Today, the friends off-road battle over a case of beer, it's as much of a festival and celebration of all-things off-road as it is a race, despite races taking place, has transformed into a weeklong annual bash that brings upward of 50,000 people from all over the globe to gather in the California desert. Josh Blyler wins the world's hardest one day off-road race, Bryce Menzies dominates and takes home $100,000 the Toyo Desert Invitational Presented By Monster Energy and Brad Lovell wins the 4WP Every Man Challenge.
Photograpy by Paolo Baraldi
First King of the Hammers took place in 2007 when 12 diehard off-road drivers, came together in the Johnson Valley OHV (off-highway vehicle) area of San Bernardino County, California, for the ultimate off-roading battle. As the story goes, these desert racers went to war purely for bragging rights and a case of cold beer. The race was born from an idea of Dave Cole and Jeff Knoll, both offroader but in different disciplines, who wanted to challenge themselves with some of their friends in a race that would join the characteristic tracks of the Desert Race to those of the Rock-Crawling. This very first edition of the King of the Hammers was handled in secret: no spectator, no journalist and no sponsor; only the drivers invited. The route of this first KOH, 35 miles long, was presented to the participants like that: "Lakebed to Outer Limits up Outer Limits down Aftershock down Sunbonnet up Devil's Slide down Hell's Gate take a right towards Landers up the Slide Towards the end of Sledge up Jack (hammer) down Jack North up Wrecking Ball down Claw (hammer) back to the Lakebed". After the "non-event" was disputed, Jeff Knoll posted a simple question on a famous American offroad forum: "How do you think it takes to run 8 Hammers trails consecutively?". Dave Cole, immediately he stimulated even more attention by betting 100 dollars that no one could do it in less than five hours. After receiving the interest of the forum, they published the results of the secret competition and at that point everyone wanted to prove that they were faster. Thus the King of the Hammers was born!
Today, the friends off-road battle over a case of beer, it has become a huge week-long off-road event that brings upward of 50,000 people from all over the globe to gather in the Johnson Valley. "Koh Week" is a week full of action and adrenaline between qualifications and races of various kinds. Of all the events held at KOH throughout the week, the 4WP Every Man Challenge, Toyo Desert Invitational, and Nitto King of the Hammers races attract the most spectators.
Just to finish the King of the Hammers the King of the Hammers is already considered an important achievement. Entering in the top 10 means being part of a small elite. Winning it is like becoming a legend. For this reason I want to start my story of the 2020 Koh week right from the King of the Hammers race which took place on Friday 7 February.
Nitto King of the Hammers Powered by OPTIMA Batteries - A new King is crowned, Josh Blyler wins the world's hardest one day off-road race
KOH has a reputation as the toughest one day off-road race in the world, pushing man and machine to their breaking point, and beyond. The 212-mile course included punishing desert terrain and some of the most challenging rockcrawling trails in the world (aka The Hammers). Josh Blyler won the King of the Hammers 2020.
Over the past twelve years, the same five racers have won the Nitto King of the Hammers. This year, a new King was crowned. Josh Blyler proved that his 2019 Ultra4 season points championship was no fluke, overcoming a nail-biting rollover late in the race to win the 2020 King of the Hammers in his Miller Motorsports buggy. “We knew we were leading, we knew we were doing good, and we drove it in there too hot, too hard, like a bunch of idiots, and just like that we were on the roof,” Blyler confessed at the finish line. “Jared was scrambling, he couldn’t get out. We finally got out, and as he was hooking the winches up he said ‘Don’t wait on me when we get you flipped!’, and I didn’t.” The Klingerstown, Pennsylvania native is a perennially fast and consistent finisher, completing all four Nitto King of the Hammers that he has entered (11th last year, 4th in 2018, and 6th in 2017). The last time a vehicle with a solid front axle won KOH was Erik Miller in 2016. This year, his buggies finished first and third, reigniting the debate between IFS and solid axles. “I toyed with the idea of building an independent car,” winner Josh Blyler revealed. “We stuck with this because it’s tried and true, and the Miller car is just outstanding. It’s bulletproof, it’s tough, we added six inches to the trailing arms to make this thing handle a little better in the desert. My dad (fellow racer Rusty Blyler) was at Reno and led that race for like three laps, and I said ‘Maybe solid axles ain’t dead.’”
