I Drove the Ultimate Off-Roader: KOH Race Machine Experience

70 views 9:47 pm 0 Comments January 11, 2024

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King of the Hammers vehicle experience

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(Photo/Bryon Dorr)

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No, the ultimate offroader isn’t a monster truck, Jeep, Land Rover, UTV, Unimog, or dirt bike. The ultimate offroader is an Ultra 4 Unlimited (4400 Class) race vehicle. And, I got the pleasant privilege and opportunity to drive one!

I was invited out to Johnson Valley, Calif., to experience the wide range of vehicles that compete at the annual King of the Hammers (KOH) races. I got rides in a custom prerunner, a race-prepped UTV, a 4800 Legends Class Ultra4, and even a brand-new Spec Trophy Truck. But, more importantly, I got behind the wheel of a rockcrawler, the first electric 4400 Class Ultra4 vehicle, and a 4400 Unlimited race machine.

This experience was all about bringing you a little taste of what KOH is all about, as it’s considered the gnarliest series of one-day off-road races on the planet.

Watch this video for all the action:

King of the Hammers

Dave Cole, a long-time off-road racer, won the 2006 Rock Crawling World Championships. The next year, he started King of the Hammers. The event grew from 12 racers in 2007, to 52 racers in 2008, and 1,062 racers in 2023.

King of the Hammers vehicle experience
Dave Cole, founder of KOH, has a passion for off-road racing; (photo/KOH)

“Great camping party with a race that breaks out.”

— Dave Cole

KOH consists of three weekends of racing. The first weekend is for the motos, with over 200 bikes taking on the dirt, sand, and massive rocks found in the Johnson Valley OHV area. The second weekend of KOH is a short course and wide-open desert racing. This weekend is where the Trophy Trucks shine.

The big show is the third weekend, where the desert is combined with the rocks and custom Ultra4 race cars of all shapes and sizes take on the unforgiving terrain. In the big races, there will be over 170 vehicles. All in, there are over 500 teams that now compete at KOH each year.

Most races consist of three laps through courses that change each year. The key is that each lap goes through Hammertown, the temporary city built in the middle of the desert each year for the event. This allows racers to get needed repairs — as no outside assistance is allowed when on course — and fuel from their main pit crews each lap, and for the 80,000-plus spectators on site to have a central place to party and take in the racing action.

King of the Hammers vehicle experience
I even got the chance to absorb some knowledge from seasoned veterans of KOH; (photo/KOH)

Winners will finish the final race of the event, the Race of Kings, in around 6 hours. Others will keep moving but not beat the 14-hour cutoff for the 240-ish mile course. But, the crazy thing is that the race has over a 70% attrition rate. Just finishing is a major accomplishment!

Co-Dawg Seat in KOH Race Vehicles

Prerunner Ride

King of the Hammers vehicle experience
Dave Cole’s personal prerunner. A very unique machine with insane capability; (photo/KOH)

First up for my KOH race vehicle experience was getting some right seat time in a wide range of crazy off-road machines.

This started with a spirited ride in Dave Cole’s prerunner. It started life as a rare Ford Centurion and is now a full-blown street-legal race-ready machine. It took 4 years to build, has 36 inches of rear suspension travel, seats four comfortably, and even has fridges as center armrests for all passengers. To say this machine boogies is a gross understatement!

“Everything we do is hot rod.”

— Dave Cole

Race UTV Ride

King of the Hammers vehicle experience
The Desert Assassins Alsup Racing Can-Am is a very capable little billy goat, and super fun in the wide open desert; (photo/Bryon Dorr)

UTVs come in many flavors, but the Desert Assassins Alsup racing-built Can-Am is a purpose-built machine for high-speed racing in the desert and in the rocks. It’s a small, nimble machine that offers impressive speeds across the desert while still being strong enough to bounce through the rocks. I was impressed by the versatility and durability of this machine, and by how fun it looked to drive.

While a stock Can-Am of this style will set you back around $30,000, a fully built race machine like this one will come in at over $150,000.

Interesting factoid: The Polaris RZR launched in 2007, the same year as King of the Hammers.

4800 Legends Ride

King of the Hammers vehicle experience
The stoke was high, even from the co-driver’s seat; (photo/KOH)

I also got to enjoy passenger seat time in some rock trails, including the famous Chocolate Thunder, in SoCalX‘s 4800 Legends class car. This Bomber Fabrication machine rolls on 37s and has single shocks at each corner — both are max for the rules in the class. It also puts out over 600 ponies from its LS V8 motor.

King of the Hammers vehicle experience
4800 Class cars “only” have 37″ tires and single shocks at each corner, but they are still crazy capable; (photo/KOH)

It’s a driver’s car, and owner Josh Sowell, while a rookie for 2024, has some obvious skills behind the wheel. This machine far surpasses any type of relatable 4×4 that you might be familiar with. No, your built Jeep on 37s can not do what this machine can, not in the rocks and not through the whoops in the desert at speed.

Ultra4 race vehicles like this Legends car are a great option to get into KOH racing, but even used don’t come cheap. Something like this will run you way north of $100,000 used, even for a vehicle with lots of race miles on it that needs some love.

