A Light That Never Goes Out: King of the Hammers

Photography: Brandon Cody

  • King of the Hammers (KOH) is ULTRA4 Racing’s annual multi-faceted motorsport gathering in Johnson Valley, California.
  • What began as a single-day event in 2007 has now evolved into the largest off-road symposium in the world, spanning an impressive 17-day stretch.
  • 2023 marks the third year running for Turn 14 Distribution as an exhibitor and hospitality destination to the industry’s off-road titans.

Knowing what King of the Hammers (KOH) is now, it’s hard to imagine that it started off as a bet between friends in 2007. Even compared to last year, KOH has evolved from nine to 17 days. Even the race — initially made for single-purpose rock-crawling rigs — has evolved to include separate contests for UTVs (including a class for kids), buggies, motorcycles, and desert-racing trucks. 

Across literally every facet of motorsport, King of the Hammers is easily one of the wildest. Ultra4Racing competitors at Hammertown, the given name for the KOH’s temporary “city” in Johnson Valley’s basin, are greeted with more terrain challenges than you’ll find in a rally race. On one hand, smooth desert patches build triple-digit speeds and confidence but are punctuated by unsettling sections of whoops. Put a foot wrong here and you’ll be tipping end over end rather quickly. On the other, are single-digit speed canyons and near vertical walls that test both your patience and your equipment’s fidelity. Put a foot wrong here and you’ll be tipping end over end, too.

Indeed, the spectrum of threatening challenges makes KOH a crazy place. Even surviving it feels like a win.

ALL NIGHT LONG

We arrived at Hammertown long after the sun settled beneath the horizon, and with it, our cell phone reception. Nevertheless, finding Johnson Valley’s jewel was clear as day. From miles out, the desert was aglow. Thousands of lumens from supplementary lighting scattered the landscape like ants on a mound of topsoil. Sand dust lifted from hundreds of knobby off-road tires cast a dull haze over our destination. Without the mechanical soundtrack to accompany the visual, it carried an eerily magical aura like a scene from Fantasia.

While normal campgrounds would settle in for the night, Hammertown took on another personality altogether. Competition routes were now the property of the public and eager enthusiasts wasted no time testing the terrain. The aftermath of these adventures certainly added another layer of challenge for racers — absolutely nothing stays the same from day to day.

Even long after the mountain spectacles die down, the energy sustains at camp where food, fire lanterns, and fun trump any preconceived notion of sleep. By the time the sun has bathed the landscape in natural light and some campfire-style breakfast could be fashioned, the dying embers still emitted heat. And so it went for seventeen days.

WIDE VARIETY

While Jeeps, late-model Toyotas, and Polaris powersports are undeniable favorites here, the rapidly-expanding sub-genre of overland vehicles has broadened the field. The body-on-frame Ford Bronco, the new unibody Land Rover Defender, and the half-ton third-generation Tundra have all become mainstays in their own right. Even mid-size pickups like the Nissan Frontier — Dai Yoshihara’s platform of choice — have their place in the spotlight. There isn’t a “wrong” answer here, only different ways of interpreting the challenges at hand.

The variety didn’t stop with manufacturers, though. You see full factory examples trying their hand at the terrain next to their six-figure-modded brethren. Far from an off-road guy myself, the exercise made me appreciate the engineering behind these rigs so much more. We were lucky to snag a Jeep Wrangler as our rental for the week and, even in stock form, it chugged along rather well. In fact, it felt more at home here than it did on the two-and-a-half-hour highway drive to Hammertown.

As a pilot behind the wheel, there’s an indescribable competency out here. The feeling is similar to taking your high-performance street car on the track for the first time. Most vehicles can do 90% more than what we ask of them on a daily basis, and it’s so gratifying to explore even half of those limits in the desert’s vastness.

MORE THAN A COMPETITION

Although the nucleus of the KOH experience is the plethora of racing, the competition pales in comparison to the camaraderie in the campground. Turn 14 Distribution was also on hand to exhibit for the third year running. Its rig put 4×4 vendors like Dynomite Diesel, MBRP, ATS Diesel, and SuperPro front and center for prospective customers while also serving as a week-long hospitality destination to these and the industry’s other off-road titans. Just like our time at the 24 Hours of Daytona, the interplay of vendors, competitors, and spectators really made this year’s visit to King of the Hammers special. Some frequent Johnson Valley as an unplugged escape from the fast-paced metropolitan world, others to test their own off-road prowess. Whatever the reason, young, old, new, and seasoned are tethered by the Hammertown experience and are willing to lend a helping hand.

During one of our own adventures, we came across a tipped RAZR. Another UTV was already on site, both driver and passenger waving their arms to attract any passerby. After three other cars joined us, one of which had a handy winch, we were able to get the UTV back on its wheels. Make no mistake about it, misfortune is not the exception here, it’s standard. But amidst the dangers of the vast and unforgiving desert, there are hundreds of people who actively act as your oasis.

Bilstein, The Fab School, and Brink Fab Motorsports, a mix of vendors and competitors, were all pivotal in helping sort Dai Yoshihara’s Frontier after Hammertown’s brutal landscape exposed the truck’s Achilles heel.

A WORTHY DESTINATION

For any motorsport junkie, King of the Hammers is a must-attend destination. While the venue may be unlike any other, the parallels that you can draw between this and more traditional motorsport endeavors are aplenty. Even if off-roading isn’t your thing, a visit to Hammertown will, at the very least, give you a whole new appreciation for what this machinery can do. And that appreciation is something that our industry, regardless of genre, could use in spades. All I know is that I’m already looking forward to that gleaming spot in the desert next year.


 

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