The best desert racers in the world converged at Johnson Valley OHV Area for the invitation-only Toyo Tires Desert Invitational presented by Monster Energy. Nitto King of the Hammers week in Johnson Valley has a reputation for being the most brutal racing on the planet, and the 25 competitors in T1 desert trucks quickly learned that attrition isn’t just limited to just the infamous Hammer rockcrawling trails.
The race course was comprised of every element you can possibly find in the desert, from dry lakebeds and rocky canyons to silt, and three-foot deep whoops. $125,000 was on the line, making the race one of the richest in the history of off-road racing. Nestled between the 4WP Every Man Challenge and the Nitto King of the Hammers Powered by Optima Batteries, the Toyo Desert Invitational not only exposed the 50,000 Ultra4 fans in Johnson Valley to T1 Desert Trucks, it also introduced the desert racing teams to the unique community that is King of the Hammers.
If you had to place a bet on who would win the inaugural Toyo Tires Desert Invitational presented by Monster Energy, a McMillin would be a good bet. The iconic desert racing family fielded three racers in the 25-truck field — brothers Luke and Dan McMillin and their cousin Andy McMillin. Multiple Baja 1000 winner Andy passed fastest qualifier Bryce Menzies to physically lead the first lap of the race in his Mason T1 Desert Truck before losing the rear ring and pinion after 110 miles.
Andy was not the only one who suffered from broken parts, carnage was pervasive at the race, with flat tires and broken differentials being the most common failures. Only eight of the 25 competitors finished the 280-mile course, and they didn’t even run the rock trails that the unlimited 4400 Ultra4 buggies run as part of the Nitto King of the Hammers race. Television star Jesse James rounded out the finishers in his highly anticipated return to desert racing.
After Andy McMillin and Menzies both succumbed to mechanical issues, Luke McMillin took the physical lead ahead of Justin Lofton. Luke is a third-generation racer from Southern California; younger than his brother Dan and cousin Andy, he has shown potential in the past but never won a major race — until now.
“It’s funny; this course is different than other desert races we do. It’s hard to describe,” Luke explained. “It’s extreme rock and ditches. It’s a good old fashion desert race like we used to do in Barstow and Plaster City. That’s kind of what it felt like with the gnarly rock climbs. It’s very different than Baja or anything else, but I loved it. It was an awesome course.”
Luke’s style can best be described smooth but somewhat reserved when compared to the all-out aggressive driving that racers like Robby Gordon and Tavo Vidosola are infamous for. Luke was rewarded for his efforts with a $100,000 payday, which “will go back into the truck to make it even faster.”
Stream the Nitto King of the Hammers Ultra4 race live: