Through My Dusty Lens:</br> King Of The Hammers
Speedhunters Problems

I’ve run into a problem. I guess you could call it a ‘Speedhunter’s Problem’. You see, since I started working for this wonderful car culture website, I’ve been attending gatherings of the automotive world pretty much non-stop. Every year I come across an event that I absolutely fall in love with, then claim that I will attend the said event every year from that point on. Because there are only so many days in the year, it’s getting to the point where these events are starting to overlap. Pikes Peak and Formula Drift New Jersey, for example, clash this year, as well as Pebble Beach week and Bonneville Speed Week. And the list goes on…

A few years ago when I stumbled upon one of the largest off-road festivals in North America known as the King of the Hammers, I told myself I would try my best to never miss one again, and so far I have been successful in that. I commit to covering at least two off-road races each year, with the Mint 400 being one and King of the Hammers as the other. Luckily for me there was no scheduling conflict for the latter, because honestly, there is no other race like this in the world.


As I highlighted in my articles from previous years, the spectators of King of the Hammers become part of the show. That’s because during the downtime, they run the same obstacles with their personal off-road vehicles, just for fun.


In previous years I’ve gone out of my way to document the culture as a whole; that off-road lifestyle of leaving the city for a week to play with your big toys on the rocks and in the sand. This year, though, I wanted to solely focus on the actual racing.


King of the Hammers is a week-long festival located a few hours east of Los Angeles in the heart of Johnson Valley, California.


The racing starts on Sunday with a motorcycle race and the festivities end on Saturday with the award ceremonies.


The main ‘Unlimited’ race actually only lasts one day and competitors have an allotted time to finish the course.


This year was the biggest turnout yet with ‘Hammer Town’ reaching maximum capacity. In all, there were a total of 430 teams competing.


Furthermore, roughly 60,000 people made their way into the California desert to watch the best rock climbers in the world battle it out.


Friday’s Unlimited race is regarded as the most difficult single-day off-road race in the world. The course was an unforgiving 215-mile route that brings competitors through the toughest rock obstacles as well as high speed desert sections.


Out of the 129 teams who took the green flag, only 17 finished the race under the 14-hour cut-off time. That means only 13 per cent of competitors officially completed the race.


Although long after the sun dipped below the horizon, six more drivers came in and crossed the line, but of course there were unofficial finishers.


With the race being as big as it is and with the terrain as harsh as it was, the proper way to follow the lead drivers was from the air.


We didn’t have a helicopter at our disposal, but I think we got the next best thing. Casey Currie was kind enough to let us use his Jeep as a chase vehicle.


In years past I’ve been very limited to the spots that I could go shoot, because there was no point risking getting stuck in the sand or becoming stranded somewhere.


Without a proper vehicle designed and set up for real off-road use, spectators and media personnel can only reach two or three different locations to watch and photograph the race from. Driving Casey’s Jeep meant that I could actually keep up with the race leaders or whomever I wanted to, whenever and wherever. Stay tuned for a feature on the slick Jeep.

Traffic Jam

Instead of just putting up a random string of images with captions I figured it would be best to share some of my favorite moments from the 2015 race.


This year, the competitors faced the worst traffic jam to date. At one point the ‘Jackhammer’ obstacle had almost 50 rigs backed up.


Out of the endless amount of photos that I acquired from the week, this one has to be my favorite. The delay was so long that competitors just got out of their race vehicles and soaked up some sun till it was time to go again.


It was so bad that the competitors had to tie winch lines to each other just to pull everyone up through the rock obstacles. In years prior, the BLM had the competitors go downhill, which of course was hard enough as it was. Not only was the feature hard this year, competitors had to complete the obstacle twice during the race. All ‘Hammer’ obstacles are skipped on the first lap of the three-lap race.


The issue was that the leaders on their third lap were actually about to lap everyone who was still stuck on the second lap, and if they were stuck there in a three-hour delay, not a single competitor would finish the race in the allotted time. But at the last minute it was decided that the competitors could bypass the Jackhammer obstacle on their third lap.


So how did such a thing happen? Well, I watched three races go through the same spot throughout the week, and it seemed as though the same thing happened every time. Someone would always break down on the easiest line, which would then force other competitors to take a more difficult line – which sometimes meant over the top of other rigs.


While I watched, many drivers just powered through. The smarter way to do it is to use a winch in order to save the car for the rest of the course.

The Campbells

As always, one of my favorite competitors to follow was Monster driver Shannon Campbell. He is one of only two drivers to have two wins under his belt, having been crowned King in 2008 and 2011.


He is also one of the few drivers to not have a co-driver, which means things can get pretty hairy when he needs to use his winch.


While Shannon will always be my favorite to watch, the story was that his son and his daughter were competing in the same race.


