Have you ever wondered what it would be like to race in the famous King of the Hammers? Here is an insight from someone who has been through it.
Your cell phone alarm goes off in the pitch black of your RV, startling you awake. In your exhausted state, at first you do not remember where you are at. Suddenly an engine fires up somewhere nearby, followed by the steady rumble of pure horsepower, reminding you that you are in Johnson Valley, California on race morning. You have a race to run. Not just any race, but the most grueling off-road race in the world, the King of the Hammers.
Walking out the door of the RV, the cold desert air washes over you, smelling of the fragrant desert mixed with race gas and exhaust. There is an energy in the air that makes it feel as if you are in the middle of an electrical storm, but the morning is as still as a gentle pond. You don’t feel as nervous as you thought you would, or should be, but when your crew-chief’s wife hands you a bagel, your stomach is too knotted up to eat.
The race car sits menacingly in the pit tent. Several of the pit crew, having worked on the car all night long are sleeping on the dirt floor, only to be kicked awake by the crew chief Brian. It is go time. Your crew pulls back on the tent flaps as you flip the switch in the Ultra4 car and hear the gas pump whiz on. Pushing ignition roars the beast to life, and you idle the car out of the tent, your exhausted pit crew standing astride the vehicle like battle-weary soldiers at attention. You begin weaving your way through Hammer-town to find your spot in the starting line.
It is a mess of cars, swarming like angry ants trying to find their spot in the starting line. Adding to the chaos are many spectators, up early to see the cars up close. They seem to all be wearing black hoodies and clutching coffees to their chests to ward off the cold. The Hammer-town pit-boss “Surveyboy” waves you into line behind another rig, and you crank the car off to wait. Too wired up, you can’t just sit in the car.
You stand by your rig, drinking coffee that you won’t finish because you do not want deal with peeing through the race catheter at mile marker 30. It is bitter cold. There is a mist from your breath. The sun begins to peek over the desert mountains, casting an eerie and surreal reddish glow that mutes colors, almost as if you are in a 3-D sepia world.
It is a constant barrage of people walking past your rig wishing you good luck. You make small talk, but feel distant, your mind on the race and mentally going over stuff that you may have forgotten. The GPS got programmed right? Did Jon put that heat shield over the exhaust so my ass does not catch on fire? Will that axle seal that was a total pain put in actually work? I hope it does not leak. God, I hope this transmission holds up. You pose for some pictures. You make small talk with other drivers….
The line ahead starts moving. Noah, one of the volunteer workers, shouts at you to get in and get moving. The crew is still zip tying wires and energy bars to the rig. Joe plugs your helmet into the radio and the Parker pumper for you, then slaps you on the chest a few times and gives a thumbs up. You strap into your harness and check to make sure it is tight enough about 8 times. Brian yells something about the tool bag not being secure. You put the window net up with hands that you just notice are trembling.
The line is moving. You pull through the tent before the start line and see cars in front of you take off to the green…dirt spewing out from underneath their tires. The hordes of people lining the race course reminds you just how big of a deal this race is. The helicopter pounding its blades in the wind passing over you, setting off to follow the race leaders, adds a massive exclamation point to that last thought. Is this really about to happen? Suddenly you have a quick reflection in your head of all the sacrifices so many have made to get you to this point. The endless hours in the garage working on the car, all the logistical planning, all the money spent…Good God, you hope the wife does not look at the credit cards bills when the mail comes.
One more set of cars in front of you, then it is your turn. You check your harness again…you tighten it more. You glance at the gauges. Dave Cole (main man in charge) leans into the window and barks (he always barks) something about a flipped rig on Shortbus. But you really can’t hear him because of the engine and your headset. Oh no…need to turn on the fan, did anyone get the Ipod working? What does the “man overboard” thing on the GPS do again if we accidentally hit it? The next two cars take off. Your heart pounds.
You pull forward and the official stands in front of you holding the flag sideways signifying that you need to wait…..30 seconds. Your rig somehow seems to know what is about to happen, its engine idling a tad higher than you think it normally does. Someone cracks a joke over the headset. You give a fake laugh over the radio so they know you heard it. Someone else over the radio wishes you good luck. What the hell did Dave say again?
The flag drops.