Never Stop Driving #85: Burning Man for Desert Racers

Alejandro Della Torre

Hammertown: A desert fantasyland in which a temporary encampment of nearly a hundred thousand off-road fanatics and their side-by-sides, custom modified trucks, ATVs, and dirt bikes pack more than three square miles of the Mojave for the annual ten-day festival known as King of the Hammers. Regulars call it “Burning Man for off-road racers.” Bloomberg reporter Ashlee Vance called KOH a “party for cars” in this must-see video. Both descriptions fit the wonderful madness of this singular event.

Races happen nearly every day, with different classes of vehicles running a tortuous course of about 100 miles that encompasses wide-open sections and boulder-strewn climbs known as “Hammers.” These rock-crawling sections are as entertaining for (often drunk) spectators as they are challenging for drivers, who frequently are required to winch their extreme machines past obstacles and who are prone to tumble down hillsides like a Tonka truck in a sandbox. Over half of the competitors don’t finish. The Ford Bronco that won this year’s production class averaged less than 15 mph and, with what I imagine must have been a great ripping sound of metal against rock, lost its passenger door to a boulder along the way.

The highly produced races are broadcast live on YouTube, with drones and helicopters filming the remote action. Considering the brutality of the course, it’s no surprise that most of Hammertown’s inhabitants are there to jeer and cheer rather than compete. Particularly after dark, monstrous crowds hoot and holler as the bravest warriors among them take a stab at the competition course. When things wind down, the crowds zoom back to their Hammertown campers in their 4x4s, flocks of machines storming across the desert floor like a scene from a Mad Max flick.

I’ve been fascinated by KOH for years. Back in 2015, curious to know if the stories I’d heard were remotely true, I sent a reporter and photographer to investigate, and they came back with a gripping tale of near anarchy. The images, sadly, are no longer available, but shooter Chris Cantle snapped an unforgettable photo that he kindly let me share:

Photographer Chris Cantle snapped this in 2015 and it’s one of my favorite shots, ever. Chris Cantle

Ever since I’d been itching to join the tens of thousands behind the wheel of this vehicular smorgasbord. My people! While I do most of my driving on asphalt, there’s something graceful about off-road driving. On a slippery surface like dirt or sand, you’re not directing your vehicle as much as coaxing it, looking far ahead and working the controls long before you need to slow or turn. Your movements likely are clumsy at first, either too early or late, but with some practice, your machine is floating and gently responding to well-timed inputs. That’s when off-roading is like dancing, not that I know what it feels like to be a good dancer.

Ford, the only manufacturer with a high profile at KOH, not only used the event to prove the Bronco’s off-road chops but also brought along—but did not race—a Bronco DR, so-named for “Desert Racer.” The $300,000 factory-built off-road racer isn’t street-legal but is super cool. Ford will build only 50 DRs, which are seemingly like every other limited edition and instantly collectible. One just sold at auction for $440,000.

Ford also brought an F-150 Lightning electric pickup with an experimental off-road suspension. I rode shotgun as professional off-roader Christopher Polvoorde flung it through the desert. Two things jumped out: Polvoorde had a sixth sense about which bumps he needed to slow for and which ones he could drive over, whereas they all looked the same to me. I also enjoyed the relative silence of the cabin so we could talk without shouting.

Ford’s latest demonstrator is a desert-capable electric pickup. Ford Motor Company

The KOH crowd was more welcoming to electric power than I expected. Many buzzed the pits on electric scooters and dirt bikes. The Optima battery company held a rally for EVs and set up a massive solar and hydrogen fuel cell–powered charging station. A host of privately owned EVs, including Rivians and a Tesla Cybertruck, prowled the desert.

I highly recommend you join Hammertown next year. You will not be bored.

As we roll into the weekend, here’s some of the latest and greatest from Hagerty Media:

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