King of the Hammers: inside story
From a crazy idea to a podium at the world's toughest off-road race
Sometimes if you’re in the right place at the right time with the right idea good things can happen. SEMA show, Las Vegas, November 2013, Dave Cole unveils the first of his new Spec class, six identical ULTRA4 cars ready to rent and race. A seat for a press guy to do an inside story, I ask? Johnson Valley lakebed February 2014, in a race suit and helmet putting my foot on the floor so hard that my helmet was being forced back against the seat from the air pressure… I knew that I’d be doing the inside story but couldn’t have imagined that these days in the desert would be such an incredible experience!
Dave at the Hammers is a bit like a deity. Everything you see around is created by him, his directives come down to us from above through his clergy but it’s all but impossible to communicate directly with him, so the first point of contact was the Dust Junkies team, the crew of preternaturally calm and capable race engineers looking after the Spec class cars. Beards, bellies and southern drawls aplenty but no stress, and despite me and my partner Eric Bothwell not being mechanically minded and not even touching a spanner, they made us feel just as at home as Jim Marsden who practically stripped his own car down and re-built it in front of them!
Before I got there I’d imagine that I’d be completely out of my depth but actually the car is a dream to drive. Apart from the sound of the 5.7l V8 blaring through the Dynomax exhaust it’s the suspension that elicits the first wow. Rocks and holes that would shatter a normal 4×4 are hardly noticed, the same with the ripples of sand called whoops that lift you into the air with every bounce. The full hydraulic steering is light, responsive and has an incredible turning circle… and all that means that when you put your foot down to unleash the 450bhp you are still (more or less) in complete control.
There are limits though. It doesn’t like being driven into ravines at 40mph with the tyres aired down too much. That makes the wheels square! But that was the only issue we had in the run-up and the pre-running helped us get familiar with not just the car but also the course. We worked out some lines to take up some of the tougher rock crawling sections which Eric said helped his nerves a lot… but on qualifying day they all came rushing back. The ticking clock and people watching does create a highly charged atmosphere and I was warning about the speed right after the first corner. But what charged-up race car driver listens to his whining co-driver? The rock at the entrance to the first gully we slammed into woke him up though! It was a huge hit but the car seemed OK so we carried on up the gnarly crawl under the Red Bull arch with sheer drops on both sides and then up a really steep climb over a little hill. We got 3rd. Not bad seeing as that rock had burst the tyre and we’d done pretty much the whole lap with just three tyres. We weren’t alone though. Every single car in the class had a puncture. Taking 2nd Jim driving for Odyssey Batteries bent his wheel and brake calliper and 1st for Shannon Campbell cost a bent front axle. “It’s not like my car,” he said. “Mine, you can just point and shoot but these Spec cars you have to drive with finesse!” Oh yes, if it wasn’t enough that we were first-time racers, Fox shocks had persuaded two-time KoH champion Campbell to race in our class!
114 miles was our Everyman Challenge course, split over two laps, the first a long desert loop and the next the world famous rock crawls. We went behind 38 Mod class cars and 12 Legends, inching closer to the line as each pair set off at 30 second intervals. Eric was nervous, I could hear his short, rapid breaths through the comms in my helmet and passing a car on its roof at the top of a ridge not 500 metres from the start certainly didn’t help. If we weren’t fully aware already that one mistake anywhere on the course and it could all be over, that sure reminded us!
In pre-running on the lakebed we’d got up to 90 miles an hour but behind all the other cars on the 5 mile stretch it was an impenetrable cloud of dust ahead and we were down to just 25. Jessi Combs in the Falken Tyres car couldn’t see either but it didn’t stop her powering ahead at break neck speed with zero visibility… When the dust finally thinned out we saw the surprising sight of Shannon Campbell with his bonnet off. That meant we were in 3rd! It wasn’t that hard to beat him after all!
