K&N Team Driver Vaughn Gittin Jr. Attempts to Tame the King of the Hammers

Photo of Ultra4 cars piled one on another in the Chocolate Thunder trail

Carnage in Chocolate Thunder in years past show just how difficult King of the Hammers can be.

Many in off-roading have heard of how the legendary and equally impressive King of the Hammers was started when a couple of friends, Dave Cole and Jeff Knoll, decided to race for bragging rights and a case of beer. And it’s true that the first race in 2007 was planned out on a bar napkin in a Chili’s in San Bernardino, California. In fact the very first King of the Hammers (KOH) race was run as invite only, with virtually no information given to the competitors until the day of the race. Dave, a championship rock crawler, and Jeff, an experienced desert racer, invited some of their friends out to Means Dry Lake in Johnson Valley, California, for what has become regarded as the toughest single day race in the world. What started out with 12 competitors, mistakenly over the years referred to as the OG 13, has become perhaps the largest Rock Crawling/Desert Event in North America.

Photo of Vaughn Gittin Jr. drifting

Vaughn Gittin Jr. crossed up and drifting his Nitto Mustang to the roar of cheering fans

K&N Filters-sponsored driver, world champion drifter, and self-proclaimed, professional Fun-Haver, Vaughn Gittin Jr. is probably best known for his bold, pedal to the metal prowess behind the wheel of one of the most recognizable cars in the sport, his Monster Energy Nitto Tire Ford Mustang RTR leaving a staggering wake of smoke and tire behind him. Earning a bronze in the 2016 Formula Drift World Championship, this professional Fun-Haver is a self-taught, American pro drifter certain to give anyone he comes up against a serious run for their money.

Vaughn's accomplishments span the globe. He is a three-time World Drift Series champion (2011, 2012, 2013) and in 2005 he became the first ever American to win a D1 Grand Prix event in the 2005 USA vs Japan competition. He again brought the title home for the USA in the 2007 World Championship.

Photo of Vaughn Gittin Jr. on the podium at Formula D Round 4 at Wall Stadium, New Jersey

The Professional Fun-Haver earns a 1st place finish at Formula D round 4 at Wall Stadium, NJ

In North America, Gittin won his first (of three) Formula Drift title in 2010, and in 2013 he was awarded the Ace Driver of the Decade title that recognized his impressive competition record with him taking more tandem battle victories than any other driver in 10 years of Formula Drift history. In drifting, the driver intentionally allows the car to ‘get loose” at the rear wheels while maintaining control through counter steering, delicately allowing the car to do its thing all the while employing fine throttle control. Sounds simple enough, right? In actuality it’s more a fine yet taught balance between order and chaos, very similar to what the competitors experience at the King of the Hammers day long events, like the Every Man Challenge.

When it comes to motorsports, Vaughn Gittin Jr. has proven time and time again that he’s more than a one hit wonder when it comes to driving. He competed in NASCAR Canada Series in Quebec 2014, coming away with a 14th place finish overall out of 32 drivers, and a 5th Place finish in his first Trans Am race at Road America in 2015. In fact, our K&N-sponsored driver is the FIRST cross-over athlete to have successfully competed at KOH.

Photo of Vaughn launching "Brocky" in the desert checking out the suspension.

Launching "Brocky" in the desert, checking out those King Shocks!

Turns out that this impressive and gifted drifter was “gittin” at it again at the 11th running of the Nitto King of the Hammers presented by Optima Batteries in Johnson Valley, California. Gittin competed this year with his brand new machine in the Ultra4 4500 Rubicon Express Modified Class. “Brocky" sits on an IFS chassis built by Jimmy’s 4x4 out of Cortez, Colorado. Powering this early model K&N-equipped, custom hand-built Ford Bronco is a Ford Performance Z427 small block crate motor putting out 600hp with 600lb-ft torque making it the right combination to crawl up Sledgehammer and go full out in the open desert. Keeping everything cool is a Griffin aluminum radiator and oil cooler using Pennzoil synthetic fluids. Getting all that power to his 37x12.50R17 Nitto Trail Grappler M/T Tires on 17-inch American Racing Ansen bead-lock wheels is an ATI Performance Products SuperCase TH400 automatic transmission, complete with Spidertrax Pro Series housings, GearWorks 10-inch differentials with Griffin trans cooler. King bypass shocks will cushion the rough stuff!

Photo of Vaughn doing a little pre-running before the race

Vaughn getting a little trail run in before the SmittyBilt Every Man Challenge at KOH 2017

In almost all forms of racing, success is typically defined by being the first to cross the finish line or at least making it onto the podium. Those who have been to the King of the Hammers or even participated as a driver or part of a team, know that this race is different. This competition not only tests the driver’s skill behind the wheel, but challenges them physically with the unrelenting terrain and mentally with the uncertainty of what may fail and when. Each competitor pushes themselves to the ragged edge of sanity to make up car lengths and lengthy pit stops. To physically and mentally prepare for KOH and even FormulaD, Jr. does Crossfit as often as possible. He does a lot of mental prep including visualizing and virtually driving the course or track in his head. Many racers have shared that 75% of the race is mental. Another key to his success would be his nutritional choices saying that 90% of the time he eats clean, especially leading up to a race.

