Racers are a special breed. The men and women who put their lives on the line to speed down a race track, a street course or an off road course are different than most. Those who race through deserts and rocks are even more unique. There is something very special about these people, and those who win championships separate themselves even further from the pack – figuratively, as well as literally. It’s been said that championships are won in the trenches by those who refuse to quit. Although King of the Hammers may be only one race, this one race is a microcosm of what makes up a racing series championship in Ultra4. With its high-speed desert racing, treacherous rock hopping and low-speed/high-torque sections, King of the Hammers demands car and driver to be ready for everything possible – and a little bit more. There are probably no other single-day events that take more from their competitors and the equipment that they use.
A driver needs to have it all: raw talent, a fast, tough and well-engineered race car and a skilled team to keep him up front. Is that all it takes? Yes. Well… to win a drag race that’s all. King of the Hammers ain’t no drag race, kiddos. Comparing it to one is like comparing apples to Appalachia.
To win King of the Hammers, you also need preparation, strength and conditioning, superhuman desire and willpower, along with the intestinal fortitude of an astronaut. And then you still have to beat more than 150 other tough competitors, the desert and a few rocks that make up sections known collectively as “The Hammers.” King of the Hammers would be a nightmare to most people. To the rest of us, it’s the ultimate dream; the place to prove your worth as a driver, buggy-builder, strategist and/or mechanic.
Erik Miller proved his mettle in 2012 when he won this race. He proved it even more in 2014 when he lost it. Erik and his team probably put more into winning the King of the Hammers than any other team. By the time they get to the Hammers, they have already logged more miles than most others. They’re also at least a week early. Why? Because, to use a cliché, “losing is not an option” for these guys. Just who are these guys, anyway? Miller Motorsports consists of driver and team leader Erik Miller, along with co-driver Rob Ruggiero and crew members Dominic Balducci, John Balducci, Jacob Burk, Scott Decker, Kevin Ledder, Ryan Early and Michael Baklarz. Based in Maryland, the team members live in numerous states throughout the Mid-Atlantic region and work out of the Miller Motorsports shop located in the woods on a mountain somewhere outside of Cumberland, MD. It’s in this small but expanding shop where Erik builds his race vehicles, including the one that won the 2012 King of the Hammers… as well as the one that triumphantly lost the 2014 King of the Hammers.
The Miller Motorsports team doesn’t travel across the United States to Johnson Valley, CA in order to finish last – or even second. They are always setting loftier goals for themselves. In 2010, their goal was to finish well. They did. After starting in 58th, Erik and Rob announced their arrival on the ULTRA4 scene with a 5th place finish; more than good enough to qualify them for the next season’s race. They went on to win the 2010 ULTRA4 International Endurance Championship.
The 2011 King of the Hammers race foreshadowed what Erik and Rob would encounter in 2014. They came to the race expecting all of their hard work, planning and experience to bring them the podium finish that a blown tire kept them from achieving on their rookie–season run. In 2011 their problems began with another flat tire, this time the rock that caused the tire to flatten also broke the steering ram clamp. Eventually they made it to the remote pit, where they were able to weld the ram to the axle housing and change the tire. More damage followed, this time to the steering. The subsequent repairs cost the team much more than a podium finish. The additional two hours of repairs caused them to drop to a respectable but disappointing 14th and the planning for the 2012 race began. It should be noted here that they never quit. Long after the winning teams crossed the line, and the podium filled, Erik and Rob kept on digging to get that 14th place finish.
The event went more smoothly in 2012 and Erik Miller took the coveted championship, becoming the youngest, as well as the only east coast driver to do so. And although the team was disappointed not to take a win, or even a podium in 2013, 4th place at the toughest one-day race on the map is still a pretty decent day.
At the onset of the 2014 season, Miller Motorsports switched tire sponsors to Nitto Tire. Erik wanted to do more than just win the King of the Hammers for his new sponsor (and those who continued to support him). He wanted to win both the Everyman Challenge (the support race run the day before the ULTRA4 race which he also competed in) as well as conquering the KoH championship as he did two years earlier.
Sound impossible? To most people: yes. But guess what? He damn near did it. After winning the EMC on Thursday, he came back the next morning and, from his third-position starting spot had gained the lead over Nitto teammate Loren Healy by the third and final lap. But that was the easy part. This isn’t any ordinary race; it’s King of the Hammers and the third lap of this race is the very brutal lap of attrition .
By now, you’re probably wondering what Erik Miller did in the 2014 King of the Hammers race that made his story even more amazing than that of Loren Healy, who overcame multiple mechanical issues, including a busted radiator, to win the race? Well, we’re not going to tell you.
We’re going to let Erik Miller tell you. We thought that this story was so amazing that we sent a film crew to his shop in those woods on that hill somewhere outside of Cumberland, MD to hear him tell the story that only he could properly tell. See for yourself why people like Erik Miller are unique in all the world and remember, he could have asked to be towed home at any time and nobody would have thought any less of him….