Johnson Valley, CA -- Motorsport is one of the largest recreational activities in the world but the culture of engines, sounds and sights extends the limitations of a paved road. From Formula 1 to off-highway vehicle racing, the cocktail of man and machine working as one with a splash of adrenaline is an addictive and fun combination that most enthusiasts crave.
Marines are no exception to that thrill and Gunnery Sgt. Adam Arsenault and Marine Corps CWO 3 Spencer Morris demonstrated their passion for the sport in the King of the Hammers Off-Highway Vehicle Race in Johnson Valley, Calif., Feb. 9, 2017.
According to the event website, King of the Hammers is considered the toughest one-day off-road race in the world and is the largest off-road race event in North America for both competitors and spectators. The annual event blends the best of desert racing and rock crawling.
In its 11th iteration, the event has expanded from a single race to a series of five races held throughout the week. The race is held at the shared use area in Johnson Valley and extends into the northern border of Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif.
One Team, One Fight
“Broadsword is the name of the company I deployed with in 2007 and 2010,” Arsenault said. “I developed the team around that time and named it as a subtle tribute to some of the greatest group of Marines I ever deployed with; not all of them came home.”
Arsenault, a mission planning instructor at Expeditionary Warfare Training Group Pacific, currently stationed at Naval Air Station Coronado, and Morris, a counter intelligence officer, currently stationed at the Pentagon, developed the team, in 2011. Through progressive evolution, the team consists of current and former Marines, civilians, sailors, a soldier, coastguardsman and firefighter.
“I was deployed to Afghanistan in 2008 and I heard of this race happening in Johnson Valley called King of the Hammers,” Arsenault said. “When I was stationed at [Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif.], we always came out here with our vehicles and rock crawled recreationally on the weekends. In 2009, when I was back in the states, I came to spectate and thought to myself ‘I have to build a rig and race’.”
The driver and co-driver duo deployed together and built a bond forged and tempered in battle that extends into their personal lives.
“Spencer and I deployed together twice since 2004, so we’ve known each other for a while now.” Arsenault said. “I needed someone to co-drive with me who had thick skin. During a race, things get hectic and heated, and I knew there was going to be yelling and not so pleasant words being exchanged but at the end of the day we would remain good friends.”
Camaraderie is defined as a mutual trust and friendship among people who spend a lot of time together. For Marines and service members that is not a foreign concept.
“If you talk to any Marine who has deployed into combat, they will tell you that they miss it,” Arsenault said. “I don’t think anyone misses being away from their family or seeing their friends get hurt, but they miss that deployment experience and being together. This race replicates all the positive aspects of it.”
“You have a group of people from all walks of life from across the country and they all come together, they don’t know each other but they are all there for the same purpose,” Arsenault said.
“They are here for a week to complete a mission and in the days prior we are all preparing. The race is like a combat operation. We do everything to prepare and at 8 a.m. on race day we cross the line of departure and for the next 10 hours, the operation is under way.”
Race Through Hell
The team competed in car number 4503, a highly modified yellow Jeep Wrangler YJ with a decal of the flag raising at Iwo Jima alongside multiple sponsors’ decals which, in Marine Corps fashion, were neatly arranged on the side of the vehicle. The car, driver and co-driver endured the 117- mile, Every Man Challenge race which circled through the desert littered with long desert straights, rough terrain and large rocks.
“Every year after a race, we have done a lessons learned,” said Morris. “Everything gets tighter each year and this year worked out better than the last.”
The team placed 6th in their class which according to Morris, is a step up from the previous years where they have been knocked out of the race due to unforeseen circumstances.
“It’s not uncommon to not finish a race; a lot of things could go wrong but that’s just a part of racing.” Arsenault said. “Just like combat you can have the best plan in the world but when the flag drops and the race begins, anything can happen and you need to know how to adapt and overcome quickly, which is something we are all very used to doing.”
The day following the race, the team felt a sense of accomplishment completing the race but as they congratulated each other, they set their sights toward next year to claim their fabled creature; the title ‘King of the Hammers’.