Majestic Madness: King of the Motos 2017

“Jimmy Lewis is a bad man.”
– Anonymous motorcyclist too scared to ride the King of the Motos

If Jimmy Lewis’ name doesn’t ring a bell with you, that’s ok for now. I will expect you to do your own research when you finish reading this issue, though. 

Short version: Jimmy is the proprietor of the Jimmy Lewis Off-Road Riding School, and a very accomplished off-road racer with Baja and Dakar wins under his belt. He’s also one of the sadistic minds behind King of the Motos. 

King of the Motos isn’t familiar? Stay with me here…

King of the Motos finds its roots in the King of the Hammers off-road race originally conceived by Dave Cole and Jeff Knoll, back in 2007. The format combines rock crawling and desert racing into one grueling endurance event. It takes place at an OHV park known as Johnson Valley, which includes the dry bed of Means Lake. The terrain is diverse and unique, with its hard-packed lake bed, sand dunes, and rocky mountain ridges. 

King of the Hammers was so popular it spawned Ultra4 racing, with similar races run worldwide. The 11th running of the original KOH race was this past February, and drew the largest crowd yet. I was there, working with #4437 of Sexton Offroad.

First prize? A 12-pack of beer.

If rock crawling or desert racing aren’t familiar to you, I’ll let that slide. What you need to know is that both activities are almost polar opposites in the four-wheeled off-road world, trials versus Dakar, if you will. The idea of combining both into a single lap, using one vehicle is either brilliant or bonkers, depending on your perspective.

Either way, the logical progression is to apply a similar concept to motorcycle racing, right? 

That’s King of the Motos, now in its 6th year with a new format—and it’s one of the most insane things I have ever seen, at least involving motorcycles. Hare scramble starts, unbelievably difficult terrain, and an extreme mixture of riding disciplines. The addition of a night race this year ratcheted the insanity up at least one more nutso notch, because additional difficulty is something Jimmy Lewis lives for. 

The other “interesting” addition this year? The lack of trail markers. So imagine this: you’re riding up a rock crawling trail at night, navigating by GPS with only your stupid crappy headlights—one on your bike, and one on your head—to see by. That’s multitasking extreme, kid.

I’ve already copped to my involvement with the 4-wheeled side of this series, and it was only a matter of time before I tried to insert myself amongst the 2-wheelers. Actually entering crossed my mind, but I can’t ride dirt very well, and my only “dirt bike” is a Honda Hawk GT. 

Why not drag the dirt Hawk or some other ill-advised motorcycle to the lake bed with my trusty EMPI Sportster dune buggy? Thankfully, Editor Surj has a more realistic perspective on these things, and offered the CityBike project CRF250L for Kings duty.

Now (relatively) properly equipped, I needed a plan, and one fell into my lap, in the form of local insane moto guy (and moto-centric attorney) Chris Scranton. In addition to running Scranton Law Firm, Chris has extensive experience in Baja and with other desert races, so KOM seemed like a good idea to him.

But due to some combination of bad luck and bad choices, Chris managed to do some pretty severe damage to his ribcage while riding his mountain bike two weeks before the event. This presented him with an opportunity to be the guy who raced KOM with broken ribs. 

Chris went to KOM, but instead of becoming that legend, drew on traits I’ve heard called “maturity” and “self-preservation instinct” and withdrew from the race.

Without a hero for my tale, I did what any motojournalist would do—I went riding. Without Chris to chase, I sort of paralleled the course in the name of taking pictures. 

I might have done more riding than picture taking. Between you and me, of course. 

What can I say? Drop me into a giant OHV park with a well-sorted dirtbike and there can only be one result.

Until this year, KOM had followed the format of the four-wheeled Hammers races—run as one long endurance event. In the interest of increasing difficulty, Jimmy split the race into three separate motos: a night race, a desert race, and what he called an “extreme race.” The night race was Saturday night, and the desert and endurance events happened Sunday, creating breaks just long enough for the victims—oops, riders—to suffer some aches and pains before getting back on the bike for another beating.

My adventure started with the night race: 90 bikes lined up for an uphill run, into a 90-degree turn around a traffic cone and entry into a rocky, narrow canyon called “Chocolate Thunder.” That obstacle has thwarted many a serious rock crawling rig, so sending 90 bikes through at once, in the dark, is a scene that can only be described as utter chaos. 

From there, riders navigated a ridge composed of loose sand, sharp rocks, big rocks, small rocks, and cliff edges. No markers—only GPS—and there are checkpoints that must be hit. Missing a checkpoint will cost you positions. As Jimmy puts it, “Checkpoints are more important than time.”

