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Finding glory in the chaos at King of the Hammers

Your first overnight at King of the Hammers will shock and awe just about anyone.

King of the HammersImage credit: Michael Van Runkle

Twice over the past 10 days, I ventured out into the desert north of Los Angeles to once again visit King of the Hammers, the off-road rage fest that descends on Johnson Valley OHV Area every February. Now in its 17th year, KoH leans more closely to Burning Man with a healthy dose of Mad Max fever dream thrown in, and growing attendance this year topped out at an estimated six-figure count.

I received invitations from Optima Batteries to check out the Optima Oasis, an unexpected installation of solar and hydrogen-powered electric vehicle chargers built out to encourage EV acceptance among the marauding four-wheeler crowd. And Ford promised a few experiences that I knew I simply couldn’t pass up.

King of the Hammers
Image credit: Michael Van Runkle

But the racing also caught my eye more than ever this year, after I spent the first weeks of last year in Saudi Arabia covering the Dakar Rally and then this past November pre-running much of the Baja 1000 racecourse. King of the Hammers presents a different challenge in every class, from the high-speed trophy trucks to race-prepped side-by-sides, King of the Motos, homebuilt “Every Man Challenge” entrants, and of course, the million-dollar-plus specialty builds known as Ultra4 cars.

But I should be right at home, right? After all, I did drive the course with Ford’s arch nemesis

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Day 1 at KoH

This year, newsworthy Southern California weather forecasts predicted heavy rain, and even some snow, for Johnson Valley over the KoH dates. So, for my first day in the desert, I packed accordingly, cramming all my recovery gear into an Audi Q8 e-Tron that I planned to drive out and charge up at the Optima Oasis. In went the Yankum rope, a pair of soft shackles, six different Maxtrax recover boards that I figured I might be able to test on heavy, mid-size, and lightweight off-road vehicles alike, and, of course, my automatic tire deflators and compressor bag for airing down and back up.

King of the Hammers
Image credit: Michael Van Runkle

I’ll have a more detailed story about Audi’s performance driving 135 miles out to Johnson Valley coming soon here on Acceleramota, but to cut out a bit of nail-biting drama, high winds and thousands of vertical feet of elevation climb left me hypermiling behind semi trucks to save range for much of the drive. So when I pulled into the dirt, I made a bee-line straight to a Level 2 charger and plugged the Audi in for the rest of the day.

The Audi wouldn’t have fit in particularly well among the group of Ford Raptor enthusiasts that I then joined for a quick trail run to catch some more remote viewing spots of the trophy trucks racing. I climbed into a friend’s suspension-swapped Ford F-150, with the Coyote V8 instead of the factory Raptor’s twin-turbo V6. Surrounded by Broncos from the 1970s to the modern era, more brand-spanking-new Raptors and Raptor Rs, plus even an early production Ranger Raptor that Ford reps brought along for some fun, we jetted out into the vast expanse of Johnson Valley.

The modded F-150 ran well, keeping up pace even though the leaders never pushed particularly hard. But the Bronco Raptors and F-150 Raptor Rs on their 37-inch tires clearly rode more smoothly over some of the rougher portions. Catching sight of the classics barrelling through sagebrush and mud pits put a smile on everyone’s faces. After a couple of stops to watch young racer and social media personality, Christopher Polvoorde, blast by in a Mason Motorsports-built “Raptor” trophy truck at an entirely different level of speed, leading twice but in second place occasionally, too, we turned back to Hammertown to catch the finish line.

King of the Hammers
Image credit: Michael Van Runkle
King of the Hammers
Image credit: Michael Van Runkle

On the way, the F-150 caught sections of whoops a bit too aggressively, and soon enough, warning lights blared and steam started blistering out of the hood. Turns out the coolant line to the heater core had sheared right off, I figure because the Raptor might get different engine mounts that can handle a more hardcore beating. We fiddled for a bit but decided to get back to home base to scrounge up parts and more antifreeze rather than risk overheating again while crawling back.

And that’s how I ended up catching a ride with Tanner Foust on the way back to watch Polvoorde take first place in his first year driving his own Mason trophy truck. At the finish line, I chatted up the 23-year-old, who I met last year at the Pikes Peak International Hillclimb (and who I beat in a karting race while there, for those keeping score—whenever you beat a pro at anything, it’s always best practice to bring it up at every single opportunity). To my surprise, Polvoorde looked fresh after a hard few hours of racing. Had recent rainstorms smoothed out the course, as I’d experienced in Baja a few months ago? Not so much, apparently.

