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.