Born in 2007 as a challenge between 12 friends to win a case of beer, today the King of the Hammers has become not only the toughest one-day offroad race in the world but also, thanks to almost a thousand entrants, the largest offroad event big in the world. King of the Hammers is a difficult event to explain if you haven't been to the Lakebed at least once in your life. Raul Gomez captures his 2nd consecutive crown at the Nitto Race of Kings.
Photograpy by Paolo Baraldi, Story by KOH Media
The 2023 Progressive King of the Hammers Powered by OPTIMA Batteries kicks off Saturday, January 28, with the King of the Motos, (won by Trystan Hart) and ended Saturday, February 11, with the Race of Kings (won by Raul Gomez).
From its humble beginnings as a wager between a small group of friends in 2007, it has grown into the largest off-road motorsports event in the world and one of the largest to take place on public lands in the United States. It’s a must-attend event for any off-road enthusiast.
With nearly a dozen days of racing for off-road vehicles of every shape and size, and almost 1000 teams entered from 37 states across the U.S. and multiple countries, the Progressive King of the Hammers (KOH) was bigger than ever before.
The massive off-road motorsports event also brings tens of thousands of spectators to Johnson Valley in the Southern California desert for a week of exciting racing on and around the treacherous and challenging boulder-filled trails known collectively as “The Hammers.” Described using names such as Jackhammer, Wrecking Ball, and Sledgehammer, these obstacle-filled sections of the Hammers racecourse create intense action and fierce competition as teams battle to get through them in one piece and cross the finish line.
Although King of the Hammers began as a one-day race for single-purpose rock-crawling rigs, the event continues to grow exponentially. Separate races for some of the world’s fastest and most capable UTVs, desert-racing trucks, buggies and motorcycles have been created and are now features throughout the week. The Holley EFI Shootout Presented by Action Sport Canopies and King Shocks and the Baja Jerky Class 11 Showdown Presented by EMPI for near-stock VW bugs (Class 11) driven by the sport’s top pro drivers has become a fan favorite. New to 2023 was short-course off-road races for trucks and buggies, a Youth 170 UTV class, and additional classes in the desert and Ultra4.
At the center of all this action was Hammertown, the temporary city in the desert built on Means Dry Lake. It’s the beating heart of the 2023 Progressive King of the Hammers which includes race pits and over 150 vendors for parts, gear, food, and beverage. There are Jumbotrons for spectators to view the live race broadcasts, and Hammertown offered a festival-like atmosphere all day long, live music at night and many interactive experiences.
The 2023 King of the Hammers was a celebration of racing and off-road culture, and Hammertown has become the place to be for off-road enthusiasts who come to enjoy the races and drive their own vehicles in Johnson Valley’s wide-open spaces.
2023 Toyo Tires Desert Challenge Presented by Monster Energy - Day 1
The 2023 Toyo Tires Desert Challenge Presented by Monster Energy is one of the feature events of the 2023 Progressive King of the Hammers Powered by OPTIMA Batteries. The two-day event began on Saturday, February 4th and provided an exciting Prologue format for all 11 classes including: Unlimited and Limited trucks, buggies, UTVs, vintage buggies, and a Terra Crew 1400/1450 truck class. More than 250 race trucks, buggies, and UTVs vied for overall start positions and top spots within their classes.
The Terra Crew Rush for 1400 and 1450 trucks and the Baja Jerky Class 11 Showdown Presented by EMPI also raced on day one. The vintage buggies were particularly popular with the fans. The near-stock Volkswagen bugs, which are one of the original and most beloved off-road race car types, made for a colorful and impressive sight during the land rush start on the Melville Dry Lake. In a fun twist on the format, any Class 11 that caught a 1400 or 1450 put that Terra Crew vehicle out of the race. Keep reading for details.
2023 Toyo Tires Desert Challenge Presented by Monster Energy Prologue
For the second year, the Prologue on Saturday was an important part of the race. A driver’s time on the 40-mile prologue, which was held over a short portion of the actual racecourse, established their overall starting order and will be added to the driver’s elapsed time on the complete 196-mile racecourse of Sunday’s race.