After rolling in qualifying, Marcos Gomez had to start at the back of the field, putting him ahead of many competitors on corrected time. A broken rod end on the independent front suspension just miles from the finish line dashed Gomez’s hopes of winning KOH, but he still managed to limp his UFO-built buggy across the finish line in second place.
Erik Miller of Miller Motorsports finished in third place, securing more podium finishes at the Nitto King of the Hammers than any other driver. “I’ve never been this happy to be 3rd place, and I couldn’t have lost to a better guy,” the two-time King shared at the finish line. Miller battled electrical issues in Jack North that cost him half an hour of time, eventually receiving help from fellow competitor Jeff McKinley. The Nitto King of the Hammers is a no chase race, meaning that outside assistance is only allowed in designated pit areas. Competitors, however, are allowed to help each other, and many did just that.
King of the Hammers has a reputation as the toughest one day off-road race in the world, pushing man and machine to their breaking point, and beyond. Attrition was as high as ever, with only 44 of the 97 competitors reaching the finish line within the 14-hour time limit. The King of the Hammers is just part of a week of racing in Johnson Valley in front of tens of thousands of spectators and millions of online viewers watching unparalleled life coverage from the desert. The marquee event of the week, covered 77 miles in the desert before running 2 times the 66 miles lap in the most challenging rockcrawling trails in the world (aka The Hammers)
The leader of the King of the Hammers changed over a dozen times as competitors succumbed to mechanical issues, putting fans on the edge of their seats. Last year’s winner Jason Scherer jumped out to an early lead before transmission failure ended his day, opening the way for two-time KOH winner Loren Healy. When driveline issues hampered Healy, second generation racer Bailey Campbell took the lead on lap two. A water pump issue took Campbell out of contention, but her father Shannon brought her the parts she needed to finish the race in 22nd place. At that point, Cameron Steele was leading the race in the Lasernut buggy, but a broken steering rack dashed his hopes of winning the King of the Hammers.
Ultra4 Europe teams were also competing this year at the King of the Hammers. In the Lakebed the Spaniard Inaki Lanzagorta (Budaxtrem), the German Bernd Schaefer (The Crazy Germans) and the English Shabs Piercy (Team Syncro Racing) bravely put themselves to the test in the toughest race in the world. For a European, just being on the way to King of the Hammers is a big challenge. Just arriving on the starting line means realizing a dream; an important milestone achieved with a lot of commitment and sacrifice.
The Spaniard Inaki Lanzagorta was the only one of the three European drivers to complete the race in 12 hours and 27 minutes, finishing 40th. For him, the California adventure started uphill after the break of the transfercase after a few meters from the start for qualifying. For this reason he had to start among the last for the King of the Hammers. Together with the Englishman Rob Butler (2016), Inaki is the only European to have completed the King of the Hammers in good time and covering all three scheduled laps.
German Bernd Schaefer was the only European to participate in qualifying with a time of 03: 13.751 which placed him in 65th position. In the main race Schaefer started very well, maintaining a good race pace until the breakdown of the hydraulic steering forced him to retire after 2 hours and 29 minutes of race.
The Englishman Shabs Piercy was the most unfortunate and perhaps at the same time the most determined to want to achieve this dream. The Syncro Racing Team is a small team whose main resource is passion. For them, bad luck was their first and only opponent. The team vehicle had serious mechanical problems right from the start which forced Shabs not to show up for qualifying. The team worked hard until a few minutes before the King of the Hammers start to be able to start. Unfortunately, all their efforts have been in vain; the car didn't want to run. Thanks to Dave Cole, who offered Shabs Piercy one of his vehicles, Team Syncro Racing managed to start but in last position and with a delay of almost 15 minutes. For Shabs and his team, the race ended after 10 hours and 24 minutes covering 2 laps ... a feat that deserves all our respect.
