It’s called the toughest single-day off-road race for a reason. The King of the Hammers competition earns this crown by combining triple-digit speeds through wide-open California desert stretches featuring wicked canyons strewn with Volkswagen Beetle-sized boulders. Drivers and vehicles alike must be ready to tackle both—but that doesn’t always work out.
(Photo credit: Dirt Cinema)
Engine failures, damaged tires, twisted metal, and other catastrophes have all left racers stranded in the Mojave Desert during King of the Hammers races. But when the terrain is so unforgiving that towing a vehicle back to the pits isn’t an option, the aviation experts at High Performance Helicopters swoop in (read: steadily hover over) to help.
High Performance Helicopters is based in Redlands, California, about a 30-minute flight from where the racing takes place in Johnson Valley. High Performance Helicopters offers services ranging from moving payloads onto construction sites to aerial firefighting to recovering vehicles.
During the 2023 King of Hammers showdown, High Performance Helicopters twice dispatched aircraft to the desert, both times to recover stranded side-by-side UTVs. The company sent its HP-60A (a Sikorsky Black Hawk) and its Huey-based UH-1H+++. Both helicopters are demilitarized, and upfitted with rugged equipment that makes tasks like grabbing immobilized vehicles a snap.
According to HPP, simply spotting an out-of-commission machine can be a challenge sometimes, due to the deep and technical canyons typical of the Johnson Valley area. Once the target is acquired, the pilot hovers while other team members exit the helicopter and attach their rescue rigging to the stranded vehicle. Race-ready side-by-side UTVs are lifted easily by the Huey and its 3,500-pound payload capacity. HPP explained that its Black Hawk is more of a heavy-lifter and can carry about 8,000 pounds. Once a vehicle is attached to either, the helicopter carries it to a safe drop-off point.
As the crow—or, er, Black Hawk—flies, the rescue only requires moving the disabled UTV a few miles to safety. However, when the helicopter burns 135 gallons of aviation fuel per hour, the cost of such an operation adds up quickly. Racers requiring a helicopter to recover their vehicles can rack up bills between $4,000 and $6,000, with costs sometimes even approaching five figures depending on the difficulty of the rescue—so do your best not to get stuck if you plan to compete in the big leagues.
Photos by Jason Stilgebouer and Dirt Cinema
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