Spotlight on Jose “Bongo” Ponce

The Morning sun crept through the valley near the Fisher Mountain range in Johnson Valley and gave birth to another day of racing at the 2009 King of the Hammers. Jose Ponce had traveled a long way from his home in Mexico by way of Texas to get here. He promised one thing to his fans, crew and the race promoters. He was going to Bring the “Bongo”. It was a promise his crew took to heart when they left in the wee hours of the morning for an impromptu Vegas trip with no regard for the next days activities of qualifying for the King of the Hammers. When Ponce awoke from his tough nights sleep he found that not only has his crew left, but they took the keys to his Ultra4 car with them.

Living in a country famous for doing a lot with a little, and getting the job done by what ever means necessary Ponce promptly hot wired his full size Bronco, walked the camp looking for a new co driver, and prepared for his chance to qualify. Knowing his full size Bronco may not be up to the task, Ponce had a plan, add additional length to the winch rope, and pray. Finding himself unable to beat the waterfall on back door, Ponce did not give up hope and has returned every year since if not in person, at least in spirit. Ponce represents a small contingency of KOH racers who have to battle a larger distance to make it to Johnson Valley than most, lost vehicles in shipping, less than advertised vehicles purchased, or simply an enormous costs to travel to a foreign country to chase a dream of racing. Yet International drivers remain an important part of the King of the Hammers with a continued spirit that finds flags from a number of nations flying at the starting line.

Picture provided by Jose Ponce.


How long have you been competing in Ultra 4 Racing?

I have only participated in the KOH LCQ 2009 and 2010, and recently started and finished in 37th spot at the KOH 2011.

 How long have you been racing?

After completing college I worked for a while in the corporate world then headed back to Mexico, and began to wheel and modify my rig with very limited gear.  My first competition was back in 2002 at the Ramsey Challenge Mexico which later led me to organize UROC and MXRRA in Mexico which introduced the motorsport of extreme rock crawling and rock racing.  It was really hard and there was never any money made, I basically used my sponsorship funds to bring down international racers to add more spice to the events.   In 2006, I traveled up to the final UROC Supercrawl on a really tight budget, and managed to survive in a $6000 zuki with functioning wipers and almost bald tires.  After this I competed in various off-road events in Mexico, Venezuela, Norway and the USA and began to learn new skills.  In 2008, I decided to try WRC rally and made a deal with Tecate Beer who rented me a rally car.  The deal was that if I finished they had to help me purchase my own homologated rally car plus give me 54 cases of beer every month for 2 years.  Well Tecate lost the bet, and I returned again in WRC Mexico 2010 with my co-driver Bill Bridge to win another bet against Tecate.  This time they promised to help us travel to compete at 2 WRC Europe events, but then Heineken bought them out and that deal fell thru.  That is when I decided to concentrate on the King of the Hammers, my favorite race of all time, and in 2011 I teamed up with Dave Gutwillig and Javier Ibarra to return to the Mojave Desert with more Bongo power and finished.  That finish put me on the map, and opened up new doors.


 Tell us about your past experiences in the King of the Hammers and where you have finished?

I believe a movie has been made entitled the Hangover when we raced our first LCQ in 2009.  I raced a Bronco with 35” tires built by Johnny Despain with an adopted co driver, Heath Catron.  It handled great on the desert, but the IFS of the Mule broke when it encountered the rocks, but the folks loved it and that was what mattered.  In 2009, I returned with my WRC co driver Bill Bridge and this time we had a better rig but no tires, we were forced to mount some 42”, and eventually burned out the transmission, but at least we did not lose the keys this time.  In 2011, I was given an international spot but once again lacked the funds so I brainstormed and built a partnership with Gulf Coast Crawl Shop.  I managed to finish with the help of my teammates Dave Gutwillig and Javier Ibarra.  We did no pre-running, and learned some interesting key features and tricks about this race.  So in 2012, count on some more Bongo as Bill Bridge and I return in a new rig with some new innovative yet low budget underdog surprises.

 What’s the attraction to racing of King of the Hammers for you? 

I have always seen it as a small investment with worldwide results.  This race put me on the map, of course I had to prove myself, but one thing I can always count on is that if you need help, other teams will help you out.  I especially would like to thank all the Texas and local California crew for their support.

