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Palani Paahana, left, Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Range Sustainment Branch, talks about ordnance used in military training on the base with a visitor to the Combat Center’s static display outreach booth at King of the Hammers in Johnson Valley, Feb. 7, 2018. King of the Hammers is the largest off-road racing and rock-crawling event in North America. (Marine Corps photo by Kelly O’Sullivan)

Photo by Kelly O’Sullivan

Cooperation is king in Hammertown

7 Feb 2018 | Courtesy Story by Kelly O'Sullivan Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms

JOHNSON VALLEY, CALIF. — Every January, an army of HammerKing Productions employees and volunteers descend on Means Dry Lake bed here to build Hammertown, a 56-acre, high-tech encampment that serves as hub for the annual King of the Hammers races held the first week in February.

Inside Hammertown’s fences, on streets with names like King Court, Axial Way and Monster Alley, they set up race headquarters; Wi-Fi hotspots; a media tent with live race feed, charging stations and Internet access for hundreds of journalists from around the world to file stories and videos; team garages; viewing stands; a public square where spectators can gather to watch the action live on a Jumbotron; more than 120 food and vendor booths; and restroom facilities.

They map and mark a series of trails that take competitors out of Hammertown and back through hundreds of miles of some of the most punishing terrain in the country, some on board the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center.

HammerKing Productions co-founder Dave Cole and his crew couldn’t pull it off without the cooperation of federal, state and county agencies including the U.S. Marine Corps, Department of the Navy, Bureau of Land Management, California State Parks, California Highway Patrol, and San Bernardino County fire and sheriff’s departments.

“BLM is very excited about the coordination that’s occurring among the agencies,” said Beth Ransel, BLM’s California Desert District manager. “There’s an extraordinary amount of planning that goes into this before race day.”
The agencies work with HammerKing staff to ensure the safety of hundreds of desert racing and rock-crawling teams competing in five separate races throughout the week. They also ensure the safety of 50,000 spectators who come from all over the world to cheer on their favorites and drive their own rigs on the public lands along the Combat Center’s western border.

The Navy and Marine Corps got involved in KOH after the National Defense Authorization Act of 2014 was signed into law in December 2013, withdrawing 107,000 acres of public land in Johnson Valley for exclusive military use. The legislation also created the 56,000-acre Shared Use Area, where Means Dry Lake is located, dividing management between the BLM and Marine Corps. For 10 months out of the year, it falls under BLM jurisdiction, with two months allotted to the Marine Corps for military training.

Passage of NDAA 14 left KOH’s future uncertain, said Katrina Symons, field manager, BLM Barstow field office, who has monitored the event since 2012.

“With the NDAA, we went to ‘oh my God, there’s the loss of land and it will impact King of the Hammers,’” Symons said. “Everyone was really afraid” the Marine Corps would shut down the popular off-roading event, which pumps about $5 million into the nearby Yucca Valley and Lucerne Valley economies.

The feared shutdown of the races didn’t happen. Combat Center officials worked with the BLM and HammerKing Productions to ensure the races would continue. After an initial three-year agreement expired in 2017, the Department of the Navy entered into a five-year agreement with HammerKing Productions, and the BLM granted a special recreation permit authorizing the event from 2018 to 2022.

“The Marine Corps prides itself on being a good neighbor and we have lived up to that standard,” said Combat Center Government and External Affairs Deputy Director Kristina Becker, who serves as the base’s KOH liaison.

“We fully understand the economic impacts to the local community from this race, and more importantly, the historic use of the Johnson Valley area,” Becker said. “We realize and appreciate that this land has been used by families over multiple generations and are excited to be part of the event.”

With the agreements, “it went from uncertainty to certainty,” Symons said. “This really is a good example of the federal family working together.”

HammerKing’s Cole agrees.

“Land like this doesn’t exist anywhere else,” Cole said during a phone interview from Johnson Valley on Valentine’s Day as he was wrapping up Hammertown operations and preparing to take his staff to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, for a week “where we can not be dusty” before gearing up for their next race event in Pennsylvania in April.

“Our ability to lease the land and work with the Marine Corps and the BLM is vital,” he said. “It’s really cool. It’s been 12 years and it’s been a rewarding experience.”

Hammers history

2007: 12 teams of desert racing and rock-crawling enthusiasts led by Dave Cole and Jeff Knoll compete for beer and bragging rights.

2008: The first official King of the Hammers race draws 50 racers. There are no spectators.

Today: Hundreds of teams compete for cash purses in five separate races before as many as 50,000 spectators. Race organizer HammerKing Productions has eight full-time staff employed year-round, and 30 paid staff brought in for the races, along with more than 200 volunteers who work the weeklong event. KOH also spawned an industry of vehicles designed to move fast on the open desert floor as well as navigate sand dunes, rock piles and nearly-impassable canyons filled with boulders and deep craters.

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Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms