The First Point on the Crown
Sims, Ranuio and Jones Come Out on Top of a High-Speed Chase
Words: Heather Wilson
Photos: Logan Gallagher & Justin W. Coffey
After three hours and 54 minutes of combating rocky, sandy and unforgiving terrain within the Johnson Valley OHV Area in southern California, King of the Hammers (KOH) first four-wheeled event came to an uproarious end. During the Prologue, there was no evidence of the wind. It was hot; the dust was oppressive; the visibility was little to none.
But at the race, the gales were howling, the air dry and cool and seeing was still tough, but for different reasons. Much of the competition, the course was fast. But in places like the rock garden just ahead of mile marker 75, winding down through a fanglomerate, boulder and cobblestone trail, there wasn’t a buggy or UTV that didn’t take caution as they navigated the steep sandy decline.
Polaris pro, Branden Sims (#1069), wasn’t phased by challenges on-course. He and his team took the UTV Open class win and B3 overall title at the Toyo Tires Desert Challenge, also notching an impressive Second in the general classification, finishing just one minute and 20 seconds behind Desert Limited Buggy competitor, Ezra Ebberts (#1077). In the meantime, fellow UTV Open competitor Doug Mittag (#981) claimed Second in class and Third overall. And not to be left out, Brayden Baker (#977) rounded out the podium, while also seizing fourth overall. UTVs took the top spots in the desert race? Not a bad conclusion at all!
This is one of the featured events at KOH – a two-week-long petrol-fest including several complex competitions for UTVs, buggies, trucks, class 11s and even motorcycles – operated by Hammerking Productions (the founders of Ultra4 Racing). For more than a decade, off-road motorsports athletes, and spectators alike, have flocked to the desert for the coveted competition. What started with 25 (ish) enthusiasts buddies pushing each other’s limits in the middle of a desolate desert floor, became a pilgrimage for powersports devotees and glory hunters all over America.
With 946 vehicles, a predicted 85 thousand (or more) attendees, and nearly a million-dollar prize pool, the King of the Hammers has certainly reached royal standards. And on Saturday, the first day of KOH’s premiere high-speed race saw 92 UTV competitors take off to conquer the 40-mile qualification round, where drivers competed on a portion of the next day’s course to establish their starting order. A driver’s elapsed time for the Prologue was also added to their elapsed time on Sunday’s competition to determine their final finishing position.
Temperatures were brisk to start the day, but warmed up into the mid 50s. As the day wore on, the Prologue became increasingly challenging with rocks hidden in the sand and even deeper holes developing. Some drivers would lose to the desert, their machines unable to withstand the beating the terrain doled out.
The side-by-side pilot with the best finishing time in the Prologue was UTV Stock driver Dustin Jones (T978) in his Can-Am, followed by UTV Open competitor Doug Mittag (981). Vito Ranuio (T950) of UTV Pro Mod was the third-place vehicle, after which, drivers returned to the pits to regroup for the following round of grueling tournament.
When it came time for the 196-mile competition on Sunday, drivers not only had to navigate the physical terrain but also the brutal winds that whipped across California’s Mojave Desert. Drivers began leaving the line at 8 a.m. and took the checkered flag anywhere from just under four hours to just over six-and-a-half hours after their start time.
In the UTV Open class, Mittag was the first UTV to cross the line. Mittag, of Temecula, California, was off to a great start early in the day and pushed a steady pace with his younger brother calling notes alongside him. He stated that his Polaris RZR has a bone-stock front-end and that his Maxxis tires served him well, with no flats throughout the day.
“I’m stoked,” said Mittag. “I’m fired up. That was an awesome course. Hands-down the best desert course I’ve ever competed in. I had some good clean air. Ran into some lapped traffic towards the end, and a little bit in the beginning, but we just kept the car moving. I think that’s what desert racing is all about.”
Sims of the UTV Open class was the second UTV to take the checkers piloting his Polaris. Also a Temecula resident, he parroted his compatriot saying the course was great. “It has all the different types of terrain – sand, fast spots, whoops – you could hit out here,” Sims said. “This is by far the best course in the United States.” However, the final results came down to the wire. When the Prologue time was added to Mittag’s finish, he ended up second to Sims in the Toyo Tires Desert Challenge.
Sims credited many of his sponsors for contributing to his success, and also noted his affinity for Live Valve technology from Fox Shocks that allows him to adjust the shocks continuously using vehicle sensors. Baker, the Third place UTV finisher, said the conditions were demanding, but it was a super-fast course. “Most of the time, we were just wide open. We just tried to keep the car together and not have any flats.”
From slow rock crawls to blazing across dry lake beds to conquering the whoops, drivers put their navigation skills, stamina and machines to the ultimate test. Turning to the UTV Mod class, Ranuio (T950) of Stockton, California, put the hammer down and secured victory. Bruce Binnquist (T50) snatched the runner-up position, and Phil Blurton (944) rounded out the podium.
It wasn’t all fun and games in the Mod class. Max Gordon (777) lost an axle which he concluded might have punched a hole in the transmission. A huge disappointment indeed, but not the only name humbled on the course (and his wouldn’t be the last). Guthrie, [AJ] Jones, Gordon Sr. succumb to the cruel fate of competition.
Ultimately, Dustin Jones, the fastest UTV finisher at the qualifier, captured the UTV Stock win on Sunday, followed by Bakersfield, California’s Mitchell Alsup (S906). Larry Heidler (986) claimed the final step of the UTV Stock podium.
“Like everyone says in their post-race report, it was going great until it wasn’t going great,” said Jones. “We qualified first yesterday. Had a really good run and had some lines picked out. We were the first UTV off of the line today. We led for a good while, then we ended up having some drive-train issues. We had to get out of the car four or five times.” And yet this didn’t seem to slow him down one bit…At least from the spectators’ point of view.
The inaugural race of the 2023 Unlimited Off-Road Racing Triple Crown Championship was one for the books! And now, competitors look forward to chasing down the next two obstacles between a few steadfast athletes and the coveted title: The Mint 400 and The California 300. Watch the replay of the action at https://www.youtube.com/@kingofthehammers_official
All results posted are unofficial. To see the full current results, visit: https://live.ultra4racing.com/results/
- Branden Sims (1069), 3:54:35.340
- Doug Mittag (981), 3:55:54.599
- Brayden Baker (977), 3:57:41.716
- Kaden Wells (1895), 4:01:48.251
- Chris Blais (2910), 4:16:14.893
UTV PRO MOD
- Vito Ranuio (T950), 4:00:50.698
- Bruce Binnquist (T50), 4:06:02.590
- Phil Blurton (944), 4:18:31.533
- Jamie McCoy (70), 4:32:07.825
- Kyle Ahrensberg (812), 4:35:58.526
- Dustin Jones (T978), 4:17:15.426
- Mitchell Alsup (S906), 4:22:00.857
- Larry Heidler (986), 4:32:23.808
- Carson Wernimont (1927), 4:38:52.665
- Nate Morgan (R955), 4:47:13.406
Heather Wilson is a motorsports communications and marketing consultant. She’s ridden motorcycles since the age of 5 and loves teaching others to ride as well. Besides loving all things racing, she enjoys traveling and glamping (that’s right) with her fiancé and two golden retrievers. HighGearSuccess.com