Monsters of Rock: A Desert Race for Insane Gearheads

As “Mad Max: Fury Road” comes roaring into theaters, a deranged cadre of motorheads is doing battle in the California desert for real.
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As “Mad Max: Fury Road” comes roaring into theaters, a deranged cadre of motorheads is doing battle in the California desert for real.
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There’s no logical reason to race in the Nitto King of the Hammers. It is very long (215 miles this year). You have only 14 hours. The course runs through the most pitiless basin and over the gnarliest rock piles in California’s outer Mojave. It is the Old Testament meets California “hoon,” as the new breed of gearheads is known. And racing in it feels like being in a plane crash that lasts half a day. Even if you win, the $25,000 purse barely covers the cost.

“This is not a race for dilettantes,” says Emily Miller, desert racing legend. “This is a kick in the balls. There is no room for error. One mistake and you’re done, or you’re in a whole lot of pain.”

Desert racing has a long and filthy tradition of failure, death, and doom. The almost two-week, multistage Dakar Rally, which now takes place in South America, is the most extreme, expensive, and brutal example of the form. The Baja 1000 is similarly taxing, though it takes the average driver around 20 hours to complete.

The King of the Hammers is a different beast, a crucible of mental and physical endurance made for the average man (and average budget) that combines flat-out desert racing with the meticulous, high-stakes, and very slow art of motoring over boulder-strewn mountains. The race cars are called Ultra4s, purpose-built for 120-mph sprints and high-gear rock-crawling.

“It takes a very precise mind to finish this race,” Miller says. “It also helps if you’re a little crazy.”

Photos by Nicole Dreon / Kind of the Hammers