The 2021 edition of the Optima Batteries King of the Hammers presented by Lasernut in Johnson Valley will be one for the books. The Covid pandemic raging, Ultra4 racing officials, and those from local, state, and federal agencies came together. A plan was devised and the race went on. Yet, there was so much more.
NEW YEAR, NEW FORMAT
King of the Hammers week was expanded this year. The T1 trucks ran days before the main race. Electric vehicles entered, ran, and finished. Class 11, the infamous desert class of VW bugs ran on the short course and was a fan favorite. On top of all of this, the main event, the 4400 race was moved from Friday to Saturday.
During the week, Loren Healy, Jason Scherer, and Vaughn Gittin, JR unveiled Ford Bronco bodies for their 4400 cars. Ford also introduced the world to a production 4600 Ford Bronco that will be raced later on in the season by Bailey Cole, Brad Lovell, and Team Fun Haver.
During the run-up to the event, there was great apprehension that the event would be shutdown. Some media outlets ran hit pieces disparaging the event. All in all, the event showed what America is all about. There were 445 race entries across all races with 389 unique drivers entered.
TIME FOR THE MAIN EVENT
The exclamation point on Saturday, the 4400 race was held. Qualifications for this race was held on Wednesday the 3rd. JP Gomez, driving a UFO car built by Joe Thompson took the pole. Next to him was 3-time winner Jason Scherer in his Ford-powered machine. Bryan Crofts, Cameron Steele, Brian Caprara, Wayland Campbell, Loren Healy, Paul Horschel, Raul Gomez, and Tom Wayes rounded out the Top 10. 2020 Winner Josh Blyer went off the line in 17th. KOH legend Shannon Campbell took 13th.
Even though the race was on Saturday, it stayed true to its 8 am start time. The lead cars quickly left everyone in the dust. Early on though, Crofts fell victim to a faulty tire and had to replace it.
Off the start, Bailey Cole and Randy Slawson decided to run Backdoor while the rest of the front runners elected to run it later on in the race. Jason Scherer was able to get out in front of the pack to take the lead during Lap 1. JP Gomez gave chase.
THREE-TIME WINNER TAKES THE LEAD
Jason Scherer came back into Hammertown at 1:32 with JP right behind. Both cars pitted. Scherer’s crew ripped off some of the Bronco body panels. JP was able to get out in front of Scherer. They both left town within seconds of each other. Cameron Steele also came in. When the times were set, Scherer had first, with Steele in second and JP in third with 30 seconds difference between 1st and 3rd. Healy and Wayes rounded out the Top 5 to complete Lap 1.
The desert would start laying claim to cars on Lap 2. Two-time winner Healy would have an extended stop in Spooners. Race leader Scherer would lose two tires. Once he found some flat ground, he stopped and changed out the left rear, leaving the right rear flat on. Tom Wayes would check out of the race due to a crash.
LAP 2 STARTS TAKING PRISONERS
Gremlins would soon catch up to Scherer as he pulled off to the side out of fuel, allowing Steele to pass. Steele would bring the Armada/Lasernut car into Hammertown to complete Lap 2. They would pit for fuel and take off completing the lap in 2 hours and 16 minutes.
Bailey Cole was the third racer to hit Hammertown. He would have to do an extended pit stop to replace a driveline. Wayland Campbell would also run out of fuel. Levi Shirley was fourth across the line. A quick pit stop for tires and fuel and the Dodge City, Kansas racer was back out for his 3rd lap. Kyle Chaney in a Can-Am UTV would be physically 5th leaving out for his third lap. Pole sitter JP Gomez would soon enter, pit, and head back out to the desert. Jason Berger, Scherer’s codriver would run into Hammertown, get a can of fuel and run it back out to the car and they were underway.
The racers went back into the desert for the third and final lap. This time around, they would be facing some of the toughest obstacles that Johnson Valley has to offer. Cameron Steele continued making a great run.
A NEW TRAIL FOR A NEW YEAR
The third lap this year presented racers a new obstacle, King’s Graveyard. Narrow trail, huge rocks, deep holes. If nature did not have enough equalizers in its fight against man and machine, this new trail would be up to the task.
The first to enter King’s Graveyard was race leader Cameron Steele. In keeping with its name, the trail tried to claim Steele’s car in a hole. Wedged between large rocks, Steele’s co-driver Wayne Israelson got out and started hooking the winches up. It was at this point it was learned that Steele’s car was down to three-wheel drive. Steele was able to get the car out of this pit of granite and desert sand, but his race ended just a few feet away.
Meanwhile, back at Sledgehammer, the nightmare scenario that consumes KOH racers was realized. The cars that were running behind Steele had become mired in a traffic jam of epic proportions. Names like Miller, Shirley, Blyer, Gomez, and others were all stopped. All but one.
PUTTING IN THE WORK
Two-time winner Randy Slawson, having started back in 29th position had flown under the radar for most of the day had silently weaved his way through the pack. Slawson was in front of the traffic jam and soon, cameras caught sight of the Bomber Chassis passing a stopped Steele in the rocks.
With one more trail in his path, Slawson soon entered Emerson Dry Lake with a lead so great that he would not have to push the car to the limits to take home the win. Sure enough, at 7 hours, 1 minute, and 17 seconds after taking the green flag, Slawson, along with his codriver and cousin Dustin Emick came into Hammertown to claim his third title as a driver, and fourth overall as he had been the codriver for JR Reynolds back in 2007. Pole sitter JP Gomez in his Joe Thompson built UFO car would come in 9 minutes later for second. Raul Gomez would claim 3rd.
Rounding out the 2021 King of the Hammers Top 10 was Bailey Cole, Vaughn Gittin, JR, Rusty Blyer, Erik Miller, Levi Shirley, Jason Blanton, and Bailey Campbell.
Once again, this year’s King of the Hammers did not disappoint. Ultra4 has 9 more races on the schedule before the last race of the year in Reno. The next race will be in Moab on April 2nd and 3rd. If you want to catch the action from the comfort of your home, head over to Ultra4’s Live Feed platform. The $35 a year is worth it. If you want to catch the best chat about the sport, head over to The Talent Tank Insiders group ran by podcast host Wyatt Pemberton.
***ALL IMAGES COURTESY OF MIKE BOYLE OF MRB PHOTOGRAPHY***