The Best in the Desert Vegas to Reno off-road race is barely a week away. Are you ready to rumble?
This is what desert racers are made of. That was the lead sentence I first dreamed up for this story, searching in vain to communicate the skill and courage it takes to blast across the Great Basin’s unforgiving terrain on a high-speed dirt bike. I hoped to convince readers that witnessing this skill and courage was worth making the short drive down to Dayton to watch the finish of the 11th annual Best in the Desert Vegas to Reno off-road race on Friday, Aug. 24. Beginning that afternoon, the first of more than 300 competitors will roost, rail and otherwise wrestle their machines across the finish line after completing the longest desert race in the United States.
This is what desert racers are made of, I planned to begin, leading into some tall tale culled from a boyhood spent riding dirt bikes in the high desert scrub of southern Idaho. It would be a highly embellished story specifically designed to demonstrate that desert racing is a risky business, much too dangerous for a middle-aged, lily-livered journalist such as myself to participate in. I was still calculating just how I was going to convey this when the Cycle News Web site posted the following item on Aug. 6:
“KTM’s Dakar Rally star Chris Blais suffered a bad crash while pre-running the upcoming Vegas to Reno desert race. Coming into Tonopah, Blais reportedly hit a square-edged bump in a silt bed which sent him on his front wheel. He rode it out for nearly 50 feet before going over the bars, and cart-wheeled another good distance."Blais suffered a broken collarbone and crushed his T-7 vertebra. Johnny Campbell was the first on the scene with Blais, and waited with him until a helicopter transported him to a hospital in Reno. He underwent surgery on Sunday night where doctors fused his vertebra and inserted two rods in his back.
“From the waist up, Blais has feeling and mobility. But he has no feeling in his legs—yet. The extent of the injury to his spinal cord won’t be known until the pressure and swelling go down, but hopes are high, and Chris and his wife, Patty, are holding up well.”
I had interviewed Blais just four days before the accident; the 26-year-old KTM factory rider had softly chuckled that so far in his career he’d managed to avoid serious injury. Had he knocked on wood? Now he was laid up in a hospital bed in Reno with a crushed vertebra, two rods in his back and no feeling in his legs. Forget about anything I can dream up for you. This is what desert racers are made of: blood and guts and flesh and bone. Stuff that bends and breaks and bleeds when it hits the desert floor. Which makes the sport Blais and his fellow racers practice all the more fascinating, and all the more improbable.
The improbability begins in the southeastern corner of Nevada, on the creosote, yucca and Joshua tree-studded plain, where the Mojave and Great Basin deserts meet. Early in the morning on Aug. 24, 300 professional and amateur racers assemble in Johnnie, 20 miles north of Pahrump, for the start of the 11th annual race. The event is put on by the Las Vegas-based Best in the Desert Racing Association, which organizes a series of races throughout the state.
The machinery on the starting line ranges from utility vehicles, quads and motorcycles that anyone can purchase at their local dealer to highly modified one-off cars and trophy trucks worth hundreds of thousands of dollars each. Competitors are pitted against the clock and each other; the overall winner is whomever completes the course in the shortest elapsed time. Despite being out-horsepowered by the cars and trucks by more than 10 to 1, the more nimble dirt bikes have taken the overall victory every year the event has been held. Rank has its privileges. Professional off-road stars, such as Blais and three-time Vegas to Reno winner Steve Hengeveld, start before the amateur riders, as well as the cars and trucks, staggered at one-minute intervals to keep the dust down. The dust is dense, and it can be deadly. The racers are already on unfamiliar ground. It helps to be able to see it, and you can’t if your goggles are filled with blinding dust.
This year’s course begins in the jagged, boulder-strewn foothills of the northern Spring Mountains and immediately plunges downhill into the windswept cross-wash of the Armagosa Valley. The course parallels Highway 160 for 25 miles to the junction of U.S. 95, where the racers rendezvous with their support crews for the first of 15 pit stops that connect the dots between Beatty, Goldfield, Tonopah, Coaldale, Mineral, Rawhide, Fallon, Weeks and finally Dayton. Don’t be fooled by the course’s proximity to major roadways such as U.S. highways 95 and 50. No geography in the United States is less inviting to an off-road excursion.
It’s telling that not too far north from the first pit stop, the federal government once conducted above-ground nuclear weapons testing. Instead of heading north, the racers head west, toward the aptly named Death Valley, plowing through 50 miles of treacherous silt and “poof-dirt,” thick powder that hides rocks and other lethal hazards. The course crosses the first of a half-dozen dry lake beds at Bonnie Claire, where the bikes top out at 120 mph, and the trophy trucks reach 140 mph. Lake beds give way to rolling hills then mountains as the racers climb from 2,500 feet to 9,000 feet. The landscape at times turns lunar. Literally. Fifty miles east of Tonopah, NASA once simulated moon landings. That’s how forbidding the terrain is. For most of us, it’s reason enough to stay in the car and stick to the asphalt. But it’s the kind of challenge that makes off-road pros like Blais and Hengeveld salivate.
