The lure and adventure of desert racing
Take a look at entry lists these days. Races such as Finke, Hattah, Condo 750 and the Australasian Safari are all fully subscribed months before the events start, despite the fact their entry fees are pretty steep. So what is it about desert racing that attracts so many riders from all over Australia?
I think there's a few reasons. First, desert racing is all about the challenge - the brutal physical test, as well as the desert's mental test with its excessive speeds. Second, desert races offer a mix of adventure and racing - the intoxicating idea of planning some decent time off work, and taking a trip to the desert with the family or the boys. Desert races are definitely not just another weekend's racing; they're an event, a tick on the bucket list, a memory that riders and their support network never forget. Preparing your bike, scrutineering, speaking to all the locals who rock up to check it out – it's all part of the experience. The local communities get consumed with the event. Everyone is interested in what's going on; who's the favourite, who's had problems in the lead-up, who's on the gas. All the rumours add to the hype.
Why did I race the Finke this year? For me, it was simply because I haven't raced it before, and I wanted to see what it was all about. And I can tell you now, it was something I will never forget. With 500 riders entered and another 100 on the waiting list (plus nearly 100 Auto competitors), the town of Alice Springs becomes a flurry of activity for weeks leading up to the June Long Weekend.
There is a lot of history and passion behind the Finke, too. It all began in 1976 when two mates decided to race each other down the old Ghan Railway Line to an Aboriginal community called Finke, 240km south of Alice. Then, obviously, they had to come back. Now, 35 years on, it has become the biggest one-of-a-kind event on our motorcycle calendar.
It's a big deal for a local to win, and the whole Alice Springs-versus-the-rest-of- the-world thing has been a major part of Finke since the early '80s when guys like Phil Lovett and Stephen Gall came to race it. There is so much Alice pride on the line, demonstrated by the fact the community gets so involved. Flower shops, restaurants and even cattle stations sponsor riders.
At the pointy end of the field, it's a race between Honda and KTM these days. Their level of commitment is astonishing, but it's weird that other manufacturers have such little input. General Managers for both Honda and KTM, Tony Hinton and Jeff Leisk, not only came to watch the race this year; they also camped out with the boys down at Finke.
But why aren't there teams from Yamaha, Suzuki and Kawasaki? I can't see why they wouldn't want to get involved. There are 15,000 spectators, film crews shooting from helicopters, a live broadcasting on ABC Radio and, most importantly, nearly 500 riders who spend money in the industry. That equates to around $5 million dollars in bike sales alone. People who ride desert events notice what's being used and buy what they feel is the best equipment for
the job - from bikes to tyres to steering dampers to accessories. Just about every rider at the MX Nats is sponsored in some way, so the guy who comes last isn't interested in what the winner's riding. However, the people involved with trailriding, desert racing and enduro events are the backbone of the off-road dirt biking industry. Manufacturers would do well to pay more attention to what's going on in the Outback, don't you think?