Ford saddles up Bronco to ride in the Super Bowl of American off-road racing

Posted by Talbot Payne on February 19, 2023

Johnson Valley, California — Late January in Florida means the start of the sports-car racing season on the high banks of Daytona International Speedway. Some of the auto industry’s greatest brands — Acura, Audi, BMW, Cadillac, Chevrolet, Ferrari, Ford, Honda, Lamborghini, Lexus, Porsche — field 24 Hours of Daytona racers in a demonstration of cutting-edge technology and raw speed.

But on the other side of the continent another epic, late-January endurance race is emerging as a manufacturer test. Except this race features SUVs on the high dunes of the Mojave Desert.

King of the Hammers is America’s greatest off-road race and an emerging battlefield for brand supremacy as SUVs now dominate the vehicle marketplace. Ford Motor Co., which has made a name for itself in sports-car racing with Ford GTs and Mustang GT4s, is determined to make King of the Hammers its playground, too.

Ford Bronco racers swept the podium in the 4600 class at the 2023 Progressive King of the Hammers Powered by OPTIMA Batteries.

Just a week after a Mustang GT4 dominated the production-based Pilot Challenge race at Daytona, Ford swept the podium in the production-based 4600 Class here for the second year in a row. With 100,000 spectators in attendance (compared to 50,000 at the Daytona 24 Hour), three Broncos put their stamp on the week, beating out competitors in Jeeps and Toyotas.

“The style of racing is very different, and the vehicles that do the racing are very different, but what’s common is the passion of the fans,” Ford Performance chief Mark Rushbrook said here. “Whether we’re talking to a Mustang fan at Daytona or a Bronco fan out here, it’s great to be able to connect with (fans) and show them what we are doing for the future.”

In its 17th year, the Progressive King of the Hammers Powered by OPTIMA Batteries attracted record crowds over its two-week auto-palooza, with 2 million watching the races online. They saw a buffet of off-road racing from Can-Am all-terrain vehicles to motocross bikes to modified production utes to the 800-horsepower, all-wheel-drive monsters in the ultimate 4400 class. Some call it the Super Bowl of U.S. off-road racing. Others dub it Woodstock meets Thunderdome.

“It’s the Super Bowl if the Super Bowl had football, soccer — then throw in hockey and couple of other sports,” said Hammers board member and CEO of Detroit 4fest Tom Zielinski, who is working on a new, electric vehicle Hammers class. “It brings together everyone who is an off-road racer and puts them all in one place. Some of the classes are amazing — you got to give love to the 100 class, which is full of old desert buggies.”

Whatever the moniker, King of the Hammers is more than an off-road rally — it’s a cultural event.

Joe Gomez, 46, of Apple Valley, California drove his Ford Bronco to the Progressive King of the Hammers Powered by OPTIMA Batteries. "Everybody talks about the Hammers," he said. "I had to come out and see what it was all about."

Located an hour north of Palm Springs off the appropriately, quirkily-named Old Woman Springs Road, Johnson Valley’s 96,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management desert is transformed each January into a sprawling paddock of competition vehicles surrounded by an expanding ripple of mobile homes, trailers, camping tents and hospitality tents.

Think of Daytona’s sprawling, 180-acre infield, but without the boundaries of its 3.6-mile “roval” course. And without Lake Lloyd in the middle. Indeed, there is no water to be found, and Hammers founder Dave Cole and his team are essentially mayor and city council creating the infrastructure for a small metropolis to function.

Hammertown’s sands are a hive of activity as police cruisers and trucks carrying water, food and gas share the makeshift streets with fans. By event’s end, every person and vehicle wears a cloak of dust.

Vendors line the makeshift roads of King of the Hammers for the thousands of off-road fans who descend on Johns Valley every January.

It’s America’s biggest desert auto show. Brand activations litter the paddock including Polaris, Can-Am, Yokohama, Nitto tires, Toyota and more. Ford found it an irresistible opportunity to both connect with customers and to develop off-road technology.

“(Hammers) became of interest to us about five years ago,” said Rushbrook. “The 4400 class is like Daytona prototype class — but the class we’ve spent a lot to time developing is the 4600 class, which is based on a stock Bronco, and you’re allowed to make some modifications to it. It’s like a Mustang GT4 or GT3 that begins with a production body. It gives us the opportunity to show how the foundation of the Bronco is suited for this kind of racing.”