“I never even rode a motocross track until I was 19 years old,” explained Blais, who grew up trail riding with his dad and his brother. “We always learned in the desert. That’s where we always went riding. In the desert, you’ve got to be more on your toes than a motocross track. A motocross track is really repetitive. It’s the same thing over and over again, which for me I find extremely boring. In the desert, there’s always something new. There’s always going to be some rock that’s in your way and tries to wake you up. It’s a constant challenge.”
Oh, give me a home
How much do guys like Blais and Hengeveld love the desert? Enough to make it their home. The pair live within minutes of each other in southeastern California, about 200 miles southwest of Pahrump, where it’s possible to fire up your dirt bike and ride straight out of your garage into the desert. In fact, Blais and Hengeveld, fierce competitors on race day, are good friends and often practice together.
Unlike Blais, Hengeveld began racing motocross at an early age. Three, to be exact. He was a highly touted prospect on the national MX scene by the time he was a teenager. Then he blew out both knees. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to continue motocross racing at the professional level, where the pressure to win is intense, and serious injuries are frequent. However, he still had the need for speed, and he found it in the desert, in spades. In addition to winning Vegas to Reno three times, he’s won both the Baja 1000 and the Baja 500 five times, the SCORE class 22 title five times, and the Best in the Desert’s open pro championship three times.
When Hengeveld answered the phone, he informed me that he was at the Mexican border with a trailer full of dirt bikes, on his way to spend the weekend play-riding with 30 or so of his good friends in Baja. He agreed with Blais’ assessment on the differences between motocross and desert racing.
“In motocross, you know the track, you can practice it and go race it, there’s no rocks, all the jumps are man-made,” Hengeveld said. “When you go to off-road, it’s natural terrain, and when you’re racing, you don’t know what’s next, what’s ahead of you. You’ve got to really learn the disciplines of off-road: reading the terrain, knowing when to slow down, how to look far ahead in the distance, hundreds of yards ahead, constantly scanning the terrain.”
Scanning the terrain, as Blais noted, for that one rock that’s going to try to wake you up—or knock you out. Prior to his recent get-off outside Tonopah, Blais had endured broken hands, a broken collarbone, a broken leg and two concussions, injuries he classified as minor. Hengeveld also downplayed his injuries. Oh, yeah. Except for the right humerus he broke in several pieces at the WORCS race in Phoenix last January. And those blown-out knees that still give him problems. And … well, perhaps a little clarification is in order.
“What I was going to say was that at any really big, major off-road event, I’ve never really crashed,” Hengeveld said. “I’ve always done my crashing at some little race or practicing. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve broken a lot of things, a lot of bad things, but that just comes with the territory.”
Another thing that comes with the territory, at least these days, is anonymity. Chances are, most readers have never heard of Steve Hengeveld, Team Honda’s No. 1 factory off-road rider. They have no idea that earlier this year, Chris Blais finished on the podium at the Dakar Rally in Africa, the most prestigious off-road event in the world, or that David Pearson, his KTM teammate, won the 2007 AMA Hare & Hound championship.
In the desert, nobody remembers your name.
In the desert, you can remember your name
It wasn’t always that way. Before motocross got popular enough to fill football stadiums, desert racing was the most recognized form of off-road competition in the United States. Without desert racing, there’d be no Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas—Hunter S. Thompson originally came to Nevada in 1971 to cover the Mint 400, known as the “The Great American Desert Race.” J.N. Roberts, arguably the greatest desert racer of all time, won the Mint that year and holds the all-time record for Baja 1000 victories with 10. Household names such as Steve McQueen, James Garner and Mario Andretti all tried their luck in Nevada and Baja.
Then, somehow, desert racing faded from the public imagination. The Mint fizzled out in 1988, shortly before the sale of Del Webb’s Mint Hotel and Casino, namesake and longtime sponsor of the event. Perhaps the novelty of men roaring across the desert on their infernal machines wore off with all but the most hardcore off-road racing enthusiasts. Or maybe the efforts by environmentalists to ban all off-highway vehicle use for reasons ranging from air pollution to the destruction of the endangered desert tortoise’s habitat have been more successful than fans of the sport would care to admit. At any rate, names such as nine-time Baja 1000 winner Johnny Campbell or two-time Dakar Rally winner Cyril Despres are no longer on everyone’s lips.