At his tenth King of the Hammers also the Italian, resident in Hawaii (USA), Fabio Manno who finished the race in 43rd position.
King of the Hammers past winners:
2019- Jason Scherer and Jason Berger
2018-Jason Scherer and Jason Berger
2017- Shannon Campbell
2016- Erik Miller and Robert Ruggiero
2015- Randy Slawson and Michael Slawson
2014- Loren Healy and Casey Trujillo
2013- Randy Slawson and Michael Slawson
2012- Erik Miller and Robert Ruggiero
2011- Shannon Campbell
2010- Loren Healy and Rodney Woody
2009- Jason Scherer and Jason Berger
2008- Shannon Campbell
2007- JR Reynolds and Randy Slawson
Tuesday february 3, 2020 KOH qualifying.
Two-Time King Loren Healy tops qualifying for the 2020 Nitto King of the Hammers with a blistering fast time of 2:35 in his Ford-powered Bronco buggy. While Healy has won KOH twice in the past, he has never qualified on the pole before. By contrast, Jason Scherer has qualified on the pole multiple times, and for the third year qualified second (three seconds behind Healy). This is the fifth consecutive year that Scherer will start on the first row for Friday’s race.
Last Chance Qualifier - There are a variety of ways to pre-qualify for KOH, including past performance at the event and sanctioned Ultra4 races throughout the season. These drivers qualify for starting position on race day, but there are others for whom the stakes are much higher. The Last Chance Qualifier (LCQ) provides an opportunity for entry to the top 25% of the LCQ field. Sounds impossible? Both Loren Healy and Randy Slawson have won KOH in the past after earning their spot in the big show through the LCQ.
Toyo Desert Invitational Presented By Monster Energy - Bryce Menzies dominates and takes home $100,000
Nestled between the 4WP Every Man Challenge and the Nitto King of the Hammers Powered by Optima Batteries, the Toyo Desert Invitational not only exposed the 50,000 Ultra4 fans in Johnson Valley to T1 Desert Trucks, it also allowed desert racing teams to experience the unique community that is King of the Hammers. Toyo driver Bryce Menzies was first off of the line.
Over a dozen of the most talented off-road racers in the world converged for the Toyo Desert Invitational in an effort to take home $100,000, the biggest purse in desert racing. These drivers learned that it isn’t just the rocks of Johnson Valley that can be ruthless, the desert can be just as unforgiving. The day started with a prologue on 20 miles of race course to determine the starting order, and even that was filled with pandemonium. Casey Currie lost a transfer case, Nick Nelson rolled his AWD truck, and Rob MacCachren had a transmission failure, and that was before the race even officially began. Only six drivers completed the three 100 mile loops to reach the checkered flag.
Toyo driver Bryce Menzies was first off of the line, followed by his Toyo teammate Andy McMillin. Andy was one of three McMillins entered in the race, along side his cousins Luke and Dan with brand new 4WP livery on their T1 desert trucks. The third-generation racers were running 2-3-4 for much of the day, until Andy hit a rock and rolled his AWD Mason Motorsports truck, ending his day. The miscue by Andy McMillin allowed Bryce Menzies to keep a comfortable lead over the competition to complete three laps on the 100-mile course in 5:29:10. “This year I knew the course was so challenging and that people drop out so much, so my strategy was to get out front, qualify early, and then just set up pace and be smooth, smart, get to the third lap and then see where we’re at,” Menzies shared after taking the checkered flag. “On the third lap we were eight minutes ahead, so just backed it down and made sure we got this truck here to the finish line.”
