If you were to go to the Means dry lakebed east of Los Angeles, California, at Christmas time you would find a desolate, cold and lonely desert. It’s either complete silence or a howling windstorm around the rocky outcrops. You may spot a couple of four-wheel drivers picking their way across the remains of the WWII bombing range still faintly etched into the lakebed, a reminder of the intensity of the bombs exploding as men prepared for war.
In contrast, if you went in early February you would have found ‘Hammer Town’ had risen from the desert floor, with its population peaking at more than 50,000 people from across the world in preparation for a modern form of war. A town has risen but its life will be fleeting, as it will be returned to the desert within a few short days.
Those eight days will be epic, as the faithful prepare to destroy the desert trails in the main event with extravagantly expensive Ultra4 race cars. Welcome to the King Of The Hammers ... the world’s toughest one-day off-road race held each year in the Johnson Valley.
The line-up consists of multiple forms of racing vehicles, including motorbikes, ATVs, trophy trucks, tuff trucks, and Ultra4 race cars that are custom-built with no rules around their specifications other than a few safety details.
If you want 1100hp, do it and show us on race day how that works, while most will run from 600 to 900hp on 40- to 42-inch tyres. The vehicles can traverse rock trails that you’re hard-pressed to walk and then hit the open desert and do nearly 200km/h. The main race held on the Friday of Hammers week is 340km and takes the winners more than seven hours to complete.
Hammers has run for 14 years now and many Australian teams have competed with varying degrees of success. In 2020, there were two Australian teams in Hammertown and this is their story.
Pip Justice and Tim Nolan are seasoned competitors having won Australia’s premier competitive four-wheel driving event the Tuff Truck Challenge four times, and they were looking for what’s next. To compete in the world’s hardest one-day off-road race seemed like a logical next step and, over a period of two months, the Texas-based crew at Rufus Racing helped secure an Ultra4 buggy with race pedigree, including a win in the 2014 King of The Hammers at the hands of Loren Healey.
The car was prepared by Rufus Racing and was ready on the lakebed when Pip and Tim arrived at Hammer Town in late January. A few days were spent putting the final touches on the car, and this is when they found that the power steering system needed a new pump. After that and during one of the test runs, the left front stub axle broke.
Made of 300M steel it broke in a way that had the team baffled as to how it failed. Fortunately, a new part was available in Hammer Town. The winch too was certainly not the latest piece of recovery equipment fitted, so Warn Industries donated its latest winch offering to the cause and on race day it proved invaluable according to Tim, the team string-puller (aka co-driver).
On race day the boys started 38th off the line and within the first 80km had been overtaken by at least 10 other cars, but their plan was to run their own race.
Hammers is a race of attrition, where finishing beats most competitors. At the 100km mark, doing 140km/h, the boys got a love tap in the rear from the car’s previous owner to tell them to get out of his way. A couple of times they bicycled up on to two wheels, so-much-so that gravel was flying in through the front window. Completing the race in 14th place, with a time of 9:35:48, without any mechanical dramas or punctures, is a testament to the vehicle prep from the team at Rufus Racing, and Pip and Tim’s skills.
Barry Smethurst and Cam Stewart from Victoria’s Road Runner Offroad attended Hammers for the second time, having received a real hiding in their 2019 campaign. Barry is well-known in the Aussie competition scene having competed in many premier events over the years, and he had taken the big step of purchasing an Ultra4 to keep based in Texas at Twisted Fabrications Inc.
The new car was only secured two months prior to the race and required an extensive amount of race prep involving a full strip-down and rebuild. The car arrived on the lakebed requiring the Road Runner vehicle wrap to give it the Aussie flavour and turn it into Barry’s pride and joy.
Barry's race plan was to compete in two classes, the first being the Every Man Challenge (EMC) 4800 class and the Main Ultra4 race 4400 class. The EMC qualifying race was the first time they got to really give the car the berries, but not far into the lap the steering wheel came off in Barry’s hands because he hadn’t clipped the quick-connect properly. This led to a hectic few moments as they avoided a cameraman while Barry steered by holding the steering shaft until he brought the car to a stop. After correctly refitting the steering wheel they qualified 20th.
The EMC race went great until after the first pit when a number of issues reared their heads: firstly, cylinder number one was not getting fuel due to a blocked injector filter; and the second was overheating issues caused by vapour locks in the heads. These would plague the boys for the rest of their week.
The third issue was an earth wire breaking on one of the cooling fans and needed a trail fix. But what finished them off was the alternator failing and the battery going flat leaving the boys with a DNF. Naturally, the team was gutted by this result, but in true Aussie spirit they got to work prepping the car for the 4400 race. This prep led the team’s sponsor Maxxis to upgrade the tyres from the 37-inch to the larger 40-inch sticky Trepador hoops.
Race day was a fight with the team only able to finish two of the three laps before timing out. At one point the throttle spring broke requiring Barry to manually pull the throttle back with his foot until the next pit stop where it was repaired. The brakes were also sticking on and boiling the brake fluid, and the cooling system continued to have issues with airlocks, leaving the team feeling rather defeated by the end of the week.
To race at Hammers is always going to hurt, it’s just a question of how much and what you do with the pain.
For 2020 the win went to Josh Blyler with a time of 07:06:32.488. As for Pip, Tim, Barry and Cam, they plan to return in 2021 to again attempt to tame the beast called King of The Hammers.
To enjoy more in-depth content head to the Facebook page ’Aussies at the Hammers’ or follow these links:
- Aussies at the Hammers Facebook page
- Interview with Pip and Tim of Justice Motorsports
- Interview with Barry and Cam of Road Runner Offroad
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