Off-road racing. What comes to mind? Is it small Volkswagen beetles racing down in Mexico? Is it short course racing in clay at your local track? How about racing through rocks using cones as a course to map the trail? Whichever it is, King of Hammers isn’t your ordinary race.
Located in the heart of southern California, tucked away in Johnson Valley, King of the Hammers is a week-long event where the rubber leaves the road and the off-road burning man of racing begins. A city in the dust plume of a dry lakebed forms. A grid system of garages, shops, breweries, and live concert stages. This is what we call Hammer Town. Over 1,000 teams enter to be crowned for racing, only few will finish. The most grueling, hardest, single day race in the world, we are about to take you on a journey.
Prep: There’s a quiet race in the background before the green flag drops. There is hard work in building a machine to withstand the abuse of KOH. And it starts in the garage. For weeks, months, and some teams years, it’s a fight to get the car prepped and ready. For us, it’s two cars. Joe and John this year are battling it out in 4400 in true grit fashion as these grassroots racing boys’ team with Fire River Racing, using their Jimmy Chassis to wield the 4570 plate for Joe Gatlin to drive his first ever 4400 KOH. In Joe’s shop the 4415 Miller Motorsports chassis lies patiently for prep for what’s needed in anticipation for race day. Based out of Arizona, the team works days and nights with the Proving Grounds Racing crew, some from all over the country, to support the dream. Kevin and Sarah from Florida, Marvin Stammel with Flex Rocks & Rollover from Georgia, teammates from Cali, and so many more show up and support. Every component is gone through, checked, double checked, and rechecked for a perfect prep. It’s a mind game between logistics of prep, schedule, and race day. Packing up the shop we don’t forget anything… accounting for the unexpected need for a tool or spare part.
Prerun: Arriving on the lakebed in the brisk chill of the night is one of the most relaxing days we will have for the next 10 days. Setting up camp, home base, the common area for dinners and recreation, along with building out the shop with the two Proving Grounds Racing cars. There’s a laundry list of items to take care of before race day. From loading the course maps to marking the trails and course, to photo shoots, drivers’ meetings, schedules, partner appreciation dinners, and meetings, tech and contingency, qualifying, and so much more. Long days of working in the elements and the cold make having our meals provided by Matt Medina and the race kitchen a blessing in disguise. Eating amazing food and preparing meals for a crew of 15-20 is no easy task, especially in the middle of the desert. This year Dave Cole, the owner of King of Hammers threw a few new hard trails at us this year. These new trails we wanted to break down to a science to get our lines right for race day. While prerunning, Joe in the 4570 realized that something had gone wrong in the front end, enabling the rotation of the tire. After coming back to camp for further inspection the differential had chewed itself apart and the locker was toast. Nothing a quick trip to Vegas can’t solve! And not for gambling, but to Gear Works to put a spool in the front end of the car.
New Life to the 4570: We teased it, we shared it, and now it’s time to put in the work with the new 4570. Joe has been racing with PGR for a few years now and has been a pillar of the program in race tech, engineering, and the conceptual build of the 4415. Joe and Cody from Bandit Offroad are on a mission this season to make an impact with their new steed. The 4570 stems past John when the car raced under Proving Grounds in 2015. Jeremy Purick, owner of Rock Krawler, raced it years prior and handed down the 4570 number to PGR.
Pit Crew Challenge: The infamous pit crew challenge, presented by Pro Eagle, has been a KOH site to see as race teams of all styles compete for the win and be crowned fastest crew on the lakebed. First up were the UTVs, followed by the Class 11 bugs, then 4400 for the main event! When the brackets dwindled down it was the 4415 team with John, Marvin, and Kevin vs the 4570 team with Joe, Cody, and Robert. It was a site to see! These two teams fought tooth and nail with tricks and team efforts to surpass one another. The challenge is to fill a dump can of fuel, 11 gallons worth, then return back to the starting line to cycle, and changing a tire on the vehicle. Using the Pro Eagle Jacks and the Power Tanks for pneumatic air on the impact, the final challenge was on! There was pushing and shoving along with banter with laughter in the team, the hustle to win was on! Tension is high as the crowds cheer until a victor is had. The 4415 crew had won in the nick of time, sending the 4570 team into boos and woes as high fives soared in the air for the team. With grand prizes on the line from Pro Eagle, Power Tank, Boxo, Buggy Whips, and Switch Pros, it’s no wonder so many enter in to win the challenge.
Qualifying 4415: Marvin’s first sight of racing was the green flag dropping and the three rock canyons in quick motion. Straight axle territory! Fast into Chocolate Thunder we hit the rocks and guided our way through. Fast into the turns on a mission for good time, the Miller Motorsports car dances flawlessly in the rocks with our Fox Shocks. Planted low taking the sand hill turns we kept speed and momentum powering through to the next track of downhill rocks keeping on pace for a starting position in the front of the pack. Marvin called out the line as we landed in the 25th position for race day. With over 100 cars qualifying for position, we set a good pace for ourselves to keep the dust and the traffic behind us come race day.
Qualifying 4570: Joe and Cody are in for a ride for the 4400 class in the Jimmy Chassis. The car sits high, clearing rocks below, but in the swift turns the suspension can get light when into the throttle. The boys preran the course and stuck to the line that they ran to keep consistent. Being late in the day with many cars qualifying before them, the course and boulders have moved all over the place. Picking up the pace to make up for lost time in the rocks, Joe kept the petal to the metal through the track, keeping the car smooth with a clean run. Taking the checker, Joe qualified 74th in the pack.
