Desert racing is a wildly enigmatic sport generally associated with Fast Guys, Rich Guys and Dumb Guys. If you are going to try it, you just gotta figure out which one you are gonna be. The endurance required is the long-format sort. It’s not the skills that win Supercrosses that gets one through the harsh terrain encountered in this kind of racing, it’s the thousands of micro-decisions that happen over hours and hours of riding that makes the difference. Part of the charm is this–the only qualifications required are that your machine and helmet passes tech, and that you can afford the entry fee. Prep your bike or buggy properly, have your logistics, fuel and navigation wired tight and you’ve got a chance of success. This sport was built on the backs of hearty individuals who did their best work hundreds of miles away from other humans. You’ve got to love it unconditionally, because it does not love you back. The desert can smell arrogance miles away and takes crafty pride in humbling the richest and most talented riders, no matter their previous success or accomplishments in other arenas.
The origins of desert racing can be traced back to 1962 with Dave Ekins (Bud’s brother) and Billy Robertson Jr. These two legendary pioneers traversed the then unpaved Mexican Federal HWY 1 for 950 miles from Tijuana to La Paz on Honda CL72 Scramblers as a publicity stunt for American Honda. 39 hours, 56 minutes after they started, a new form of racing had been born and it was a filthy little underdog of a baby with mischief in it’s bloodshot eyes. Dune buggies and modified 4×4’s soon followed and a culture of desert rats speeding through the deep ruts and rocky traverses of the southwest US and Mexico has been constantly evolving ever since. The Mint 400, also known as “The Great American Off-Road Race” first ran in 1968 and was shuttered after a twenty year run when the hotel it was named after was sold. Resurrected in 2008, it came back with a festive bang and has truly grown into it’s nickname. A mind-blowing parade of race cars down the Las Vegas strip and two days of partying with racers, vendors and spectators on Freemont Street has only grown the festive atmosphere, while designated pits, restricted viewing areas and heavy-handed involvement from the BLM has morphed the event into a modern-day spectacle of off-road racing, while making it safer for everyone involved.
2019 was the first time motorcycles were invited since 1976. The scariest aspect of racing on two wheels is the thought of a Trophy truck barreling through the choking dust directly behind you. It is a very real threat and not one to be taken lightly. The Mint 400 organizers fixed this by putting the bikes on the course Saturday morning, followed by the Vintage cars and side-by-side classes later that afternoon. Modern bikes did three 85-mile laps and the vintage bikes (including a sick XR500 side-hack) along with the half-dozen interlopers on Harleys were required to finish just two. Once the cars got on the course, any bike still moving was pulled off at the next checkpoint and considered a DNF. The big boys in Trophy Trucks and unlimited buggies didn’t race until the following day. Not mixing two wheelers with cages was an upgrade in safety that no one complained about.
The Gnarlys on Harleys were a race inside a race. Inappropriate as they were, their performance shocked not only spectators and fellow racers, but the riders themselves. Arnie Wells from Idaho was one of the only guys who had ever been to an actual desert race. A pillow freshly-strapped to the seat of his mostly stock Sportster on lap two spoke legions about his experience that day.
“I always heard desert racing was a marathon, not a sprint, so pace yourself. But you never really know what “pace” is until you’re in it…” -Arnie Wells
The team of combat veterans known as Warrior Built Racing has some race experience in Baja on bikes and in their class 11 Volkswagen. They had the audacity to attempt the Mint 400 on an Ironhead Sportster. Ironheads are notorious for not making it home from the bar, let alone finishing a grueling race like this. Fueled by tenacity and passion, it still wasn’t quite enough to get them across the finish line.
“I was in over my head at the Mint 400. I died.” -Mark Atkins
Another outsider, Doug Karlson, had only ridden a dirt bike a few times and had never even tried his Harley in the dirt. What he lacked in experience he made up for with an infectiously positive attitude and a sense of humor that didn’t quit, even when his body wanted to. Mark “The Rusty Butcher” and teammate Mikey “Virus” Hill along with BMX Pro Barry Nobles have serious skills on two wheels, no matter the bike or conditions. Mark was plagued with mechanical issues and rode about half a lap missing the foot peg on one side of his bike after it ripped out of the stock mounts. Improvised mechanical fixes, long the staple of off-roading, got him back on the course several times but made his first lap time slow enough that he was pulled at a check point somewhere on lap two and sent packing. Barry and Virus swore to stick together and “just finish” but couldn’t stifle their competitive instincts. What was supposed to be a fun, “let’s just make it the whole way” vibe turned into a real battle for first place as lap two progressed. Both riders hammered their 500+lb machines all the way to the podium with no real mechanical difficulties short of losing gear and quite a few get-offs. In the end, Nobles made it to the finish line and quickly exclaimed “I’m the first Harley, right?!” Not long after, Mikey pulled in, number plate and headlight dangling by a zip tie and mumbled something like “I thought I had the fucker!” That’s racing. No matter how you start out, you still want to win.
After the champagne was popped, interviews were given and the guys regrouped, the day’s battle was relived a few times and the toxic seed that is desert racing took root in these six riders. If Harleys can battle it out in the Hooligan flat track courses across the country, why can’t they start competing in desert races too? The days are brutally long and rewards few, but the smiles per gallon are impossible to quantify. Knowing the competitive nature of this crew, the bikes will get prepped better, training and testing will ensue and another generation of reckless weirdos will do their best to hurtle themselves across a desert on bikes that were never intended for it. Dave, Billy and even old H.S. Thompson would be proud.
1. Barry Nobles 6:06:22
2. Mikey Hill 6:28:21
3. Doug Karlson 6:42:56
4. Arnie Wells 3:24:58 DNF
5. Ryan Wilkinson 3:55:38 DNF
6. Mark Atkins 4:55:39 DNF
More info at: Mint 400