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Race Recap: 2013 Griffin King of the Hammers, and notes from a dry lake bed [w/video]

Mon, 11 Feb 2013

It was a local guy from 90 miles away who beat them all...

The image above shows 129 Ultra4 racing rigs lined up for the start of the 2013 Griffin King of the Hammers. In case you missed Part One that explains why they're there and why they might be doing the most difficult and absurd one-day off-road race in the world, check it out. After a week of races in other events and two days of qualifying for the big show, the men and women who made it in were lined up to do three laps of a course around the 140,000-acre Johnson Valley OHV area in California's San Bernardino County.

Lap one was 52 miles through the desert, lap two was 63-miles long and lap three was 69-miles long, those last circuits going through some of the toughest rock trails – known collectively as The Hammers – on the planet. Drivers from 12 countries, trophy truck champions who've come from Paris-Dakar and the Baja 1000, guys who had spent big-money sums like $250,000 on their rigs were lined up to win, or just try and make it back before the 14-hour cutoff time.

It was a local guy from 90 miles away who beat them all...

It took two days of qualifying to establish the starting grid, and perennial KOH contender Jason Scherer took pole position. Shannon Campbell, who's won KOH twice, lined up beside him in second. And behind them were top trophy truck drivers TJ Flores and Robby Gordon, making the switch to Ultra4 rigs for the race. Qualifying was held on a short course that wasn't part of the race circuit, so the times weren't exactly representative, and much of the qualifying lap was desert, so seven of the top ten runners were in rigs that had independent front suspension, since the desert is where IFS excels.

Not only did the top two drivers have IFS, they were in single-seater cars – that meant they'd have to drive, navigate, make sure the car was running properly and solve any issues, like winching, on their own. That led to scenes like the one last year when Scherer had to get out and stack rocks just to get through qualifying. This year, Scherer had overcome setup issues with his car – and a rollover (watch the video below to see that) – for the right to be first on the line.

Randy Slawson qualified in ninth, and did it by competing in the Last Chance Qualifiers, run for those who haven't pre-qualified by doing other races in the Ultra4 series. He's done KOH since the first running in 2007 and won it that year as a co-driver. Now he drives and his brother is his co-driver, and each year, KOH is the only race he runs. Slawson is from Grand Terrace, California about 90 miles from Hammertown, and builds his own rigs (as many drivers do) out of a shop called Bomber Fabrications.

The green flag dropped in cold, windy and dusty conditions at 8 AM and Scherer and Campbell took off, each set of two drivers released 30 seconds later. A rock trail called Back Door had to be done on one lap of the driver's choosing, and as driver Derek West had predicted, all of the top guys who had come from desert racing elected not to do it on the lead lap so that they could duke it out on the dry lake bed and perhaps lead the race. But Back Door gets clogged up with drivers broken down or just trying to make it over, so a lot of other drivers planned to do it early.

Campbell did Back Door on the third lap, Slawson did it on the second. Along with a lot of luck to get through without any major breakdowns, Slawson got to the rock waterfall when there was no traffic and made it up without incident. Other drivers weren't so lucky; Campbell made it up Back Door, but at another rock gully, he flipped and got turned around, then drove the opposite way on the course. It wasn't until he came upon a competitor coming in the proper direction that he realized his mistake. That's what not having a co-driver can do. Campbell also had incidents like this, at the rock field called Elvis:

Competitors get 14 hours – until 10 PM – to finish, and out of 129 who started, only 27 made it to the finish line in time. Slawson was the first across in a time of 7 hours, 28 minutes and ten seconds, Campbell coming in second, 20 minutes and 31 seconds later. The delightfully named Chicky Barton was third, his first time running the race, another 35 minutes back. Scherer, the man on the pole, couldn't avoid trouble and didn't make it home until 13 hours and 33 minutes later. All of the big names from trophy truck desert racing were sent home with a big bucket of DNF.

That was the 2013 Griffin King of the Hammers. It was our first time. There's no way it will be our last. And now for some Notes from a Dry Lake Bed...

Save Johnson Valley OHV Area For Public Use

The 140,000-acre Johnson Valley OHV area abuts the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center (MCAGCC) in 29 Palms. It's the largest Marine base in the world, and for the purposes of a two-month training exercise each year, the service has been eying an expansion that would take over the Johnson Valley OHV area and close it off to the public for good.

"We have to raise awareness, get media involved, and we had to get lobbyists – and they're $12k a month."

