Saturday, February 18, 2012

Jewelry, chocolates, and roses are all very nice but nothing says love like time spent together. Hanging out in a dusty valley with 30,000 other 4x4 fans was not what came immediately to mind when I envisioned this Valentine’s weekend but I tried to keep an open mind as we left Bend with a car full of camping gear, firewood, beer and sunscreen.

Hang with me on this post. The domestic part comes at the very end.

Last weekend we drove sixteen hours down to Johnson Valley, California to hang out with some friends of ours and watch the King of the Hammers off road race. This notoriously difficult race combines high speed desert racing and technically challenging rock crawling across 160 miles of the Mojave desert.

The first night I was a bit irritable as I anticipated the long drive and worried about how I would fare as a spectator at the toughest off road race in the world with 30,000 other, mostly male, fans. By day two we were zooming through blooming citrus fields and wildly twisting grape groves. The sun seemed brighter and stronger as we drove down I-5. Subsisting on subway sandwiches and diet soda we managed to push through and arrived midday on Thursday.

We met the two drivers, wives, and miscellaneous family members, sponsors and supporters. Everyone in camp was great and we bonded immediately over cheap domestic beer and potato chips. Hammer Town as the camping area is called, sprawls out across the desert for what seems like miles. Densely packed streets complete with street signs, of large RVs, trucks, motorbikes, race vehicles, and trailers wind through camp. A thin film of fine dust covers everything. In the morning and evening an inversion settles into the valley and the air becomes thick with dust, stirred up by all the cross-desert traffic and now trapped close to the ground. I imagine the

effect was similar to that of chain smoking without the nicotine high.
Friday morning dawned dusty, the air still congested and obscured by dirt. We gathered at the start to watch cars burst across the start line, optimistically charging off into the desert. We would later learn that only about 1/3 of the entrants would complete the race. Many cars end up broken, damaged beyond repair and are abandoned on the course until they could be collected the next day.

We drove out across a dry lakebed to a rocks obstacle called Chocolate Thunder. It felt a bit like something out of a Mad Max movie as all manner of powered vehicles stocked with cold beer and testosterone charged fans sped willy-nilly out to the spectator sites.

As spectators you can pretty much do what you want as long as it’s not dumb and you take your beer cans home. In theory you must be 150 feet from the race course but it wasn’t strictly enforced. The only enforcement was when the California police flew over in a helicopter ordering us to, “move away from the race course, you are too close.” Spectators yelled back and gestured at the police obviously un-phased. Eventually the cops flew off, I was unsure if they were just making a show of force or really thought we would all politely scoot back to a place where we couldn't see what was going on.

As the sun rose and the shadows grew shorter, cars began zipping over the hill into the obstacle at our location.

The first few cars went through without incident but subsequent cars began to pile up clogging the entrance to the canyon. By the time our friends came by in car 4431, there was quite a line up. In a bold move 4431 pushed past the waiting line and crammed into the tiny opening ahead of several waiting cars. They squeezed out Just in time to avoid a 15 car line up that didn’t clear up for hours

We watched from one other site closer to the end of the race course and were lucky enough to see 4431 come through that location without incident. They crested a steep hill dropping down into a last approach to the finish arena. Their car looked great and they seemed to be making great time when we last saw them. We sped off toward the finish line to congratulate them on agreat race and see were they were sitting in the timed race standings.

Apparently we missed the most spectacular finish in the history of the race.

After they crossed the finish line, they hit the last little built up “look at me I finished” jump going a bit too fast. Take a look at this crazy video. …

Woah. Both driver and co-pilot walked away to wild cheering of the crowd. The finish played over and over on the jumbotron late into the evening. Despite having an amazing race and finishing 9th after qualifying in 60th place before the race all anyone wanted to talk about was the finish line gymnastics.

We retired to camp and ate hot dogs and “victory brownies” (Mom if you’re reading this they were just brownies). Retelling of race track happenings grew into tall tales long into the night. In the morning we rubbed dust filled eyes, packed the truck and turned north.

I must say it was more interesting and fun than I anticipated. The crowd of 99% men was polite and helpful at every turn. These people are genuinely amazing racers and do their best to take great care of the land they return to every year. Working closely with the BLM to provide dust abatement, trash cleanup, and basic medical services. Most of the cars entered in the race are custom built from the frame up. It’s a labor of love to get a car ready and then beat the crap out of it in an 8 hour period on this course, only to come back next year and do it all over again.

My boyfriend is already talking about coming back next year and staying for a week. I may need to bring my knitting or some kind of craft diversion I can wash the dust out of when I get home but sunshine in the middle of winter and 75 degree heat is a powerful draw. I'm also contemplating trying to get a media pass so I can get closer to the action.

Missing the domestic part?

Driving back we stopped for citrus fruit at a roadside place. I bought Meyer Lemons and Kumquats for just a few dollars. We made Virgin Kumquat Mojitos at a ladies night and last night had Traeger smoked pork chops with a kumquat salsa and mashed sweet potatoes.

Kumquats are small quirky fruits that have a sweet skin and very tart insides. They are about the size of a large grape and can be eaten whole popped right in your mouth but this salsa is divine!

King of the Hammers Kumquat Salsa:

finely chop as many kumquats as your patience allows

3/4 finely chopped red onion

1 finely copped red bell pepper

1/2 cup finely chopped cilantro

2 tsp salt

scant 1/4 tsp cayenne

1 tablespoon olive oil

Mix everything together. Ideally you'll let it sit for a couple hours at room temperature, stirring occasionally. Serve with fish, pork, chicken, chips, your finger... it's versatile.

I've got a better selection of photos over at Flickr.

If you really like this stuff here is a montage of footage from the 2012 event.

Thinking of KOH 2013?