However, the pendulum may be swinging back in the other direction, thanks to Dust to Glory, the 2005 film that documented the previous year’s Baja 1000 and achieved unexpected box office success. Many of the competitors in the film are familiar to longtime desert racing fans: Roberts, Andretti, Malcolm Smith. But the surprise star is Mike “Mouse” McCoy. Like Hengeveld, McCoy was once a highly touted teenage motocross prospect working his way up through the mini-ranks before blowing his knees out. In an attempt to prove to himself that he still has what it takes, McCoy decided to ride Baja solo—no mean feat, since it takes a two-rider team 15 hours to complete the race and a single rider 20 hours. That’s a long time to stay focused while traveling at high speed across the world’s toughest terrain. Whether McCoy can go the distance provides the documentary’s primary drama.
McCoy’s run is inspiring, and SCORE International, the organization that sanctions Baja, reports that a significant number of new riders have been turning up at start lines in the wake of Dust to Glory. Douglas Jackson, a course marker for Best in the Desert, said the film’s effect hasn’t been quite as profound in Nevada.
“Not so much on our side, but definitely SCORE has seen a lot more,” Jackson said. “Everybody thinks they can be like Mouse McCoy and ride the Baja 1000 by themselves. Guys who ride in the backyard and say, ‘I can go ride 1,000 miles no problem.’ No way. I put in 200 miles a day just marking the course, and it definitely taxes all my energy.”
It took Jackson and the Best in the Desert crew three days to mark the 561-mile course, which takes the fastest riders a little more than eight hours to complete. It takes 400 volunteers to put on the event, which will be witnessed by up to 20,000 spectators who line the route. Most come to watch the 700-horsepower trophy trucks. The site of tricked-out Hummers with fat tires and three feet of suspension travel barreling through sand washes is spectacular, even if they do tend to finish second.
“Usually, the bikes are about a half-hour faster than the trucks, but this year, it could be the opposite,” Jackson said. “This course is pretty fast, so we have a feeling the trucks might be a little quicker. They can go through rough a lot better. The bike guys have to slow down for some of those gnarly whoop sections, they just put the hammer down.”
A Blais of glory
If Steve Hengeveld has his way, the trophy trucks will be finishing in their rightful place—behind him. He’ll be racing Vegas to Reno with his frequent factory Honda teammate Robby Bell, switching off every 150 miles or so. It’s a pairing that has proved successful many times in the past, and Hengeveld likes his chances this year.
“I’m going to win, that’s all I’m going there for,” he said. “I’m not going for anything less.”
Had he not been injured, Blais would have been paired with his KTM teammate and two-time Dakar winner Cyril Despres. Interestingly, Blais first caught the KTM factory’s attention after a series of solo rides in events like Vegas to Reno. While racers generally tend to pair up for long-distance, off-road races in the United States, endurance racers on the other side of the Atlantic tend to go it alone in events like Dakar, which takes place in southern Europe and northern Africa over the course of two weeks every January. KTM dominates the event and hired Blais away from Honda in 2001, hoping that the sight of an American on the podium at Dakar would increase U.S. bike sales. Blais hasn’t disappointed, and judging by the increasing numbers of orange-and-black dirt bikes in the desert, KTM’s investment is going according to plan.
Now KTM is attempting to wrest control of the American desert racing scene from Honda, which has won the Baja 1000 for 10 years running. Blais and Dupres, along with 2007 AMA Hair and Hound champion David Pearson and Quinn Cody, are the keys to this effort. Pearson is considered one of the fastest riders in the desert. Cody once rode with Hengeveld on Team Honda, and he, Hengeveld and Blais are all good friends. At the professional level, desert racing is an insular world. I asked Blais what it’s like racing against his buddies.
“We’re extreme competitors,” he said. “Basically, we’re friends on the start line, but as soon as that green flag drops, we’re competitors. The friendship, you kind of forget about that. Especially because [Hengeveld] is on a different team! But if I ever got hurt in front of him, or he ever got hurt in front of me, we’d definitely stop for each other. If you don’t, that’s bad karma, and it will just catch back up with you.”
Thanks to his accident, Blais won’t be sitting on the starting line for this year’s Vegas to Reno. Johnny Campbell and David Pearson were the first at the scene and comforted Blais until the helicopter to evacuate him to Reno arrived. His wife, Patty, parents and Quinn Cody are keeping watch over him at the hospital. Meanwhile, the rest of the desert racing world holds its collective breath and hopes for the best. As this story was going to press, Best in the Desert released the following announcement:
“This is what makes off-road racing so great, it’s you, all of our racers, because we are a family out there isn’t anyone involved with Best In The Desert that wouldn’t help anyone of us. Unfortunately, this time it was Chris. Again, just keep praying for Chris to have a full recovery.”
This is what desert racers are made of.