February 5, 2014

A roaring triumph for public access

Fabio Manno's buggy runs the course of the 4 Wheel Parts Time Trials on Tuesday, February 4, 2014. King of the Hammers event, an off-road race that combines desert racing and rock crawling on Means Dry Lake at Johnson Valley. A last-minute compromise last year saved this event after the military pushed to take this land for training. (KURT MILLER/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)

Riverside Press-Enterprise

JOHNSON VALLEY -- They crawled up almost-vertical boulder piles. They floored it across the flats. Some of them flipped, and at least one rolled and bounced across the desert floor before settling in a burst of flames.

They are competitors in King of the Hammers 2014, an extreme off-road race in the San Bernardino County desert in which rugged terrain is the worthiest adversary. But this year’s event in Johnson Valley is much more than a week-long contest of machines, drivers and nerves — it is a triumph for public access.

More than four years ago, the world’s most formidable force — the U.S. military — announced plans to take over this off-roading mecca as part of a 424,000-acre expansion of the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center.

The same remote valleys and peaks that make for a challenging race course are a perfect venue for live-fire training exercises for tank battalions, the Marines said.

Many figured the base expansion was a foregone conclusion to be made in the interest of national security. And it would be tough luck for some 200,000 people who hauled their motorcycles, jeeps and four-wheelers each year to Johnson Valley, a designated off-roading area southeast of Barstow and north of the San Bernardino Mountains.

But the off-roaders rallied in force. They signed petitions, attended public meetings, submitted written comments and gained support from elected officials. Environmentalists also wanted the off-road area to stay open, so fewer off-roaders would be tempted to disturb sensitive wildlife habitat elsewhere in the Mojave Desert.

The Department of Defense agreed to a compromise.

Under a law approved by Congress in late December, 99,870 acres will remain part of the Johnson Valley Off-Highway Vehicle Recreation Area, open to the public and under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. The Marines can use about 56,000 acres of the valley for training twice a year, for a total of 60 days.

On Tuesday, Feb. 4, the victory meant that 7,000 people could be there to witness qualifying rounds for the 100-mile-plus King of the Hammers. Organizers expected the crowds to swell beyond 40,000 for the final race on Friday.

VIDEO: Car crashes, flips at King of the Hammers

“It’s just great,” said John Miller, 62, of Running Springs, standing at his dusty campsite with the race roaring in the background. “I am not against the military, but there is a lot of land where they can do their stuff.”

“We’re just getting ready to head up there and watch,” he added. “We have one, two, three generations here,” he added, pointing to himself, his son, Trevor, 38, and his grandson, John, 11, who sat on a 65cc Kawasaki mini-motorcycle.

Trevor Miller said he and his son get to Johnson Valley at least two or three times a year. “It’s always families out here,” he said.

A short ride away, Raul Vega, 33, of Orange, sipped beer from a can as he watched one driver after another attempt to climb a rock-face peak dubbed “The Waterfall.”

“We are happy to see it stay here,” Vega said of the Hammers event. “I took my vacation time to be here. This is one thing I plan for all year.”

His friend Kurtis Magargee, 22, of Yorba Linda, added that participants take care to leave the valley as they found it. Many will spend Saturday, the day after the races, picking up cans and trash. Race organizers have shovel-equipped vehicles ready to scoop up motor oil if it should spill, he added.

Magargee and hundreds of other spectators cheered as one driver attempted to power up The Waterfall, only to slowly roll upside down. It took two vehicles with winches to right the buggy so the trials could resume.

Racer Kevin Sacalas and his co-pilot, Tim Carlson, both of Riverside, had one of the more spectacular crashes. After bumping down a steep hill, they were picking up speed across the flats when their buggy flew out of control and flipped end over end five times before landing in a brief spout of fire. Sacalas wasn’t hurt, and Carlson had only scratches, according to Sacalas’ brother, Robert.

The vehicle, the “Big Ugly,” was a total loss, Robert Sacalas said.

Racers can spend as much as $250,000 to build one of the specialized machines from the ground up, explained driver Crystal Crowder, of Ridgefield, Wash., who was watching this year because her rig needs work.

Just being there was a big win, she said.

“Public land should stay public,” she said. “And this ultimate off-road race is the best in the United States.”

OFF ROADING: Pact mostly preserves Johnson Valley for recreational use