Winners and losers abound in Vegas, and the short walk through the casino and lobby of the Gold Coast Hotel revealed its fair share of each. Smiling faces at the tables and shouts of excitement when the right color came up at the roulette wheel contrasting with the tired dejection of those battling a run of hard luck. One man was sitting on the floor, his back propped against the wall, head bowed, face buried in his hands… no sound, no movement. Yeah, Vegas can do that to you.
MotorcycleUSA rolled into Vegas last week to test our luck racing the Best in the Desert – Vegas to Reno, and like the patrons at the tables we were ready to find out what fortune had in store for us. We brought along a pair of XR650Rs we borrowed from Honda under the promise of racing the Baja 1000 this November. One of the XRs, the #917 bike, had received a thorough work up from the good people at Precision Concepts. Destined to become our Baja bike it was built up to near Johnny Campbell factory specs. The other XR, the #918 bike, was assembled for desert racing right here at MCUSA headquarters with the extras and goodies provided by XR’s Only.
We knew going in that the Best in the Desert – Vegas to Reno, billed as the longest off-road race in the United States, would be a solid test of our abilities. The 495-mile course winds its way through the desert wastes of western Nevada past the near ghost towns and whorehouses that string along Highway 95 from Pahrump up to Dayton. This was not going to be an easy race and was about as close as we were going to get to a simulation of our upcoming Baja 1000 attempt.
The Gold Coast played host to the longest off-road race in the United States: the 2005 Vegas to Reno. We brought down a pair of Honda’s XR650Rs from our Medford, OR headquarters to get warmed up for Baja.
Our racing adventure began upon our arrival at the Gold Coast Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada. Race registration along with contingency and technical inspection would take place on Thursday October 6th with a mandatory meeting that evening for race participants, which included six MCUSA employees prepared to race the following day. Our riders had already drew lots to determine who would ride the coveted Precision Concepts XR, and the honor fell to software designer Joe Wallace, our in-house off-road writer JC Hilderbrand, and MCUSA prez Don Becklin. Our second XR would be ridden by graphics guru Brian Chamberlain, Motorcycle Superstore’s parts manager Adam Sabedra, and MCUSA editorial director Ken Hutchison.
Registration consisted of signing releases that relinquished our rider’s right to sue, while in the background a video of race footage was setting the mood by projecting images of bikes crashing in slow motion with their riders crumbling into the dirt. It was too riveting not to watch and it did teach us a valuable lesson: If you see a guy filming, slow down – there’s probably a large unmarked hazard waiting to send you into oblivion.
But we could not sit and watch videos all day, we had some serious work to take care of. While the Precision Concepts XR was ready to go, our other bike still needed some minor work. Plus, both of our XRs had to be inspected by race officials. We headed out to the Gold Coast parking lot to take care of business and become immersed in the desert racing scene.
At first glance the bikes populating the lot were a predominant sea of Honda red, but upon closer examination there were some blue Husqvarnas and Yamahas, green Kawasakis, and orange KTMs peppering the parking lot as well. The Red Bull KTM team was there with the 620 LC4-based bike that riders Chris Blais and Andy Grider hoped would challenge the perennial Honda favorites Johnny Campbell and Steve Hengeveld. XR’s Only (who gave us most of the parts for our second XR) was also there with riders Mike Childress and Chuck Dempsey. As for Campbell and Hengeveld, we learned from American Honda’s Baja guru Bruce Ogilvie that the Honda A-team duo was yet to arrive on account that they were taking a little warm-up ride… all the way from Barstow!
Vegas to Reno would have us racing with the big boys like Honda’s Johnny Campbell and Steve Hengeveld, as well as Mike Childress who chats with BC in the Gold Coast parking lot.
Ogilvie stopped by for a reassuring chat in our makeshift parking lot pit and his laid back demeanor helped calm some anxieties. This was our first foray into serious desert racing and we had signed up for Honda pit support for this race as well as Baja, which meant that every 50 miles or so we would pull into the Honda-marked pit for a fresh tank of gas and repairs as needed. Bruce laid out the pit locations and aided us by answering our questions and making some suggestions about bike set-up before heading on his way.
The rest of the lot was alive with riders and crews sipping beer and bottled water as they swapped stories and made last minute adjustments to their rigs. Talk of the upcoming race, as well as races past, wafted through the air. There was talk of silt and dust, the rumble of truck and buggy engines, and all the while a radio broadcast the Cards/Padres playoff game in the background.