KOH race promoter Dave Cole has been fighting the service to keep the Johnson Valley OHV area open to the public, helping publicize efforts through the site at Ultra4 Racing, on Facebook and being involved in a petition to the White House that reached its goal of 25,000 signatures. The work has been started to save the area, and during the race freshman Congressman and retired Marine Col. Paul Cook visited to lend support, but it's only just begun. Said Cole, "The Marine base is trying to take the land. They have six alternate-use plans, [including] one of no action, three that would meet their training needs without taking the land and one that wouldn't meet their training needs without taking the land. We don't know why, if they have three that could work without taking land, they want to take it. So we have to raise awareness, get media involved, and we had to get lobbyists – and they're $12k a month."

Before last year's race, Cole made the eyebrow-raising move of allowing all 50 entrants in the Last Chance Qualifiers to run the main race if they paid the $1,000 entry fee. He made $42,000 on the spot and gave it all to the effort to save the area for the public, but he said he wouldn't do it again. "We had low turnout in the other qualifier races [throughout the year] because of what we did with LCQ – guys saying 'Why should I do the work to qualify when I can just get to LCQ and they'll let me in anyway?' It's a business decision."

Asked what people should know about the effort, Cole tells Autoblog, "Come out here. Even if you don't come to the race, help us hold on to the greatest place on Earth and enjoy the best open area this country has to offer."

IFS vs. Solid Front Axle, And Parity

Like Camaro vs. Mustang at the back, one of the hot divisions concerning Ultra4 Racing rigs is who's got an independent front suspension (IFS) or a solid front axle (SFA). Since King of the Hammers and Ultra4 developed from rock crawling, SFAs are the norm and IFS guys are still rare, many of them coming from desert racing where they're used to working with IFS on their trophy trucks. Said BJ Baldwin, the championship trophy truck driver and winner of the Baja 500 and Baja 1000 who drove an SFA rig in his first KOH, "I can carry my suspension parts from my trophy truck in my hand they're so light. The front axle on the car I'm driving is 550 pounds – and with so much unsprung weight I'm just trying to get the shocks to work like I like."

The IFS guys are fast in the desert, but the SFA guys don't think its ready for the abuse of rock crawling. Said Derek West, "This is not an IFS race. In the desert they're gonna kill it, that's where it will do its job. But these guys with IFS cars, they can't hold up, their wheels won't hold up. And they build wide and long – I'm at a 103-inch wheelbase for this, lots of IFS cars have 118 inches and they're a foot wider. That just puts a bigger bullseye on the belly pan."

Seven of the top ten on the starting grid were IFS rigs because they're so fast on the sand and usually run by top drivers, but the race was won by an SFA rig. Shannon Campbell, however, who's won the race twice, drove an IFS rig for the first time and came in second.

Another great thing about the Griffin King of the Hammers and the series is that the 'little' guy is still in it with a chance because more money won't get you the trophy. Baldwin said, "They don't have the technology of trophy trucks, but I'm not sure it would matter." Money alone won't get you the trophy. Randy Slawson is a local Southern Californian who built his own rig, and he won the race. Yes, he's with Bomber Fabrication, a company that builds rigs, but he's not Rich Racer Guy. Derek West said his rig cost about $85,000, and while he's sponsored by various aftermarket companies, he works a 9-to-5 job during the week in Missouri. He qualified tenth and finished sixth. Last year, he was fourth, two years before that he was third. As we were told several times, even with truly unlimited racing – you can build any kind of rig you want – "You can't buy this race."

The Audi Allroad

We drove from our home base in Los Angeles to the event in an Audi Allroad. We were genuinely pleased to learn of the reintroduction of the A4-based Allroad to the Audi lineup after the first generation wagon disappeared – this, even though it doesn't have a manual transmission and a diesel, which is what auto writers seem biologically programmed to go nuts for. We'll have more to say about it a little later, but we absolutely love almost everything about it. Knocks on it are the 211-horsepower 2.0-liter turbocharged engine, which could use a few more ponies, the twitchiness of the throttle and brakes, which makes things a little jumpy until you learn how to be smooth, and the navigation system, which regularly laid out some routes we could only describe as "crazy."