Race Day: The air is crisp, calm, and cold. It’s 6:00am and the crew stirs, gathering pit trucks, Gearhead Coffee, breakfast and bagged lunches from the race kitchen, while others help warm the cars, and stage them on the line for the start of the Race of Kings. The drivers and co-drivers clear their minds for the long day ahead and the challenges to come. Race fuel fills the air and more cars stage and fall into line. Lined up behind Tom Wayes, an iconic Ultra4 driver, the feeling is surreal. We are in the big show and it’s time to hammer down. Visors down, we are paired two at the line, taking off every 60 seconds. Over the radio Marvin chimes, “4415 off the line, it’s go time!”
Chasing into the dust with 24 cars in front we needed to be smart and fast. Bombing through the desert we found ourselves in a battle with Randy Slawson as we picked off a car at a time in unison as we approached pit 1. With a splash of fuel we were back in it, chasing down the dust when a loud crash came from the car. We had just lost front wheel drive. Pulling over, Marvin and John hopped out to take a better look. Both front and rear Tom Wood's Drive Shafts were intact and sound on the car. No leaks and nothing appeared to be broken. The thought was that something in the transfer case has let loose limiting us to 2WD. Getting back into the game we carried on in the desert in two wheel drive keeping pace, knowing we needed pit support at Main Pit with BFGoodrich for a t-case swap we called out the support we needed on our Rugged Radios as we got closer. 10 miles out the car started to shake in vibration. Reaching the large sand hill we were in no shape to get up in 2 wheel drive. As Joe Battled the pack of cars behind us, we waited at the bottom of the hill with our Factor 55 recovery strap ready to be pulled up the hill. With 2WD and Joe’s Jimmy chassis giving it all it’s got, we weren’t making progress up this hill.
Backing down and letting Joe continue on was all that was left we could do. We needed to fix the root cause of the car. Getting to a safe spot with Marvin outside the car guiding. We went to work unbolting the skid plates to see what damage had been done. The moment the skid plate fell, pieces of t-case, trans, and the carrier bearing all dropped to the ground. Ripping out the mount for the carrier bearing, the intermediate driveshaft has split into two pieces and made a disaster of things on the drivetrain. Looking at the components that have failed, and damaged components that were needed, reality set in for the 4415 pilots of their day ending short. The spare T-case that was brought was not a direct fit for the car, and the output flanges were not compatible. Another carrier bearing assembly was needed and that too was not part of the spare arsenal. Short coursing the sand hill into Turkey Claw would disqualify the car. Calling it over the radio, the 4415’s day was done.
“The Joe must go on!” said Marvin as the #4415 limped back to the main PGR garage. As we quickly switched gears to support our teammates still in the race, we map the #4570 car on course and support the pits as they continue their journey. As they catch themselves in a traffic jam going up Jackhammer, Joe and Cody do everything they can to get the broken car off of the course line to get around. From winching, to pulling out with straps, to ramming the car for momentum. This cumbersome task was an eventful 2.5 hours stuck due to broken vehicles on course. Barely sneaking by with Joe piloting the #4570 the passenger side kisses the dirt as Joe steers around the carnage and rocks to maneuver around the damaged car, now an integral part of the course itself. Heading into Pit 2 for fuel and a once over on the car the team sets in for the last portion of lap 2. Making their way through the desert Joe brings the #4570 back into the Main Pit for fuel and a brief update for the car. Joe mentioned he can feel a vibration on the car and that traffic in the rocks has been tough all day. Inspecting the drivetrain the crew in the BFGoodrich Hot Pits signal clear for Joe to take back off into the final lap.
Lap 3 differs from the previous 2. There are more rock trails, and longer miles ahead for the #4570. It’s 4:00pm in the afternoon, fatigue starts to settle in as the sun beats down and the drowning out of the exhaust hums over the comms through the canyons. Sweeping past the team at pit 2, the boys were an hour in and had 9 rock canyons to go. With the sun setting, over the radio we heard there was a break at the top of a ridge that Cody was inspecting. 2.5 miles from remote pit 2, Cody made the call to hike for parts and a new driveshaft and bolts. The clock was ticking. Cody returned back to the car and Joe helped get the driveshaft squared away, and the boys were back! Making their way through Z Turn, and Blue Dot, Thor’s Hammer, and then Kings Vito, these were the new harder trails that only lap 3 consisted of in addition to the rocks from lap 2.
Inside the canyon of Kings Vito are large boulders and scattered rocks and sand making passage not an easy feat. With Cody out spotting and using the Warn Winch and Factor 55’s Hammer Loop, the #4570 crawled their way through the agonizing canyon. Not only were they battling man vs machine, but traffic here too in this canyon made the challenge that much more difficult. Nearing the completion of the trail Joe and Cody discussed the next plan for what was next on the map, showing the time frame that was left for a finish, their window was closing quickly. Upon arriving back at pit 2, with the challenge of time against them, and fatigue on the car, Joe radios that they will be timing out before further damage to the car happens or they stuck in a canyon into the middle of the night.
The team gave it their all this year. From a rollercoaster of emotions of highs and lows. From winning the Pit Crew Challenge to having great qualifying runs, the team was in high spirits all week. It was great to partner with Fire River Racing with the use of their Jimmy’s Chassis for the event, bringing a bigger picture to Proving Grounds Racing for 2023. We are excited for what’s to come. Our partners have made for an exciting journey this season with racing and adventures. A huge thank you to Summit Racing Equipment for supplying everything under the sun for our racing team! Our 4415 was built around Summit Racing’s inventory back in 2020 and still today we prep with the best, from Summit Racing. Neither car has a flat tire thanks to BFGoodrich. Our Dirty Life Race Wheels took a beating but held up to the toughest elements we can throw at it.
Stay on pace with us as we continue the 2023 quest and racing series! Our adventures this year will be on and off the track. Coming to a city near you! Follow along as the team adventures the season in off road dirt therapy fashion!