A Can-Am competitor descends the Chocolate Thunder rock ravine after nine hours out on course at the Progressive King of the Hammers Powered by OPTIMA Batteries. Many competitors don't complete the desert course.

If Wrangler has become synonymous with crawling over Moab, Utah’s red rocks at the annual Easter Jeep Safari, then Bronco is determined to be Hammers’ favorite tool. Ford is the official automaker for the event and the Bronco racing team’s success gets attention.

“I saw Bronco win 1-2-3 last year and I thought — wow! — that’s my car,” said Bronco owner Alberto Herrera, 35, a San Diego-based computer game designer who traveled to Johnson Valley with friends.

Herrera’s pals hooked him on off-road racing at which point Ford’s “cool new toy” got his attention. “I traded in my BMW X5 for the Bronco because I couldn’t take the BMW out here. I needed an off-road vehicle to go to the races.” Herrera’s Wildtrak model is equipped with a Fox shock package inspired by the race shocks on Ford’s 4600-class competitor.

Of the over 1,000 entries at this year's Progressive King of the Hammers Powered by OPTIMA Batteries, the top Ultra4 4400 class had 104. Only 33 finished.

Some of the vehicles that fans bring to Hammers are as colorful as the 1,000-plus, multi-class racing entries. Races start and finish in the valley, then fans jump into their side-by-sides, pickups, Wranglers, and Raptors and chase the action around Hammers’ 70-mile long course, which includes high-speed desert runs (the 4400 class will hit 150 mph) to tortuous rock ravines where even the toughest vehicles need winches to crawl over giant boulders.

In the feature NITTO Race of Kings 4400 Class race Feb. 11, only 33 of 104 competitors finished, so brutal is the terrain.

Unlike Daytona, where the race course is for competitors only, fans can put their own vehicles to the test when class racing ends each day. Indeed, when the sun sets behind the San Bernardino Mountains, the action is just beginning.

Jaclyn Robbins, 27, of Apple Valley, California brought her Can-Am Maverick ATV to King of the Hammers to explore the 96,000 acre Johnson Valley landscape.

“It gets wild,” said Apple Valley, California, native Jaclyn Robbins, 27, from the seat of her 2021 Can-Am Maverick ATV. “People come out at night in their own cars and just break stuff.”

While some fans stay in Hammertown to watch fireworks, eat or head to the concert stage to listen to bands like Sublime and Mama Foxxy & The Whiskey Gypsy Rebels, others make for formidable boulder canyons with names like Chocolate Thunder and Backdoor to watch racer-wannabes climb the trails.

“We’re mostly here for the after-race. It’s controlled chaos,” said Robbins’ husband, Lance Robbins, 32. “We just love to come out here and hang out with our families.”

The sun sets and Hammers fans head for the hills to try out the challenges that racers deal with during the day. Challenges like Chocolate Thunder rock ravine.

An endless line of off-road mods lines up to conquer Backdoor’s formidable rock wall. Engines roar, 40-inch tires spin, tube frames flex. Some make it up, other flip on their backs like turtles.

“Everyone thinks they have that special thing. And when the racing ends, you can find out how good you are and where your talent runs out,” Zielinski said with a laugh.

For Ford, it’s all business.

When the Ford team isn’t taking drivetrain and suspension learnings from the Hammers classroom, it’s entertaining customers in its paddock display booth and Bronco Nation paddock.

Top Ford Team drivers of the Bronco 4400 Series Race Car are two-time King of the Hammers winner Loren Healy.

This year, the Blue Oval debuted a special King of the Hammers Bronco — complete with 4-inch lift and special Fox dampers — and showed off its first Bronco DR turn-key racer to customer teams. Ford brings a full feet of partners and drivers to communicate the brand.

“We have great drivers like two-time (4400 class) winner Loren Healy, 4600 class champion Jason Scherer, Vaughn Gittin Jr., Bailey Cole, Brad Lovell. Brad had been a great partner for us in developing the Branco Raptor, F-150 Raptor, Bronco 4600, Bronco DR — and he raced Ranger Raptor for us at (last year’s) Baja 1000. Everywhere we go racing, we need great partners, great people.”

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

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