Father and son traded places back and forth. Shannon ran into mechanical issues many times breaking down and fixing the battered rig.


This was the first time Shannon’s daughter, Bailey Campbell, was competing in King of the Hammers. After driving for 16 hours and 24 minutes straight, she would be the last driver to cross the finish line before all drivers were told to head back to the pits. I will go into more detail about the family trio in my next post.

The Curries

The Campbells weren’t the only ones that were competing as a family. The Currie family also came out in force.


As I mentioned earlier, it was very nice of Casey to lend me his Jeep, and it was the only way I would be able to keep up with him on course. He was competing in two different races – the UTV race as well as the King of the Hammers Unlimited race.


Unfortunately for Casey, he ran into mechanical issues right off the bat, but his brother Cody did very well finishing second overall and first in class.


The momentum for the family continued on as Brandon Currie competed in the Smittybilt Every Man Challenge race. The Jeep he was competing in had won three times prior at the hands of his father, so he knew he had a winning car.


Brandon took the checkered flag and brought home another win for the Currie family.


Casey pushed hard right off the bat during the Unlimited King of the Hammers race.


Again, he ran into mechanical issues while on his second lap and had to be towed back to the pits. Next year he will try to earn the crown again, which is all he could really do. Luck is just not on your side sometimes.

Rough World

This year I decided to go a few days early so I could watch the teams qualify, which allowed me to get some extra days of shooting in.


Even while being able to catch the leaders with the Jeep, it still means that you can only see a certain competitor a few times going race speed during the entire week.


Sometimes they zoom by and you can barely get a few shots before they drive off into the distance.


And of course, there are other times when they just get stuck in one spot, which allowed me to blast away.


This year the event organizers went very big with the live stream and had a constant barrage of helicopters showing the world the action.


It was both a blessing and a curse, because you would know when a race leader was nearby when you saw one of the helicopters in the air, but because the helicopters were flying quite low, everyone at ground level was treated with a nice little sandstorm.


It took all week for me to plan out the route that I was going to follow on the main race day, and I always set realistic goals on how many times I could catch up to the drivers I was following.


As soon as the racers rolled down the hill near the start and onto the lake bed, my pulse quickened. It’s just so much more fun to cover a race where you actually have to chase down the drivers you are shooting.


Soon the lakebed became so dusty that my visibility was down to around 30 feet.


It was tough as some of the drivers could not even see where the course was. I just stood next to my Jeep and furiously pointed at the direction of the course, guiding some of the drivers in the right direction. A few of the rigs zig-zagged around me, maybe 300 feet off the course. It’s just that much harder when you can’t see.


What was really fun was the different types of terrain that I had to tackle in order to get to my next shooting location. Of course, I will touch on this more later when I talk about the Jeep.


While it’s the same race location every year, there are no two shooting spots that are alike. Each year the course changes a bit, making it impossible to find all the interesting angles. A good spot one year will be a terrible spot the next.


That’s what makes this race so refreshing every time; it’s always a new experience.


While I love sports car racing, I just love that extra dimension that road courses are missing. With road racing, if you miss a shot, you just have to wait a few minutes for the driver to come around for another lap. Where is the fun in that?


At this point in the race I’d already had a 14-hour day, but for the racers and myself the day was far from over. Just being able to cross the finish line – even if no one was there to congratulate you – is a win in itself. Think about it: only 13 per cent of the competitors finished the race. What a crazy ride!


A few years ago the race was threatened by the expansion of a nearby military base, but the off-road community banded together and resisted the expansion. Now, this race is bigger and better than ever and I don’t see it slowing down anytime soon. 2015 was only the 9th running. Next year will be the 10th and biggest year to date. You can bet I will be there, as long as I don’t run into any more #SpeedhuntersProblems.

Larry Chen
Instagram: larry_chen_foto

Cutting Room Floor


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this is WRC on steroids Great article Larry!!!


Those cars are super cool! Any diesel engines in there? Great stuff Larry!


Awesome article and photography Larry!


Fantastic job as always, Mr. Chen. 

I've been looking forward to the photos and write-up for this article; now, patiently (excitedly) waiting for the follow up articles.


greenroadster There is a competitor in a lower class with W123 diesel mercedes.


Dude the Campbell's are good


The Campbell's are awsome


I'll have to come back to read this article again properly, because the photos just blew my mind. Amazing imagery!


Definitely a bucket list item.


Some great shots in there as always Larry! My desktop wallpaper folder grows larger every day :D. Looks like it would be a super fun event to attend.


jacobherman14 I was thinking it would be a rally fun event to attend!


Another Larry Chen article, where half of the Bonus Images could be the lead image.


