By Joseph “Joey D.” DiGiovanni // UTVUnderground.com
Johnson Valley, CA once again played host to the largest off-road rock racing event in the world, The Pit Bull Tires King Of The Hammers. Held on February 10th of this year, UTVs from all around the United States showed up to do battle on what would be one of the most challenging courses ever laid out for a UTV race. For months prior to the event, race organizer Jeff Knoll along with Kawasaki’s Reid Nordine were working feverishly on laying out a course that would provide for the type of event that King Of The Hammers (KOH) is now known for; challenging, fast, and fun. This was year 3 for the KOH UTV race. The first year was a very hard course with a high attrition rate, so for year 2 the course was made to be a bit more forgiving. It was then that competitors voiced that it wasn’t challenging enough. So this year was about finding a common medium that would give all vehicles opportunity to finish, at the same time make it difficult enough that competitors were truly experiencing what King Of The Hammers is all about. So this year after multiple trips to Johnson Valley’s “Hammers” by Jeff and Reid, a course was decided upon that would provide for everything KOH embodies. The course would now include two very challenging rock trails dubbed ELVIS and AFTERSHOCK. Both trails include large rugged rock sections that force driver and co-driver to work in unison to ensure proper line selection, otherwise your race could end in a heartbeat, and many competitors’ races did end on these rock trails. To go along with these challenging rock sections there was also high-speed desert racing sections that would include sandy washes and long fast “whooped out” roads that would lend themselves to the long travel and high HP UTVs. Sandy hills and lots of rocks make this race the most diverse and challenging UTV course most have ever seen. Throw in the changing of weather from freezing cold in the morning to burning hot in the afternoon and you are faced with a challenge that most are unwilling to take on.
Eighteen competitors would line up this year to challenge the “Hammers,” themselves, and their machines. All UTV makes and models would be on hand from Yamaha Rhinos, Polaris RZRs, Kawasaki Teryxes, and Arctic Cat Prowlers. What makes this event so genuine and unique is its open class format, allowing all UTVs to compete against each other no matter what CC displacement you have or how wide or narrow your UTV is; all UTVs run together in one class. Rules do require that engines must be a UTV factory-based engine and must not be larger than 1000cc. This year the rules were adapted to allow for Rotax or Brute Force swapped Rhinos. No street bike engine powered UTVs would be allowed. Other rules for the UTV class include that you must have proper safety riding gear, including approved helmets, gloves, and fire suits. Each UTV must pass a tech inspection, as is the case in most sanctioned off-road race events. At tech, your chassis and safety equipment is inspected to ensure that it is safe and proper to compete in. This process was smooth and organized and was held in the middle of Hammer Town, which allowed racers and fans to intermingle while checking out all the different race vehicles. This gave us an opportunity to meet and see all the racers and their machines, giving us our first look at the field of competitors.
Walking down the start line the morning of the race, a few machines really stood out and it was obvious these machines were purpose built to compete in an event like the KOH. Jon Crowley brought back his Crowley Offroad / Monster Energy Kawasaki Teryx this year that packed the most punch of any UTV that would line up. Jon’s Teryx is truly rock crawler inspired. It sports a boat sided chassis, bobbed rear tail and kicker panels made of see-through Plexiglass. Throw in Jon’s new 1000cc Muzzy’s Kawasaki V-Twin and you can see why I say Crowley’s UTV packs a punch! But Jon wasn’t the only Teryx turning heads. His Monster Energy Kawasaki teammate Casey Currie also arrived in a Teryx that is purpose built for the KOH event. His also sports a bobbed and boat sided chassis, except Currie’s is powered by a Muzzy’s 916cc. Casey, who would be starting last, would need all the help his UTV could give him to muscle his way around the other 17 competitors. Not to be outdone in the custom UTV area of the race would be first-time KOH competitor Brett Carter, who would show up with a Teryx of his own that would give a look into the future of UTVs. This Teryx resembled a mini rock crawler buggy. Its design would incorporate large King Air Shocks, tall 30” tires, and custom suspension hand made by Brett himself. For that matter, the entire car was built by Brett from start to finish, which always gives someone added credibility, especially in the rock crawling world of off road. It truly is an amazing UTV that is full of creative wisdom and purposeful concept. Amongst the lineup of fierce Kawasaki Teryxes was also a solid lineup of custom Polaris RZRs. Two-time KOH winner Mitch Guthrie would be back to compete for his 3rd consecutive Hammers win in his Polaris RZR, equipped with Walker Evans Shocks and XMF Long Travel Suspension. Mitch is arguably the best rock racer competing in this event, and his two- time winning status proves that. His machine is without a doubt a capable one, but is also very simple in design which in the past has proven to be successful. Returning runners-up from 2010 Justin Schueler of Jagged-X was back at KOH in a new Polaris RZR XP900. The XP900 was certainly a favorite to win. Jagged, other than installing some doors, harnesses, and a set of Elka shocks, kept the XP900 fairly stock. I think everyone in the UTV world was curious as to how a stock XP900 would match up against a field of built UTVs. Brian Bush showed up in another KOH first. Brian brought out his desert race inspired Rotax powered Yamaha Rhino. The BRP / Can-Am Rotax engines have become a solid alternative to putting your Rhino out to pasture. The V-Twin 800cc Rotax engine, along with a Rotax-Your-Rhino engine mounting kit which Brian makes and sells, gives you the ability to easily convert your single cylinder Rhino into a dual cylinder V-Twin beast! His Rotax Rhino would prove to be a worthy opponent for the others in the UTV race. Its power coupled with Brian’s LSR Long Travel suspension and chassis had a solid chance for a strong finish, and it produced!
