DURING the early morning hours, 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 was 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 scepter. 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.
See our Q&A interview with ben Napier and Pete Antunac here
KOH has gained traction as one 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 co-founder Dave Cole for an inside scoop on the event’s successes and challenges.
THE FIRST DECADE
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. 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 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 fast that 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 carnival-style 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 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 global media.
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 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 personal 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 said: “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.”
This is a pretty humble statement from a guy who has literally changed the industry.
THE NEXT 10 YEARS IN HAMMERTOWN
This year, more than 130 manufacturers and vendors set up booths, nearly 1000 competitors suited up during the week, and an estimated 60,000 spectators packed the sidelines – 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. Antunac didn’t take home the KOH crown, but he did land his first finish and claimed 13th overall. It was his best KOH 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.
As they say in Hammertown: See you on the lakebed!