Print Page

News.bytes News.bytes Extra, issue 469

King of the Hammers, 2011

Roll out the red carpet … or better yet, roll out the rocks!

If you were travelling on Highway 247 about 60 miles southeast of Barstow, between Feb. 8 and Feb. 11, you would have noticed something different about the Means Dry Lake Area, part of the 188,000-acre Johnson Valley Off-highway Vehicle Area managed by the Bureau of Land Management’s Barstow Field Office. (text continues among photos)

An off-raod vehicle crawls over huge rocks in a canyon

What is normally a dry lakebed with only a few off-highway enthusiasts using the area turns into a temporary community, known as “Hammertown.”  It is here where spectators and race participants meet for an internationally known event called “The King of the Hammers.”

King of the Hammers started five years ago when 13 friends challenged each other to see who could traverse the most trails in the area in one day. Over the following year, they developed a plan to turn this into an international, organized, off-road event.  King of the Hammers, in its fourth official year, draws participants from across the United States and countries as far away as Mexico, Canada, Iceland, Italy, Australia, France, Germany and Japan. 

An off-road vehicle crawls over large rocks in a canyon

Race participants are experienced off-road drivers who must qualify during the previous year to compete in the event.  Participants face the technical challenge of “rock crawling” over vertical walls of rocks, maneuvering through tight canyons, and then racing through the desert course to see who can come up with the best time.  Jeff Knoll, a promoter with Hammer King Productions, describes it as “mixed martial arts of the desert.”

Although there were only about 100 participants in the main event, an estimated 20,000 spectators watched the race. In addition, an estimated 35,000 people watched the event over the internet. About one-third of the vehicles in the Friday event were equipped with a transponder that signaled where the vehicle was at during the race and if there was an accident. The transponder signal could be layered over a Google Earth map to show the racers’ locations.

“Some families make this their main vacation for the entire year,” said Rusty Gates, a ranger in the Barstow Field Office. “This has grown into the largest annual event held in Johnson Valley.”

Off-highway vehicles line up to begin the race.
Drivers line up to begin the race.

BLM staff from the Barstow Field Office, along with staff from the BLM offices in Palm Springs, Needles, and the California Desert District, worked with Hammer King Productions staff and about 140 volunteers to ensure that race participants, event staff and spectators were kept safe.  Other agencies that assisted were the California Highway Patrol, San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Office, and Marines from the 29 Palms Marine Corps Center.

“We would like to thank all the agencies who worked with us to make this a safe, fun event” Gates said. The promoters’ efforts to have a large number of volunteers, as well as medical and security staff available also contributed to the success of the event, he added.

A crowd ranges up valley walls around the off-road track

Inside Hammertown, more than 50 vendors set up booths to sell products such as off-road racing parts, T-shirts, hats and firewood, as well as food.

On Thursday, 16 utility terrain vehicle race teams competed on a 40-mile loop.  The first UTV, driven by Brandon Schueler, crossed the finish line after one hour and 24 minutes.  The second UTV followed a few minutes later, crossing the finish line with a blown-out shock, a flat tire and rubbing skid plate.  The winner of the UTV race received an all-steel welded crown that stands approximately three feet tall and weighs nearly 125 pounds. Last year, the trophy was stolen before it could be presented to its winner.  While King of the Hammers staff were marking this year’s course, the trophy was found buried on the race course and after a little cleaning up the trophy was ready to be presented to this year’s winner.

One hundred teams competed in the main event on Friday, following qualifying races Tuesday and Wednesday.  Drivers had to complete two laps around a 60-mile course while traversing tight, rocky areas such as the Backdoor, Trapdoor, Chocolate Thunder, Jack Hammer and Wrecking Ball.

Vehicles would get stuck or even roll over.  As long as the driver and passenger could work themselves free, often with the use of winches and tow straps, they were allowed to continue racing.  If they received any outside assistance they were disqualified.

cables are set on an overturned vehicle

Even though rock crawling is a unique characteristic of this event, high speed racing through the surrounding terrain is also a critical element of this race. Shannon Campbell, the 2008 winner, got the checkered flag for the 2011 race.

Spectators watch from behind yellow tape, as off-road drivers take to the open desert
An off-road vehicle crosses a finish line amid support vehicles
A racer crosses the finish line

Men look at a map on a computer monitor
Phil Membury shows BLM Ranger Patrick Chassie the progress of racers
that are being tracked using transponders in the vehicles.

After the event was over, Hammertown vanished from Means Dry Lake – until the next return of the King.

A swarm of parked vehicles in the desert
A line of vehicles parks in the sand
Camper vehicles on the desert sand

- David Christy, BLM Central California District, 2/14/11
  Photos by David Christy, except date-stamped photos by Vicki Salazar, BLM Bakersfield Field Office

BLM-California News.bytes, issue 469 -- To subscribe to News.bytes, send an e-mail to: mailto:Join-Newsbytes@List.ca.blm.gov OR visit our News.bytes subscription page.

Last updated: 02-16-2011