The start line was abuzz on race day. Eighteen UTVs staged, engines thumping, cold air mixing with the warming sun rising over the mountains surrounding Johnson Valley, and adrenaline flowing throughout all involved in the race. Race vehicles would be let off the start line in 30-second increments. The #17 Arctic Cat Prowler of Buzz Bronsma was the first UTV off the line. As the other UTVs began to leave the line, the dust began to rise throughout the valley. Dust is always a variable in off-road racing that you must embrace if you want to win. You don’t have to like the dust, but you have to respect it. I once heard that the single variable that separates a good off-road racer from a great off-road racer is one’s ability to drive in the dust. And while this race regularly spreads out and opens up, if you want to pass early on you must be able to drive through the dust. Fourth off the line was Jon Crowley, and he quickly began to pick off the UTVs in front of him. Crowley by race mile 5 would gain the lead, but before he could really begin to find his groove as the leader in clean air an upper shock tower would shear off, ending his day much too early. Jon wouldn’t be the only competitor to break and DNF; many in the field would fall victim to an assortment of mechanical problems. Casey Currie would break a component in his suspension which would cost him time. Once he got going, he would find himself stuck in a bottleneck coming down ELVIS where competitors Nolan Remlinger and Mark Turner would be hung up and battling their own mechanical issues, all while trying to navigate the toughest rock section on the course. Turner and Currie would make their way around the rest of the course, but Remlinger would have to call in for a trailer, as every single axle on the car would eventually be broken.
While the middle of the pack was busy trying to overcome issues of mechanical and competitive challenges, the front running UTVs of back-to-back KOH winner Mitch Guthrie and Jagged-X’s Justin Schueler were dicing up front. Mitch and his RZR were showing Justin and his XP900 that power isn’t everything in a race where driver skill is also a necessity. While the XP900 of Schueler had its advantage in the fast desert sections, by the time they got back into the rocks Guthrie was knocking on the door and in many cases passing for the lead. While we would love to tell each and every story that occurred during the hours of racing, it just wouldn’t be possible. So much happened, many individual battles were waged, and in the end only a few that would start would actually make it across the finish line and in one piece. In the end it would be Jagged-X and Brandon Schueler taking their first win at the King Of The Hammers in their new factory Polaris RZR XP900. Back-to-back winner Mitch Guthrie would finish a very respectable 2nd in his Polaris RZR, and Brian Bush in his Rotax Rhino would round out the podium taking home a solid 3rd place finish. The 2011 Pit Bull Tires King Of The Hammers race went off again without a hitch and provided once again a solid event for which UTV racers could challenge themselves and their machines in a format unlike any other in the world.
As we look back on the event, it’s impossible to not look forward. The date for next year’s race is set for February 9, 2012. And while we are confident the race will happen again and in a big way as usual, we in the Southern California off road community are fearful that we may lose the Johnson Valley Hammers off-road area to government expansion. The military wants to expand their nearby base, and while we understand the need for military training and areas for exercise, we also know that our way of life is being affected by the loss of off-road lands. So do your part and educate yourself on public land use issues, look at joining organizations such as the Blue Ribbon Coalition or the newly organized International SideXSide Association (ISA) who have organized to help protect our rights as off-road enthusiasts. With that all said, we look forward to seeing all of our friends again next year at the King Of The Hammers!
Top 6 Finishers:
1st Place – Brandon Schueler – Jagged X – Polaris RZR XP 900
2nd Place – Mitch Guthrie – Guthrie Racing – Polaris RZR
3rd Place – Brian Bush – Rotax Your Rhino – Rotax Rhino
4th Place – Damon Cardone – HCR Racing – Polaris RZR
5th Place – Joanne Gonzales & Brittney Cardone – HCR Racing – Polaris RZR (First all women team)
6th Place – Brett & Katie Carter – Kawasaki Teryx