The ultra-fast unlimited T1 race trucks were first to qualify, followed by the Limited trucks, Unlimited and Limited buggies, UTVs, and then vintage buggies. As the day progressed and qualifying continued, the Prologue course became a maze of hidden rocks half-buried in sand and began to resemble a bombing range full of holes.
The attrition rate soared, and some drivers didn’t finish. However, working their way through all the hazards and obstacles, Chase Warren (#1088), Ezra Ebberts (#1077), and Dustin Jones (#T978) nailed the top three starting positions for the Day Two race. Warren has earned the top qualifying spot three years in a row and was the overall Limited race winner last year.
Kyle Jergensen (27), Tim Herbst (19), and Bill Apgood (44) will be the first three off the starting line during Sunday’s 2023 Toyo Tires Desert Challenge Presented by Monster Energy Unlimited Race. Jergensen was the overall Unlimited winner in 2022.
2023 Baja Jerky Class 11 Showdown Presented by EMPI
The 2023 Baja Class 11 Showdown Presented by EMPI moved from the Hammertown infield short course to Melville Dry Lake for a thrilling land rush start that funneled the cars into the same 40-mile course used for the Prologue of the 2023 Toyo Tires Desert Challenge Presented by Monster Energy.
To make things even more interesting, King of the Hammers organizers decided to send the Terra Crew Rush trucks (1450 and 1400 steel-bodied trucks with doors) off on their Prologue just minutes before the Class 11 cars took off from their land-rush start on Melville Dry Lake. The result of this congruence was carnage for both Terra Crew and Class 11 cars. Class 11 cars tangled up with Terra Crew trucks, and the VWs battled each other door to door. Steep hills and deep sand created havoc for both.
A fun twist on the rules of the Terra Crew Rush included disqualification of any 1400/1450 truck that was overtaken by one of the Class 11 vehicles. At the end of the day, Alex Gonzales (#15) set the fastest time followed by Cisco Bio (#14) and racing legend Larry Roeseler (#16) in third.
As exhilarating as the high-speed qualifying events for the Toyo Tires Desert Challenge Presented by Monster Energy were, the thrilling mix of the 2023 Baja Jerky Class 11 for VW bugs Showdown Presented by EMPI racecars and Terra Crew Rush race trucks were, for many spectators and racers, quite possibly the most exciting action seen during Day One of racing.
2023 Toyo Tires Desert Challenge Presented by Monster Energy - Day 2
The Toyo Tires Desert Challenge Presented by Monster Energy proved to be a demanding day that pushed competitors on every turn throughout the 196-mile course. Many competitors remarked that this year was the toughest desert racecourse they have seen. The event is divided into two separate races, with the Desert Limited classes (B2, B3, B4, T3 and T4) running in the morning and the Desert Unlimited classes (T1, T2 and B1) running in the afternoon. The attrition rate can be high, but the lure of the challenge is so great that the entry list grows every year.
2023 Toyo Tires Desert Challenge Limited Race
The Desert Limited race began with clear skies and no wind. This resulted in dust clouds from the race cars hanging over the course and reducing visibility in some areas. Drivers directly behind another competitor were often blinded by the thick clouds, making passing difficult, if not impossible.
Chase Warren (B2 Desert Limited Buggy C10 #1088) was the defending Limited overall class champion and had earned the pole position during the prior day’s Prologue. Warren took a commanding lead early in the race. Not far behind was the B2 Desert Limited C10 #1077 of Ezra Ebberts with his father Dave behind the wheel and sister Madison in the navigator’s seat.
During the first lap of the race Warren and Ebberts were running 1-2 overall. When Warren began having mechanical troubles, Dave moved into the lead position and then handed the car to Ezra during a fuel stop in the main pit in Hammertown. Ezra remained in the lead from that point to the finish.