This was the debut for Menzies’ Mason truck, but not his first AWD T1 truck. Menzies had the Huseman brothers build him a truck with a big block engine and X-Trac manual transmission that he took to victory at Best In The Desert’s Vegas to Reno race last year. After teaming up with Andy for the Score International Baja 1000 in November in Andy’s Mason truck though, Menzies ordered one of his own. The recently completed truck now has a 100% win rate, and Menzies has a big paycheck for his efforts. Dan McMillin and Brett Sourapas were also running AWD Mason trucks, a clear advantage on the steep hills and loose terrain found in Johnson Valley. These trucks use independent front suspension with coilover and bypass shocks like many of the top 4400 vehicles, along with portal hubs on the Mason trucks for increased ground clearance. Unlike the 4WD Ultra4 vehicles racing on Friday though, the AWD T1 trucks use a single speed transfer case rather than a high range for the desert and low range for more torque multiplication in the rocks.
2019 champion Luke McMillin piloted his 2WD Racer Engineering truck to a second-place finish, six minutes behind Menzies. “Last year was the highlight for us. We’ve landed second a handful of times,” McMillin explained at the finish line. “I’m really excited because it’s a really tough course, really tough race, and we’re out here against the best of the best, so on the podium is awesome.”
BJ Baldwin finished in third with a time of 5:31:13. “I was very, very patient this morning,” Baldwin revealed. “I followed the truck in front of me for about 30 miles before I found an opportunity to really safely pass him. Usually I would take a lot more risk, but here being it’s a different course, and it’s very mechanically tough on things, I wanted to make sure I had a really clean opportunity to pass.” Dan McMillin and Kevin Thompson rounded out the finishers with times of 6:07:59 and 6:10:07, respectively.
4WP Every Man Challenge - Brad Lovell edges out Seth Van Dyke
The punishing 143-mile course of Every Man Challenge consisted of high-speed lake beds, whooped-out roads, and some of the hardest rockcrawling canyons in the world, with only 38 out of the 122 vehicles that took the green flag. Brad Lovell won by a mere 29 seconds to capture his third EMC victory.
There are three distinct classes in the Every Man Challenge (EMC), but only one racer can cross the finish line first, regardless of whether they are in the Yukon Gear and Axle Modified Class (4500), Spidertrax Stock Class (4600), or Branik Legends Class (4800). The Branik Legends Class allows tube chassis vehicles, but requires a front engine, two seats, and must run 37-inch DOT-approved tires.
The 2020 Every Man Challenge was the closest in history, as the podium finishers were all within one minute of each other. While Seth Van Dyke crossed the finish line first, it was Brad Lovell who took the win on corrected time by a mere 29 seconds to capture his third EMC victory. It was all surreal for Lovell, who has been on the other end of this situation. At the 2010 King of the Hammers he was edged out by an unknown Loren Healy… by 28 seconds. While Healy has since gone all in as one of the fastest and most talented drivers in Ultra4 racing, Brad Lovell and his navigator and brother Roger have branched out over the last decade to win short course championships and currently campaign a desert racing truck. The Lovells haven’t lost their roots though, as they bring that same Ford Ranger they raced in 2010 to King of the Hammers each year to race in the Branik 4800 Legends class at the 4WP Every Man Challenge. “The Lovell’s Ford is what Legends was created for,” Hammerking Promoter Dave Cole explained. “The idea is to provide a place for older vehicles that might not be competitive in the 4400 class but still have a passion for racing at Nitto King of the Hammers.”
Seth Van Dyke proved that youth isn’t wasted on the young, as the 27-year-old driver nearly captured the EMC victory in his third time racing his Bomber Fabrication buggy in the Every Man Challenge. “Brad pushed us in the rocks, pushed me way harder than I ever would have thought I needed to drive this car. I mean, it was a car crash the whole time!” Van Dyke shared at the finish line. “Steven, my codriver here was killing it, keeping me safe, not missing anything.”
Levi Shirley rounded out the podium in the 4800 class, despite treating the EMC race as a prerun for the main 4400 race on Friday. “It definitely will prepare me,” he confessed. “I know the rocks now, I know the trails, it’s just a great refresher and I’m fired up for Friday’s race day.”
