King of the Hammers: Off-road racing’s cultural appropriation
Off-road racing’s biggest melting pot is in full swing this week on a distant and wind-swept Southern California lakebed. If you know, you know. If you don’t, you are missing one of the motorsport’s world’s most eclectic and successful instances of cultural appropriation.
The 13th annual Nitto King of the Hammers is a dusty mess of pure joy, with the very best and, shall we say, most colorful, of what this sport and lifestyle has to offer. It is commonly referred to as the motorized version of Burning Man.
Now over a week long, the motorsports gathering in Lucerne Valley has one of the best racing event names ever and is an outdoor celebration and mosh pit all at the same time. What started out as an informal bet between a dozen high-performance four-wheel drive enthusiasts 12 years ago has frantically escalated.
Founded by original partners Dave Cole and Jeff Knoll, the tremendous growth of the event is clearly the result of hard work and a clear vision that tapped into an off-road universe much, much larger and more inclusive than traditional desert, short course or rally racing. The show, and the Ultra4 series it spawned, is now run by the mercurial Cole, and he and his staff have curated the same type of cultural Woodstock shared in spirit and execution by the BFGoodrich Mint 400 and the Polaris Crandon World Championship Off-Road Races.
This is a week of four-wheel mayhem, both on and off the course. There are qualifying sessions, pre-running and races throughout the week, with Mitch Guthrie Jr. already having claimed the Can-Am UTV race — the largest single class of the entire King of the Hammers week — and Casey Gilbert earning the top spot in the multi-category 4WP Every Man Challenge.
There is that other brilliant name. The Every Man.
The racing takes place in the desert during the day, but anyone can jump into their Jeep, dune buggy or Polaris UTV and go spectate in the wide-open desert or at the area’s insanely technical rock sections. At night, the courses are wide open, so fans can explore their inner racer — much to the delight of legions trying to stay warm with their favorite libation. It is a bit surreal but also the very essence of communal experience.
Imagine the largest sea of motor homes you have ever seen, all surrounding a huge temporary oasis known as “Hammertown.” It is here that the various sub-cultures of the off-road world intersect in a way not seen anywhere else in the world. There are $750,000 unlimited Baja luxury pre-runners next to clapped out Jeeps with homemade exoskeleton roll cages and Alabama license plates. Corporate bigwigs with foreign accents and the wrong choice of outerwear swirl among the compound rubbing shoulders with the Everyman, their faces a mix of awe and terror. This is the wide-open America they read about but have never really found.
For 2019, Cole added a second feature event alongside Friday’s big Nitto Tire King of the Hammers race for unlimited four-wheel drive Ultra4 vehicles. With the help of Toyo Tires and Monster Energy, a group of 29 ground-breaking unlimited Trophy-Trucks will take the green flag for a race of their own.
Now add true rock stars like Rob MacCachren, the McMillin family, Bryce Menzies and even Jesse James (making his return to the desert after several years of supporting his NHRA-driving wife Alexis DeJoria) are sharing their culture and reach with the Ultra4 kings named Jason Scherer, Shannon Campbell, Erik Miller, Randy Slawson and Loren Healy. There is a hefty $100,000 on the table for each race winner (out of a total event purse topping $300,000) making the 2019 Hammers one of the most lucrative in off-road racing history.
But it’s not about the money. Really. It’s about bringing out so many of off-road racing’s often fractured community together to share what the sport has always held above ever other form of motorsports – adventure, dirt and the freedom to enjoy both.
RACER.com will be streaming both the Toyo Tires Desert Invitational unlimited truck race (starting Thursday at 8:00 a.m. PT/11:00 a.m. ET) and Friday’s Nitto King of the Hammers Ultra4 race beginning at 8:00 a.m. PT/11:00 a.m. ET, as well as offering more exclusive content from the event.