Creeping up behind Ebberts during the second lap were Brandon Sims (B3 - Desert UTV Open #1069) and Doug Mittag (B3 – Desert UTV Open). That's the order they remained in until the checkered flag for their overall finishing positions.
This was the third King of the Hammers for Dale Ebberts who told us, “Just before I got out of the car, I told my son Ezra that we got a bit of a lead. Just keep it smooth. Keep it moving forward.”
19-years old and pursuing a mechanical engineering degree, Ezra said “Our goal was to play it clean and smooth. No flats, just keep the car on the road. Keep it moving. And do it quickly. And it's exactly what we did.”
Navigating for her father and brother during the race, was Madison Ebberts. When asked about driving the next race, she responded “I would absolutely want to race. I have two drivers in my family, so I have to fight for that driver's seat, but I really wanted to navigate for my brother today.”
Brandon Sims (#1069) finished first place in B3 - Desert UTV Open and was second overall. Vito Ranuio (# T950) placed first in B3 – Desert UTV Pro Mod and finished fifth overall. Dustin Jones (# T978) was first in B3 – Desert UTV Stock and finished 14th overall. Bobby Croy (#544) landed first in B4 – Desert Vintage Buggy 5U and ended up 45th overall. Bailey Cole (#13) claimed first place driving his Ford Bronco in T4 – Desert Stock OEM and finished 46th overall.
Michael “Bud” Ward took first place in B4 – Desert Vintage Buggy 16 and finished 36th overall. At the finish line Ward told us why he races a vintage VW Beetle, “Because that’s where this (off-road racing) all started.” As to the course, he added, “It was fast, but it was also rough. You were able to go over it very fast if you were hard on the throttle pedal and had the nerve."
2023 Toyo Tires Desert Challenge Unlimited Race
The Unlimited race took the green flag in the early afternoon. The wind had picked up, which can be a good thing because the dust trails from earlier race cars were blown clear of the course and made visibility better for all the drivers. Passing became somewhat easier, if you had the power and right opportunity to clear the car ahead.
Kyle Jergensen (#19) was the 2022 T1 winner and first overall. He earned the overall pole position during Saturday’s Prologue and was the first of a field of 27 Desert Unlimited T1 trucks off the start line. Tim Herbst (#27) was right behind him. Christopher Polvoorde (#294), the 2022 T2 winner, was just a minute behind.
The race was incredibly fast and very rough. Top speeds for the T1 trucks were in the 130 mph or better range. The T2 trucks were not much slower. In a very short time, there were numerous broken trucks and cars on course. Polvoorde had mechanical problems and slowed to a crawl approximately half-way through the race, eventually finishing 21st in T2 and 38th overall.
Dustin Grabowski (#272) took first place in T2 and finished second overall. Ray Griffith (#253) scored the second spot in T2 and finished third overall. Thor Herbst (#219) ended up third in T2 with a sixth place finish overall.
Householder takes the Overall and T1 Win
Jergensen led for some time, but then fell back under the strain and never recovered. Tim Herbst kept up the pace and led for a while, but after some tire troubles, ended up second in T1 and fourth overall. JP Gomez (#18) worked hard for third place in T1 and a fifth overall. Adam Householder (#24) came from behind and had a nearly flawless race, posting a first overall and first in T1. He told us, “I've raced here the last three years. After the first year I came out to this desert race, I just wanted to keep coming back. I love the atmosphere. I love the people. This is desert racing, and when you can see people out in the middle just cheering you on, that's what it's about. I just love this place.”
Tim Herbst remarked, “The terrain here is so open, then you’ve got the mountains and rocks and all that type of stuff. And once you get in the open areas, it's fast running and good whoops and you can really get these trucks moving. It’s wonderful."
Some B1 competitors (Unlimited Buggy/Class 1) finished mid-pack. Adam Lunn (#153) was first in B1 and 16th overall. The Unlimited race also included Terra Crew trucks entered into T1, JeepSpeed entries, and Desert Limited 7200 trucks. Rob Seubert won the JeepSpeed class, and Bob Briggs was the first Desert Limited 7200 to cross the finish line.
