King of the Hammers Is Underway: Here's How It Started and Where It's Going

Imagine a desert landscape that was used as a training ground for the U.S. military during WWII. Once the war ended, Johnson Valley would be cleared of munitions, shut down, and lay unclaimed until around 1993, when Victor Valley Four-Wheelers would organize the first rock crawling event out of Sledgehammer Canyon. Today, or 30 years later, King of the Hammers is in full swing.
KOH Event 24 photos
Photo: King of the Hammers / Facebook
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Yes, folks, King of the Hammers (KOH) is currently kicking up dust in the middle of the Mojave Desert. If you have any idea of what I'm talking about, then you probably have a very close connection to rock crawling, off-road racing, and a mouth full of dust. If you've never heard of KOH, then this little article should help you get in touch with a yearly event held in the Mojave Desert.

Now, back in 1993, the Sledgehammer event was known to just a handful of people that were literally invited in person to attend; some didn't even show up. But, once the fun was over, news began to spread, and before long, the following years would once again find folks trying to claim the title of top off-roading dog. These days, over 530 teams, 80,000 fans, and around two million online viewers are involved in KOH. Quite the growth if you ask me.

However, KOH's progression has had some rather neat effects on car culture as a whole. When everything started, people were just out there with Jeeps, motorcycles, and other machines we're used to riding in the desert. Yet, as time went on, the event grew, and with that, the heat of the competition too. Simply put, folks were building faster and more capable machines year after year. The result? An entirely new breed of off-roading vehicles, the Ultra4 car.

Yes, people, an event transformed into an entire industry. These days, countless companies and factories engineer and build components to be used in nothing more than these vehicles alone. Why this happened is rather simple; the desert is an unforgiving landscape, and if you want to conquer it, you need to, well, just keep reading.

KOH Ultra4 Car \(Independent Axle\)
Photo: King of the Hammers / Facebook
Imagine that you're on the outskirt of town with nothing more than your truck. Now take that truck and start flooring it through sand, up hills, over cracked earth, and over monstrous rocks. Clearly, there are limits, and as KOH continued to grow and advance, teams hit all sorts of obstacles that clearly need to be dominated, either during that day or, worst-case scenario, the following year. Considering that the 165-mile (266-kilometer) race needs to be completed in under 14 hours and consists of the above-mentioned obstacles, you can understand why a different type of vehicle is required.

From highly tuned suspensions and motors to redefined roll cages and seating arrangements, each Ultra4 car is custom designed by teams working out of their garages or with the help of companies with an interest in this event. Considering Ultra4 races are held in the U.S., Europe, New Zealand, and Australia, there seems to be some money in this culture.

The result is a machine that can achieve speeds of over 100 mph (161 kph) – to be accessed on straightaways and sandy strips – is clearly AWD and includes suspensions tuned to such an extent that they define the phrase "rock crawling." To fully grasp what these babies can do, take a look at the videos below, and all shall be explained. If you want to dive deeper, there's an entire series of videos with the KOH and the Ultra4 car's progression through the years. Just be warned, there is a bug, and it does bite.

KOH Ultra4 Car \(Independent Axle\)
Photo: King of the Hammers / Facebook
If you do happen to be bitten by the KOH bug, there are a couple of other things you need to know, and one is that this event is held over two weeks. Since it's in the middle of the desert, the organizers behind it all take things to the next level and craft a little town where everyone can access all the amenities needed for a clean and safe lifestyle. You can even have items delivered to you by parcel services and Wi-Fi too; none of that hippy festival chaos some people like to be a part of.

As for this year's event, it's already underway – it began January 26, 2023 – and will continue until February 11, 2023. Sure, moto events and other vehicles make up the first few days of the event, but during the last week, folks unleash their caged monsters, and sponsors are there to keep an eye on the action.

But where does that leave the rest of us? Well, my own experiences out in the desert have never reached this level, but I love the feel of tires sliding around in the sand, my head being thrown around like a rag doll, and smiling with dirt and grit in my teeth. So, all I can do this year is enjoy the event via live streaming and other sources for the action, and if you, too, missed your chance this year, just prepare for next year or any other upcoming occasion. Wondering if such races are worth the effort? According to a KOH-affiliated website, U.S. races alone have $815,000 in prize money up for grabs just this year. Sounds like this community is just going to keep growing, and with good reason.

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About the author: Cristian Curmei
Cristian Curmei profile photo

A bit of a nomad at heart (being born in Europe and raised in several places in the USA), Cristian is enamored with travel trailers, campers and bikes. He also tests and writes about urban means of transportation like scooters, mopeds and e-bikes (when he's not busy hosting our video stories and guides).
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