“Hell, I won the Mint 400 back in the ’70s…,” the statement or something close to it trailed off from behind and came from a white-haired vet roaming the pits and boasting of past glory. The storied Mint 400 ran from 1968-1986 on a 100-mile loop out in the desert surrounding Vegas.
The competition bikes included the LC4-based KTM that Chris Blais and Andy Grider were hoping would challenge Campbell and Hengeveld.
It was also the Mint 400 that famous gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson was ostensibly covering in 1971 when he began his descent into the drug-induced debauchery that would later become Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. “Total coverage” had been Thompson’s legendary mantra then. Thirty years later and Dr. Thompson has checked himself out of the Big Show, but not much seems to have changed about Vegas. It is still the blinking, clinking, porned-out shadow capital of the United States, and it also continues to host the largest desert racing events in the country.
The state of Nevada happens to be an ideal location to run an off-road endurance race. It isn’t exactly known for harboring many prohibitions, being the only state in the union with legalized gambling and prostitution available 24/7. It also has a lot of uninhabited desert wasteland, a fact not lost on the federal government who has used the remote lands to test atomic bombs and other secret weapons. You would be hard pressed to find another place in the country where you could mark off a 500-mile outdoor course for 100 vehicles to race through without some serious opposition. But that’s what Best in the Desert race director Casey Folks is able to do, thanks to cooperation from NDOT (Nevada Department of Transportation) and the Nevada BLM (Bureau of Land Management).
As for the people involved, desert racing attracts a different breed altogether. There isn’t much money in it. In fact, the trucks and buggies are six-figure operations at the bare minimum. The scope of the fame and celebrity achieved by victory is limited. People come to race because they want to test themselves. Many had made the trip like us to prepare for Baja or another big race, including at least one man who traveled all the way from Georgia to prepare for Dakar. There is another reason that people come to race in the desert: adventure.
And based upon the rider’s meeting that evening, adventure we would find. Best in the Desert’s Casey Folks explained the course layout, signage, and procedure. There were to be hidden checkpoints at random areas on the course to ensure no one was cutting any corners, as well as a number of road crossings. He then explained the specific hazards the riders would encounter; sudden drop offs, open mineshafts just a couple feet off the main road, areas where the riders would have to duck down to clear underpasses and powerline cables. the list went on.
Aside from the specific hazards named by Folks, there were the natural risks inherent whenever you stroll out into a Southwestern desert, like dehydration, cacti, maybe a rattlesnake if you’re really unlucky. Also there were the Joshua Trees which – for those who haven’t seen the U2 album cover – look kind of like small palm-trees with gnarled branches that shoot out in strange directions. Odd but attractive desert plants, we took a closer look at one earlier when we stopped for gas on our way to Vegas. What looked like green frond/leaves from the road turned out on closer examination to be rigid spikes with hardened serrated edges about the sharpness of a dull steak knife that stretched to narrow elongated tips which bared a close resemblance to hypodermic needles. And there were areas where they grew right next to the course.
We retired that evening to our respective hotel rooms with a couple of unspoken questions rattling around in the back of our minds: Would Kenny get decapitated by a powerline cable? Would BC impale himself on a Joshua Tree? Would JC just simply disappear, sucked down a 400 foot mineshaft?
Perhaps. But we weren’t there to worry about all the things that might happen, we were there to race, to get ready for Baja. Still, there was that unsettling feeling that maybe we were doomed.
The race would start early, just outside of Pahrump about 40 minutes west of Vegas, the first bikes leaving the start line at 6:30 a.m. sharp. BC and Joe were our scheduled starters and after a scant four hours of sleep they were ready to go. Our game plan was simple; divide the course into rough thirds of 150, 180, and 150-mile legs, place riders at the two planned exchanges, and then meet up at the finish. Adam and JC would leave for the first exchange, and Don and Ken were already far ahead having stayed the night further up the course. It was a simple plan; what could go wrong?
It was dark when we arrived at the starting line and motorcycle staging area named Johnnie about 10 miles north of Pahrump. The first bike off the line left at dawn right on schedule and was the Honda B-team of Kendall Norman and Robby Bell. After that the pros got sent out one right after the other at 1-minute intervals. Steve Hengeveld started the Honda A-team effort fourth off the line. Meanwhile Joe and BC waited their turn, reading over the hazard lists duct-taped to the controls and chatting with other riders.