Holley EFI Shootout Presented by Action Sports Canopies and King Shocks
The 2023 Holley EFI Backdoor Shootout Presented by Action Sports Canopies and King Shocks lit up the night above Hammertown on Tuesday, February 7. In its ninth year as a part of the 2023 Progressive King of the Hammers Powered by OPTIMA Batteries, the ever-popular Holley EFI Shootout offered rock racers and southern rock bouncers a chance to compete for bragging rights and a $15,000 purse.
Originally an informal competition, the Shootout is like a drag race but over massive rocks. It takes place on iconic rock trails, under the lights and in front of thousands of enthusiastic fans. The 2023 event featured a single-stage run and for the first time, the start had racers going down a sheer, rocky section called Idle Issues with a hard right turn into deep sand at the bottom before a steep climb through boulder-filled Chocolate Thunder, which is always a favorite trail among King of the Hammers fans.
Chocolate Thunder is one of the rocky and steep canyons on the main King of the Hammers racecourse and was used to qualify and set starting orders for some of the feature races. Hundreds of motorcycles, UTVs, and Ultra4 race cars had already turned Chocolate Thunder into a navigational nightmare by the time 21 drivers and machines lined up for the 2023 Holley EFI Shootout.
Returning to the 2023 Shootout from last year were crowd favorites William Karras, Jason Bartrum, and Marcus Alonzo. 2022 Stage 1 winner Paul Wolff was back, and 2021 winner Chris Kaufman was there to try his luck at the Shootout again.
The action began with carnage early, as the second and third competitors off the line ended their race almost immediately by rolling over. There were more broken cars, more rollovers, lengthy recoveries, five DNFs in total, and hang-ups that cost drivers a competitive time through the course.
When the dust settled Paul Wolff had scored two Holley EFI Shootout wins in a row with a 51.73-second run in the 4400 Class Ultra4 car he’s racing in Saturday’s Race of Kings. Chris Kaufman came close to another win with a time of 54.14 seconds for second place, and third-place finisher Corey Holthaus tore up the course in 56.98 seconds with his big-block rock bouncer.
2023 UTV, Every Man Challenge and Race of Kings Qualifying Highlights
This year, qualifying was held at the legendary Chocolate Thunder and the course was wild this year. Here are some action highlights from the UTVs, Every Man Challenge and Race of Kings qualifying.
Kyle Chaney Dominates for a 3rd Crown at the Can-Am UTV Hammers Championship
The 2023 Can-Am UTV Hammers Championship brought 107 competitors to the rocky desert trails and tracks of the 2023 Progressive King of the Hammers Powered by OPTIMA Batteries. The race through the rocks this year saw a three-peat overall winner, and surprisingly quick elapsed times over the 142-mile course that was called one of the roughest that drivers had seen after their prologue qualifying rounds the day prior.
The race-prepped UTVs which lined up for the start ranged from full-custom builds to near bone-stock cars in four different classes. All had powerful engines with suspension and drivetrain systems that resemble full-blown race buggies. The most popular class with the highest number of entries was the Pro Mod, with 46 entries, followed by Pro Stock Turbo, with 31 competitors. The other three classes, Open, Pro Stock NA, and Sportsman Stock, featured competitive drivers and aggressive machines.
Battling the tough racecourse with ferocious but calculated driving styles, a few drivers began to pull away from the pack. One of them was Pro Stock Turbo class Can-Am UTV driver Kyle Chaney (191), who started third behind Pro Mod drivers Paul Wolff (1018) and pole-sitter Jay Shaw (17). Chaney fought for and gained the physical lead through the desert section and was leading through the main pit in Hammertown after setting a blistering pace on the first lap.
