Riders on the Storm // Hare and Hound 101

Mark Kariya photo.

By Kris Keefer

By Kris Keefer

Riders on the storm
Riders on the storm
Into this house we're born
Into this world we're thrown
Like a dog without a bone
An actor out alone
Riders on the storm

       – The Doors

To me, this would be the perfect song to have if a videographer filmed a bomb run and made an edit at an AMA National Hare and Hound desert race. What is a bomb run you ask? We will get to that later, but first, let me introduce myself. My name is Kris Keefer, and I have been a desert rat since the age of one and have lived out in this godforsaken armpit of California (like most of you say when you drove through Victorville) for over 35 years now. My family wanted to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city, so we could ride dirt bikes, drink beer, shoot guns and be ... well ... I guess you could say, somewhat like outlaws.

Mark Kariya photo.

My father raced dirt bikes out in the desert for several years, and that is what I was drawn to as a child while learning the ropes of riding. My heroes growing up wasn't riders like Jeremy McGrath or Damon Bradshaw it was riders like Dan Smith, Dan Ashcraft, Danny Hamel, Larry Roeseler, Paul Krause, Chris Crandall, Ted Hunnicutt, Ty Davis and Destry Abbott. To me as a child, the AMA National Hare and Hound Series was the biggest offroad series in America, and I wanted to be one of those guys when I grew up. However, the motocross bug caught me and I eventually migrated toward that when I was around 16 years old. Even though I didn't race in the desert anymore, my heart still stayed close to the pink ribbon and day glow arrows of District 37. I try to get out to an NHHA event once or twice a year, and every time I go back, it reminds me of why I love this community so much. I headed out to the last NHHA of 2017 and wanted to give all of you an inside look through my eyes of what this series (and desert racing in general) is all about.

“Trust in these arrows because they will lead you up over a rise and into a small village with what looks like a layer of smog/haze, but in reality, it’s the dust coming from hundreds of down-to-earth dirt bike enthusiasts.”

They say Supercross is the pinnacle of dirt bike racing, but if you ask any one of those factory motocross riders if they would want to race a National Hare and Hound you can damn well guarantee most would say, “HELL NO! those guys are nuts!” The GNCC Series might be the most well-known offroad racing series in North America, but the AMA National Hare and Hound Series has been going strong for over 30 years. Most non-west-coast riders out there do not know anything about this unique type of racing and its speed. I wanted to break down: what it’s like to race, attend, and what the riders experience at such an event that can draw thousands of people into the middle of BFE.

A Small Village of Strange Friendly People:

Driving to a Hare and Hound might feel like you are navigating your way to the planet Mars. A desolate, desert with a sprinkling of buzzards picking at dead rabbit carcasses and weird pink arrows telling you where to go. Trust in these arrows because they will lead you up over a rise and into a small village with what looks like a layer of smog/haze, but in reality, it’s the dust coming from hundreds of down-to-earth dirt bike enthusiasts. The sea of motorhomes, trailers, and trucks surround each other like some weird cult in Texas. However, once you get to this somewhat eerie sight, you are greeted by smiles and handshakes that are firm and not some limp-wristed, three-finger half-ass greeting. These humans look you in the eyes, ask questions about your bike and where you come from. Taken aback somewhat, I reluctantly open up and tell them why I am here and when I am done speaking they just smile and say “yes, we understand, we know why you are here, just like we all are, we just love riding dirt bikes.” By now I am in full trip out mode because no more than five or six complete strangers are just shooting the shit with me about their bikes and how much tire pressure they should run today.

Mark Kariya photo.

Let me tell you, I am not used to this, and don’t recall this when my dad was racing. Although I come from an off-road racing background, I seemed to have forgotten that this isn't a moto track in California where people just look at you, do not speak to you, and act like you’re not even there. I also see that most of these enthusiastic riders DO NOT seem to care about if their safety gear matches. For the most part, there are no LIT KITS or BEST DRESSED awards here; just blue-collar enthusiasts that make sure they have the appropriate protection on, that it can take some abuse, and is the most bang for their buck. Desert racers can give two shits about what they look like because I feel like they are here to enjoy the ride and the feeling they get when they twist a throttle. Most of them want to be out in BFE (AKA, Mars) to escape the concrete jungle and 9 to 5 grind of the work week. I didn't see one stopwatch or trainer anywhere within 20 square miles, and no selfies were taken from what I saw. When you park next to someone in this desert racing village, you feel like you instantly become family and they have your back until the time you decide to leave to go home.

Mark Kariya photo.

The Race:

Hare and Hounds don’t have Monster Girls, pit passes, or fencing surrounding the riders. I guess you can say it is an organic way of racing your dirt bike with a wide variety of riders. The “Bomb Run” is one of the craziest spectacles in all of motorsports, I don’t care where you come from! A flag stands in silence a quarter mile away from a line of a hundred riders or more, in what seems like the longest minute of your life as riders sit there in anticipation for it to drop. In this one minute, you can hear the crick of kick starters trying to find their way to top dead center, men screaming in coyote form and other profanities that make you want to laugh, but your heart rate is at 160bpm, and your body is a bundle of nerves—so you brush it off. Once the flag drops a sea of riders and dust travel at over 80mph to a hilltop ridge that designates the start of the marked trail (pink ribbon and arrows) that you must follow for the entire race.