6600 Spec Trophy Truck Ride

King of the Hammers vehicle experience
Lasernut’s brand-new Spec Trophy Truck is a quick and shiny machine; (photo/Bryon Dorr)

Trophy Trucks are just cool! These machines look like a pickup from a distance, but being a truck is only fiberglass skin deep. They are from the ground up custom-built race machines designed to go insanely fast across the desert.

I got to ride in Lasernut Racing‘s 6100 Spec Trophy Truck with Rodney Stoye. This shiny machine is brand new and hadn’t even been shock-tuned yet. It still drove smoothly over rough desert terrain, including 2-plus-foot deep whoops, at speeds over 80 mph.

Behind the Wheel of KOH Race Vehicles

Rockcrawler Drive

KOH rock crawler
Dave Cole gave me a ride in his personal rock crawler, and I also got a go behind the wheel; (photo/KOH)

The first drive for me at this event was a full-on rock crawler, called a “Trail Bomber.” This particular machine is Dave Cole’s personal toy. It is super simple and basic, but also super capable and really fun to drive. No, it’s not very quick or amazing in the open desert, but it is amazingly capable and durable in the rocks.

4400 Unlimited Class EV Drive

King of the Hammers vehicle experience
The first 4400 Class EV on the charger; (photo/KOH)

Next up for me to get behind the wheel was the first-ever all-electric Unlimited Class Ultra4 car. It’s the development car for a full Hypercraft drop-in EV powertrain for these types of off-road race vehicles, which you’ll be seeing in lots more vehicles soon. While the gearing isn’t really sorted out yet for high-speed runs in the desert — I maxed it out at 50 mph on the lakebed — it is phenomenal in the rocks. The instant torque is super easy to modulate.

King of the Hammers vehicle experience
I got to pilot the electric Ultra4 car up Chocolate Thunder; (photo/KOH)

This particular chassis had a blown motor, which led to the EV powertrain swap. Some will say the Hemi to EV swap is heresy, but I see it as a step into the future. It was a massive honor to get to pilot this machine up the Chocolate Thunder rock trail a few times, especially as this chassis has been driven by such automotive luminaries as Jessi Combs and Chris Harris.

4400 Unlimited Class Drive

King of the Hammers vehicle experience
Ultra4 cars offer up big horsepower, big tires, and big fun; (photo/KOH)

The crown jewel of my experience with the KOH team in Johnson Valley was nearly 2 hours behind the wheel of the SoCalX Motorsports Race Bomber 4400 car. Not only did I get to drive it across the desert to the summit of the tallest mountain in Johnson Valley to take in an epic sunset, but I also got the chance to drive it up the infamous Claw Hammer rock trail.

This beast has solid axles, multiple massive shocks at each corner, 40-inch tires, and a very healthy LS V8 powertrain. The LSX motor gulps fuel at about 3 mpg out of its 30-gallon fuel cell. New, a vehicle like this will set you back over a quarter-million dollars, but used examples can be had in the neighborhood of $150,000.

King of the Hammers vehicle experience
Way too serious a face for the fun I was about to have behind the wheel of a 4400 car; (photo/KOH)

The SoCalX 4400 car will race in the main event, the Race of Kings, this year. 4400 is the top class of racing at KOH and is a completely unlimited class. This particular car has won the event in the past but is unlikely to win this year. It will be driven by rookie KOH driver Josh Sowell, and there are some super crazy advanced builds with bigger motors, intelligent suspension, and IFS racing this year.

I found this mean beast of a race car to be relatively easy to drive. The biggest thing that takes time to calibrate your brain to is the hydraulic steering, as it doesn’t auto center and the steering wheel position has no relation to the direction the front wheels are pointed.

Because of the fluid going through the system, you actually have to shuffle the wheel through your hands to go in a straight line at speed across the open desert. Driving this machine smoothly and fast would take some serious practice! Mad respect for the KOH race drivers.

King of the Hammers vehicle experience
I got the chance to drive this SoCalX Motorsports 4400 Unlimited Class machine to the top of Johnson Valley’s highest peak; (photo/Bryon Dorr)

A huge thanks has to go out to Martin Castro, the SoCalX co-driver, who not only showed me what this vehicle could do from behind the wheel but talked me through driving it from the passenger seat. His deep knowledge and experience made my learning curve so much steeper than it would have been.

Experience KOH for Yourself

King of the Hammers vehicle experience
(Photo/KOH)

I’ve never been to King of the Hammers, but I have watched plenty of highlight reels and race coverage online. I’m itching to go, however, and with a $50 early entry fee, or $100 at the gate, for 3 weeks of racing, camping, and partying, it’s a value not to be missed. I hear there are even epic free concerts, with big bands like Sublime playing over the past few years.

If you can’t make it in person, KOH has a livestream that is top-notch. While upward of 80,000 people converge on Hammertown every year, another 2 million plus tune in online to see the action.

For this year, racing starts on January 20 and ends Feb. 3.

King of the Hammers vehicle experience
Fun group of media personalities taking in the sunset in Johnson Valley; (photo/KOH)

A special thanks have to go out to Kahn Media for the invite, KOH for the hospitality, and SoCalX for the 4400 seat time.

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Evolution of the Ultra4 Car

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(Photo/HeavyMetalConcepts)

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