King of the Hammers
Image credit: Michael Van Runkle

“King of the Hammers definitely threw a challenge at us this year, I mean, way different than Baja,” Polvoorde said. “The course was chewed up, I can tell you it was blowing my mind how rough it got. Even the first lap when we went out, I was like, ‘Holy cow, there’s some big holes.’ And then by the second time we came through, I was like, ‘Okay, let’s calm her down, slow her down.’”

“At Baja, we get a lot more variety,” he remembered. “Here just kind of beats you up for two, three hours and then spits you out… I used that to my advantage, I knew we weren’t getting the best time splits, and then I knew right here at the end it was pretty sandy. So with the four-wheel-drive, I was like, ‘Yeah, we’re just gonna pull up and put enough time on ‘em.’”

After a bit more celebrations that certainly involved zero beverages, we borrowed a hose clamp from Polvoorde’s team truck and headed back out to try and fix the F-150 before the sun went down. Playing mechanic’s helper, I struggled to pull off a stubborn clip—which, of course, popped right off easily in someone else’s hands—then we topped up the coolant, tightened down the borrowed hose clamp, and fired up that Coyote. Just a few drops of pink poured out of the jury-rigged connection at idle, so we slow-cruised back to the Optima Oasis, thinking that was a better bet than leaving a truck unattended all night in the desert. Next, I checked on the Audi, and after averaging 12 miles of range added per hour of charging, felt confident enough to blast home in the dark.

Returning to the desert

Four days later, and this time piloting a 2023 Ford Bronco Raptor, I blasted back out to Johnson Valley and arrived well after 11 PM. The next morning, feeling refreshed as a newborn baby (read: screaming, angry, and starving), I got to experience something much closer to Polvoorde’s job in the trophy truck. That Bronco Raptor simply rips, the perfect vehicle for exploring KoH, able to keep up with side-by-sides thanks to long-travel Fox dampers and all those 418 horsepowers—only with air conditioning, heated seats, and Apple CarPlay for keeping the OnX Offroad app pulled up on the big screen.

King of the Hammers
Image credit: Michael Van Runkle

Once again, I brought my Maxtrax and recovery gear, just in case the weather prophets actually turned out correct for once. Guess again, since a bright blue sky and dry breeze graced the entirety of Johnson Valley, as usual. I spent some more time playing around with a Rivian and checking out the Optima Oasis charging setup, then went out to enjoy the Braptor at top speed. Jumping, roaring, sliding sideways, and repeatedly redlining up a sandy hillclimb, I may have pushed a little too hard—not that the Braptor minded, only because the Maxtrax mount popped off at some point.

Pulling a 180, I retraced my steps using OnX and—miracle of miracles—actually found one of the boards sitting at the center of a little brush clearing surrounded by 96,000 acres of godforsaken dirt. The other, it would seem, is lost to the elements (or, more likely, somebody spotted it and took home a souvenir). 

With dry sand and no precipitation looking likely, I never needed to test a recovery board in a truly dire situation, but a helpful Toyota Corolla Cross owner offered to let me try out the new Maxtrax Lite by using the board to dig a little hole, then dipping a tire in until it spun. Sure enough, the lighter plastic held up just fine, and the little hybrid just walked right up and out of the makeshift hole.

A ride in the real deal

On the very opposite end of the spectrum from a Toyota commuter car stuck in some sand. I next ventured out with Ford to catch a ride in a full-blown factory Bronco DR racecar. Baja legend Curt Leduc played wheelman for about 20 minutes of all gas and almost no brakes other than to avoid a few dirt bikers and those damned wayward side-by-sides. 

King of the Hammers
Image credit: Michael Van Runkle

Once warmed up, the DR’s Multimatic suspension gobbles up terrain without disrupting chassis balance almost at all. I always find race suspension a little firm, and in this case, that impression arose again at first, but eventually, we settled into a rhythm, and with the unrestricted Coyote V8 absolutely barking, massive tires freewheeling in the air aplenty, Leduc showed me just how different a real racer is compared to a stock Bronco Raptor or suspension-swapped F-150. 

I even got an early ride in that Ranger Raptor on the way out and back to meet Leduc. Lighter, with a longer wheelbase supporting a less radical suspension and tire combo than the Bronco Raptor, the Ranger served perfectly as my glorified desert chauffeur. And Ford’s rep told me the truck actually rolled off the production line, so we can expect real media reviews sometime in the next couple of months… For now, this top-spec Ranger finally arriving in the US later this year might just take over my top slot of potential new trucks to actually buy.

Just kidding, I’ll never own a new car, but if I ever do, this might be the one.

Absolute chaos at Chocolate Thunder

Now’s as good a time as any to reveal that no matter how much everyone shit-talks side-by-sides, including me, there’s no doubt that nothing on the market can match these purpose-built carts in terms of sheer off-road pace for the money. I wanted to catch another chance to borrow a Can-Am Maverick R or a Polaris Rzr Pro R to test a bit out at KoH, too. But communication once again proved impossible, as seemingly everyone at Johnson Valley arrived with Starlink this year and completely overwhelmed any hope of wi-fi reception through satellites.