Bryce Menzies (Open – 7) had moved from seventh to second on the road after lap 1, and Phil Blurton (Pro Mod - 944) was third to complete the desert lap. Blurton had said he wanted to be in the top five before going into the rocks. Not far behind them were Dustin Jones (Pro Mod), Cody Miller (Pro Stock Turbo), Jay Shaw (Pro Mod) and Ronnie Anderson (Pro Mod).
The rock lap was fortuitous for some and devastating for others and soon became decorated with broken or limping race cars. Despite the hazards, Chaney made quick work of lap two and crossed the finish line before noon for an overall elapsed time of 3 hours, 31 minutes, 45 seconds. This was Chaney’s third win at the UTV Hammers Championship.
Chaney gave some thoughts about his race. “It’s definitely a mind game for sure. I mean, you just think about it (the race and course) all the time and think about the trails changing and everything. You pre-run as much as you can, but everything changes every time you get to it.” On the importance of winning three times, Chaney laughed and said, “It’s awesome. Now I can afford the fuel to get home.”
Blurton followed Chaney with an overall time of 3 hours, 44 minutes, 16 seconds over the two-lap course for a second overall and first in Pro Mod. Cole Clark (Pro Mod - 24) had driven a near-perfect race to come all the way up from 22nd off the start to third place overall and second in class with a time of 3 hours, 45 minutes, and 4 seconds.
When asked about why King of the Hammers is special to him, Blurton (Pro Mod) told us, “It's fun, and rough, and violent in the car the whole time, but we run almost 30 races a year and there's nothing like this with all the people and the vendors and the crowd. It’s one of the hardest races we do all year and the one we haven't won yet. Looks like we're going to have to come back again next year and try again.”
Clark passed a lot of cars on his way to the podium. “Getting through the dust in the desert was the worst for me, but the rocks were fun. Driving solo takes so much more preparation and I use two GPS units. You have to know exactly what’s going on and keep your head in the game. I spent two weeks out here pre-running and know every inch of the course.”
Most of the attention was on the three overall finishers, but there was very competitive racing going on within each class. Dustin Jones (978) moved fast the entire race, only getting passed in the rocks by Clark, for third in Pro Mod and fourth overall. Hunter Miller (190) was second in Pro Stock Turbo and fifth overall. Cody Miller (221) took third in Pro Stock Turbo and fifth overall. Casey Currie took first in Open (2) and placed 10th overall, Shannon Campbell (5) was the second place finisher in Open class, and Michael Lee (211) came in third in Open for the day.
After getting out of the car, Jones (Pro Mod) remarked, “I feel like we just got done with a five-hour fistfight. The hard whoops blow your backbone out. Rough rocks snatch the wheel out of your hand. I think my thumb might be broken, but man it's just fun. That's good fun to me.”
Hunter Miller (Pro Stock Turbo) had to push his car about 100 yards to finish the race in 5th place. “We blew a belt as soon as we crossed on to the short course. We coasted as far as we could, then I asked my co-driver if we should change it? He said, ‘no, we're pushing her across the finish.’ If I had known we’d be pushing a car I would have trained a lot of harder. It's funny because my brother Cody (who finished 6th overall) has been working out pretty solid for the last four months. I guess I should have too.”
Brian Tilton (916) was the Sportsman Stock winner, second place in Sportsman Stock went to Hubert Rowland (615), and Dylan Heiser (5924) took third place in Stock Sportsman. The Pro Stock NA class winner was Kyle Anderson (4960), second in the Pro Stock NA class was AJ Hoover (3947), and Anthony Yount (69) finished the 2023 UTV Hammers Championship third place in the Pro Stock NA class.
Jeremy Jones Takes the Overall Win at the 2023 4WP Every Man Challenge
The 2023 4WP Every Man Challenge (EMC) proved to be the ultimate test for more than 150 teams and their racecars in three different classes at the 2023 Progressive King of the Hammers Powered by OPTIMA Batteries. The rugged 143-mile Every Man Challenge racecourse was made up of a lap of high-speed rugged open desert with a second lap of tire-shredding rocky canyons. Drivers and co-drivers pitched themselves and their vehicles against steep climbs, bottomless sand, and boulders as big as a Fiat 500.
