A history of the Finke Desert Race

Finke Desert Race

Some bored blokes once had a weekend fang on the edge of the Simpson Desert. Now it’s one of the world’s biggest, toughest off-road races.

HISTORY has repeatedly shown that the stupidest ideas are often the best. Climbing down from the safety of the trees to walk upright and compete with sharp-toothed beasts for more tasty food; abandoning the safety of bipedal transport, first for potentially deadly horses, then more lethal bicycles and motor vehicles; and then building planes and deciding to jump out of them while holding silky sheets above our heads.

Humanity loves a crazy idea, it seems, and even more so if it puts life and limb at risk. No other living thing would have invented bungee jumping, for example, nor come up with the Finke Desert Race.

This certifiably bonkers event is sometimes described as the Bathurst 1000 of off-road racing, although the main similarity with the road race is that Finke is attended by people who like their beer in cans and tattoos large and largely misspelled.

Finke -Desert -Race -and -drag -strip -signBathurst does at least resemble a race track, while the Finke follows a route that was decided upon by a group of hardened, bush-whacked berserkers who were clearly either too bored, or too drunk, to think clearly.

Legend has it that, back in the dark ages of 1976, a half-dozen dirt-biking enthusiasts who’d gone half mad in the heat were at a loss for what to do with themselves on the June Queen’s Birthday long weekend, and one of them suggested a race, of sorts, from Alice Springs to the truly remote Aboriginal outpost of Finke, some 226km away. And back again.

Hence it was given the ludicrously literal and entirely unromantic title: “There and Back Again”. These were not a bunch of people blessed with either imagination or logic, and the “track” they chose was originally a service road for the Old Ghan railway (which sounds like the only sensible way to cover this kind of ground).

Finke -Desert -Race -start -finish -lineThe story of the race’s origin has grown over the years, and the tellings, to the point where there were at least 50 people involved that first year, and just about everyone in the Alice on any given Queen’s Birthday weekend will claim to you that they were one of those “originals”.

What is certain is that the race grew and grew – a cluster of stupidity not far removed from a Donald Trump rally - as more motorcyclists decided that their skeletons were far too intact for their liking. And that they needed to be bashed into tiny little bits by a thrash along this ridiculously rugged track, which is basically a collection of dirt, boulders, ruts, creek beds, hidden holes and “whoops”, which are giant waves of dust and sand that can stand up to two metres tall and roll on for 20km at a time.

For the first decade, it was an event for bike nuts only, but – in a decision that would surely only improve a similarly punishing event such as the Isle of Man TT – the organisers eventually relented and in 1988 allowed cars and off-road buggies to enter. And mainly because they wanted to stick it to them.

Finke -Desert -Race -campingA fabulous annual rivalry ensued, with the winner’s title of King of the Desert going to a trail-bike rider for 11 years straight. But the big buggies with their 500kW-plus engines and spider-legged suspension were getting closer and finally, in 1999, a four-wheeler took the prize.

The biker boys weren’t giving up, though, and grabbed it back for the next two years, before the natural order of things returned, with buggies bringing it home from 2002 to 2004.

In 2005, the two sides were separated, with a King of the Desert title now being awarded to one rider and one car driver.

This year the competition starts on Saturday, June 11, and will follow its now traditional format, with the Prologue – an eight-kilometre lap of a relatively smooth and easy dirt track near Alice Springs airport – to determine the starting order for the first day of the race on Sunday, June 12.

Finke -Desert -Race -camping -outbackThe race itself is simple enough; get to Finke as fast possible, and in one piece, lick your wounds, rebuild your battered mechanicals, sleep very briefly and then turn around and race back to Alice again.

The word “race” might be slightly misleading, because it suggests overtaking, which is reportedly quite a challenge when the vehicle in front of you is kicking up enough dust to bury a dingo and the track is barely wide enough for one vehicle.

Experienced drivers describe overtaking as “tricky”, usually through what’s left of their broken teeth.

While the Prologue always attracts the more sensible fans, and the locals, watching the actual race as a punter makes even the Hillbilly Hell of staying trackside at Mt Panorama look like the Birdcage at Flemington.

Finke -Desert -Race -Toby -Hagon -Mazda -BT-50-preparationIt’s only for the very hard, and the foolhardy, but apparently the atmosphere is wonderful, if you actually bump into another spectator by some chance. The Saturday and Sunday, and Monday’s presentation day are, of course, hugely convivial affairs.

Perhaps only in Australia could a simple, slightly stupid idea, created from what a small group of people thought of as fun grow into Australia’s fastest and greatest desert race. 

It sounds so curious, and so crazy, that Wheels just has to go and check it out. You can read our reports, and updates on our entry – Toby Hagon in a Mazda BT-50 fitted with bash plates and large doses of hope – for the next couple of weeks. It should be historic.

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