2016 saw the 10th anniversary of the King of the Hammers, but it's still hard to imagine that this massive event, which means so much to so many, is still so young. If off-roading is your religion, then this is your Mecca.
As the cars get ever more developed to take on the brutality of the course and the drivers improve their skills year on year Dave Cole performs the annual tradition of upping the ante by making the course tougher and tougher… this time 176 miles awaited the crews but the challenge started on Day 1 as the qualifying course was a dire warning for what was to come. An almost sheer wall of rock lead up to a big pile of boulders, looped around the hill and then through the finish off a massive ledge that reminded me of pushing my Matchbox cars down the stairs as a little boy. There were a few dissenting voices, which Dave answered with a shrug of the shoulders. “Welcome to KoH.” One of the pre-race favourites Tom Wayes rolled, which is why he started so far down the field, but undisputed star of the show was Andrew McLaughlin of the LetzRoll team who did exactly that by doing a full forward flip… and amazingly carried on to get 10th!
The chaos and carnage of the Shootout on Monday between the Ultra4 cars and the visiting Rock Bouncers took place in gale force winds with snow falling on the Lakebed. Come race day though it was clear skies… but biting cold. A huge northern loop was new for this year as Dave sought to stretch the field out before the big rock sections to prevent a repeat of last year's giant bottleneck. Loren Healy and Jason Scherer broke away on this first 61 mile section with Shannon Campbell a couple of minutes behind, but further back Randy Slawson chose to do his one obligatory pass up Backdoor on Lap 1 while Miller carved his way past 20 cars to be 6th on corrected time as they came over the start/finish line for the first time. Campbell had problems with the front shock which was slowing him down but when Healy got caught out at Backdoor and Shearer spent a lot of time in remote pit to trying to fix an overheating problem, the popular two-time winner was in the lead... until half an hour later Wayes crossed the timing line. The man with the famous moustache was setting such a blistering pace that even though he was 8 miles behind on the course he was still in the lead!
A couple of new names having a chance to shine early on were Raul Gomez and Jason Shipman, both in mid-engined IFS cars that handle well in the long, fast desert section. Telling though was that Miller was already up to 4th on the road despite starting way down in 27th.
A lap around now fabled trails such as Chocolate Thunder, Aftershock, Wrecking Ball and Claw Hammer Wayes was well ahead on corrected time while Campbell had a good physical lead, but about 5 miles out from the second time into the main pits Wayes broke the back axle, while at the same time Campbell had a similar problem at Backdoor, and this let Miller off into a big lead. Another new name, Jon Cagliero was about to take a physical 2nd. Almost. He stopped in Backdoor next to Campbell so it was another Monster Energy liveried car into 2nd, Shannon's son Wayland, albeit 11 miles and 33 minutes behind Miller.
Levi Shirley started the week as one of the clear favourites but was slowed with overheating transmission and was getting beaten up in the car because he'd blown a rear shock. Healy was out after a broken belt ran the battery out so much that even a 10km round-trip run to the pits for a battery pack couldn't start the car again. For 12 months this car has been unbeatable, winning every Ultra4 series race Healy entered, but he'd probably exchange them all for this one.
Despite the overheating issue causing the engine to intermittently switch into limp mode Shearer was on an absolute mission and spent the rest of the first and all of the second lap catching up and by the time he was at Chocolate Thunder for the third and final time he was right with Wayland, although Shannon's son wouldn't let him by. And as Wayland started behind all he had to do to stay ahead, which he did until they got to Sledgehammer with about half a lap to go when something in the transmission failed and he got demoted from a sure podium finish to being a spotter for the other racers… And incredibly the next car on the road was his little 19-year-old sister Bailey, the only girl in the race. As she came through Jackhammer both normal lines were blocked by struggling backmarkers so what did she do? Just drove straight down the middle without hesitation. Her father got used to being beaten by his son last year, but now it seems he needs to adjust to seeing his daughter ahead. I think it would be very interesting to see what she can do in the same car as her dad and brother.
Robby Gordon took part in the UTV race in an Arctic Cat but another huge name talking part was Rob MacCachren, winner of the last two Baja 1000s. At the wheel of the Poison Spider Jeep he said that finishing KoH was almost as good a feeling as winning the Baja. After a long day he came in a very respectful 13th. Rob Butler shipped his gorgeous Eurofighter out to the US and was rewarded with 29th. Slawson, the reigning King, lost a lot of time with a badly connected ECU and eventually came in 8th. Shirley was looking good for a potential podium but a broken A-arm near the end put pay to the current Ultra4 series champion's day.
Gomez, recovering from in navigation mistake early on drove an amazing latter part of the race to overtake some very big names, Shannon and Shipman also got past Bailey on the last loop and all the way back to the finish Gomez and Campbell traded places, the Gomez Brothers Racing driver going head-to-head with his hero until Shannon got beached momentarily and Gomez got through. He was so excited to get the last podium place that his exuberance over the last jump almost caught him out and he crossed the line with the right rear wheel trailing behind.
Shipman and Bailey Campbell were also very close at the finish but because she started behind Shipman needed to finish 4 ½ minutes ahead. Bailey came in over the last hill less than a minute behind to take an incredible and emotional 5th, just one place behind her famous father.
Despite his car wanting him to drive it home at 35 mph with the hazard lights on Scherer never stopped pushing and somehow managed 2nd, but although he said he was only driving at 70% it was Eric Miller, who after two years of bitter disappointment with wins being lost by small problems, took an absolutely dominating victory. And to make it an even bigger day to remember he proposed to his girlfriend Leah on the podium. She said yes! Legend.
176 miles was the course length. 110 cars started, 31 made it back, 26 of them beaten by a girl. 7 hours 30 minutes and 55 seconds was the winning time… and if you think you can come out here and do this, you're probably wrong. Once again the King of the Hammers proved that it is the toughest one-day 4x4 race in the world.
Link to full results.