2023 King of the Hammers Nitto Race of Kings Recap: Raul Gomez Takes Home His Second Crown
The Progressive King of the Hammers powered by Optima Nitto Race of Kings is by far the toughest one-day race in the world and the 2023 event may have been the hardest yet. The race requires enormous effort and preparation, and this year, only 104 race teams qualified. Once the race started, many didn’t even make it to the first pit stop located halfway through the first lap on the treacherous Johnson Valley course. The attrition rate is always high during the 200+ mile race—it’s a badge of honor just to finish it.
Unfortunately for some teams, the race could be over in the blink of an eye, which repeatedly happened due to the difficulty of the course. The unforgiving terrain has no remorse, and the race could end for anyone at any time from anything, from an expensive motor failure to a broken three-dollar part.
Take, for instance, a veteran two-man team consisting of Terry Madden and Kyle Chaney who raced a Can-Am UTV with the big cars and came off the line on race day in 21st position and battled all the way to 3rd overall before blowing a transmission and ending their chance to win.
After a major crash at the 2022 Crandon Ultra4 race, Kevin Taylor showed up with a nearly brand-new car that he had completely rebuilt. He started out at the back of the pack because he had to rebuild his transmission on the lakebed after breaking a shaft during pre-running. He had battled up to 75th spot before having to replace a strut. After a quick jog to remote pit 2 they were back in action, but Kevin had to stop driving due severe shoulder pain so his co-driver took the wheel with Ian Boyce co-driving. They pushed hard, but still broke an axle in the rock sections and after all that hard work they had to stop racing.
Another heartbreaking example came in the form of Paul Wolff’s race day. He qualified first with his proven UFO single seat car and Nitto Trail Grappler tires but had a belt shearing issue with his engine early in the race.
They replaced the belt in remote pit 1, but after shredding a second spare belt they decided not to proceed due to the water pump not working properly, which couldn’t cool the engine, so the team decided they didn’t want to sacrifice the expensive engine at the first race of the 2023 season and ended their day.
Fellow Racers, Family and Old Friends
Former King, Loren Healy, is always a contender and a hard charger on the course, but due to mechanical failures that put him behind and rushing to catch up, he hit several major rocks that destroyed his steering system.
Thankfully, his car broke down in a prime spot to help his Fun-Haver teammate Vaughn Gittin Jr. when he ran into issues on the course that got Vaughn on his way to finish 17th place.
The Campbell family had a strong showing for race day with Shannon, Bailey and Wayland in attendance. Years of racing experience and a “never quit” attitude all came into play this year—because of a series of bad luck. Wayland had to replace two engines and Bailey had replaced one, all before the day of the main event. They would have had to call it quits, but they had one last chance—to call in a favor from a competitor, Levi Shirley. Like many racers in the series, Levi is an old friend, but he happened to own an old Campbell-built single seat back-up car, and generously lent it to the Campbell team. Wayland, Bailey, and Ryan Miller, all raced one of three laps and the team finished 20th.
And speaking of the Campbells, Bailey Campbell’s husband, Bryan Crofts, raced his single seat Campbell Chassis car as well. He had troubles, too, the biggest being that his rear axle had a crack that his pit crew found. They were able to weld it back together which held all the way to the finish line and landed him in 13th place.
One of the most spectacular displays of racing was from a late entry. Through some jokes and good old trash talk, legendary racer Robby Gordon, who has raced everything from NASCAR to the Baja 1000, climbed into a Gomez Brothers Racing UFO Chassis car for race day. Incredibly, he wasn’t familiar with an Ultra4 car, or racing in rocks, or even knowing the course. He was nearly the last to start the race and absolutely blasted his way through competitors for an impressive 9th place finish.
The Top Four
Big B teammates and father and son duo, Josh and Rusty Blyler, started out well behind the leaders but managed to drive into the top five. Both piloting nearly identical Miller Chassis straight-axle cars and Nitto Trail Grappler tires, Rusty started the race ahead of his son Josh.
The younger Blyler was initially in 13th position off the starting line, but was able to pass his dad and held his position until the finish line with Rusty taking fourth place and Josh taking third overall.
Three-time King of the Hammers champion and back-to-back champion, Jason Scherer came out of the gate and took a strong lead. He fought hard and held that lead throughout every single second of the race, including crossing the finish line in physical first place. Unfortunately for Jason, racers leave the starting line in 1-minute intervals, so crossing the finish line first doesn’t necessarily mean he won the race. With staggered starts there is a term called “corrected time” which placed Jason in second place by mere seconds.
There’s always a bet between the Gomez brothers as to who will win the Race of Kings, with Raul the favorite this year because of his big win last year. But don’t be fooled by the team’s relaxed manner in the pits, they’re talented, they love off-road racing, they’ve been doing it for years, and they’ve got a great crew and tons of family support. This year found Raul in his Nitto Trail Grappler equipped UFO rig gaining on Scherer throughout the race. On the final lap as they roared back into Hammer Town, there were only 10 seconds between him and Jason. Given his corrected time, Raul knew he had won—and proved his win last year was not a fluke. Raul had won the Nitto Race of Kings in the 4400-class at the King of the Hammers for the second straight year in a row.
If there’s one person for Raul to thank for help with the win, it would have to be his son, Darian Gomez. During the race Darian noticed he was having steering problems in the rocks which led to steering failure. Raul was gaining on Scherer, but he knew he could lose time in the upcoming sections of the course that would require winching, and because Raul was in a single seat car, that meant additional time he didn’t have to get out and winch. So, when Raul found out his son had broken down, he told him to run over to Sledgehammer so Darian could help him winch. And he did, as fast as he could. But Darian didn't stop by just helping his dad, he continued to help every racer who came though that section of the course for hours, jumping out of seemingly nowhere as drivers pulled up to the large rock face, leaping into action and getting them over the obstacle and back into the race.
The 2023 Nitto Race of Kings showed us again, that to win the hardest off-road race in the world takes more than just a talented driver, it’s also the pit crews, support groups, sponsors, volunteers, friends, and families that get racers across the finish line.
4400-Class Nitto Race of Kings Top Ten Results
- Raul Gomez
- Jason Scherer
- Josh Blyler
- Rusty Blyler
- Randy Slawson
- Tom Wayes
- Hunter Miller
- Cody Miller
- Robby Gordon
- John Webb