What’s your favorite part of the King of the Hammers?

The starting line which feels like drag racing, and then figuring out how to go around all the traffic in the rock sections, and reaching the finish line in the allotted time!  KOH feels like WRC in Mexico but on steroids.  I would also have to say that we go for the big Bongo fiesta which is always priceless and one of a kind!

 How do you physically and mentally prepare for this type of racing? 

I have my secrets, and adapt some rally techniques that I have picked up, but the most important thing is getting along with your teammate and understanding each other so you can work at 110% so you can both put up with each other for 14 hours in a rig.  I know that everyone at KOH is legally insane, so I feel right at home.

 Teamwork is a big part of KOH, Tell us about your team for the King of the Hammers?

Pit crew, Pit crew, Pit crew! It is amazing to see that every year more Mexican fans come to support us as well as other Hispanics and locals.  We now even have a pro photographer!  I respect and owe everything to everyone who lends a hand and gives us advice every year.   

 How much does strategy play a part in KOH?

Huge role, this year we ran a unique strategy and it worked, so we will be sticking to it, but always have a plan B just in case.

 What will it take to win the King of the Hammers in 2012?

Mucho Dinero and more Bongo!

 How much does a car vs. a drivers ability play into winning the King of the Hammers?

I would have to say it is more about the driver and co-driver, then the rig.  You have to know what and how to race in these 2 types of terrain, once you know that just race at what you feel the rig can handle.    

If you had the opportunity to participate in any race in the world, what would it be and why?

King of the Hammers.

 Who is your racing idol and why?

Wendell Scott, how many black taxi driver/moonshine bootleggers do you know that have raced and placed in Nascar with no racing funds.  Wendall was always an underdog who finished with style.

 If you had an unlimited budget what would you build to compete in the King of the Hammers?

Finish my Jeep Speed/Ultra 4 rig and mount a huge Mexican flag with a huge fly replacing the eagle, since I believe that the national bird of Mexico is the fly, and the number 1824.


Ponce would race this burro if needed to be a part of KOH.  We love ya brother!

 Do you have any advice to give someone who is aspiring to race the King of the Hammers?

Believe 20% of what you see and hear, go out there and try your best.  If you get nervous, block it out and picture the time when you first went wheeling and have a great time.

 Can you tell us about the sponsors and people that have made it possible for you to do this?

I owe all my success and would like to thank my wife, family, friends, and partners who keep supporting me (FOA, Raceline Wheels, PRP Race seats, Casanova Motorsports, City of Laredo Texas, Ramsey Winch, DynoMax, IRC tracking, Masterpull, Rusty’s Offroad, Tom Woods, KC HiLites, Moods of Norway, Yokohama, Gaz Shocks, The George Lopez Foundation and Quartermile Graphics) especially my teammates Bill Bridge of Inviscid Motorsports and Dave Gutwillig of Javier Ibarra’s Gulf Coast Crawl Shop for helping me with their racing talent.  I would also like to thank Jeff and Dave for giving me the opportunity to participate in this world class event! Gracias! Bongo, Bongo, Bongo!

The Facts Jose Manuel Ponce


  Co-Driver Name:  Bill Bridge/Dave Gutwillig

 Team Name: Team Bongo Mexico        Car # 4472

 Age: 39    Hometown:  Morelia, Michoacán, Mexico

 Chassis Builder:  Javier Ibarra/Ponce       Engine: 4.0

Transmission:   AW4                             T-case: Dana 300

 Axles F/R: Dana 60/ GM 14   Lockers F/R: Detroit/Spool

Seats: PRP                                                       Shocks: FOA

 Tires: Yokohama                                           Wheels: Race line


Ponce Your everything KOH represents, keep the fire lit and never quit living the dream.


About the Author

Jeff Knoll is the former Event Director for the King of the Hammers event. He has raced various classes in SCORE, BITD, MORE, and MDR. Following the California 200, Knoll travelled to Washington, DC to meet with BLM officials regarding the Special Recreation Permit policies of the BLM. Knoll serves on the BLM’s Desert Advisory Sub-Committee regarding Special Recreation Permits. Knoll also drafted language for Nevada’s Senate Bill 156 in 2011 regarding action sports safety.

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