Something I have always wanted to do is experience and photograph the King of the Hammers off-road racing event in Johnson Valley, California; and this year it became a reality. We booked a flight, rented a Jeep Wrangler to get us around the desert, and set about planning GPS and shooting locations on Google Maps and CartoTracks.

For the trip, I wanted to make sure I was able to capture the experience in the best way possible. Thanks to Nikon Professional Services (NPS), I was able to receive a Nikon D5 as well as a Nikon 300mm f2.8 VRII on loan. I have been looking at purchasing the D5 and 300mm recently, and this was a great test! 

Gear List:

Gear ready to be packed

I also picked up some XQD cards from Amazon to use for the trip. They are so fast and able to keep up with the FPS of the D5 and the D500 without the buffer filling up. Perfect for capturing the fast moving action of King of the Hammers (KOH).

Day 1: Travel Day & Shootout

In the early morning of Febuary 4th my girlfriend Taylor and I arrived at O’Hare to board our flight to Palm Springs, CA. I was a little nervous because this was the first time flying with the Pelican 1510 and having to go through security with it. Everything with security and the Pelican case went well; I didn’t have to remove anything and soon enough we boarded our flight to the west! (Pro Tip: carrying the Pelican 1510 like a brief case instead of wheeling it onto the plane makes it look like a true carry-on and not something that could be “conveniently and complementary gate-checked”)

Rocky Mountians

After leaving the cold Midwest behind and flying west to Palm Springs, we touched down, retrieved our bags, and headed to the car rental desk. There we picked up our Jeep Wrangler that we would romp through the desert with on our adventure. We chose the Jeep Wrangler for it’s capability to allow us to chase the King of the Hammers action through the desert, as well as get us to some of the hard to reach photo areas and to explore the desert in general.

2018 Jeep Wrangler 4-Door

After picking up the Jeep, we ran to the local grocery store to pick up some supplies/provisions for the week and checked into our Airbnb. The Airbnb was a nice little out of the way bungalow with a hot shower, comfortable bed, and reasonably fast wifi (it was also priced affordably).

Airbnb and the Jeep

After dropping off our stuff at the Airbnb, we headed over to Johnson Valley to check out the Holly EFi Shootout. Driving into the temporary city of Hammertown for the first time was an awe-inspiring experience. There were so many different offroad vehicles of all shapes and sizes, lifted trucks, UTV’s, ATV’s, Prerunners, and all the Jeeps you could ask for. Traffic was light because it was early in the week for King of the Hammers and we were able to get a good parking spot. I grabbed my camera gear and we headed over to the steep rock cliff that drivers were trying to power up. Not only was the Shootout our first experience of the KOH events, but it was also at night so we would have no sense of the scale and size of Johnson Valley until the days ahead. The shootout had a huge crowd and everyone’s off-road vehicles, trucks, or jeeps had colorful LED lights on display.

Holly EFi Shootout Crowd

We walked up the steep mountainside to get a better view of the competition. Seeing just how capable these rigs were during the climb up the steep and rocky mountain at practically a 90 degree angle was an exciting and adrenaline-rushing experience. These vehicles were built to climb and bounce their way up the mountain and also to roll down the mountain while keeping the driver alive. Everyone would cheer if the driver took the wrong line up the sheer rock face and roll their rig. Only a few made it to the top before we decided to call it a night and head back to rest up for the next few days events.

Coming down the mountian after a sucessfull climb

Day 2: Location Scouting & Qualifying

Day two began early with location scouting for the Trophy Truck, Every Man Challenge, and King of the Hammers races in the desert west of Hammertown. After finding a few great spots to shoot from, we checked out Cougar Butte and ate lunch overlooking the valley. We had a little fun in the Jeep off-roading to all these locations. In our free time at home Taylor and I like to find roads in Wisconsin to off-road on with our Subaru’s. We often have to travel over 2 hours (away from our city) to find proper roads, but in the Johnson Valley area practically all of the roads were off-roading capable. I suppose there isn’t much to maintain on these roads compared to the snow removal Wisconsin roads have to go through during the winter months.

Sunrise over Joshua Tree National Park
Location scouting
View from Cougar Butte
Flexing with the rental

After lunch we scouted a few other locations on the outskirts of Hammertown before heading over to catch Power Hour qualifying. The light was wonderful during Power Hour; it allowed me to get great shots of the event. We drove around to a couple different locations to get shots of the event while fighting off the very windy (and very sandy) weather. Our winter jackets and desert masks came in handy during our time outside. After talking to a few seasoned spectators, they told us this year was one of the coldest KOH events.

Power Hour Qualifying with Hammertown in the background
Livestream drone following the competitors through qualifying
Great lighting during qualifying

After Power Hour concluded we headed into Joshua Tree for dinner and to recharge for the next day of racing. I would definitely recommend the Joshua Tree Saloon for dinner if you are in the area. It’s a small, seat yourself kind of place with large picnic table styled tables in the middle. They’ve got a pretty decent selection of food; they have great burgers and a really good ribeye steak. They were even setting up for live music when we were settling up our check.

Day 3: Every Man Challenge Race (EMC)

Wednesday was the first full day of racing for us. We sent our rental Jeep up and down several washes and hillsides in order to get the shots we wanted. We watched as the EMC drivers crawled through Chocolate Thunder, Jackhammer, and several other sections of the several hundred mile desert and mountain race course. After waiting for the leaders, we heard over our radio that there was a large backup at Jack North that was slowing everyone down and they were sending extra rescue rigs over there to help clear it up.

We were not in the right place to shoot that chaos, but after the leaders went by we did a little exploring in our Jeep and ended up finding a few cool spots to shoot Friday’s race. As we explored, I would jump out of the Jeep and shoot a few photos of passing racers whenever they appeared.

Onlookers at Jackhammer
Shooting near the final stretch of the race

While we were shooting near the finish line, we ran into Bink Designs shooting the STEEL-IT Coatings Trophy Truck of Billy Wilson; it was great to see those guys again. We waited another hour or so for a few more cars to go by (finding a couple other good shooting locations) but in the end, time ran out for a lot of the drivers and we headed home to download photos and rest up for the next day.

One of the hardest things for me while shooting this event for the first time was not knowing how long it would take competitors to get from one shooting location to the next. I played it a little safe by picking locations to shoot the race that we might have to wait a while before we see action without missing any. The longest track I have shot at is Road America, which is the longest track in the US at 4 miles in length. But at King of the Hammers, 1 lap is 100 miles. Even with listening to the race ops radio channel, figuring out where the pack was on the course was a bit of a challenge when it takes you 20-30 minutes to get to different photo locations.

Day 4: Toyo Desert Invitational

This race really excited me as I have always wanted to photograph desert racing, and these trophy trucks were just what I was looking for. We started the day shooting from one of the locations we scouted near the start, and waited for all of the trucks to pass.

Then we jumped in the Jeep and hauled ass to the next location, which was around mile marker 65 on the course. We were listening to race ops channel on the radio again as they would call out mile markers where the racers were. We would speed up a little bit as they got closer to where we wanted to shoot from. Once away from Hammertown, where there was cell service, we were able to watch the live steam and live tracking via the YellowBrick (YB) app to know what to expect.

Watching the livestream on the drive to the next location while listening to Race Ops

Once again, even with this technology, it was a challenging because I had no idea how fast they would make it to each mile marker on the course, and I had a few places I wanted to shoot from. We made it just in time to the location to see the end of the main group. After they passed, we shifted locations once again and ate a quick lunch to wait for the leaders to come back on Lap 2.

Short video of shooting trophy trucks

There was one more location I wanted to shoot from, but as the leaders came back around, I knew there was no way we were going to make it there before they did. So we gave in and headed back towards Hammertown to catch the pack as they were heading into the final stretch before the finish. Shooting trophy trucks was amazing, and I’m definitely eager to get out and shoot them again in the desert.

Day 5: King of the Hammers

The day began early with cars lining up around 6AM, but our first location was nowhere near Hammertown. We started the day by driving to Cougar Butte, but changed our minds once we got there and drove out past Cougar Butte. The new location we found had zero spectators and allowed for an intimately close look at the race course. The surrounding area was stunning; snow cap mountains in the distance behind us and a beautiful view of the vast wild west. We could also see how the racers navigated a downhill rock section, and into a high speed straight where a few passes happened, and then literally watched (and ate) their dust as they sped through the desert straight.

After shooting there for a while, we went back over to Cougar Butte to shoot some of the technical rock sections there. We stayed there until we heard over the race ops channel that the last car was going through Cougar Butte, then booked it back to the lakebed and over to Chocolate Thunder.

Cougar Butte rock section

We stayed there for another round of shooting as the group was coming around on Lap 2. We watched them climb down a perilous rock section then up a steep sand covered hillside. We witnessed a few of the drivers tear apart their rigs on the descent through the rocks.

Co-driver pulling winch line to get unstuck from Chocolate Thunder
Replacing driveshaft on course

We moved to a few different shooting spots between Chocolate Thunder and Jackhammer over a couple hours trying to capture some interesting angles. We put the Jeep through its paces in the dunes, steep sand hills, and made the suspension suffer through what seemed like miles of road corrugations and potholes. When we weren’t putting stress on the suspension of the Jeep, we were hiking to close-up spectating areas of the course for more intimate shots. We hiked up steep mountainsides, through soft sand, and we were careful to watch our steps around the sharp looking rocks. During our trek through the lakebed we saw the spectator’s off-road rigs and were in awe of how effortless they climbed up over the rocks or made it through the sand with their aired down tires and upgraded suspension. On the other side of the spectrum, we saw the camaraderie between those spectators with off-road capable vehicles and other spectators with 2-wheel-drive or rental vehicles that really had no business being in these locations.

The Jeep with Hammertown camping in the distance

After shooting around Jackhammer for while we heard on the radio that Jason Scherer, the driver in first place was approaching the finish line and we headed back to shoot around Hammertown for the final segments of the day. After the leaders finished, we took up shooting the other racers during the final run to the finish line. Daylight was fading and we stayed around until after dark to catch a few night shots of the stragglers.

At this time, the drivers were spaced very far apart, so I took a little time to setup a tripod and take a few long exposures of Hammertown.

The light of Hammertown at night

We took a few minutes to take in the view of Hammertown at night. As the finishers raced into the darkness, the 2019 King of the Hammers came to an end. On the way out, we took a path through the desert to avoid the traffic. Just outside of Hammertown we stopped at a taco truck for a late night dinner before heading back to the Airbnb. There, I would complete my nightly photo upload and we set to pack for the flight home in the morning. What an epic adventure and an awe-inspiring event.

Day 6: Heading Home

On the flight home I sat in my seat, pulled out my laptop and put my headphones on to go through all of the images and began to write this post. In doing so, I reflected on the past week of racing at King of the Hammers; no words came to mind on how awesome the event was. From the vastness of the desert, to the sheer number of competitors, and the desolate environment in which 50,000 spectators occupy during the week, there isn’t much that comes close to describing it. You have to experience it for yourself! King of the Hammers was everything I expected it to be and more!

Leave me a comment and tell me what you thought of this post and King of the Hammers in general. Thanks for reading!