By: Ultra 4
February 10, 2017 (Hammertown, CA): Under a calm, pre-dawn light in the Southern California desert, the silence was broken by the high-pitched whine of a well-tuned V-8 coming to life. It was joined by a second, a third and then a fourth until the Means Dry Lake bed was enveloped by a symphonic bliss of high octane and adrenaline. This was Hammertown USA, and by 0800 more than 130 teams were lined up for the wave of a green flag and a chance to win gold.
During the past decade, the off-road world has been rocked by a phenomenon known as King of the Hammers (KOH). Spawning from a few friends out for a low-key weekend of rock crawling, the event has evolved into an international venue that draws competitors and media from the world over. In the process, technology, as well as the price to play, increased to a level that left many grassroots enthusiasts on the sidelines. In 2012, working closely with 4 Wheel Parts, organizers crafted a plan to allow every man, or woman, to get back in the action without needing to sell the farm to do so. A secondary goal was to allow aspiring teams to participate in KOH without the need to qualify via the ULTRA4 points system. The new venue would be the Smittybilt Every Man Challenge (EMC) and include three classes: 4800 G2 Legends, 4500 Rubicon Express Modified and 4600 Pro Comp Stock.
The Stock class is just that, full-bodied production vehicles with factory-offered motors and transmissions. Minor tweaks can be made to the suspension and axles, but only a single shock is allowed per corner and tire diameter is limited to 35 inches. The Modified Stock class kicks up tire size to 37 inches, allows for two shocks per corner, and modifications to the body and frame. The Legends class, which includes many previous KOH main-event vehicles, opens the door for those who aspire to be crowned king one day, a launching pad for careers in the big league. Although modifications can be significant, including a full-tube chassis, the engine must be forward-mounted, independent suspensions are prohibited and DOT-approved tires are required (maximum of 37-inch diameter).
The 2017 EMC was a compilation of a thousand stories. While some carried a familiar theme, such as long-time ULTRA4 celebrities Brad and Roger Lovell claiming an overall win for a second year in a row, others were the tales of underdogs. Ben Varozza, owner of a small 4WD shop in Northern California, has entered the Pro Comp Stock class every year since 2012, only to be denied a class win. This year Varozza took advantage of a pole-position start, kept the competition at bay and finally earned his place at the top of the podium.
The big upset this year was brought forth by past King of the Motos competitor Marty Mann. With a long history of racing on two wheels, but only a few four-wheel events under his belt, Mann signed up for the Modified Stock class in a sweet Toyota pickup. After beginning the race in 91st position, he picked off the field one-by-one, arriving at Back Door (mile 59) in 20th place. By the time he reached Chocolate Thunder (mile 100), one of the many boulder-strewn sluices in the 117-mile course, he had passed another 16 vehicles. Not only did Mann take a class win, he pulled off a third place overall — well ahead of a number of KOH heavy hitters.
While there is a small cash purse for those who make it to the podium, EMC teams aren’t in it for the money. They spend all year prepping their rigs in their garages, working hard to pay registration fees and buy parts, and draft a few friends who are willing to burn a week of vacation to spin a wrench as chase crew. When they hit the track they must be self-supported and prepared to take any and all measures to get their cars to the finish line. Other teams can lend a hand if needed, but their volunteer chase crews can only assist in the pit stops. They come from across the country and continent for the love of the sport, the camaraderie that envelops Hammertown and the blood, sweat and dust that is ULTRA4 racing. When the dust settled and the last checkered flag was waved, a mere 50 of the morning’s 133 teams made it to the finish line. And while Smittybilt’s Every Man Challenge is designed for anyone who wants to play in the dirt, it’s not for sissies.