying, causing us to start at the back of the class. We took it easy and worked our way up from mid-30s start position to top five at the end of the first lap. A long pit stop to fix a broken link bolt put us back to the high 20s, but we fought back and finished seventh in class.
I hope to bring my Penhall ULTRA4 back to the US and enter the main race again. I’ve come fifth overall before and desperately want to win.
Research and get over there. Join a team and help out. Understand how crazy it is. Prep, prep, prep, test and prep some more. Work on your car for months on end, become sleep deprived and spend all your money... and then some. When you finally get over there, have an awesome time racing!
WITH a long career here at home, Pete flew across the pond in 2013 to help friends with their car and get a feel for the event. He set his KOH sights on 2015 and spent the next two years building a vehicle. This year marks the first time he finished the race, and we spent an afternoon with him in Hammertown to get the lowdown on his first three years.
After two years building the vehicle, we had a bit of bad luck in 2015, losing a rear shock and reverse gear. I suppose it was mostly from inexperience with this type of racing.
I would say it is evolving, and fast. There are a lot of teams building new cars, and it has become much more expensive to be competitive.
For this car it’s not really about strategy.
There are some great drivers and teams out there. We don’t need to drive faster, we just need to match their pace, maybe get a better line in the rocks. I’m not here to just finish the race; if that was the goal I would have spent half the money and had a car like everyone else. We were coming off three wins in a row back home and had a good chance of being in the top 10.
I wanted to do something different, to have independent all around. Having the portal hubs gives you an advantage from one perspective, but we found that there are disadvantages as well. We’ve done everything we can this year to increase the strength. The car has been great and has done everything we want it to do and more.
If you don’t have a spare half-million dollars, you’d probably not bother. You can do it for a lot less if you are not worried about placing a top 10 and just want the experience. It is definitely worth trying. I’d start with the Every Man Challenge and get as many sponsors as you can.
the ULTRA4 series, which would expand to include events in Europe, Australia and China.
A secondary impact has been the creation of numerous satellite industries. It is clear Cole has a close connection with those around him.
“I think that everyone who runs their own shop, pulls their own weight, and has created their own success is a part of this community,” he said. “It has taken everyone’s desire to see this succeed and we all grow together as a family. Another important aspect is the drivers’ commitment to making ULTRA4 the best community in the world.”
Of the original OG13 racers, most are still racing or are part of the Hammerking production team.
When asked what the future holds, Dave told us: “I want to continue grassroots racing and Every Man Challenge-style events, while exposing ULTRA4 to as many people around the world as we can, as well as continue to make the safest and most brand-friendly motorsport. The other challenge has been that the guy leading all of this is just a stupid racer himself.” y n tupid This is a pretty humble statement from a guy who has literally changed the industry.
THIS year, more than 130 manufacturers and vendors set up booths, nearly 1000 competitors suited up, and an estimated 60,000 spectators packed the sidelines – and tens of millions followed via live, worldwide digital media.
Nearly 400 journalists from five continents arrived in Hammertown to report on the action, and NBC Sports was on hand to film an upcoming television series. Pete Antunac didn’t take home the KOH crown, but he did land his first finish and claimed 13th overall. It was his best performance to date. Ben Napier competed in the Every Man Challenge Legends Class, where he made it into the top 10.
What began just a decade ago as a one-day gathering of enthusiasts and a peppering of tents on an alkali flat, has evolved into one of the largest automotive venues on the planet. It has literally become the Burning Man of the off-road world.