I Was Defeated by the Toughest Off-Road Race in America

2020 canam maverick x3 xrc
Defeated by the Toughest Off-Road Race in AmericaSteve Harrell
2020 canam maverick x3 xrc
Steve Harrell

I went into rally co-driver mode, counting my driver Hubert Rowland, of Nitro Circus/Channel 199 fame, down from the time displayed on the RallySafe tracking unit, despite there being an actual flagger in a flag stand to start us off. The green flag dropped and the Can-Am reared back as we went through the first two corners and out into the desert. We were 124th of the 138 UTVs entered, starting 30 minutes behind the pole sitter even with a pair of cars starting every 30 seconds. The car alongside us got the holeshot, rabbiting out ahead, but Hubert was unconcerned. Our strategy was to drive safe to avoid any lost time making course-side repairs.

It didn't take long for the brutality of the race to make itself known. Only about two miles into the course is a section called "Turkey Claw," one of only two real rock obstacles in the race's desert-oriented first lap. We dropped into the rock garden and were immediately met with carnage. Within the first 50 feet, there was a stopped UTV leaning over with heavy suspension damage. A couple hundred feet beyond were two more broken vehicles, leading up to a line of four cars struggling to get through a narrow pass. We joined the queue, watching as each car ahead of us struggled, got stuck, reversed, and repeated. When the lane finally cleared and it was our turn, Hubert simply put it in gear and drove through it all in one shot. "It's all in the tires!" he yelled over the intercom.


We passed a total of six immobilized vehicles by the time we were out of the rocks—then, just as a light rain began to fall, it was back out into the sandy desert for the next 70-ish miles of the first lap.

Steve Harrell

This is King of the Hammers, a uniquely American off-road race that combines high-speed desert running with ultra-technical rock crawling. Every year so many people descend on remote Johnson Valley, California, that a makeshift town springs up from the sand. Hammertown is more than five miles from one side to the other. As much a festival as it is a competition, King of the Hammers is like Burning Man but with buggies.

I'd raced a few events in the desert before, even running Vegas to Reno in a race-prepped Ford Ranger. And I have years more experience in the right seat of rally cars, sliding through forests (and occasionally into lakes) across North America. I thought I was prepared for this place. I was not.

king of hammers
Steve Harrell

Even on this, the fastest part of the event, with long straights and multiple lines for much of the run, it is by no means an easy cruise. Intervals of two-foot-plus-tall whoops require finding the right speed to keep from being bucked sideways. Meanwhile hidden washouts and drop-offs lurk throughout, waiting to send a car into a high-speed tumble. The only real warning for hazards like these are stakes in the ground with a small "danger" marker on them (assuming said stake hasn't been run over by a prior competitor) and notes of the hazards in the GPS file on the iPad. About halfway through the lap this became a significant issue.

"iPad isn't updating," I said to Hubert. The map file still showed clearly on the screen, but our little black dot was no longer moving along the course, instead staying motionless at a mile marker we'd passed over a minute ago. Hubert was relegated to working without a net as I first tried restarting the app, then restarting the iPad. The dot would move, seem to follow along, then stop again. Opening other GPS apps showed the issue wasn't with the app, but the iPad itself, which had chosen the absolute worst time for the GPS antenna to exit the chat. I did my best to continue to provide notes based on just the map, using mile markers and corners to approximate where we were on the path, but as often as not my instruction was relegated to "danger drop-off, somewhere around here, maybe."

The rain was picking up as we pulled into our pit by the start/finish line. Our "keep it clean so we don't have to stop" strategy meant we did the initial lap in about 2 hours, 15 minutes, nowhere near the fastest times, but well under the lap's five-hour cutoff limit. The pit stop was a simple refuel and a less simple ratchet strap job on the steering column's height-adjustment mechanism, which had decided to loosen itself, then it was back onto the course. Now two and a half hours in, we had seven and a half left to get through the far more challenging rock lap.

2020 canam maverick x3 xrc
Steve Harrell

Our race vehicle, a 2020 Can-Am Maverick X3 XRC, is the rock-crawler edition of the popular Maverick X3. The XRC package differentiates itself from the standard X3 with features such as fully enclosed doors and a full roof to prevent intrusions, full skid plates on the underbody and rear arms, rock sliders, and a factory winch.

We were running in the Sportsman Stock class, a category aimed toward trail riders and newer competitors interested in experiencing Hammers but not interested in things like championship points, so our vehicle was close to stock aside from the requisite roll cage and safety gear.

What few modifications had been made were mostly for durability rather than performance: stronger arms and axles, heavier radius rods, stronger drive shaft and ball joints. The only real performance-oriented changes were a spring kit, upgraded clutch, a revalve of the shocks, an engine remap, and 33-inch rock tires instead of the factory 32s.

To call its ability on the rocks impressive is an understatement.