Soon enough Joe was at the start line atop the Precision Concepts XR. Casey Folks came over to impart some last minute advice and encouragement to ride safe. The green light came up and off he went down the road. BC was one bike behind and soon he was at the start as well, a quick word from Folks, a thumbs-up, and off he went disappearing into a gray dust cloud a couple hundred yards away.
There it was, we were desert racing. Now it was time to hop into chase van and meet back up with the pair at the first rider exchange 150 miles away. The look on both BC and Joe’s faces as they had waited for the start had been pensive. Maybe they were reflecting on some of the advice we had heard the previous day about how to survive our first Vegas to Reno. Above all, from Casey Folks on down to the amateurs in the pits, the advice had been the same; it’s a long race so ride safe.
On top of the general danger, Best in the Desert had a list of specific warnings for the worst hazards. We taped one to our handlebars.
Safety was a point driven home to us by seasoned vets like Rich Voss, who had stopped by our parking lot pit the day before. “If you can’t see, don’t do it, just don’t do it,” warned Voss referring to the dust. Voss was there racing a ProTruck but had raced nearly everything at one time or another, including bikes. “Combine the dust with a rock or a rut and that’s what ends you up splattered out in the desert.”
Like all the advice from the experienced vets, it was delivered with a doubled edge: Have fun and enjoy, but also be careful and ride safe. Let’s face it, this sort of thing isn’t for the faint of heart, a point I reflected upon as I rode between pits in the air-conditioned comfort of the MCUSA van, viewing the small dust clouds dirtying the course in the distance.
After about 30 minutes of driving, I managed my only close-up glimpse of racing action from the road. I saw a gray dust cloud and in the midst the figure of a rider clutching onto a bike that jumped up and down an endless stream of whoops like a mechanical bull. The rider was connected to the bike at the handlebars and footpegs, but the rest the body jerked in violent motions. It might have been Joe or BC, or it might have been a pro, either way it looked grueling and merciless. Indeed, this was not for the faint of heart.
BC waits in line and wheels the #918 bike up toward the start. While there were plenty of different bikes present, by far the most common was the XR650R.
Our first rider exchange came at Pit #5 named Cottontail – the pit name referring to the Cottontail Ranch, the brothel which lies adjacent. That’s right, you read correct, our first rider exchange was right next to a whorehouse. This is Nevada, folks, where prostitution is legal in certain counties. The small highways outside of Vegas and Reno have them clustered along the way, all with kitschy names like the Kit Kat Ranch or the Shady Lady, and most times they lay just on the other side of the county line out in the middle of nowhere. The Cottontail fitting that description to a T was a small white building in the middle of nowhere, with a sign advertising “cold beer” and the unadvertised promise of some lawful carnal knowledge inside.
BC and Joe had left the starting line right around 7:00 a.m. and we were all pretty optimistic (read naive) about how things would go, figuring we would easily finish this whole Vegas to Reno thing around 5:00 p.m. or so.
The first rider to blaze past the pits was the Honda B-team of Norman and Bell that started the race. Then it was the XR’s Only bike exchanging rider Mike Childress with Chuck Dempsey. That was when I noticed Steve Hengeveld waiting on the tailgate of a chase truck. He had started the race, which meant the real pros were already making their second exchange. We were about to learn our first hard lesson, that 150-mile legs might be biting off a bit more than we amateurs could chew. Johnny Campbell came tearing into the pit and in a blink Hengeveld was gunning it out. After a few brief words with the Honda guys, Campbell walked over to the chase truck and was gone.
The first rider to blaze past the pits on our first rider exchange was the Honda B-team of Kendall Norman and Robby Bell.
JC and Adam were already there and together we waited, and waited as more bikes passed by along with a couple of quads. The starters had the benefit of knowing when they would ride, but the other riders in our crew had to wait at the ready for their man to appear out of the dust. Then at 10:35 the #918 bike appeared with BC at the controls. He came around the corner and hopped off, the Honda boys dropped down the quick-fill to gas it up, then Adam jumped on and took off. It wasn’t as quick as the Campbell/Hengeveld exchange, but it wasn’t that far off either. Not bad for our first time.