When the rigorous dirt and rock exam was over Jeremy Jones had earned an A+ on the test. Jones had skillfully piloted his Class 4800 Branik Motorsports Legends (4837) racecar to a first place overall win and 4800 class victory at the 2023 Every Man Challenge with a time of 4 hours, 42 minutes, and 52 seconds.
At the finish line, Jeremy Jones told us, “We could’ve lost the race a couple times while we winched out of a bad spot. And I caught a kicker out there somewhere we thought compromised our driver-side front wheel, so my pit crew changed it. These wheels are bomb-proof tough, but I just didn’t want to take a chance. We have done that before, split a wheel in half, and it ended up costing us several positions.”
“Winning King of the Hammers EMC has been a goal of mine since back when we started watching this almost 10 years ago. Finally, it paid off and this is incredible.”
Highly Competitive 4800 Legends Class
Some of the most competitive racing could be found in the 4800 Legends Class. Fellow 4800 class drivers Scott Foley (8) and pole-sitter Craig Allen (75) were running second and third at the end of the first lap. Jeremy had been able to work himself up to fourth from his start at sixth.
Another 4800 driver Brent Harrel (56) had come up from a starting position of 21st to leading the pack on overall elapsed time as they all headed out on the rock lap. Harrel kept up a furious pace but got stopped in Jack North for some time with a flat tire. Harrel said, “It was rough out there, the first loop was pretty quick. Then on the second loop, we had quite a few technical issues. But we had a good run going.”
Foley was still running up near the top, and Cody Young had moved up from a start in 10th to second by the time the leaders were in the rocks of Sledgehammer. During that last and most destructive lap, more cars began to suffer damage and slow down. Jones and Young traded leads once or twice. Jones eventually worked his way past Young (who soon fell far behind) and into a good lead to take the checkered flag for the overall win and first in the 4800 class.
Scott Foley (75) crossed the 2023 Every Man Challenge finish line second overall and second place in 4800 Legends class driving his racecar (almost 20 minutes behind Jones) to an elapsed time of 5 hours, 1 minute, and 54 seconds.
This was 4800 driver Scott Foley’s 11th King of the Hammers and his first time on the podium. Although he felt sick the entire day, he said, “This is the one race that means the most to me. I was coughing all day, but I just had to power through it. The EMC puts everybody into a really tight group and all these guys have been racing together for a long time. It’s fun, competitive, and affordable.”
Dan Fresh was in the mix for most of the race, having some trouble mid-race, but recovered to finish 3rd in the 4800 class and 6th place overall. 2023 is his 6th Every Man Challenge. He’s won four times, podiumed six. “The EMC is such a tough race. Compared to a lot of the other races I run, like the Baja 1000, this is the toughest race for me. It beats my body. It beats the car. You know, you don’t just have desert, you’ve got big boulders. I mean they throw everything at you at this race. So I think that's the main reason I keep coming back.”
EMC 4500 Mod and 4600 Stock Classes
Duane Garretson (26) was thrilled to be on the podium after clocking an elapsed time of 5 hours, 16 minutes, and 17 seconds. Getting a third EMC overall and first place in the 4500 Yukon Gear and Axle Modified class made for a good day. “The race went really well. I have the best team and the best co-driver. I don’t think he (co-driver) dialed me back but maybe one or two times. I just kept telling myself we need to keep the tires on the car, and we need to keep moving forward.”
“We’ve been out here a bunch of times, and I knew we had the talent and the parts and the cars. This time it all came together and worked great!”
4WP Every Man Challenge was conceived as a way to bring grass-roots racers and stock vehicles into the King of the Hammers experience. It has also attracted the attention of major automotive companies and some of the top racers in the sport.