The Yukon Gear Modified Class requires starting with a production-based vehicle with a factory appearing body, partial frame, mechanical steering, and 37-inch DOT approved tires. 2018 EMC overall winner Dan Fresh added another trophy to his crowded mantle this year by winning the 4500 class and coming in fifth overall. Last year’s 4500 class winners, husband and wife Jimmy and Amy Jack, placed second in the Modified Class, and tenth overall in the EMC. “I think with me in the car he doesn’t take unnecessary risks and that helps with us finishing,” Amy Jack posited on the podium. Three-time 4500 series champion Matt Howell rounded out the podium in his Tribe 16 Jeep.
The 4600 Class has the most restrictive rules at King of the Hammers, requiring the factory engine, stock frame, full body, single shock, and 35-inch tall DOT-approved tires. Jesse Haines won the class in his diesel Mahindra Roxor fitted with portal axles. “We had very few issues, we got out of the car a couple of times but nothing major. We rolled over on our side, but we were able to quickly recover it and get going. It was actually where we took the lead, I rolled on the leader’s car!” Haines recalled at the end of the race. Jon Schaefer was the fast qualifier in 4600 and turned that starting position into a second-place finish in his Savvy Offroad Jeep. Josh Atteberry of Show Low, Arizona came in third in the 4600 class for the second year in a row from behind the wheel of his Jeep Grand Cherokee.
Past EMC winners:
2019- Casey Gilbert
2018- Dan Fresh
2017- Brad Lovell
2016- Brad Lovell
2015- Brandon Currie
2014- John Currie
2013- John Currie
2012- John Currie
2019- Jimmy Jack
2018- Dan Fresh
2017- Marty Mann
2016- Jessi Combs
2015- Brandon Currie
2014- John Currie
2013- John Currie
2019- Justin Reece
2018- Jessi Combs
2017- Ben Varozza
2016- Brian Behrend
2015- Matthew Peterson
2014- Erik Miller
2013- Matthew Peterson
2012- John Currie
2019- Casey Gilbert
2018- Casey Gilbert
2017- Brad Lovell
2016- Brad Lovell
2015- Ben Napier
2014- Brad Lovell
Monday february 3, 2020 EMC Qualifying.
Young guns dominated the day, with Cade Rodd taking top honors in qualifying in his Branik 4800 Legends buggy and Bailey Cole taking second. Rodd is the son of Jimmy’s 4x4 owner Randy Rodd, the most prolific chassis manufacturer in ULTRA4 racing. Cole is the son of KOH promoter Dave Cole, and is teaming up for the EMC race with Baja champion Cameron Steele, who will be racing the first lap of the EMC race through the desert before handing the reigns to Cole to navigate through the treacherous rocks of Johnson Valley. Kenneth Goodall was the top Yukon Gear and Axle 4500 Modified qualifier, starting 12th off of the line, and Jon Schaefer posted the best time in the Spidertrax 4600 Stock class.
Can-Am UTV King of the Hammers presented by HCR - Texan Hunter Miller wins UTV KOH on his first attempt
Can-Am swept the podium at the annual Can-Am UTV King of the Hammers Presented by HCR with KOH newcomer Hunter Miller besting Midwest short course racer Kyle Chaney and KOH veteran Phil Blurton to round out the podium.
The UTV King of the Hammers race has arguably the deepest talent pool in a week of events full of talented racers. 4400 stars Loren Healy and Shannon Campbell mixed it up with desert racers Bryce Menzies and Cameron Steele, short course racers CJ Greeves and Rodrigo Ampudia, and longtime UTV racers such as Branden Sims, Kristen Matlock, and Mitch Guthrie. Casey Currie raced and finished in seventh place, fresh off his impressive win in the SSV at the Dakar Rally. Supercross legend Jeremy McGrath finished 29th. To challenge this talented roster, Hammerking promoter Dave Cole used the same course for 2020 Can-Am UTV King of the Hammers Race Presented by HCR as the first two laps as Friday’s Nitto King of the Hammers Powered by Optima Batteries (which runs an additional lap through the most challenging rock canyons). Just five years ago, only five UTVs finish the race. In 2020, 33 out of 131 vehicles finished the race within the eight-hour time limit.