BC was tired and dirty and had an expression of happiness mixed with a look of relief that it was over. Then he told us what it was like, rocks and whoops and some of the worst terrain he had ever ridden in. “I have a newfound respect for these desert guys,” said BC of his Vegas to Reno experience. “Not only is the terrain unbelievably rough and unforgiving, but you usually can’t see where you are going. Three hours straight of hard riding in these conditions definitely puts your ability, conditioning, and mental state to the test.”
Somewhere back there in the dust, BC had passed Joe, which was a bit of a surprise due to the advantage of a one-minute head start and the tricked-out Precision Concepts bike. But it turns out that BC also had passed the KTM pro team of Chris Blais and Andy Grider, too. Nice work BC! All right, so the Blais/Grider team had DNF’d due to a crash and bike troubles, but he still passed them.
After BC’s arrival it became a waiting game for JC as we worried about Joe and whether he was going to even bring the Precision Concepts XR in at all – if it could happen to the pros, it could sure as hell happen to us. Prior to the race, each rider had been given a yellow piece of paper called a “stuck stub.” If you crashed hard, were hurt, or had bike troubles, you were supposed to hand off the stub to a following rider who would take it to the next pit. Already a seasoned team of pro riders were out, along with a couple of others, but we had our fingers crossed that it was a bike rather than a little yellow card with the 917 number on its way.
At 10:55 our luck remained good and Joe pulled into the pits. JC made the exchange and tore off onto his 180-mile stretch. Joe pulled off his helmet wearing a thick layer of dirt and the same expression of relief as BC. He had suffered a couple of tumbles in the dirt but managed to bring in the bike intact. Now it was time to head off to Pit #11 and meet up with Don and Ken for the final rider exchange, while Joe and BC changed clothes and tried to follow JC as he made his successive pit stops.
BC: “I have a newfound respect for these desert guys. Not only is the terrain unbelievably rough and unforgiving, but you usually can’t see where you are going. Three hours straight of hard riding in these conditions definitely puts your ability, conditioning, and mental state to the test.”
By the time of my arrival at Pit #11 the top pro teams were long gone. Ken and Don were sitting there passing the time in the shade of the MCUSA Sprinter cargo van. Our naive hopes of finishing around 5:00 p.m. began to unravel, and the longer we waited the worse it got. One rider walked around the pit with his arm in a sling, his collarbone having been broken. Another rider came in to make an exchange and shouted that he had to move another rider off the course that was down with a crushed shoulder. Bad news kept getting worse, and then someone mentioned that the buggies were coming.
It seemed hard to believe, but a few of the top buggies had already made up the three-hour starting gap and were starting to pass the bikes. At 3:00 we received word that our riders had made it through Pit #9 about an hour away. Ken and Don pulled out the headlights we had brought along with the hope of never using, but there was no way we could make it to the finish without them now. Don and Ken would have to race the final stretch in the dark.
Adam pulled into the pit at 4:15 and made the handoff with Ken. It took a little longer than normal as we had to hook up the headlight. Then Ken set off for the finish and the final 150 miles. Adam’s blistered hands told the story of a grueling 180-mile ordeal. Fifteen minutes later and JC’s condition confirmed the story. Our new guy rolled into the pits a bloody, dirt-caked mess. Don took the bike after another headlight installation and made a daring entry onto the course with another rider bearing down.
JC had a nasty spill on the #917 bike as well. No broken ribs, but he did get this sweet Harry-Potteresque lightning bolt wound on his forehead.
With both bikes underway toward the finish, we required an immediate explanation from JC. Upon receipt of the Precision Concepts XR at the first handoff he crashed on a rugged rocky section before reaching the next pit. The crash had managed to ram a rock through his goggles and tried its best to enter his brain. His skull managed to keep it out, but he did get a nasty looking lightning-bolt wound smack dab in the middle of his forehead (please no Harry Potter jokes). Luckily BC and Joe had been there at Pit #6 to make sure he got the wound cleaned up and bandaged before moving on. A quick view of the damaged goggles and you would have thought it was a bullet not a rock that went through them, but JC’s injuries didn’t end there; his whole right arm was dried blood stuck to his riding jersey and emanating from a small cut near his elbow.
For a bunch of rookies, our pit stops went pretty smooth. Here Adam hops off, Ken hops on, the Honda boys drop the quick fill and Don works on the headlight.
As bad as the injuries were, according to JC it wasn’t the worst part of the ride. “Getting passed was the scariest part of all. I wasn’t fast enough to catch anyone, but after having bikes and quads go by me I didn’t think it could get any worse,” said JC. “Then came the buggies. Those things scared me so bad that all I could think of was getting the bike to Don as fast as possible so that he could at least have a fighting chance at outrunning the trucks.”