With the madness well underway, I jumped on the CRF and hustled through the loose sand at the base of the ridge in hopes of catching riders at the finish. I quickly learned the shortcomings of the CRF’s stock lighting. I didn’t break 40mph—the stock headlight was not nearly enough to keep me informed of the dangers ahead. 

Probably for the better, but without that minor letdown, I would have nothing to complain to Surj about upon my return to World Headquarters…

My superior (barely adequate) dirt skills did get me to the finish line in time to see the leaders coming down a mildly-tamed cliff at speeds beyond terrifying: two 2-stroke enduro bikes at full song, neither rider willing to let off, headed into a waiting crowd of people, including a few who clearly didn’t understand the concept of run-off area. 

Taylor Robert and Cody Webb win the award for the best finish ever, in my mind. Luckily, those two were able to slide through the crowd as officials rushed to open the space after the finish up for the rest of the pack.

I felt the need for some post-race exploring, so I retrieved my trusty dune buggy from camp. It was Saturday night after all—no reason to go to bed early. I enlisted my friend Erica, who was there to assist Jimmy in his endeavor as well as scout out the race to prepare herself for future entry. The best plan we could come up with was to follow some reasonable-looking trails that led to a very soft sand hill. 

This wasn’t ordinary sand, but rather an incredibly pillowy loam that threatened to swallow the Sportster whole. 

Our first attempt up the hill netted just 80% success, so the next step was to get a good run. The mighty air-cooled VW engine gave its all and we managed to crest the hill. Riding high on that victory, I decided not to go down the other side, because not getting back up meant ped-power back to camp, and I am not much of a hiker. 

I am also not much of a dune buggy-er, and managed to sink the Sportster right down to the skid plate. So much for victory…

Somewhere out there is a song entitled, “If you’re gonna be dumb, you gotta be tough.” That wisdom certainly applies here. After various rigs passed by, making their way up the hill and not stopping because stopping would mean they’d be sunk too, we started to dig. The soft material was easy to move with bare hands, and every ten minutes of digging moved the buggy approximately three inches. It was starting to look like we’d be hiking back to camp, when I spied an older UTV attempting the hill. The driver tried longer and longer runs, but each attempt netted this guy the same 50% climb, and he finally chose a different line that pointed him right towards the stranded Sportster. 

As fate would have it, the little UTV managed to dig in about 40 feet from my trapped buggy. I ran towards it, hoping to ask the driver for help. His passenger beat me to it, and yelled loudly: “PUSH!” 

I leaned against the back as the driver floored his poor rig and it climbed slowly towards the summit. When he reached hard pack, he walked back towards us, and we hatched a plan to free my buggy. 

The 4 of us grabbed the front of the car, lifted it up and turned it 90 degrees. Pointed downhill, with the tires now holding the car’s weight, I started the engine and we made our way back to Hammertown. 

We detoured through the remaining mud pits in the area, because, muddy dune buggy… and we miraculously made it through without getting stuck again.

After sunup Sunday morning, I rolled out to scout the Extreme race route—I missed the desert race but this afforded me an excellent opportunity to plan where I would get epic shots of the chaos. While I couldn’t keep up with the leaders, who were marked by closely-following helicopters, I did get to experience a race of my own. With Erica in tow on her KTM, I gave the CRF all I had chasing the racers from valley to valley, just to get close enough to get a picture. At the end of the race, I’d logged 40 miles of dirt on the CRF, in about 3 hours.

The final results for the KOM race showed the top three finishers on 2-stroke European cross-country bikes: Colton Haaker on a Husqvarna FX350, Max Gerston on a Beta 300RR, and Mitch Carvolth on a KTM 300XC. 

Notice a trend here? Apparently the extreme enduro is dominated by the 300-350cc 2-stroke bike—kinda refreshing in a time when the 450 motocross bike seems to be the top of the mark.

I returned to camp to offload my camera and get some refreshment as the race team was lining up to pre-run the actual KOH race course. Not one to miss an opportunity for mayhem, I topped up the CRF’s big IMS tank and jumped in line. 

I felt as if Sam Devine might have been with me in spirit, grinning for another Stupid Adventure. 

The KOH course starts in Hammertown, with a motocross-like setup. We skipped that and headed for the hills, where I found two fairly steep, loose sand hills that set the tone for what would soon become a very long day. The first dune required a short run, but I managed to climb it. Shades of my buggy adventure settled in, but at least I wasn’t the only vehicle this time. The second dune proved to be too much for the CRF to ascend with all 220 pounds of Fish aboard. First gear would dig in and spin the rear tire, but second just didn’t have the grunt. No matter, I’d just go around the hill.

