Johnson Valley, Calif. -- JOHNSON VALLEY, CALIF. — The Marines may be newcomers to Johnson Valley, but with 67 years of live-fire training on board the nearby Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center under their belts, they’re no strangers to going off road in the desert.
The audible evidence of that training, the proverbial “Sound of Freedom,” regularly echoes across the desert, reminding residents and visitors alike that somewhere out in the vast, 1,106-square-mile expanse that is the Combat Center, Marines are conducting the nation’s business.
There are other sounds of freedom that echo daily through the desert west of the Combat Center — engines going full throttle as drivers tear across the desert floor, blast up narrow, sandy slot canyons at speeds upward of 60 mph and crunch their way over giant boulders in the Johnson Valley Off-Highway Vehicle Recreation Area and Shared Use Area.
Every February for the past 12 years, off-road enthusiasts from all over the world have converged en masse on Means Dry Lake in the Shared Use Area for King of the Hammers, a nine-day desert racing and rock-crawling event that draws more than 50,000 competitors and spectators to Johnson Valley. The wildly popular event injects more than $5 million into the nearby Morongo Basin and Lucerne Valley economies.
This year’s event kicked off Friday, Feb. 1 and ran through Saturday, Feb. 9. On Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019, Brig. Gen. Roger B. Turner, Combat Center Commanding General, and members of his senior staff flew and off-roaded into Hammertown, where they were met by HammerKing Productions President/CEO Dave Cole, who led a tour for the Marines and VIPs from Twentynine Palms, Yucca Valley, San Bernardino County and Congressman Paul Cook’s office.
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, 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.
“This is amazing,” Turner told Cole as they watched a car kick up dirt when it tore through the first turn outside the starting gate during short-course qualifications.
Cole gave briefed the group on KOH history and provided 2019 stats as he led a tour through the inner workings of Hammertown, where 470 teams from as far away as Israel, Malta and Poland were prepping in 300 40-by 80-foot garages for their respective races.
“We started out with 12 cars,” Cole said as he recalled the weekend in 2007 when a friendly competition among friends over beer and bragging rights spawned a multimillion enterprise that now has 12 full-time employees augmented by 40 temporary paid staff and 250 volunteers. Staff and volunteers run the races, escort media and visitors, live-stream the action, set up the 56-acre Hammertown encampment, map and mark the 235-mile-long course, then tear it all down and clean up the desert when KOH is over.
Cole shared with Turner and the others his passion for Johnson Valley, where he and family and friends have been off-roading for decades.
“I got married at Jackhammer,” he said of one the more extreme trails that are part of the punishing Hammers course.
Cole lauded Marine Corps, BLM and other agency officials who put in thousands of hours each year to ensure that KOH, which has several miles of course inside the Combat Center’s boundaries, can continue.
“We thank you for the opportunity,” he said to Turner, earning a thumb’s-up response from the general.
Just before the entourage hopped into Jeeps and Razors, Cole took the group to Hammertown’s public square, where they watched race action on the Jumbotron.
“That’s a great picture,” a woman walking by said as she eyed the Marines, where were easily identifiable in the camouflage uniforms. “That’s some good-looking guys there.”
Several KOH volunteers came forward to shake hands with Turner and the others, including Eric “Camo” Linker, one of Cole’s best friends, oversees Hammertown setup and operations.
“Thank you, gentlemen” Linker said. “Thank you for everything you do.”
Just before the group hopped aboard Jeeps and Polaris RZR off-road vehicles to head out for a tour of the course, Turner joined Cole on the stage in the Hammertown’s public square, where the two men talked about their respective missions and the importance of cooperation.
“It’s great to have King of the Hammers come here,” Turner said as the crowd gathered around the Jumbotron broke into loud cheers and applause.