Injuries aside, we had both bikes headed off on the final leg in pretty good shape. Maybe this thing was going to turn out okay after all. Then about five minutes later, the roar of a trophy truck could be heard in the background right before it sped through the pits with an intimidating growl. Oh boy, if our guys were going to finish it would be in the dark with the trophy trucks breathing down their necks.
After the final exchange, the plan was to split up and jump ahead to Pit #13 and Pit #14 before meeting up at the finish. Sometime after that moment, with cell phone reception spotty at best, any plan we had soon disintegrated.
Don pulled an aggressive move out of the pits as a rider bore down. He passed a couple more riders before the crash took him out of commission.
JC and Adam made a wrong turn and ended up at Pit #12. It turned out to be a fortunate mistake, because Don was there waiting and he didn’t look too good. After making some progress and passing a few bikes, the Precision Concepts XR took a little tumble with Don and the bike headed off in opposite directions. The XR had a couple of dents and scratches including a bent subframe and exhaust. Don had a couple of dents as well, but instead of a bent subframe he had six broken ribs. That was the painful end of Don’s race and was the beginning of a long night that would include a couple of bumpy ambulance rides and an airlift to a Reno Hospital.
Although the bike was banged up, it looked like it could still finish, but the surprises didn’t end there. Gas had leaked out onto the air filter, and when JC went out to start up the #917 XR it caught on fire!
Don shacked up at the hospital. We’re guessing the smile might have something to do with the pain meds.
After that our hopes of finishing the race on the Precision Concepts XR went up in flames as well. JC, thinking quick, doused the small fire with some sand. There wasn’t any permanent damage done and the flames had been limited to the air filter, but with darkness setting in and the trucks starting to pass in full force, we figured we had already pushed our luck as far as it would go. Afterall this bike had to make it down to Baja in a month; not to mention the fact that the man who signs all our paychecks was getting ambulanced to the hospital! So with 100-plus miles remaining we decided to bow out of the race.
That left Ken and the #918 bike as the sole remaining hope for an MCUSA finish, and he came through in the clutch. In fact Ken was so blistering fast on the last leg that our support vehicles couldn’t catch up to him at the pits. We were lucky BC and Joe were able to film him as he crossed the finish line. Ken was the 61st finisher and had put MCUSA’s first desert race officially into the books. Sure, at 7:55, it took us almost 13 hours and Ken had been passed by a few of those mean sounding trophy trucks out there in the dark, but he kept his head and motored on to the finish.
Ken brought in our #918 bike at 7:55, making our overall time right around 12 hours 55 minutes. So what if its over four hours behind the pros – we finished!
The overall victors were the perennial favorites Johnny Campbell and Steve Hengeveld, who just barely edged out the Honda B-team of Kendall Norman and Robby Bell by a mere 42 seconds with a time of 8 hours 24 minutes and 2 seconds. The XR’s Only team of Mike Childress and Chuck Dempsey came in at third. That meant three Hondas sweeping the top-three positions, not to mention the 61st-place Honda wheeled in by Ken, a strong showing all the way around for the Red Riders.
An examination of the bikes back at MCUSA headquarters told the whole story. Bent frames, wheels, and a few nasty scratches spoke of the abuse delivered on the course, but overall the XRs held up pretty well. One of our biggest fears going into the race had been the proposition of changing a flat tire out in the middle of the desert, but the tires held up without any problems. The engines were bulletproof and, aside from that pesky fire, there wasn’t much to complain about. If there were any quibbles we had with the race it would be with the grueling terrain.
After Vegas to Reno the wheels were a little worse for wear, just like us. We did learn a thing or two about desert racing though.
So what did we learn in our Vegas-to-Reno adventure? Well, first and foremost, the 150-mile legs were a bit much, so our planned 250-mile stints in Baja were nixed by our riders as suicidal. A coordinated plan and communication are also a must, so problems in Nevada with scratchy cell phone service would most likely be amplified in Baja with no cell service, unfamiliar roads, and a language barrier.
In short, we realized that Baja might have made mincemeat out of this green ragtag group of amateurs and moto journos. Good thing for us we got a hard and dirty education on the ins and outs of desert racing somewhere out there between Vegas and Reno.
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