‘Burning Man for rednecks’: inside King of the Hammers, the gnarliest off-road race of the year

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By Sohaib

Every year, tens of thousands of people gather here in the Mojave Desert with two goals: to see some incredible off-road racing and to lose their minds in the kind of unbridled debauchery their mothers always warned them about. 

King of the Hammers is often described as “Burning Man for rednecks,” and while the drug of choice is usually Coors Light and the cars are valued for performance rather than artistic sensibilities, the description works. This year, nearly 80,000 people came to the camping area on Means Dry Lake, drawn by the promise of friends, fuel, and two weeks of dirt-slinging, rock-spewing, mind-blowing racing.

While some folks are familiar with off-road races like the Baja 1000 or the Dakar Rally, King of the Hammers is completely different. The rigs have to be able to conquer a high-speed desert section — usually that means independent front suspension and plenty of horsepower — but they also need to defy physics in the rock-crawling sections. A solid axle in the front and plenty of torque is a necessity. 

The difficulty of the rock sections is legendary. Boulders the size of a Mini Cooper are scattered throughout a narrow valley. Some are embedded in the ground, and others move when you put weight on them, which happens often. King of the Hammers competitors relish these rocks. They live for them. The rocks are their reason for being.

Race cars can’t just change their front-end suspension for each section, so it’s up to the MacGyver-like minds of the fabricators to either make independent front suspension work well in the rocks or engineer a solid front axle that can speed through the desert. 

I’ve been to King of the Hammers at least five times — as a spectator, staff member, and this year, as a competitor — but the thrill never diminishes. What started as a group of pals who put a case of beer on the line for the person who could run all the incredibly difficult rock-crawler trails in one day has morphed into a two-week off-road racing extravaganza with motorcycles, desert cars, UTVs, and unlimited rock crawlers with 40-inch tires and an abundance of horsepower.

Drawn by the promise of friends, fuel, and two weeks of dirt-slinging, rock-spewing, mind-blowing racing

Over 1,000 competitors take the green flag to battle some of the toughest terrain in North America. Most will fail, but there is honor to those that finish and glory to those that win.

But it’s not just the racing, and frankly, it’s not just the extracurricular events that happen around the Hammers. Every year, I take away some key lessons from KOH that I can apply in my everyday life. It might be hokey, finding inspiration in a two-week racing party, but what can I say? I’m a sentimental gal.

The races

The first four-wheeled race took place on the only-on-the-desert sections, and I’m proud to say that your humble author took the green starting flag in her lifted Miata named Buddy. I’ve raced plenty out here but always in a car that was built for the desert, not in a freaking Miata. Amid a sea of trucks three times my size, I piloted Buddy through rough and sandy sections alike. Did I think I was going to die? Yes, multiple times. But I got Buddy around the track in one piece to the slack-jawed amazement of more than one spectator. 

It was Christopher Polvoorde in a 1,000-horsepower Mason Motorsports AWD truck who eventually ran the quickest race, finishing about two hours faster than I did. While I didn’t win any trophies, Buddy the Off-Road Miata certainly won the hearts of plenty of off-road fans that day. 

Did I think I was going to die? Yes, multiple times

Expect the unexpected. That’s Hammers.

After a few days of qualifying sessions, the UTVs set off around the course, encountering both high-speed desert running and rock crawling. And they had to do it in the rain thanks to the atmospheric river that attacked California in February. Although Kyle Chaney made short work of Johnson Valley, earning his fourth first-place finish in the event, third-place finisher Phil Blurton really had a good time.

“A mile into the race, I had my visor up, and we barrel-rolled the car, and I got a face full of dirt. We landed on all fours and never let off and kept going,” said Blurton.

Persevere. That’s Hammers.

Photo by Royce Rumsey / Optima Batteries

Next up, the Every Man Challenge, where the self-funded grassroots teams get their chance to shine. This year, Keith and Melissa Silva defied convention in their garage-built electric rock crawler, a combination of Chevrolet S-10 and Tesla Model S. Last year, they were not able to complete a full lap, but this year, thanks to a better battery management system, they earned first place in the EV class.

Sure, they were a class of one, and their lap was shorter than other classes, but bringing a fully electric rock crawler with 37-inch tires across the finish line is an accomplishment, especially when you consider that over 100 competitors were not able to complete the race. 

When I asked them why they torture themselves with the extra complexity of running an EV, Melissa replied, “How easy is it to put an LS motor in and do what everyone else is doing? Nobody is pushing the boundaries. Somebody has to do it and I would rather it be a single team.”

While it was Randy Slawson who took top spot on the podium in the Every Man Challenge, despite having to drive 10 miles on two flat tires to reach his team in his pits for help, the Silvas took the crown for not taking the easy way out.

Do it the hard way. That’s Hammers.

Finally, the Race of Kings brought the whole event to a close. This is the most popular race, with vehicles completely unlimited in terms of power, suspension, and tire size. If you can build it, you can race it. While it runs the same course as the other races, these competitors have to race the rock section twice. 

“A mile into the race, I had my visor up, and we barrel-rolled the car, and I got a face full of dirt.”

Out of 105 starters, only 40 finished. One competitor lost their steering rack a mere 0.7 miles into the race. Two racers got tangled together when one tried to drive over the other. Another team was all set to win but lost their transmission mere miles before the finish line. In a feat of terrific driving and just a small amount of luck, JP Gomez, who had started 99th, took the win.

Gomez took the trophy from his brother Raul, who won in 2022 and 2023. The new king teared up when talking about his brothers on the finish line. “We worked our asses off. Everyone in the Gomez Brothers Racing team and family — they all earned this as much as I did.”

Family first. That’s Hammers.

The nightlife

As the course is closed to racers, it is opened to spectators. Most of the racecourse is on public land, which means everyone has the right to access it. And these spectators go hard.

The biggest party goes down on Chocolate Thunder. Yes, that’s the name of the trail. I know it sounds like something a 12-year-old boy would say, but the truth is, the first person to successfully complete a new trail gets to name it. Some trails have been around for years and have names that make vague sense like Outer Limits, Sledgehammer, or Wrecking Ball. Those are words that conjure up images of really difficult rock trails. But then we get names like Chocolate Thunder. Or Her Problem. May I interest you in a ride on Backdoor? 

The biggest party goes down on Chocolate Thunder — yes, that’s the name of the trail

At any rate, every night at Chocolate Thunder, hundreds of spectators show up to test their garage-built rigs against the rocks. It’s a veritable traffic jam with drivers trying every driving line possible and some that are impossible. Drivelines are destroyed, hubs are sheared off, and engines routinely go boom. Folks set off fireworks, put on laser shows, and yes, have a fistfight or two. If you flip your rig, you’ll get chastised by the crowd, but folks will always help you recover. While racers need to run fully caged vehicles with five-point harnesses and wear the appropriate safety gear, nighttime at King of the Hammers is a free-for-all. It is unbridled chaos.

My pal Michael Teo Van Runkle experienced the spectacle that is Chocolate Thunder at night for the first time this year. “It’s gnarly,” he told me. “Everyone is wasted, everyone’s screaming. There are multiple side-by-sides with giant speaker systems blasting early 2000s rap music and modern pop country. Tires are blasting rocks into the crowd and tearing up what is going to be the race course the next day.”

“Meanwhile, the wind is blasting and there is sand and smoke everywhere,” he continued. “The trucks are spewing exhaust so you’re hacking the whole time. My eyeballs were coughing up grit and dirt for two days but it was so worth it…just a hard-core ragefest on the mountain with Mad Max apocalypse shit going on. It was awesome.”

Party like there’s no tomorrow. That’s Hammers.

Photo by Royce Rumsey / Optima Batteries

The EVs

While the party rages on every night on the trail, those wanting something a bit more staid, — and much more techy — can check out the two-day Optima Unplugged event. For the second year in a row, Optima Batteries had 67 electrified vehicles out to King of the Hammers for fun trail rides through Johnson Valley. Most participants were in Rivians, both the truck and SUV, but there were also a few Ford F-150 Lightnings, Toyota Tundra hybrids, and a Tesla Model Y. To charge all of these EVs in the middle of the desert, Renewable Innovations was along for the ride with its green hydrogen and solar-powered Mobile Energy Command units, providing the free use of four Level 3 chargers and 10 Level 2 chargers.

“Just a hard-core ragefest on the mountain with Mad Max apocalypse shit going on”

Newbie Dennis Wang came out with his red-wrapped Cybertruck for an excellent introduction to wheeling in the dirt.

“This was my first time off-roading, my first time at King of the Hammers– first time at everything,” he said. “I didn’t know KOH was so massive and this EV thing was only like a sliver of what was going on. I was a bit anxious about off-roading but I learned a lot in the driver’s meeting and after the first hour I was really comfortable. At first I was worried about charging but having Renewable Innovations there with its off-grid system was pretty cool. My CCS adapter didn’t work, so I ran the whole day on one charge. I made it home, though!”