“In this one minute, you can hear the crick of kick starters trying to find their way to top dead center, men screaming in coyote form and other profanities that make you want to laugh, but your heart rate is at 160bpm, and your body is a bundle of nerves—so you brush it off.”

If you are lucky enough to be a spectator on one of those hilltop ridges, you get the sense of just how fast the leaders are going and just how miserable the riders are in the middle of this moving nuclear dust cloud. Once all five waves of riders go off (experts, amateurs, novices, beginners, quads), you will see another smaller dust cloud moving on back towards the friendly village. That cloud is the teams of friends and families riding their pit vehicles back to pit row.

Mark Kariya photo.

Usually, in a Hare and Hound racers have to ride two to three loops that make up nearly 100 miles. The teams, friends, and families all wait anxiously to see a quickly moving dust cloud drawing near towards the pits. Once the pits are aware of the leader's dust drawing closer, the “happy village” as I like to call it, comes to life. Clapping hands, cheers and words of encouragement can be heard for every rider coming through to get fuel, snacks, and water. The cheers seem to get louder as the more blue-collar type riders on 10 to 15-year-old machines make their way down pit lane. Just because you have a green stripe on your bike (designating you’re a novice rider) and have a fifteen-year-old two-stroke, doesn't mean you’re any different in the eyes of the village.

Once time draws near for the leaders to arrive at the finish, there is no gaggle of press or TV cameras. Instead, you see families with washcloths, water, cans of Coke, the occasional pack of smokes, a beer or three and shockingly a whole host of hugs and kisses greeting the finishers. For the top three, there are interviews for the two or three media outlets that attend these races and a trophy presentation, but that is pretty much it. Each rider creates his or her own after party, and that usually means going back to the ol’ Dodge to bench race with your competitors. You get a finisher pin that acts like a badge of honor on your souvenir t-shirt or hat and you load up to go to work the next day. Unless you have social media (if you have cell service) most wouldn't even know you were there, except for the friendly people of the desert racing village.

Risk vs. Reward:

So, as you have read, offroad racing is mostly a working man’s sport, but there are a very select few that make money doing this. Very few (maybe three to four max) can race full-time and not have to go to work on Monday morning. Those top riders that race the entire series are extremely talented and have balls the size of the Queen Mary. Not to mention, they race more than one offroad series to make a living.

All the riders have to navigate their way around the dangers of the desert with only pink ribbon and orange dayglow markers, but top riders are hitting these areas with so much speed sometimes, it’s too late to slow down and that is when shit goes sideways. Literally! When you do get hurt it is not like there is an ambulance within 500 yards to help you. If you are in need of help you rely on your competitors and club workers to get someone or something out to you ASAP. The club that puts on the event is responsible for marking and staking the course, but when you’re a top rider and going a million across the desert floor, you think about putting your life into those few club members’ hands—a very unnerving feeling for most. For the riders’ sake, there is the Kurt Caselli Foundation, and they are working to help triple check the course to keep safety up (along with the markers) at these events. The KC66 Foundation will make sure the danger markings are at the correct spots and relay that information back to the club. This is huge for offroad racing and its riders!

Mark Kariya photo.

When I talk to these elite riders, most say trail riding the desert is way more fun than racing across it. Why? Risk vs. Reward. Although still fun for them, the funding is not nearly as good in the desert as it is in motocross or even GNCC racing. A rider winning an NHHA race makes $400–$600 from the promoter. They can make more if they have a bonus program or personal sponsors, but those are few and far between. The NHHA races usually aren't a spectator-friendly sport unless you’re mobile and have a way to get around going from place to place, so we don’t get to see the near-death experiences/crashes some of these racers encounter. After the event, you can almost guarantee to hear one or two “dude I almost died” stories as riders roll in. It makes me think, “why the hell are these dudes risking it all for a few hundred bucks and a finisher pin?” Or what about the 9 to 5 guy that just gets a trophy and a pin?

As I was loading up the truck to go home, I glanced over across the pits and overheard two gentlemen talking to each other and right then it all became clear to me. The two riders were bantering back and forth about how much fun they had and how they were exhausted after racing over 100 miles across the desert. The one rider looked at the other and put his arm around him as I heard him say, “It’s days like today that make me feel alive buddy, and not to mention, I kicked your ass.” I chuckled a little, but that resonated with me heavily. As dirt bike riders we are all wired the same way. Yes, riding a dirt bike is dangerous (we know this) at any level, but the sense of accomplishment and the way twisting a throttle can make you feel is like none other. The open desert is an escape for most, and for those that don’t ride they will never understand, but to those that do, will get it.

“The one rider looked at the other and put his arm around him as I heard him say, ‘It’s days like today that make me feel alive buddy, and not to mention, I kicked your ass.’”

It’s not about the money; it’s about the journey and fulfillment of riding with your competitors, friends, and family, which makes us keep coming back for more. As I was leaving, no more than eight friendly people waved goodbye at me, and even a few yelled: “drive safe!” And as I slowly got off the lonely dirt road and back onto some pavement, I immediately called my once-desert-racing old man to ask him where that 1985 ATK 560 of his was so we can get her going, go race next year, have a beer, and bench race where all the happy desert racing dirt bike people are.