I got some good speed on the flat stuff, but when I made my way around, the team was gone. Twelve miles in and I’d lost them! 

A smarter rider might have turned back right then, but I had plenty of fuel and a cell phone with a full battery. I pressed onward. 

Unlike the Motos course, the Hammers course still uses traditional arrows and W (wrong way) markers, making the course easier to navigate. With every passing mile mark, I gained confidence and twisted the throttle a bit more, and the CRF was quite happy rolling along in third gear on the dry lake bed. I may have only been going 35 mph, but I felt like I was flying! 

This lasted longer than I expected—I think I made it until mile marker 35 or so before I had a “where the fuck am I?” moment. 

Part of the course cuts into the Twentynine Palms Marine base, so I chose to skirt that section. Using the GPS on my phone and a wrinkled map, I picked up the course at mile marker 47, where the course makes a transition from hard pack lake bed to a substance composed of the gravel they use to chip seal our favorite local twisty bits these days. Making matters worse, the shit was approximately two feet deep, although travelling in the ruts was not as bad, with only 4-6 inches of this awful stuff. 

I did eventually find myself faced with a problem: the speeds required to keep from falling over in the grav-hell also made controlling the bike… less precise. That evil stuff managed to draw the front wheel in and I experienced a “why am I on the ground?” moment.

I managed to pick myself up and wake the CRF from its slumber pretty quickly. This being my first crash of the week, I chalked it up to excessive speed and tried to back off a bit. But lower speed made the ruts more difficult to stay in, and I found the front wheel again wandering into the hellish mass in the center of the course. It wasn’t long before I found myself on the ground again. 

I looked over to see the CRF resting peacefully on its left side again, unfazed by my lack of talent or skill or whatever. I picked up the bike and set off again, this time in the left wheel track. This at least gave me some variety—my next crash dropped the bike on its right side.

My memory’s a little hazy, but It must have been around mile marker 50 when I caught a nasty rock protruding from the left side of the trail, folding the shifter inward and back as and smashing my foot into the swingarm pivot. 

Yeah, that hurt. 

I got up and running again, but didn’t grasp the extent of the damage until I attempted a downshift and found the shift lever bound against the skid plate.

I was thinking of stopping when the grav-hell caught me again, and again on was on my ass. I dug out the CRF’s fortunately well-augmented tool kit, found the included pliers, got a good grip on the shifter and did my best to move it slowly to a more usable position. This almost worked, but I ended up breaking the end off of the shifter.

Oh well. I threw the remnant into the tailbag and pressed on. Ten miles left, what could go wrong? Besides, with only one gear, it’d be a slow, easy cruise.

Or so I though. The last bit of the course turned out to be a pretty severe sand hill climb. With one gear, I was forced to walk dutifully alongside the CRF to get it up the hill. 

My ascent concluded in the most bittersweet moment I’ve experienced in a very long time. I could see the lights of Hammertown, but I could also see the sketchy as fuck rock cliff descent that I faced. I let out an audible “Aw, hell no!” 

I looked back at the hill I’d just climbed, then looked at the mountain range extending to either side. I made the decision to go for it, and eased the clutch out. The loose rock was no good for braking, so my speed rapidly increased. I alternated between locking the front and back, teetering on the edge of a lowside with every skid. 

The entire experience lasted less than three minutes, but I think I lost five years of my life. I did manage to slide to the awaiting lake bed safely, and wicked up the throttle. Again with that light-speed feeling for the last two miles of sand to get back to my waiting bed.

My triumphant return to camp was met with little fanfare, as the team had actually headed back to camp from route marker 12. They were well rested and had been enjoying the lakebed camping experience. I peeled off my gear and settled in for some sleep.

Yeah, it was only 100 miles on dirt, but it took me nine hours to do it, and I lost count of my crashes, never mind my smashed foot and broken shifter.

If you’re looking for a good excuse to go to the desert in February, this is it. I spent nine days on the lakebed, but if you’re only in it for the bikes, you can pack that into a three-day weekend.  The crowds for the King of the Motos weekend are smaller, but by the following Thursday, Means Lake’s dry bed becomes a bustling city of 40,000 people, all interested in playing in the dirt and rocks. This is an insane event, and you’d have to be insane to miss it.

For more majestic moto madness, check out out coverage of King of the Motos 2018.

This story originally appeared in our April 2017 issue, which you can read in all its original high-res glory here.

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