As night fell at KoH, I certainly appreciated my Braptor’s enclosed cabin and climate control system. Temps started to drop quickly and the party began to crank up. From Hammertown, everybody kept turning to check out the bright lights and bumping music emanating from the epic obstacle known as Chocolate Thunder. I fueled up on tacos and White Claws, changed into full cold-weather gear, including a face mask, and grimly faced the prospect of my first overnight at King of the Hammers. Time to get the full alt-right Coachella experience.

Drunk teenagers probably named the Hammers back in the day—there’s an easily distinguished theme to Backdoor, Chocolate Thunder, and Her Problem—but now the crowd at KoH varies from teens to full-grown adults addled by days of chugging beers (not Bud Light, I assure you) and the dehydration of spending all day watching desert racing.

But I quickly discovered that nothing compares to the nightlife.

King of the Hammers
Image credit: Michael Van Runkle

At Chocolate Thunder for about four hours, as amateurs drove their insane rock-crawling rigs through a screaming mass of people, I witnessed one fistfight, two cars roll over, and one car driving fully over another. Beverages flowed, the occasional smell of skunk overwhelming the gasoline-powered campfires dotting the hill, and music echoing from various speaker setups varied from early-2000s hip hop to modern pop-country. Handheld fireworks launching amid the scrum lit up the entire valley, when the light pods and bars on every truck didn’t quite reveal every last nook and cranny. Flat tires, dirt bikers being pushed up the hill, and stuck trucks danced on by groups of 10 and 20 revelers—somehow, I saw nobody get flattened. 

The gnarliest moment came when an entire box of fireworks exploded on the ground, spectators diving to the sides to avoid any carnage. Meanwhile, the amateurs showed their amateur status, struggling to climb up Chocolate Thunder as the engine screamed and tires squealed, scrabbling on the rocks, spraying up sand and gravel. No wonder racers at King of the Hammers talk about pre-running being little more than shakedowns for the vehicles rather than sighting lines. The whole desert changes every night in the chaos!

I mentioned to Polvoorde how rowdy KoH gets at night and how many more people stayed out at Hammertown than I remembered from years past. 

“It’s pretty crazy,” he agreed. “Every year, it’s like how much bigger can it get? The lakebed is just filling up more and more, and then you see things like what Optima’s doing, building the Oasis where we have just this massive camp outside of Hammertown. It always blows my mind. But once you come here and experience it, it’s one of those things where you’re like I have to keep coming back ‘cus there’s something different every single day, and it kind of never disappoints.”

A rubberband cart takes on the Ultra4 racers

As if to unwittingly prove my point about side-by-sides, this year, I purposefully decided to make my schedule line up so that I could catch the Ultra4 cars running the rock race in the 4400 class. I caught the start line, then jetted up toward Backdoor in the Braptor just in time to watch the frontrunners pull through, jumping off six-foot shelves easier than I step off the stoop of my apartment. But right up there with the likes of Casey Currie, Loren Healey, and the Gomez Brothers sat Kyle Chaney, a Can-Am driver in a Maverick X3 riding on 37-inch tires.

Apparently, the 4400 class rules changed this year to make 37s the absolute minimum tire size, mostly to prevent budget side-by-sides from running against the world’s most extreme seven-figure off-roading vehicles. Because how embarrassing would it be if some guy in a Can-Am won the top race at King of the Hammers while dealing with both top-speed desert trails and obstacles like torn-up Chocolate Thunder alike?

Yep, you guessed it. Kyle Chaney did just that—or at least, we thought he did since he crossed the finish line first after starting well off the front. But then, on adjusted time, Raul Gomez actually took home the top spot and nudged Chaney down to second. Not bad for a side-by-side, though, and not even one of Can-Am’s top-of-the-line Maverick Rs since that innovative finger-knuckle design limits max tire sizing.

I actually watched Chaney go up Chocolate Thunder, a wild choice of lines always standing out compared to his competition. The morning after, some spectators clearly in recovery, the cheers for every truck ripping through sounded just as strong—to my ringing ears and searing eyeballs anyway. Three full days at King of the Hammers will do that, turns out, and some people stick around for 10 days or more!

King of the Hammers
Image credit: Michael Van Runkle

The insane night culture that I caught for the first time this year will never fade from memory, even if I caught very little on camera. Maybe that’s for the best, though, in the vein of plausible deniability. Every year, I wonder whether I’ll take the time to do King of the Hammers again next year. This time around, the answer looks more solidly in the yes column than ever before.