Photo by Royce Rumsey / Optima Batteries

There were actually two Cybertrucks at the event, as Tesla aftermarket supplier Unplugged Performance brought out its own Cybertruck with the intent to find its limits — which eventually took the form of a broken rear tie rod. I was lucky enough to get a quick drive in Elon Musk’s dream car and was surprised by the composed air suspension in the undulating whoops. I expected the front end to get overwhelmed at speeds of 30 miles per hour or so, but it soaked up the hits no problem.

Ford Performance even brought out its one-off Switchgear concept. The team took an F-150 Lightning and added longer-travel Fox shocks, beefier control arms, and 37-inch tires, and then let driver and professional fun-haver Vaughn Gittin Jr. loose behind the wheel. I was relegated to the passenger seat, but man, what a thrill ride. We drifted across the dry lake bed, threw up rooster tails in the soft sand, and generally hooned like irresponsible children. If you want to get maximum range out of your EV when on the dirt, don’t let the fun-haver behind the wheel. During our drive, we only managed 0.5 miles / kWh, and it was worth every minute of extra time at Renewable Innovations.

Be different. That’s Hammers.

The drones

Even if you’re not at King of the Hammers, you can watch all the action on the streaming live show. For two weeks, some of the best off-road racing content in the world is streamed from a distant lake bed onto YouTube. There are three jumbotrons, two remote reporters, dozens of static cameras, and no fewer than 20 drones capturing all the action on the final day of racing. 

“At first we used a DJI Inspire 1 drone,” said operator Daniel Mayfield. “Now we have these first-person view drones and we have drone racers coming into cinematography. So we get flips and turns. We take the video feed out of their goggles and that’s what goes into the live show.”

No fewer than 20 drones capturing all the action on the final day of racing

These first-person drones provide an incredible view, getting into some close quarters with 6,000-pound race cars as they come into the finish. The fliers can spin, flip, and otherwise perform impressive acrobatics, providing a view to those at home like no other.

While it’s pretty easy to send the finish line footage to the production trailer a few feet away, the production crew uses drones out on the course, too, often miles away. In the past, microwave dishes have been used to relay footage back to the production trailer. This year, it was all done with Starlink. The video stream goes from the controller to a LiveU transmitter to a hardwired Starlink unit, although they also keep a secondary Starlink on Wi-Fi as backup. The feed gets sent to the production trailer where the technical director can bring the drone feed in and out of the live show as necessary.

Multiple static cameras brave the terrain, driving their own rigs over rough desert terrain to shooting spots, setting up their Starlinks, and waiting all day for the cars to come by. They brave the elements while the course is hot, enduring everything from bitter winds and rain to the pounding sun. And they do it all for the shot.

The result is 12 hours of uninterrupted coverage, beamed out to the hundreds of thousands of race fans around the world. Fans seem to like it as well, with one Perry P commenting on YouTube, “​It’s pretty amazing that the KOH coverage these days is better quality than Baja (1000) coverage.”

Always innovate. That’s Hammers.

The cleanup

While the entire King of the Hammers organization is committed to packing out what it packs in, some spectators are not quite so respectful of our public lands. Every morning, volunteers head up to Chocolate Thunder and Backdoor for a cleanup. They’re led by Tread Lightly, a national organization that promotes responsible off-roading, and the Sons of Smokey, a ragtag group of pals devoted to the collection and disposal of trash from public lands, and sponsored in part by Bronco Wild Fund.

These dedicated volunteers are the true heroes of King of the Hammers. Over the two weeks of events, the morning cleanups netted 7,600 pounds of trash cleared off our public lands.

Adding their own twist to land stewardship was Bad Lines, Good Times and its King of the Canners effort. Armed with 21 empty 55-gallon fuel drums with attached can crushers, the canners entered King of the Hammers on a mission: to collect and recycle as many aluminum cans as possible. The contraptions were scattered around popular viewing spots as well as the vendor area known as Hammertown and emptied once or twice a day. In the end, they hauled 267 pounds of aluminum off the lake bed. 

The group lost money on the venture, as most cleanups usually do, but team member Elliot Strickler summed it up perfectly, “Doing nothing is not an option.”

Do the right thing. That’s Hammers.

The finish line

Of course, there are so many more stories to tell from the lake bed. There was an invasion of old-school three-wheelers, a motorcycle race where bikes got flipped and riders went flying, a contest to test the mettle of teams’ pit crews, 33 stock Volkswagen bugs started their race side by side and it all went horribly wrong, a guy whose car caught on fire in the middle of the night while he slept next to it, and countless other debacles and victories that I don’t even know about. 

The racing at King of the Hammers is like no other. Where F1 cancels a race because of a manhole cover and NASCAR throws a caution flag for an errant pebble on the track, the competitors at King of the Hammers are stopped by nothing. It’s the only event where part of your race strategy might just be driving off a cliff.

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