King of the Hammers returned to Johnson Valley this past February as thousands of fans once again descended upon the massive off-highway vehicle area outside of Los Angeles to watch some of the world's most hardcore racing action. I got a chance to visit for the UTV Class race on Thursday and witnessed aggressive driving, as well as the massive party that pops up at Johnson Valley with trailers, campers, trucks, and toys spread all across the remote region.
The week of racing and partying climaxes in Saturday's main event, when the 4400 class of unlimited Ultra4 racers sets out for a day of rock crawling, dune charging, and whoop jumping. This year, two experienced King of the Hammers racers—brothers Cody and Hunter Miller—decided to join the big trucks racing in a tiny Can-Am Maverick X3 UTV.
Can-Am documented the Miller brothers' trials and travails throughout this year's King of the Hammers and just dropped the third installment of the "72 Hours" YouTube series. Ahead of the new episode's debut, I caught up with Cody and Hunter Miller to learn more about why they thought a UTV might have a chance to win a 220-mile race against the multi-million-dollar custom trucks that make up the 4400 unlimited field.
Bringing A Spoon To A Gun Fight
Can-Am titled the first episode of the Miller brothers' series "Who brings a spoon to a gun fight?" But even though that might sound like a reference to a small side-by-side racing against the most aggressive Ultra4 class, the desert itself represents an equal amount of the challenge that makes King of the Hammers so legendary.
"Hammers has basically turned in into the most difficult and prestigious off-road race in the America," Cody said. "It offers more challenges than any other track in the country. It's our Super Bowl and it's certainly most our most important event of the year."
I asked how the plan to enter a Can-Am Maverick X3 in the main event even developed.
"We like a challenge," Hunter laughed. "The whole thing started a couple years ago as a joke, to be honest with you. In 2020, it was our first year out there and we qualified one-two in the UTV race, which we were not expecting to do. We came out, we took off, and I led most of the event and ended up winning it. Cody had a mechanical issue, like three miles in and spent the next half hour fixing it."
Can-Am Support For A Bold Race
Even if the idea emerged as a joke originally, the logistics to field a race team for another grueling day requires tremendous support. Luckily, Can-Am jumped on board with the Millers' hare-brained idea.
"Can-Am was immediately like, 'Yeah, this is a great idea,'" Cody replied. "We wanna see you race against these trucks."
Of course, the earned media coverage of such a David and Goliath story probably helped nudge Can-Am towards such a decision.
"They really like to see the adversity of us putting our Can-Am X3s that are basically a limited vehicle," Hunter added. "We've got production vehicle, less than 1,000cc, about 200 horsepower, a smaller wheelbase, smaller suspension travel... But the capability is there. So they're like, 'Let's just see how far we can push this and let's see what you guys can really do.' And this year, they supported us more than ever."
Advantages And Disadvantages Of A Side-By-Side
The simple mechanicals of a UTV compared to an Ultra4 car seem fairly obvious when they park next to each other at the starting line. But I found myself curious whether the Millers experienced any advantages that the X3 might offer in competition against the big boys.
"It really makes for some pretty interesting racing," said Cody. "We can kind of hold our own in the desert, but definitely the front-running fully independent cars have an advantage on us there. We get into the rocks and I think we do better than the IFS cars, but maybe some of the straight axles have a little bit of an advantage on us. There's basically three different platforms there and they all have their spots, where we're kind of in between everything."
King of the Hammers requires the ability to do everything reasonably well, rather than sticking with a strict rock-crawler or high-speed sand rail. And in some places, a UTV's smaller dimensions present immediate benefits.
Size Matters In The Rocks
"Our track width and wheelbase actually is kind of an advantage in a lot of the rocks, as well," Cody jumped in. "We can miss a lot of the stuff that they struggle to get through. You know, some of the obstacles are really tight, even in our cars. So you've gotta have those big 40 and 42-inch tires, those things have to be able to drive over that stuff where we just kind of snake right through it."
Blending Reliability And Capability
The big unlimited trucks weigh actual tons more than a UTV, though, thanks to beefed-up construction and tougher components—a pro and a con, it turns out.
"We are more nimble, we are more agile," Hunter explained. "But we have to be careful because we can break our cars just in the blink of an eye. But they have to bash through that stuff where we can miss it, so it leads to a lot of failures for them, as well."
The weight savings versus a bigger rig also helps the Millers scrabble up the steeper paths that make up plenty of the King of the Hammers race route.
"The average 4400 is 5-6,000 pounds," Hunter continued, "Where we're right around 2,200 pounds. So you've got a loose, steep climb and our cars go right up it because they're not carrying all that weight. Whereas those things, they're just digging to get up this stuff because it's loose and they're carrying an extra 4,000 pounds."
Trying to pit what seems like an obviously limited vehicle against some of the most hardcore vehicles on the planet sounds like a challenge enough, but Can-Am's YouTube series following the Millers also delves into the teamwork component behind the scenes, so I asked the duo what it's really like to race alongside your own brother.
"It's been a family sport since we got started at a really young age," Cody replied. "I was nine years old when we started racing and I'm 34 now. My parents hardly ever miss any events. And my brother and I, we're partners, so we share expenses and we share earnings... And we share a lot of arguments nonstop."
Sibling Rivalry And Teamwork
Not all arguments translate to bad communication, though.
"We don't always have the same idea about where we're going or what we're doing or how we're gonna do it, but we definitely come to terms pretty quickly and figure it out. It definitely helps because there are a lot of things that Hunter's really good at and I'm lacking, and there are a lot of things that I'm really good at that he's lacking. Together, it makes it easier on both of us.
Even if the two work together racing the 4400 trucks, they also face off against each other in the UTV race earlier in the week. And Hunter, three years older than Cody, managed to pull off that King of the Hammers win, so I wondered aloud whether his brother's victory provides extra motivation for Cody's own driving.
"Oh, I'm extra disgusted," Cody retorted. "It irks me in such a way you wouldn't even believe."
Laughing, I asked Hunter if he lords the victory over his little bro.
"Absolutely, that's the only reason I did the thing!" he boasted.
"He literally has the King of the Hammers trophy sitting right in between our workstations in the shop," Cody revealed.
And then how much extra pressure throughout the course of a complex desert racing does a film crew add?
"To be honest with you, we can tune that stuff pretty well," Cody replied. "We had camera guys all around at all times for two weeks and they were super, super respectful. If we needed space, they could tell without us even saying something."
As fun as racing in King of the Hammers might seem, when I visited the festivities this year and caught some of the action at the finish line, all the drivers and co-drivers looked absolutely demolished after the hard day's work. What kind of actual enjoyment do the Miller brothers get out of such intense competition?
"Who would even want to do a race like that?" Cody replied, only half joking. "Something that crazy, something that treacherous? For me, it's about the fans, the girls, the money, and the fame."
Expect the Miller brothers to head back to King of the Hammers next year, perhaps with more UTV entrants competing alongside them in the 4400 unlimited class. In the meantime, catch up on all three episodes following the Miller Brothers on their path to King of the Hammers fame and fortune.
Sources: youtube.com, blm.gov, ultra4racing.com, and can-am.brp.com,