First place in the 4600 Currie Enterprises Stock class and fourth overall was Loren Healy in his Fun-Haver Ford Bronco. Healy conquered the desert and the rocks handily, posting an overall time of 5 hours, 19 minutes, and 27 seconds. Healy shared driving duties with Vaughn Gittin Jr., taking the wheel for the rock lap after Gittin put the Bronco in a good position during the desert lap.
This was a repeat for Loren Healy. Healy said, “We now have back-to-back wins for the Fun-Haver Ford Bronco. It’s unbelievable what this Bronco can do. We were passing the 4800s and the 4500s all day long in this stock class truck. It’s unreal!”
Second in the 4600 class and fifth place overall was fellow winning Bronco driver Brad Lovell. Brad’s brother Roger was co-driver. Brad and Roger have been mainstays in King of the Hammers and Every Man Challenge. The duo brought their beefy Ford Bronco across the finish line in 5 hours, 21 minutes, and 26 seconds. “It was a sprint race from the very start, back and forth with Vaughn and Loren all day, I think the farthest we were apart was one or two minutes the entire day. We led the whole way right up until we had to hit pit two for a tire change, that let Loren get by right us.”
“Then we both had flats after that, that gave them the jump to get out there. It’s a great competition, those guys are really quick, and congrats to our Ford Performance teammates for taking first.”
Bailey Cole replaced an axle shaft in the middle of the race but was still able to post a third in 4600 class and 17th overall with a time of 6 hours, 45 minutes, and 4 seconds.
Troy Digby (4514) drove a modified Jeep to a second place 4500 Yukon Gear and Axle Modified class finish and 10th overall with total time was 5 hours, 46 minutes, and 10 seconds. Taking a third place in the 4500 class in the 2023 Every Man Challenge was Peter Doolan (353) with an elapsed time of 7 hours, 9 minutes, and 46 seconds. Both Digby and Doolan were part of the inaugural rookie program, which are competitors who have never driven a vehicle during a King of the Hammers event.
Raul Gomez Captures His 2nd Consecutive Crown at the Nitto Race of Kings
The 2023 Nitto Race of Kings was the most exciting and competitive race of the 2023 Progressive King of the Hammers Powered by OPTIMA and arguably in its history. Now a global motorsports event broadcast worldwide and attended by tens of thousands of spectators, the Nitto Race of Kings brought 104 drivers to the starting grid.
Many gave it their all, some finished, but only one could be “King.” Drivers and their teams fought their way across a savage 202-mile racecourse that is widely considered the toughest one-day desert off-road race in the world. Making his way masterfully through many miles of deep sand, razor sharp rocks, and huge boulders faster than all the others with a time of 5 hours, 45 minutes, and 27 seconds, returning 2022 champion Raul Gomez (83) was crowned the 2023 King of the Hammers. It was an epic battle throughout the race between Gomez and 3-time King Jason Scherer, keeping fans on the edge of their seats as they watched the livestream and clock.
Raul Gomez told us, “My son Darian broke down in Jackhammer and hiked over to help me winch through Sledgehammer since I was in a single seat car.” Because Darian is a competitor, the rule is he can help other competitors, but no outside support is allowed during the race. “It made a big difference.” Darian remained in Jackhammer helping other cars, showing the sportsmanship known throughout this race.
“It felt just like we were in a short course race," said Gomez. "Full send on the rock trails. That’s pretty much how it was today. It wasn’t like cruise in or crawl in. When I didn’t see his (Scherer) dust, I knew this guy is really moving fast, so I had to start picking up the pace.”
“On the second lap, I was catching him (Scherer) in the rock trails, and I got a flat. I had to jump out and get it myself. I’ve actually been practicing changing my flats all week and got really good at it. I got it down to less than 4 minutes, got right back out there and just tried to catch him again the whole race.”
“When I was coming up on Emerson Dry Lake on the way to finish line and I saw a helicopter flying over Jason and I yelled, “I got you, J!” That was the only thought I had in my mind. I just said, okay, at least we’re in the desert. It’s my time to shine right now!”
