2024 King of the Hammers Off-Road Race Lives Up to The Hype
To truly understand what JP Gomez accomplished at the 2024 Progressive King of the Hammers Presented by Nitto Tire and Powered by OPTIMA Batteries, a brief history is required. What started in 2007 as a beer bet amongst friends to see who could run all the infamous Hammers rockcrawling trails in Johnson Valley OHV Area the fastest has grown exponentially year after year. Shannon Campbell started dead last in 2008 and passed the entire field to be the first physical finisher and win King of the Hammers (KOH). That was so long ago that some of the competitors were in diapers when it occurred, and in fact there are many families that have grown up at King of the Hammers.
Shannon Campbell’s own kids are among them, with his son Wayland and daughter Bailey proving that the gas pedal doesn’t fall far from the tree. Regrettably, both junior Campbells experienced mechanical issues early in this year’s race but reigning 2023 Ultra4 National Champion (and Bailey’s husband) Bryan Crofts came to the rescue.
Crofts was not planning to compete due to a back injury but brought Wayland a replacement steering rack and let Bailey and her co-driver Ryan Miller pilot his single-seat buggy to a 26th place finish, with Bailey driving the first half of the race and Miller driving the second half. Crofts racked up 18 miles of hiking on race day, and both he and Bailey were out on course spotting and winching competitors after they were out of the race car. Shannon himself had a solid day with his new big block-powered race car until all that power generated enough heat to melt his spark plug wires and the replacement wires put on the car halfway through the race.
Currie is another name with a crowded mantle full of trophies, as John Currie won the 2012 and 2013 KOH Every Man Challenge (EMC) and Brandon Currie won the EMC race in 2015. Casey Currie, John’s nephew, and Brandon’s cousin, is no stranger to success himself, having won the Dakar Rally in a UTV, X Games gold, and the UTV Open Class at KOH last year, amongst others. Currie added 74Weld portal hubs to his Trophy Jeep ahead of the 2024 Race of Kings, and the added ground clearance allowed him to work his way to the front of the field as the race entered its final lap. Unfortunately, a rear end failure took Currie out of the race late in the day.
The Miller family (Cody and Hunter, no relation to Erik Miller) showed up to KOH five years ago with their brother-from-another-mother Kyle Cheney and have dominated the UTV race ever since. That wasn’t enough for them though, starting in 2022 they entered the Race of Kings as well and have embarrassed a lot of vehicles that had triple the horsepower as them, with both Miller brothers finishing in the top ten in the Race of Kings last year. For 2024, Ultra4 changed the rules for the 4400 class to have a minimum tubing diameter for cages and at least a 37-inch-tall tire; a clear message to UTVs racing in the class. Kyle Cheney won the UTV race this year in his new Can-Am Maverick R and then went on to qualify 10th for the 4400 race in his Maverick X3 that had been outfitted to meet class requirements. The small yet nimble size of the Can-Am allowed Cheney to work through traffic jams and reach the finish line physical first in the Race of Kings, despite a completely disintegrated driver side front coilover. Controversy ensued though, and after reviewing the tracker information Cheney incurred 52 minutes of penalties, pushing him back to eighth overall.
The lead changed more times on the third and final lap than we could keep track of, with Loren Healy battling to the front of the pack after changing a steering pump in the remote pits. Healy was running through the desert at a blistering pace and appeared to be on his way to a third KOH victory when his Ford Bronco coasted to a stop just a few short miles from the finish line, yielding to transmission failure.
He wasn’t the only member of the Fun Haver family to experience mechanical woes. Vaughn Gittin Jr.’s day was off to a bad start when he broke a rear driveline in Turkey Claw, just two miles into the race. That put Vaughn at the back of the pack, but co-driver Jeremy Dickenson was able to replace the driveline and Vaughn passed most of the field to finish in sixth place overall.
While Shannon Campbell won from the very back of the pack in 2008, a lot has changed in the subsequent decade. More recently, conventional thinking has been that qualifying position is critical to winning, particularly with the rockcrawling canyon Turkey Claw added to the course only two miles into the race. This trail proved to be a bottleneck for both the Everyman Challenge and as Vaughn Gittin Jr experienced in the Race of Kings. In the past five years, there was only one occasion where the Race of Kings winner did not qualify in the top five, and even then, he was still in the top third of the field.
Cade Rodd grew up at the Hammers, with his father Randy building vehicles at Jimmy’s 4x4 that have won the event multiple times in the past. Cade knows the value of starting up front and laid down a blistering pace in qualifying. He ran a wise pace on race day, staying towards the front but letting others be the rabbit out in front of the hounds. As with so many others, things were going great for Cade… until they weren’t. Cade got high centered in Outer Limits and then got tangled up with Jason Scherer, leaving the victory out of grasp for both, but Rodd eventually finished in tenth place.
That brings us to Gomez Brothers Racing (GBR). Fielding five UFO Fabrication cars all equipped with Nitto Trail Grappler tires in the Race of Kings (brothers Raul, Marcos, and JP, Raul’s son Darian, and honorary brother “Robby Gomez”), the odds were looking good for GBR on race day. Raul Gomez had previously won the Race of Kings in 2022 and 2023, and both he and Darian qualified in the top ten this year, ensuring a good starting position on race day. Raul swapped leads with Healy, Currie, and Scherer throughout the day and looked poised for a three-peat before rolling onto his roof on Big Johnson. Raul’s car is a single seater, meaning he must winch himself without the assistance of a co-driver. Last year, Darian helped Raul winch up Sledgehammer to secure his victory. This year though, Raul was not as lucky.
Racing has a lot to do with luck; you must be aggressive and take a lot of risks to win, and sometimes those risks catch up with you. JP Gomez took a gamble in qualifying, and it did not pay off, a roll off Backdoor put him at the very back of the pack on race day. While JP is also in a single seat vehicle with no navigator, he did have weather on his side. Precipitation earlier in the week kept dust down and allowed JP to pass most of the field in the desert while taking less risks than usual. While those who started at the front of the pack succumbed to the pressure and one-by-one fell off to attrition, JP drove his own race with corrected time working in his favor.
JP Gomez ended up winning the race by twenty-five minutes over Brett Harrell, the largest margin of victory since 2015.
He physically passed every competitor other than Cheney, including his brother Raul, who waved him on rather than having JP recover his rolled vehicle. After taking the checkered flag, JP went immediately to the Gomez Brothers Racing pit to celebrate with the team that had worked so hard to share in his success.
After hopping back in his car and taking the stage to be interviewed, where most racers would start by thanking their sponsors, JP instead gave a shout out to his family as tears filled his eyes. After all, what is the joy in being King if you don’t have a royal family to share it with?
2024 Nitto Race of Kings Results: Top 10
1. JP Gomez
2. Brett Harrell
3. John Webb
4. Erik Miller
5. Dan Fresh
6. Vaughn Gittin Jr.
7. Tad Dowker
8. Kyle Cheney
9. Kevin Stearns
10. Cade Rodd