Optima Batteries King of the Hammers 2021presented by Lasernut
Text: Robb Pritchard
Images: Redline Projects, Nicole Dreon, High Rev, Regine Trias, Eddie Martinez
For the 2021 edition of the world’s toughest one-day off-road race, the first victory was getting the massive 9-day event to run at all. Most major sporting events worldwide have been shut down, so one can only imagine the behind-the-scenes wrangling with licensing authorities necessary to allow the event to happen. But then, the very existence of KOH and its attendant international championships is a testament to Dave Cole’s concept of impossible.
For 13 of the past 14 editions, the winners could be counted on the fingers of one hand with a pair of triple winners and a couple of double ones. Last year, Josh Blyler came and upset the apple cart, but as ever, the pre-race talk was on the new guns versus the established old-guard, as well as the familiar solid-axle versus IFS debate. A few cars even had IFS and IRS, notably the fleet of Gomez brother’s UFOs and Cameron Steele’s Lasernut car. The infamous Hammer trails are simply far too tough to make accurate predictions, though.
After the T1 race (the same awesome Trophy Trucks that take on the Baja 1000), Motos, UTV, Shootout, and the Everyman Challenge for slightly lesser spec cars, it was time for qualifying. Demonstrating the field’s quality, it was extremely tight, with the top four separated by less than a second and just over 10 seconds separating one from 30! In his Joe Thompson-built UFO, JP Gomez started on the pole; his race plan consisted of blasting off into the distance to let everyone fight for the lower positions behind him. Jason Scherer, starting alongside, had a different idea, though.
For many years Ultra4 racing has expanded its own universe, finally bringing the brutal race to mainstream attention; two former Kings – Scherer and Loren Healy, ran cars draped with Ford Bronco ‘style’ bodywork and branding and powered by factory-supported Ford engines. It shouldn’t be underestimated how big of a deal this is for the future.
A very healthy field of 84 Unlimited 4400 cars lined up at the start of the 190-mile course. Darien Gomez, one of the popular quartet of Gomez brothers, did better than he managed last year by getting further than the first corner. And no, you weren’t seeing things, there really were a brace of Can-Am SXSs in the mix off the start line.
As has become the feature for the past few years, a long, wide-open desert loop up to the exposed rocks of Cougar Buttes was intended to open the field up before funneling them into two laps of the famous Hammer trails. Scherer, one of the only three-time winners (along with Shannon Campbell), didn’t allow JP Gomez to pull out a lead.
More known for his Trophy Truck desert racing exploits, including winning the Baja 1000, Cameron Steele wasn’t far behind in his full independent suspension Lasernut car, impressively keeping ahead of Healy, another big KOH name. Up with them was another fan favorite, Tom Wayes. Wayes is always blindingly fast and just short of being a winner… remember him a few years ago skidding across the line after doing the last few miles with a missing front tire? He was busily muscling his way to the front. Wayes had been on a few predicted winners list.
Some top runners were instantly down the field, though, Dave Cole’s son Bailey and double winner Randy Slawson among them, they both elected to do the required negotiation of the 8 foot tall cliff of Backdoor on their first lap. It put them back in the pack for the first loop but mitigated the risk of finding others clogging up the trail later on. Slawson was on a mission through the rest of the loop, bumping slower drivers out of his way on his way back up the leaderboard.
Somehow, defying several physics laws, the diminutive Can-Am’s of Hunter Miller and Kyle Chaney, more usually found in the UTV race, were keeping up with the leaders!
Back in the main pits after the end of the first loop, Scherer had his Bronco body panels pulled off to help with cooling. JP Gomez beat Scherer out of the pits to take a short-lived lead before heading off to get Backdoor out of the way. But racing a single-seater, getting himself winched up took some time, and when Steele pulled up behind, he could do nothing except park and wait. Scherer skipped it once more and opened a significant lead in fresh air.
A little behind, Bailey Cole, in only his second try at the Hammers in a full 4400 car, was running in 12th place on the road but looked to be right in the hunt on corrected time. The first big name to fall was Wayes, out after a heavy roll on the Backdoor bypass route. Both Raul Gomez and Steele stopped to assist, but the Ironman, later diagnosed with concussion, told them to keep racing. Wayes co-driver, James Schofield, sustained more extensive injuries but is recovering nicely at home. Another big name disappointment was Healy, who spent a long time fixing a driveshaft in Spooners, one of the first trails of the second loop. He would have to replace a further three shafts before seeing the checkered flag!
Perennial underdogs Levi Shirley and Paul Horschel, opening lap hero of a few years ago, made their way up the early rock crawls, with the little Can-Am of Miller tagging along behind. At first glance, it seemed the big 4400 cars were lapping the two-cylinder SXS, but Miller was keeping up with the much bigger and more powerful vehicles. And in the rocks, even though on much smaller tires, it was assumed they would have an advantage with their smaller size and lightness. It was incredible publicity for the company to get around the opening desert loop in such a position, but surely they wouldn’t get much further.
