At the Nitto King of The Hammers, the saying goes that “You win in the desert, but you lose in the rocks.” Even the smallest mistake on the Hammer trails can end your day or cost valuable position on the course. Erik Miller started Lap Two in the lead, but talented and hungry drivers like Tom Wayes and Clay Gilstrap were not far behind. Wayes broke an axle in his car on Lap Two, but he was not alone.
The race is over for several teams before they ever made it to the rocks, succumbing to mechanical failures that have run the spectrum from broken drivelines to overheating engines. Heat seems to be a factor for several teams, as Johnson Valley has experience unseasonably warm temperatures of 70 degrees on race day. Shannon Campbell, John Currie, and Tony Pelligrino are just a few of the drivers who have removed body panels in an effort to shed heat.
Loren Healy’s race ended at the bottom of Aftershock, as his car has suffered terminal front end failure. Healy’s Red Dragon was undefeated coming in the 2015 Nitto King of the Hammers, but we have to wonder if the reigning champ is wishing he had driven a traditional solid axle vehicle like he won in last year.
Healy’s Nitto teammates have not been immune of problems. Jason Scherer broke a u-joint and had to hike out to get a spare, but is back up and running after that delay. Jason Blanton has been fighting overheating issues and had to change a belt after Lap One, and his crew removed his rear sway bar in Pit Two.
The first five vehicles on course have a sizeable lead on the rest of the field as the racers make their way down Sledgehammer and up Jackhammer. Behind Erik Miller in his solid axle buggy, Greg Adler and Clay Gilstrap are locked in a battle for second place in their IFS cars, but Adler has a damaged bypass shock that will likely slow him down in the open desert. After the top three teams, two Campbell Enterprises single seat IFS cars occupy the fourth and fifth spots in the race, with Shannon Campbell and Levi Shirley respectively. Campbell started 11th and Shirley started 9th, but both have already moved up in position. Will the lack of a co-driver to navigate, spot, or winch prove to be a factor as the race unfolds?
Nice Guys Finish First on Lap 3
King of the Hammers isn’t just about who is the fastest, it is often a test of perseverance as much as speed, or talent. Think of it as a marathon instead of a sprint; a marathon filled with boulders, mountain ranges, and dry waterfalls. At the end of the second (of three) laps in the 2015 Nitto King of the Hammers, Clay Gilstrap was leading Greg Adler. Leaving main camp to start his third lap, Gilstrap suffered an electrical failure and went from first to DNF in the blink of an eye. That is how it goes at King of the Hammers; anything can happen.
Adler suffered a shock failure on his second lap, but his pit crew was able to swap out the suspension components and get him back on the course. Erik Miller has not had a perfect day either, but has remained near the front of the pack. Erik sheered the wheel studs off of the rear of his car and his team replaced the entire unit bearing in the remote pit to get him back on the road. Levi Shirley’s crew swapped out a coilover on his IFS Campbell Enterprises buggy after the second lap, keeping Levi in the hunt for the overall win. Pit logistics and spare parts are as critical to success as a talented driver or fast race car.
Jackhammer is proving to be the crux of the event this year, with over one half of the remaining competitors stuck on this single trail on their second lap. As the leaders head to this trail on their third lap they have already encountered lap traffic, but KOH promoter Dave Cole made the call to bypass Jackhammer on Lap Three and allow the fastest teams to race to the finish, rather than sit idle in lap traffic.
2013 winner Randy Slawson had a poor showing in qualifying, but starting position is proving to not be critical on race day. Slawson is running up front with Miller, Adler, and Shirley, despite starting more than ten minutes behind these other drivers. Theoretically he could follow all of these teams into the finish line and still win on time, but theory and reality rarely match on race day at the Nitto King of The Hammers.