There is no doubt about the annual King of the Hammers ability to live up to its reputation as the toughest single-day off-road race in the world. In the overall picture, the annual Dakar Rally is much harder as a logistical and mental marathon; but the KOH features painful challenges and a high attrition rate, too — which is at the core of its attraction.
Now a week-long dirt fest, the 2020 edition wrapped up over the weekend with a surprise winner in the event’s premiere Nitto King of the Hammers Powered by OPTIMA Batteries for Ultra 4 Racing’s unlimited 4400 category. East coast racer Josh Blyler surprised almost everyone as he became just the sixth racer in KOH history to claim one of the sport’s top honors, overcoming a late race rollover on route to the victory.
Blyler, from Klingerstown, Pennsylvania, added his name to the KOH history books piloting a decidedly low-tech No. 41 Miller Motorsports race car that still features a solid front axle instead of a more cutting-edge IFS (independent front suspension) set-up.
“We knew we were leading, we knew we were doing good, and we drove it in there too hot, too hard, like a bunch of idiots. And just like that we were on the roof,” Blyler confessed at the finish line. “We finally got out, and as he was hooking the winches up he said, ‘Don’t wait on me when we get you flipped over. And, I didn’t.”
Blyler’s victory shouldn’t’ have caught so many people off guard. He is a perennially fast and consistent finisher, completing all four Nitto King of the Hammers that he has entered (11th last year; 4th in 2018; and 6th in 2017) while also taking home the 2019 Ultra 4 National championship with two victories.
The No. 21 of Cumberland, Maryland’s Erik Miller of Miller Motorsports finished in second place for the third year in a row. He now has secured more podium finishes at the KOH than any other driver.
“I’ve never been this happy to be second place, and I couldn’t have lost to a better guy,” the two-time winner shared at the finish line. Miller battled electrical issues that cost him half an hour of time, eventually receiving help from fellow competitor Jeff McKinley.
It’s important to realize that the Nitto King of the Hammers is a no chase race, meaning that outside assistance is only allowed in designated pit areas. Competitors, however, are allowed to help each other — and many did just that.
Just 86 second behind in third place came the No. 86 of Lotus, California’s Marcos Gomez.
This year’s King of the Hammers was an intense affair, with over a dozen lead changes as front-running competitors succumbed to mechanical issues. Last year’s winner Jason Scherer jumped out to an early lead, cruising at a comfortable pace before transmission failure ended his day, opening the way for two-time KOH winner Loren Healy. When driveline issues hampered Healy, second generation racer Bailey Campbell took the lead on Lap Two. A water pump issue took Campbell out of contention, but her father, Shannon, brought her the parts she needed to finish the race in 22nd place.
At that point, Baja 1000 champion Cameron Steele took over at the tip of the spear, but a broken steering rack soon dashed his hopes of victory.
Attrition was as high as ever, with only 44 of the 97 competitors reaching the finish line within the 14-hour time limit on the brutal 212-mile course. One point of interest is that all of the top four finishers were running on Nitto rubber.
The last time a vehicle with a solid front axle won KOH was Erik Miller in 2016. This year, his buggies finished first and second, reigniting the debate between IFS and solid axles.
“I toyed with the idea of building an independent car,” winner Blyler revealed after his finish. “But we stuck with this because it’s tried and true, and the Miller car is just outstanding. It’s bulletproof, it’s tough. We did add six inches to the trailing arms to make this thing handle a little better in the desert.”
Other big winners over the long race week included the No. 232 Amsoil / BFGoodrich Ford Ranger of Brad and Roger Lovell (Colorado Springs, Colo.) in the 4WP Every Man Challenge; the No. 7 Red Bull / Toyo Ford of Bryce Menzies (Las Vegas) in the Toyo Tires Desert Invitational; and the No. 190 Maxxis-shod Can-Am of Hunter Miller (Greenville, Texas) in a uber-stacked field of 129 side-by-sides in the Can-Am UTV King of the Hammers.