For many, simply crossing the finish line in and of itself equals a win. Mechanical failures are the leading cause of ending a racer's day early. It isn't uncommon for only 10-15 percent of the field to actually cross the finish line within the allotted time. Turns out Vaughn and his co-driver Loren Healy were fortunate to avoid any major mishaps and finished the 2016 KOH in 6 hours, 44 minutes and 15 seconds, earning a 14th place overall finish in the SmittyBilt Every Man Challenge and 10th place in the Legends 4800 class, with over 100 entries.

Photo of "Brocky" running flat out in the open desert

That 427 Cobra Jet motor gives Vaughn Gittin Jr. the power needed for crawling and hauling

King of the Hammers might not have the same history as the Baja 1000, but in ten short years this event has gone from being a handful of rock crawlers on trails through the desert to one of the premier events in the off-road world and host to close to 40,000 spectators and hundreds of race teams. A far cry from the beginning where curious onlookers were literally walking between the cars on Chocolate Thunder to now with Hammertown having designated spectator areas that allows the fans to see how the competitors literally can be caught driving over each other in an effort to win the race. There is even a Jumbotron in the center of Hammertown with multiple feeds from the course providing live updates. Things have definitely evolved in a big way.

K&N team driver Vaughn Gittin Jr. started his week at the Hammer’s very much like the other racers who would go on to compete in the SmittyBilt Every Man Challenge; pre-run practice and qualifying. Vaughn hit the trails to see what his Jimmy’s 4x4-built Ford “Brocky” was capable of on trails like Jack Hammer and Chocolate Thunder. With the grip of the sticky Nittos and the tune on his King Shocks, Jr. wheeled “Brocky” masterfully through the trails feeling confident in the new build.

Photo of the Jimmy's 4x4 built '68 Bronco handling the trails

The Jimmy's 4x4 built 1968 Bronco, "Brocky" handling the boulder laden trails with ease

This year, as every year since its inception, the course configuration differed from last year. For 2017, the course would leave the main pit running the opposite direction. The buzz around the pits from some of the other competitors after pre-running was that it was even more difficult on the cars and the drivers. When we asked Vaughn what he thought, “for me it’s all new so either way was not a concern as I would have the same approach either direction. Going down trails is kind of nice because gravity is on your side!” He recognizes that the entire KOH experience is difficult suggesting that it’s survival of the fittest man/team and machine. He believes that this is without question one of the most difficult races in the world.

Thursday morning bright and early our competitor was staged and ready to conquer the SmittyBilt Every Man Challenge. Vaughn Gittin, Jr. would start in 4th position based upon qualifying. While course direction didn’t play into the challenges, Vaughn’s team had some issues early on in the race. He lost a brake line at mile 1.5 and drove the close to thirty miles to Remote Pit 1 with barely any brakes. Jimmy’s 4x4 welded the brake line up and got them on their way. Back on course they stepped up and had a great pace only to have a wire ground out and fail the alternator. Chalking it up to new car blues, even though they did a lot of testing, some of the gremlins don’t show until you hit race pace.

Photo of Vaughn and his co-driver in "Brocky" heading out of main pit and back on course.

Heading back on course out of main pit to battle the boulders and desert in this grueling race

Most assuredly disappointed with the gremlins ending their day early, the team at Jimmy’s 4x4 worked feverishly to sort the car out. Jr., determined to finish a race at KOH, decided to compete on Friday in the Ultra4 Unlimited Class “King of the Hammers” race. He and his team would start at the back of the pack as a result of not having actually qualified for this event. But that was okay because they were back out on course, racing! They were on a great pace through lap one, however, right at the end of lap 1 Vaughn admits he made a bonehead pass and ended up of the roof. After getting flipped back over onto the tires they continued the race. Ultimately the alternator could not keep up and they lost power. Fortunately they had a spare alternator but no way to get a jump start. A kind-hearted spectator offered a jump box but that in turn created a different issue, as “outside” help is not allowed, ultimately ending their day. While this was not their ideal, Vaughn Gittin, Jr. and his co-driver learned quickly what they’ll want to include in next years emergency kit. Any successful racer has seen their fair share of DNF’s. The winner’s are always the ones who just kept racing, even in the face of adversity. And King of the Hammers is ripe with adversity and challenge.

Photo of "Brocky" down and out with a flat tire.

Mechanical issues challenged the team ultimately taking them out of the running

As a veritable rookie in this space, prepping for next years King of the Hammers for Vaughn will include riding his YXZ1000R a lot with friends and getting out to some local spots to get some four-wheel “dirt” seat time. The terrain covered in the Every Man Challenge and King of the Hammers is unique to Johnson Valley so there is nothing like being there. But racing is racing!

“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t - you’re right,” Henry Ford. Fascinated and inspired by Ford, Vaughn Gittin Jr. may have been influenced by those very words. His racing career reflects the heart and drive of a true champion. At K&N we look forward to seeing how his 2017 race season unfolds and wish to congratulate him on his continued success.