But it's got all that Audi goodness we've come to expect; it handled the sandy, rutted lake bed with no problem; the panoramic roof keeps the interior from becoming stern; there's plenty of place for gear and the ride is phenomenal – the air suspension acts like reform school on bad roads. And after three days parked outside the KOH central compound, we returned to discover that someone else appreciated the car, too, having written in the dust on the hood, "KOH is awesome, nice car BTW." Agreed on both counts.

The Magic Bush

Unless you have Verizon, which we don't, there's essentially no cellphone service on the Means Dry Lake Bed. People talk about reception spots like they're El Dorado, pointing out these sphincters of radio-wave goodness that occasionally open up and deposit a bar or two of usable reception, but there was only one that ever worked for us: The Magic Bush.

On an out-of-the-way stretch between base camp and the Chocolate Thunder rock trail, it took some work to find it and we don't know if we could do it when the lake bed is empty since it looks like a million other bushes. Frankly, it looks more like a crop of dead sticks that used to be a bush a long time ago, but it was magical and completely reliable. Get within 100 feet of it you get 5 bars of 4G service. Go 101 feet away and you get zilch. Praise be to The Magic Bush.

Waiting For The Spell To Break

As we said in Part One, race owner and organizer Dave Cole set the template for everyone we met the entire four days we were there: the nicest bunch of folks you'd ever want to be around. We kept waiting for the spell to break, but it never happened. They know the reputation they have – "Once people hear 'rock crawler' they think it's just a bunch of hillbillies with a big plug of tobacco and a Jeep" is a line we heard almost every day we were there. We don't care what you call them, though – as far as our experience goes, the Ultra4 community is simply terrific.

There are no VIP tents, no ropes, no sacred areas beyond anyone's own campground.

The sense of community extends to the racing, as well. We can't remember ever having been at a race where the drivers had a professional's hunger to win, but once out of the cockpit they were just the guy or the gal chatting with you in line at one of the food trucks from Daddy's Famous Foods. There are no VIP tents, no ropes, no sacred areas beyond anyone's own campground. Drivers who had finished qualifying and the race came out to chat with the fans in front of the jumbotron, and congratulate other drivers who had finished. Slawson did donuts in the finish area before he crossed the line.

Even though the race is big time, it's small enough and still has just one man in charge – not an organizing body or a federation, so Cole can still bend the rules to allow extreme acts of kindness. Two experienced drivers with terminal brain cancer, both given less than a year to live, wanted to do this race – and finish if possible – before they died. Cole let them in without having to qualify. On race day, one of them was so sick he couldn't get out of his hotel room. The other, Eddie Petersen, was the last driver across the line in a time of 14 hours and 54 minutes, almost an hour beyond the official cutoff, but officially classified as a finisher. Everyone was ecstatic for him. When you can give a guy a check-mark on his bucket list when his time is almost out, well, who's going to complain about that?

Staying In The Georgetown, The Greatest RV There Ever Was

We stayed in an RV that had "Georgetown" written across its front, bivouacked with four rather fabulous blondes. It was probably the only RV on the lake bed that had Orange Blossom Honey French Liquid Soap, where every mention of edibles was followed by "It's organic," where we'd have roommates who'd constantly ask, "Anything I can get for you? Are you all right?," and where Stephanie whipped up ridiculously delicious food with nothing but two pans and a plastic spoon. On top of that, every evening at around 5 PM we could head to the "bar" and be served margaritas with fresh-squeezed limes. How did that happen? We have no idea and we didn't ask for any explanations, only more margaritas.

It was also the only RV where our biggest fear would have been, "Remember! Don't stink the place up with boy." I think we managed it. And if you haven't ever taken a shower in an RV, which is like taking a shower in a phone booth, but less roomy, then you gotta do it. It's the greatest thing ever.

And when we weren't there or goggled up in the dust, we were in the Red Bull Media Tent, presided over by Super Mario. He – Super Mario – takes care of the Red Bull athletes when they're at events and he treated us almost like one, letting us set up in the plush confines of the hauler instead of the drafty canvas yurt that was the tent proper. And when we needed a taxi, he was always there with a UTV and a helmet, ready to roll. It was all kinds of awesome.

That's our full report from our first Griffin King of the Hammers. We have a feeling we'll find ourselves on that lake bed again when the Ultra4 Racing drums start beating. Or when the zombies come.

By Jonathon Ramsey

See also: Audi's next-gen "matrix beam lighting system" under threat from Washington, Consumer Reports selling its road-tested roadsters [w/video], Audi prices 2014 A8L TDI from $82,500*.