The 143-mile course started with a 77-mile desert loop that mixed high-speed lakebeds with tight, twisty ridgelines. From there, the difficulty ratcheted up as the competitors had to traverse Outer Limits and Spooners as part of the rock loop; trails that overwhelm even Ultra4 cars with 40-inch tires and V-8 engines.
Can-Am swept the podium at the annual Can-Am UTV King of the Hammers Presented by HCR with KOH newcomer Hunter Miller besting Midwest short course racer Kyle Chaney and KOH veteran Phil Blurton to round out the podium. Hunter’s brother Cody was the fast qualifier for Sunday’s race, putting the two side by side at the starting line. The Millers are new to rockcrawling and King of the Hammers, but they aren’t new to the winner’s circle. The two Texans have a long history racing for Can-Am, winning championships in GNCC and WORCS in the past. “It’s the absolute hardest race I’ve ever done, and I’ve been racing for 25 years now,” Miller gushed at the finish line. “I’ve never experienced anything like this before. Next to the day my wife said ‘yes,’ this is the best day of my life.”
While Miller took the victory, this race will certainly be one that Kyle Chaney will never forget. “I’ll take second place any day from what we went through,” an emotional Chaney confessed after the race. After rolling his Can-Am Maverick X3 on its side on a steep hill, Chaney and his co-driver were able to physically put the UTV back on its wheels. That’s the good news, the bad news is the vehicle rolled backwards, running over Chaney’s leg injuring him in the process. Overcoming significant pain, Kyle continued on to the finish line to take second place. “It’d take a lot more than pain to get me not to finish line of this race!”
After coming in eighth the past two years, Phil Blurton came down from Northern California and spent over two weeks testing and training in Johnson Valley, Blurton even built a brand-new Can-Am Maverick X3 for this race. “You go fast, and then you bash through the rocks, and then you go back through the desert and hope that something’s not falling off your car, because you’re doing a hundred miles an hour across the lake bed!” Blurton joked. It was assumed that six-time winner Mitch Guthrie Sr. had passed the torch to his son Mitch Jr, who won the UTV race the past two years in a row. Guthrie Sr. showed that experience pays off with a fourth-place finish. “I passed Mitchie in Cougar Buttes. He was sitting there, and I was kinda stopped, and they said ‘axle’, and I was like ‘Oh my gosh’. So, that sucked, really sucked.” Jr. finished 16th.
In the UTV race, Ultra4 Europe was represented by two drivers: Rob Butler (UK) and Philon Parpottas (UK).
The Englishman Rob Butler (Offroad Armory) after being the first European to finish the King of the Hammers in 2016 on a rig completely built in Europe, this year he wanted to test himself in the UTV race. Rob Butler, with his friend Levi Shirley at his side, finished the UTV King of the Hammers in 23rd position (07:15:44.752) also earning the record of being the only Ultra4 Europe driver to have completed both the King of the Hammers and the UTV race.
Buzz Racing team, made up of Philon and Alex Parpottas, was not very lucky. After qualifying which saw the team in 94th position, Philon suffered physical problems that prevented him from taking part in the race. His son Alex has made a commitment to accomplish the family dream by completing 1 of the two laps of the UTV race in 3 hours and 30 minutes.
UTV past winners:
2019- Mitch Guthrie Jr.
2018- Mitch Guthrie Jr.
2017- Shannon Campbell
2016- Blake Van De Loo
2015- Mitch Guthrie
2014- Mitch Guthrie
2013- Mitch Guthrie
2012- Mitch Guthrie
2011- Brandon Schueler
2010- Mitch Guthrie
2009- Mitch Guthrie
King of the Hammers HooptieX
HooptieX is the most accessible off-road racing series on the planet. Open to daily drivers, junkyard beaters, UTVs, Trophy Trucks or your mom's minivan.
The King of the Hammers HooptieX closed a fantastic Koh Week bringing the madness and desire to have fun of these guys in to Hammertown. These drivers race to have fun with vehicles of all kinds that shouldn't cost more than $ 500. The race took place on the Short Course where, until shortly before, the big and powerful Ultra4 and T1 vehicles challenged each other.