Wayland Campbell, in an identical car to his well-known father, Shannon, had lost time at the first pit with a wheel that was hard to remove, but took off like he was on fire. Halfway around the first loop of rock trails had clawed himself up to second, where he began a glorious dice with Steele, swapping positions back and forth.
Through valleys with famous names such as Outer Limits and Chocolate Thunder, Scherer had pulled out a huge lead and was miles ahead, but on Jackhammer managed to pop both rear tires, and was only carrying a single spare. He nursed the car back to the remote pit without losing the lead, but that wasn’t the end of the issue.
Behind, some big names expected to feature at the end were conspicuous in their absence. Josh Blyler and Erik Miller, the 1-2 finishers of last year, were never in real contention. Shannon Campbell, another utterly tenacious driver never to be discounted, had to stop to change a flat on Bender Alley and found himself way back.
But the end of the second loop saw the complexion of the race completely change. From the extra drag of driving on the flat tires, Scherer ran out of fuel and had a long wait while his co-driver, Jason Berger, ran back to Hammertown to get a fuel can. And the same thing happened to Wayland. He lost more time but had a slightly easier recovery by getting a tow back to the pits.
This left Steele with a considerable lead. One of the nicest guys in the world of motorsports, Steele entered every race from the Motos, UTVs, T1s, etc., in 2020 and didn’t finish a single one, so for 2021, he wanted a nicer deal from Lady Luck.
Along with JP and Raul Gomez, Bailey Cole had emerged as a real contender. The organizer’s son winning KOH… some might claim nepotism, but Bailey has gotten where he is purely on his own merit. Father Dave is rightfully proud, but is open about not pulling any special deals for his son. Bailey came out of the second loop with only 2wd, but his team fixed the driveshaft incredibly fast and sent him out on his way.
But more sensational than anything happening with the top runners was that Chaney came out of the second loop in 5th place! In a car that was supposed to be two classes lower than the unlimited 4400 class! Taking a plastic picnic knife to a gunfight, the PR stunt had turned into an absolute sensation.
With the pendulum of advantage swinging all day, Cole got held up for about ten minutes in Outer Limits, letting both the Gomez brothers through, and while the leaders had several stuck and broken back-markers to find a way past, it seemed it could be Advantage: Gomez brothers, as the family had spent a lot of time training in the tougher trails, searching out alternative lines around the expected bottlenecks.
Slawson, clawing back ground after his first lap Backdoor detour, overtook Cole, but then it was a real traffic jam of champions at Sledgehammer. Raul Gomez gifted Steele, who’d already got through, a few minutes for free when his winch broke, necessitating his recovery, while JP, Shirley, Cole, and Slawson all had no choice but to queue up (im)patiently and wait for those ahead to sort themselves out.
Steele was a long way ahead but was having issues. The CV boot on the left front had broken, and the exposed mechanicals hadn’t survived Steele struggled down King’s Graveyard in three-wheel drive very slowly.
Slawson, who’d almost inverted his self-made Bomber in Sledgehammer, had got by JP Gomez, and now the advantage swung to him. Steele, an acknowledged master of desert racing, might be a competent driver in the rocks. Still, he is not the rock-donkey caliber of Slawson, a previous double winner and one of the original thirteen who took part in the very first race.
But in the end, it didn’t come down to a contest of driving skill as Steele’s day came to a heartbreaking end when the steering rack failed. It had been a performance he should be proud of, but if he had no bad luck he would have no luck at all. Lady Luck must have been watching the free live feed. No questions asked.
Randy skipped effortlessly through the spot Steele had struggled in for almost half an hour and was away. JP Gomez was in second, and drove over Steele’s car in his pursuit, but charge as he might through the last couple of trails and the desert run back to Hammertown, Slawson knew he could take it easy. Although he must have been nervous as a win was snatched from him here just last year when a transmission failure robbed him almost within sight of the finish.
Everyone else had major issues winching through Sledgehammer, and from then on, the positions were set for whoever got to that car park first.
Slawson, with cousin, Dustin Emick, beside him, duly crossed the line to be crowned the third triple King, chalking up another victory for Spidertrax solid axles in the process. “My year begins and ends in February. King of the Hammers is the only thing that I live, eat, breathe, sleep, and dream!”
JP Gomez came in just a few minutes behind, although that was even further when corrected-time was accounted for. Brother Raul took the last podium spot. Surviving a puncture while trying to navigate Steele’s stricken car and fainting from heatstroke, Cole came in 4th, the same as his first attempt last year.
Attrition was as high as usual with just 37 of the 84 starters making it back.