8am in the winter desert is not the warmest place to be and my first issue was that I was freezing cold. Literally shivering. I found that if I put my hands up into a V shape I could deflect the wind off my neck and upper body. Thankfully out in the desert there were no photographers to mistake me being deep in prayer. Eric had been quiet for a while. Too quiet, and I looked for the reason why; my comms plug had come out. Trying to feel around while being bashed about was hard, especially as the seatbelts pin you so securely in the seat. I turned my head to try and get a better look. My first mistake. A helmeted head bumped back and to while looking forwards is one thing. Being jolted hard at 45° is another. The pulled muscle caused a problem for the rest of the race. I called the mile markers off to the Dust Junkies and every now and then could hear Jim’s radio on the same channel. At MM 24 they were already at 30. It didn’t seem possible!
At MM26 we pulled into the pits to do the first driver change. In the days and weeks leading up to the race I’d had butterflies every time I thought about this moment… but when the time came for a Dust Junkie to fumble between my legs for the seat belt strap I was perfectly calm. Fast and smooth, fast and smooth, that was the rule. It was also a massive help that we’d driven this section in pre-running and knew that there were no huge holes or rocks waiting to catch was out.
We caught up with a Legends class car but he was weaving around to block me so we criss-crossed around through his dust until the superior power of the Spec class car out dragged him up a sandy hill… all while the helicopter was circling overhead. For a few years I’ve watched the live feed until early in the morning and here I was racing on TV! I wondered if my girlfriend was watching! And the only truly heart-stopping moment of the stint was when after looking to see where the car I was overtaking was going I turned back ahead to see a photographer in the middle of the track!
A few miles further on I caught up with another Spec class crew who’d got ahead at the pit stop and it was amazing that after just a couple of hours pre-running behind the wheel I could keep up with them. I was actually racing for position! We followed close behind but the track wound through some big stones so there was no place to pass… until they got hung up on rock. There were a few other cars struggling in the same place so Eric got out to spot me up a better way. I clattered past them, the roar of the engine being complemented by the horrible grinding sounds of the undertray dragging on the rocks. It sounds like a shopping trolley being pushed off a curb.
The next change-over back at the start / finish wasn’t too elegant. I was trying to get myself out when one of the pit crew came to help by dragging me out. We’d overtaken quite a few cars, most of them in fact, so the 2nd lap was much clearer and it was much easier to settle into a constant speed and pick a route through the ‘whoops’. Eric was doing brilliantly. The technical term is ‘dialled in’. Full concentration. There is a sweet spot when you are going as fast as you dare without taking too many risks. I was counting off the miles regularly and at MM 57 called out halfway. We weren’t though, because then we got to the first rock crawl… and the nerves came back. We were a bit too quick to pick a way through and got beached on a big rock. It was no problem for the Spidertrax axles but the tyres had no purchase. I got out and had the idea to throw some rocks under the wheels, but with the helmet on and trying to do everything as fast as possible I slipped while trying to pick up a big stone and dropped it back down on my finger. It wasn’t fun trying to winch us up with the smashed nail flopping off. Then I got the strop stuck under the rock I’d wrapped it around. But after a few dizzy minutes of struggling with it had the idea to get Eric to drive on it to get it free. It worked! A few minutes later the same thing happened again but this time I was stopped from getting out by a big Maxxis tyre in my face. “It’s OK,” Eric said as our tyre stuck in the hole conveniently filled it up for the other car… which nonchalantly drove over us. A few Trepador marks across the bonnet was all that it cost though. There were a couple more moments like this, grounding out and winching, and with Eric hitting my hand while putting the gears back into hi-range I was about ready to faint… But no one gives up at KoH.
We got stuck again coming down Jackhammer so I jumped out with the strop again… but we’d hit a rock somewhere and bent the fairlead into the winch, pinching the rope. We weren’t going forwards! Thankfully the No. 4619 Hi-Lux behind us pulled us back and Eric used another technique that we hadn’t really tried before… momentum! It is pretty cool being inside the car, but standing by that DynoMax exhaust getting pelted by dirt and watching how much the suspension can flex… Magic! The Spidertrax axles constantly smashed into TV sized granite rocks, lifting up the whole front of the car, with nothing but a few scuffs! But the noise and the shock coming through the car was insane! Yea, though I race through the valley of the Hammers I will fear no failure, for Thom art with me; his rods and they axles they comfort me!