This is one of those events you have to go once in your life, I'll add it to the list


I found out about Speedhunters about 6 months ago and visit frequently.  This site is unique and fantastic!  Great photography, stories by real enthusiasts about all kind of cars with great respect and empathy for the many different facets of car culture.  Love Speedhunters!  Thanks Larry Chen for another great article!


I always look forward to your King of the Hammers coverage Larry, great job! I'm looking forward to attending in the future with the cameras and while I'm a big supporter of our military, I'm glad the off-road community was able to defeat the base expansion. I imagine the gear goes off to CPS for a thorough cleaning after this event?


What is the truck on the cover photo?


Probably one of the best shot automotive photo essays ever seen here...and that's saying a lot. Bravo Mr. Chen, take a bow!


Thanks for the kind words and that's for the support.


Haha I just got my bodies back from CPS. They got thrashed.
Yes, while I also support the military I think that they have the option to expand elsewhere. But if the off-road community lost such a big portion of public land it would have been devastating.


Thanks for the support!


Yes please do. You won't be disappointed.


Haha awesome. I'm glad you liked them.


Haha, have them cycle every hour on the hour.


Thanks for the support as always.


Pretty much. Although stage rally does not involve driving full tilt for 14 hours straight. Haha.


Larry Chen For me its getting to the point where it needs to cycle every fifteen minutes so that they can all get cycled through once every couple of days!


I always love this event. Also another event you should check out  if it doesnt interfere with other happenings is the Bluewater Desert Challenge in Parker,AZ.


Yep, it's that time of the year, when all the fun stuff starts happening. This, March Meet (speaking of which, is Speedhunters going to cover it this year?), Mint 400...


apieceobacon Larry Chen Brothers in bulging wallpaper folders!


matthewyaa jacobherman14 lol i see what you did there


Welcome to Motorstorm.


photos Toujours Exceptionnel


My name is Tim Main. I was a volunteer at remote pit 2. I worked there Wed, Thur, and Friday.  Race central closed us down at 8:00 PM. I moved up the hill to join my friend Matt who was manning check point 5 and handing out stickers as the drivers went through. We heard that a final driver was on their way to us so we stuck around to make sure they got the sticker they earned. Around 8:30-8:45 we heard them coming and over the hill out of the dark came a car. It was Baily Campbell! I'm really glad we stayed out for her. She got her sticker and took off. I barley got my phone out to get a shot and I'm glad I did. So glad she kept going. I would have felt bad if she showed up and we had been gone. Nice way for us to end the race.


As always Im blown away by the quality of speedhunter's articles. You guys (and Larry especially) are what the off road racing scene needs. 
Im always frustrated by the sub-par coverage, documentation, and photos of off road events, and until now no one has covered them like road racing. 
Thank you and I look forward to more awesome coverage of off road events like this! (maybe baja 500/1000 and mint 400 races can get covered next year too??)


Great work Larry! Like the traffic jam shots.... looks very bizarre. :)


Tim Main Respect sir...respect.


Great write up and fantastic photography of the mayhem known as KOH!  I have been lucky enough to be the co-driver in two of the classes, Stock (4600 class) and Unlimited (4400 class), for the last 4 years.  Every year this form of motorsports continues to gain traction in the world of racing because of guys like you that are doing awesome coverage and exposing the event to more people that may have never heard of it.  Thanks for all the hard work!


Hey Larry, been reading for awhile, love your pictures, man. 
That Jeepster in your first pic looks awesome, great shot! That a '72, '73? 
You happen to find any early Bronco's down there?


yobobjm Despite being commonly mistaken as "broncos" & "scouts"... that is without a doubt a '72/ '73 Jeep Commando (the "Jeepster" prefix was dropped by AMC).
Larry Chen Any chance you got the Commando owners contact info?


Great shots in there as always Larry!


JakWhite That's the first thing I thought when I first heard of it.
It's only missing big rigs, rally cars, ATV's & bike's though :D


petebrusch Not sure what year the Jeepster was. There were so many sick Broncos there. It's really just too much good stuff to shoot.


@Trick Pancakes That is so cool. I would never be able to do that because I would get sick so fast. My question is how do you use the restroom? I know you have to wear a catheter, but what about......


avvblanc01 I am 100% set to cover the mint 400, as I have been for the past two years. Plus I am going to push really hard to try to cover the Baja 1000 this year. Thanks for the kind words and thanks for the support.


Tim Main Wow, how cool is that. Thanks for staying out there!


Cryptopygia I am definitely doing the Mint 400. I am not sure if Mike will be covering March Meet.


@Caver Dave yobobjm I did not, I waited around for a bit and he did not show up.


Larry Chen Tim Main 
Thats why the week and race is so special. We (volunteers) love being there for the drivers and the spectators and being a part of it. Come out and join us. We always need more of us.