My perspective of the annual pilgrimage to Johnson Valley for the event known as King of the Hammers is a little bit different than most. Most visitors come by way of truck and trailer full of friends, hauling their off-road project build and a few cases of beer, ready to watch the toughest series of races in North America under the California sun. Spectators trickle in through out the week to watch the Can-Am UTV King of the Hammers, presented by HCR on Saturday, or the see the likes of Rob MacCachran and BJ Baldwin send their T1 class trucks through the dirt over 100 mph at the Toyo Desert Invitational, presented by Monster Energy. But Friday is the big day. An estimated 60,000 people make their way to Hammertown to witness the greatest off-road event in the USA. The Nitto King of the Hammers, powered by Optima Batteries.
My journey begins months in advance of KOH. As a photographer, usually around Thanksgiving I begin securing photo contracts, making sure my camera gear is in order, and book my rental vehicle, flight, and figure out where I’m going to stay. This year instead of sleeping in the back of a race trailer, or a rented Cruise America RV, my good friend Angel Maldonado from Seven Slot Media and I shared an Airbnb in nearby Landers California. Having an actual bed, and legitimate hot water is definitely something I can get used to out here. The real work begins once your tires hit Boone Road, and you lay your eyes on the omnipresent dust cloud hanging over the desert.
Fully decked out Broncos with King bypass shocks, RZRs hauling across the desert chop, an old Toyota Land Cruiser with full overlanding kit, it’s paradise for the off-road community. This year I was blessed with a 2 wheel drive Colorado for my rental, which may not be ideal for traversing the lakebed, but she did well enough to get me from Hammer Town, all the way out to Outer Limits and Spooners (Sorry rental company that begins with an H). One of the toughest parts about photographing a race like KOH is finding locations to get the most epic shots you can that aren’t completely over run with other members of the media, and having a capable vehicle and scouting ahead of time can make that task much easier. When you find your spot and see the racers coming towards you, the sun is cutting through the rocks and dust just right, they hit a jump and you fire off the perfect shot, there’s no better feeling in the world for a race photographer.
After spending most of the day out in the rocks and sand, it’s then time to head down to the media tent for a briefing of the next days events, plan out where you’re going to be, and begin the endless task of editing, sorting, and uploading photos from the day’s race. All to prepare for the main event. Friday’s 4400 class race, the big dogs. I had scouted out a few points I wanted to hit for the race, and Remote Pit 1 was first on the list. It’s just before race mile 16, and about 5 miles off the paved Old Woman Springs rd, down a dirt path covered in softball sized boulders. It’s a serious haul to get there from hammer town if you aren’t cooking across the desert in a UTV, but it’s a great location for photos. Mainly because you can shoot photos of the entire field before the Hammers starts eating cars up one by one.
Sitting waiting for the first cars to come, you can’t help but get butterflies. A wave of realization hits you, that you’re sitting in the Mojave desert shooting one of the most incredible races on earth, and it’s up to you to capture as much of the action that comes in front of your lens. Soon, you hear the distant thud of rotor blades cutting through the high desert air, a helicopter comes into view and you begin to hear the sound of a roaring V8 with the throttle wide open. The car passes through Remote Pit 1, and I turn the focus ring on my Nikon 200-500mm lens to see none other than Jason Scherer putting the hammer down screaming up the hill as he left the pits in a cloud of dust. A few minutes later I see one of my personal favorite drivers, Vaughn Gittin Jr. sending it across the desert in his Ford powered Jimmy’s 4×4 rig. I set my camera to Fire at 1/200th of a second, pan with the blue and black “Fun Haver” bronco, and fire a burst of shots. The sequence of photos captures the suspension loading under power just before cresting over a hill with the sun illuminating the dust coming off his Nitto tires. Jackpot!
Not long after the field of cars passes, I run to a rock pile behind me to the north at race mile 64 to get the cars after they pass through Cougar Buttes right before they re-enter Remote Pit 1. Car number 76 piloted by Scherer is still in the lead at this point, but not far behind is Loren Healy in the red and white “Fun Haver” bronco and the pair of Big B Motorsports straight axle Miller cars one right after another. After photographing the remaining cars that weren’t claimed by The Notches, i get back into my 2wd rental truck and begin to head towards the rocks. An hour and a half later, and after a terrifying drive through the dust cloud surrounding hammer town dodging dirt bikes, trucks, UTVs heading towards Chocolate Thunder, Backdoor, and every which way, I end up leaving my truck a mile south of race mile 132 because I don’t want to get the vehicle stuck beyond radio contact and end up in a real mess. As I descended into the canyon you hear the echoes of horsepower bouncing off the walls of the rocks and none other than the legend Shannon Campbell in the black IFS number 5 Monster car picking his way through the trail. It truly is a sight to behold, watching custom built machines crawling over rocks the size of volkswagens, while also still being able to hit speeds over 100 mph across the open lake bed.
This year Josh Blyler was crowned King after bringing the number 41 blue Big B Miller car across the finish line in 7 hours, 6 minutes, and 32.488 seconds. 212 miles, 1 desert loop, and 2 laps through some of the most treacherous trails on this continent. Out of 97 contenders, only 44 crossed the finish line further solidifying the significance of what it means to earn the title of King. Josh Blyler brought the title back to the East coast after a 4 year hiatus. Even after the last car passes under the Ford arch on it’s way to the finish line, my work is far from over. Editing photos, emails to race teams and parts companies, and hitting the road to get back home to a consistently strong WiFi signal in Buffalo NY. It’s one of the most difficult events to cover, and deliver media, but by far the most fun and memorable. Each year as soon as I return, I begin counting down the days to the next KOH, ready to get back into the dust and sun of Johnson Valley, California.
Words & Photos by Phil Casper