But then we came out before the huge crowd waiting for action at the almighty Chocolate Thunder, the hardest trail on the EMC course… Eric pulled to stop and said, “Dude, we’ve got no winch. What do we do?” Being in front of a crowd really gives extra impetuous… and stress! No one wants to screw up in front of an audience so there was only one thing we could do; go for it! Instead of calling out, “Easy, easy!” here I was just shouting, “Go, go, go. Don’t stop! Give it some POWER!” This was the first and only time we really pushed the car and bashed it through its paces. It was all or nothing but the amount of grip that the Falken tyres had on the rocks was simply amazing! So is the amount of punishment that the Spec car can take. More huge shocks from smashing the undertray on the big rocks followed by another roar of the engine and somehow we just bounced all the way up. Easy! Neither of us noticed that the back wheel had fallen off until much later. Now no winch and no spare!
Something else of note was how well the course was laid out, marked and marshalled. We took a couple of wrong turns because the different classes took detours a couple of times but the GPS was so accurate that we could tell if we were just 5 metres off course.
Towards the end of the rock crawls there were some stunning trails that wound up over the spine of a hills which had breath-taking views over the desert landscape but it was hard to appreciate them as my neck had had enough. If I hunched my shoulders I could alleviate some of the weight but it was starting to be a struggle. But then it was the final 40 mile stretch of desert. Because of my finger there was no way I could grip the steering wheel so Eric had to take it all the way to the flag, but when drivers say that they can hear every noise in the car near the end of the race, it’s so true. Those last miles felt like the front axle was falling off and we were driving on three punctures… and Eric was getting a bit wound up about being close to the end. We hit some whoops and rocks hard after Elvis and I almost had to call a time-out. Maybe it was the site of Jim’s cars parked up, out of gas… which meant that we were 2nd! Ross Stanford in the Spidertrax sponsored car did a daring overtake off course on us but he was going like we did on Chocolate Thunder; flat out. There was no way we wanted to try and go faster and risk the podium, so we let him go.
The run back into Hammertown was horribly slow and rough but then we were over the final rise and cruised down to the podium under the Red Bull arch. We pulled up in front of the giant Jumbotron screen, I took my helmet off and found that my glasses were broken and Eric was so overcome about making it to the finish that he burst into tears as he was being interviewed. That’s how much KoH means to people!
Milling about in the group of cars with people taking photos of us while we stood on the roof and the DynoMax people congratulating us and Thom Kingston of Spidertraxs fixing my glasses with his pocket knife was quite surreal. I came to do just a story about being in KoH and ended up being on the podium holding one of those giant cheques. The podium of KoH! It seems to sink in a little more each day. But Eric and I were complete novices. Neither of us had ever done anything remotely like this before and we were only 14 minutes behind the winner, which any way you look at it is respectful. But the point is that if I can do that, anyone can! Next year there will be 30 cars and I really think you should book your place now!
King of the hammers Spec class Robb Pritchard As a testament to just how tough these Spec cars are three of them went to do the full race the next day and out of 160 starters 32 finished. In 27th was Jim Marsden! Think about that for a moment. Nearly 130 ULTRA4 cars didn’t make it to the finish, but Jim did! So if you want to do the full race next year with a full crew behind you have a serious think about doing it in a Spec class car for 2015.
I have quite a few people to thank. Lucky Dog Racing gave me a place to sleep in their trailer as well as the loan of a racesuit and some fine southern cooking! Cody Addlington of ADD Racing for lending me a helmet. I can’t say enough about how good the Dust Junkies for making us feel a real part of the team and never out of our depth. The DynoMax crew for the support and sneaking the car away before the race to check it over. Rob Lerma for picking me up hitch-hiking and then inviting me to his place to re-adjust to society after the race and the lovely people who gave me photos of 4701 out on the course; Dave Morganthall, Valerie Douglas, Melissa Lundie and Kathy Durret. And of course, one more. He spent about half an hour at the awards ceremony thanking everyone for making the event possible, but there is only one man who has made KoH but it is. My unreserved and heartfelt thanks to Dave Cole. Until next year!
1. Jessi Combs 05:59
2. Ross Stanford 06:02
3. Eric Bothwell / Robb Pritchard 06:13
4. Larry Nickel DSQ
5. Shannon Campbell DNF
6. Jim Marsden DNF
Photos: Robb Pritchard / Dave Morganthal / Melissa Lundie / Valerie Douglas / Kyle Wells