February 12, 2023 (Johnson Valley, CA) The 2023 Nitto Race of Kings was the most exciting and competitive race of the 2023 Progressive King of the Hammers Powered by OPTIMA and arguably in its history. Now a global motorsports event broadcast worldwide and attended by tens of thousands of spectators, the Nitto Race of Kings brought 104 drivers to the starting grid.
Many gave it their all, some finished, but only one could be “King.” Drivers and their teams fought their way across a savage 202-mile racecourse that is widely considered the toughest one-day desert off-road race in the world. Making his way masterfully through many miles of deep sand, razor sharp rocks, and huge boulders faster than all the others with a time of 5 hours, 45 minutes, and 27 seconds, returning 2022 champion Raul Gomez (83) was crowned the 2023 King of the Hammers. It was an epic battle throughout the race between Gomez and 3-time King Jason Scherer, keeping fans on the edge of their seats as they watched the livestream and clock.
Raul Gomez told us, “My son Darian broke down in Jackhammer and hiked over to help me winch through Sledgehammer since I was in a single seat car.” Because Darian is a competitor, the rule is he can help other competitors, but no outside support is allowed during the race. “It made a big difference.” Darian remained in Jackhammer helping other cars, showing the sportsmanship known throughout this race.
“It felt just like we were in a short course race," said Gomez. "Full send on the rock trails. That’s pretty much how it was today. It wasn’t like cruise in or crawl in. When I didn’t see his (Scherer) dust, I knew this guy is really moving fast, so I had to start picking up the pace.”
“On the second lap, I was catching him (Scherer) in the rock trails, and I got a flat. I had to jump out and get it myself. I’ve actually been practicing changing my flats all week and got really good at it. I got it down to less than 4 minutes, got right back out there and just tried to catch him again the whole race.”
“When I was coming up on Emerson Dry Lake on the way to finish line and I saw a helicopter flying over Jason and I yelled, “I got you, J!” That was the only thought I had in my mind. I just said, okay, at least we’re in the desert. It’s my time to shine right now!”
A Field of Kings
The 2023 Race of the Kings three-lap racecourse consisted of one lap of open high-speed desert that can hide obstacles and irregular terrain in a cloak of dust and two laps through the rocky tire-eating Hammers canyons. The last two laps are not exactly the same. The third lap consists of some of the second lap and a couple of unique rock canyons. The rock laps tend to spread out the field of contenders, and by the time leaders are on their third rock lap, an abundance of broken cars litter the course.
The 2023 Race of Kings win was not an easy one for Gomez. Three-time King Jason Scherer (76) started on the front row in the number two position next to pole-sitter Paul Wolff (1018) and led the 2023 Race of the Kings for almost its entire length.
Sherer was first on the road from the very early stages of the race, making the rest of the hopeful leaders chase him all day long. Gomez had started in the second row in fourth position next to Bryan Crofts (9), but quickly moved up and stuck to Scherer like a hunting hound on the chase.
Sherer led Gomez into the second lap by just a few seconds on corrected time. By the end of the third lap, Sherer was still first on the track, but behind on elapsed time by a mere 46 seconds. Gomez won the brutal 200-mile Race of the Kings by crossing a few seconds behind Sherer but close to a minute’s advantage in elapsed time.
Three-time King Jason Scherer would get a second overall finish in the 2023 Race of the Kings with an elapsed time of 5 hours, 46 minutes, and 16 seconds. “It was a little bit of a bummer at the end of the day to lose a couple cylinders. It put us down on power and not able to do our thing by saving the car to have that late run. It stings but we did everything we could. Ironically, this is how we finished last year. We’ll be back.”
“I have to thank Jason Berger, my co-driver. He’s not only one of my best friends in the whole world, but he’s an awesome coach in the car. He knew exactly what we needed to do the entire race. He managed me and pushed me when he needed to.”
On racing against Raul Gomez, “It’s all you could ever hope for. When it comes down to the wire after nearly 6 hours and 200 miles of racing, it’s just such a great battle.”
Third place overall position would go to former (2020) King Josh Blyler (41) who started 13th off the start line. Josh clocked an elapsed time of 5 hours, 59 minutes, and 35 seconds. His father Rusty ended up fourth overall, right behind Josh. “It was a very fast course. You could just let the car eat. Pop pulled me off the line, and we didn’t catch him until lap three. He was winching in Aftershock. That was the first time we got to him, and I got around him.”
“There are not many sports you can race competitively with a father and son team. He's just as competitive as an 18-year-old kid in this sport, so it's fun. I would say I am more conservative. He is more, ‘I don't care, hammer down kind of style.’ I try to save it a little better. He's a little wilder than I am, that's for sure."
“My co-driver Jared and I have been in this car for the last four years and it just works so well. It’s necessary to have a groove, a value that works together. We communicate without talking, and it’s amazing how well we work together.”
KOH Draws Talent
The lure of King of the Hammers is strong with a reputation for testing the mettle of drivers and their machines. A host of talented drivers and their unlimited desert racing cars competed in the 2023 Nitto Race of the Kings.
Among those who came to battle the terrain and try their driving skills and physical resilience against the toughest desert race in the world were Baja-racing ace Cameron Steele, three-time King Shannon Campbell, Ford Bronco driver and two-time King Loren Healy, Jason Blanton, Levi Shirley, Ford Bronco team member Vaughn Gittin Jr., two-time King Erik Miller, and three-time King Randy Slawson.
Randy Slawson knows these trails like the back of his hand, so it’s no surprise he scored fifth overall in one of the roughest Race of Kings in years. “That last mile was painful. We wanted to finish hot, and we were coming in to do it. We cleared Turkey Claw (the last rock canyon before the finish) and were coming around into that sand wash. We were flying and clipped a rock, and I suddenly heard ‘clack, clack, clack, clack.’ We ripped the upper link mount off the car.”
“We're just driving faster and faster because the equipment is getting better and better. Sometimes it's scary. It's definitely an exhilarating ride. But a lot of times, it's just an all-day car crash in the rocks.”