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Johnson Valley OHV area hosts off-road spectacle

JOHNSON VALLEY • About 51 weeks out of the year, Means Dry Lake is a lifeless patch of dust. But for nine days in February, it becomes the biggest city within a 40-mile radius.

They call it Hammertown.

The main staging area for the annual King of the Hammers off-road race is a cluster of motorhomes, toy haulers, vender booths and attractions. It has signed streets, public restrooms, fast food joints and wi-fi hot spots.

The race combines desert buggy racing with vehicular rock crawling. It started six years ago with 12 competitors testing the limits of their vehicles on the treacherous Hammers Trails of the Johnson Valley Off-Highway Vehicle Area. There were no spectators.

These days, the spectacle is as impressive as the race itself.

Organizers estimate about 30,000 people were on the lakebed for the week of racing, culminating with Friday’s main event (see Saturday's Sports Page for more coverage of the race).

Dave Cole, co-founder and organizer of the event, said at least 270 media credentials were granted and the ultra4racing.com website’s live coverage had received roughly 600,000 page views as of 1 p.m. Friday. According to Cole, racers and fans came from at least 12 countries and 37 states.

“Effectively, we’re a town; we’re bigger than Yucca (Valley) right now as far as population,” Cole said.

Yucca Valley, one of Hammertown’s eastern neighbors, has only about 22,000 residents. The neighbor to the west, Lucerne Valley, is home to less than 7,000.

Any city as large as Hammertown is bound to have a few problems.

To maintain order, Hammerking Productions, Inc., hired private security to assist personnel from the Bureau of Land Management, the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, the California Highway Patrol and the California Department of Parks and Recreation.

Sgt. Rick Collins of the Morongo sheriff’s station said he was aware of a few DUI arrests in Hammertown but said there hadn’t been many problems overall.

“For such a huge event, it’s been great,” Collins said.

But a pair of tragedies with ties to the race occurred outside the borders of Hammertown.

A week ago, three Hesperia teens were killed while driving on Old Woman Springs Road (Highway 247) several miles away from the race area. Their car was hit head-on by a pickup driven by Charles Wayne Persons, 31, who was arrested on suspicion of drunk driving but has not been charged with DUI.

According to the CHP, Persons was assisting a King of the Hammers driver earlier in the day.

Asked if he thought the incident gave the race a negative image, Cole said: “My only thoughts were for the three people that died. ... I have the deepest condolences for the families and I would do anything to make it better.”

On Wednesday, 79-year-old Barney Brown was struck and killed by a vehicle while he was attempting to walk across a road in Yucca Valley. Brown had come from British Columbia for the race.

Hammertown itself seems to have remained fairly safe and serene throughout most of the week.

“That’s the big preconceived notion about off-roaders in general, that it’s just a bunch of drunken idiots bashing stuff, and it’s not,” said Jay Lewton, a 38-year-old automotive restorer who traveled from Phoenix with a friend to watch four days of racing. “There’s a lot of CEOs out here; there’s lawyers racing; there’s big businessmen. ... Everybody here just enjoys each other and hangs out. It’s a good time and it’s a big community.”

As the vehicles begin rolling off the dry lake Saturday, they might be leaving the last King of the Hammers of its kind.

Race organizers, local residents and off-roading groups are fighting the proposed U.S. Marine Corps takeover of part of the Johnson Valley OHV area. A Marine spokesman told the Daily Press last week that the Corps hopes to be training there by early 2014.

Cole was optimistic that the race would continue and the OHV area would still be completely open to the public next year.

“Sure, anything’s possible,” Cole said, “but we have an extraordinarily tight group of activists that are working and an immensely strong and powerful group of citizens that feel strongly and want to keep fighting to make sure that this stays public land.”

Kris Reilly can be reached at kreilly@vvdailypress.com or at (760) 955-5358.

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