A Field of Kings
The 2023 Race of the Kings three-lap racecourse consisted of one lap of open high-speed desert that can hide obstacles and irregular terrain in a cloak of dust and two laps through the rocky tire-eating Hammers canyons. The last two laps are not exactly the same. The third lap consists of some of the second lap and a couple of unique rock canyons. The rock laps tend to spread out the field of contenders, and by the time leaders are on their third rock lap, an abundance of broken cars litter the course.
The 2023 Race of Kings win was not an easy one for Gomez. Three-time King Jason Scherer (76) started on the front row in the number two position next to pole-sitter Paul Wolff (1018) and led the 2023 Race of the Kings for almost its entire length.
Sherer was first on the road from the very early stages of the race, making the rest of the hopeful leaders chase him all day long. Gomez had started in the second row in fourth position next to Bryan Crofts (9), but quickly moved up and stuck to Scherer like a hunting hound on the chase.
Sherer led Gomez into the second lap by just a few seconds on corrected time. By the end of the third lap, Sherer was still first on the track, but behind on elapsed time by a mere 46 seconds. Gomez won the brutal 200-mile Race of the Kings by crossing a few seconds behind Sherer but close to a minute’s advantage in elapsed time.
Three-time King Jason Scherer would get a second overall finish in the 2023 Race of the Kings with an elapsed time of 5 hours, 46 minutes, and 16 seconds. “It was a little bit of a bummer at the end of the day to lose a couple cylinders. It put us down on power and not able to do our thing by saving the car to have that late run. It stings but we did everything we could. Ironically, this is how we finished last year. We’ll be back.”
“I have to thank Jason Berger, my co-driver. He’s not only one of my best friends in the whole world, but he’s an awesome coach in the car. He knew exactly what we needed to do the entire race. He managed me and pushed me when he needed to.”
On racing against Raul Gomez, “It’s all you could ever hope for. When it comes down to the wire after nearly 6 hours and 200 miles of racing, it’s just such a great battle.”
Third place overall position would go to former (2020) King Josh Blyler (41) who started 13th off the start line. Josh clocked an elapsed time of 5 hours, 59 minutes, and 35 seconds. His father Rusty ended up fourth overall, right behind Josh. “It was a very fast course. You could just let the car eat. Pop pulled me off the line, and we didn’t catch him until lap three. He was winching in Aftershock. That was the first time we got to him, and I got around him.”
“There are not many sports you can race competitively with a father and son team. He's just as competitive as an 18-year-old kid in this sport, so it's fun. I would say I am more conservative. He is more, ‘I don't care, hammer down kind of style.’ I try to save it a little better. He's a little wilder than I am, that's for sure."
“My co-driver Jared and I have been in this car for the last four years and it just works so well. It’s necessary to have a groove, a value that works together. We communicate without talking, and it’s amazing how well we work together.”
KOH Draws Talent
The lure of King of the Hammers is strong with a reputation for testing the mettle of drivers and their machines. A host of talented drivers and their unlimited desert racing cars competed in the 2023 Nitto Race of the Kings.
Among those who came to battle the terrain and try their driving skills and physical resilience against the toughest desert race in the world were Baja-racing ace Cameron Steele, three-time King Shannon Campbell, Ford Bronco driver and two-time King Loren Healy, Jason Blanton, Levi Shirley, Ford Bronco team member Vaughn Gittin Jr., two-time King Erik Miller, and three-time King Randy Slawson.
Randy Slawson knows these trails like the back of his hand, so it’s no surprise he scored fifth overall in one of the roughest Race of Kings in years. “That last mile was painful. We wanted to finish hot, and we were coming in to do it. We cleared Turkey Claw (the last rock canyon before the finish) and were coming around into that sand wash. We were flying and clipped a rock, and I suddenly heard ‘clack, clack, clack, clack.’ We ripped the upper link mount off the car.”
“We're just driving faster and faster because the equipment is getting better and better. Sometimes it's scary. It's definitely an exhilarating ride. But a lot of times, it's just an all-day car crash in the rocks.”