Scattered Ramblings from the Dust of the Tatts Finke Desert Race

White knuckles and bloody palms in the Red Centre.

By Jerry Bernardo

By Jerry Bernardo

I have trekked out to the famed Finke Desert race ten times. The first two trips [I took] I flew over from America to support 7-time Baja 1000 O/A Champion Steve Hengeveld. [The first time, 2006, he finished 1st Open Bike over 500cc and 8th O/A]. During our time in Alice Springs, I became really good mates with Desert Edge Motorcycle’s owner Michael Vroom and [now that I live in Australia] have gone back each year to work for him and help out with his team’s race effort. The truth is, he found out I could cook good shit and quickly locked me into a lengthy [fake] contract.

I’m not sure why but in all of that time I have never had any burning desire to race the Finke; pounding sand whoops all day at speeds that would cause my eyes to water inside my [goggle sponsor goes here]. If I wanted to be scared or uncomfortable on a bike I would just look at the price tag [here] of a new KTM300.

If you’re not out front in rare clean air I imagine that racing the Finke is kind of like this: get inside your Sprinter van and let off two full fire extinguishers. Now try to make your way from the back of the van over ten coolers placed on the floor [as fast as you can] up to the steering wheel. Sounds fun, doesn’t it?

This year I gathered some audio from those who have raced on what I refer to as Mother Nature’s bodyguard: The Finke track. Here is the information I extracted from them in order to help you get a glimpse of the challenges afforded to those who do sign-up each year for a crack at Australia’s “toughest and fastest” off road race. The Finke is somewhat unique in that the race takes place each year on the Queen’s Birthday long weekend in three parts: a Prologue on Saturday for time, day one (Sunday) race down to Finke (where they stay the night), and then day two (Monday) they race back to Alice Springs to finish.

PS: If this race is on your bucket list, bring your wallet.

The Champ

Toby Price: The 5-time winner of the Finke

 

Jerry Bernardo: As the five-time winner of the Finke, can you give us a brief overview of what [you think] it takes to tentatively ensure a win here at the toughest [and fastest] off road race in Australia?

Toby Price: This racetrack can bite you really quick, you just have to be smooth and consistent and keep the momentum going, there is no time to relax, as soon as you decide to do that, something will jump up on you pretty damn quickly and put you on the ground even quicker. You also need to have good people behind you: good pits and crew plus a great bike and support. It is going to be a tough one this year, it’s going to be dusty and for the guys that don’t get in to that top five it’s going be hard work. The main thing is to get down and back safely but do it as fast as you can.

“Finke is not a shit event, it is just a shit event if something goes wrong.” – Toby Price

I imagine that everyone may have seen me riding wide-open at around 180 km/h in YouTube videos. There are certain sections of the track that you just cannot go that fast, you would literally shit yourself. At the end of the day, there are many spots that you are on the throttle stop at those speeds [when the track allows] and it is the best feeling the world. When you start to get into the deep whoops there are always some pretty hairy moments. I can guarantee you that every single guy from myself down to the last person to cross the line on a dirt bike has an “oh shit” moment out there. When that happens, it’s pretty much scary on steroids—plus more.

 

You’re going to be in a world of hurt if you make ground contact [at these speeds] with your body. I say: “Shiny side up, rubber side down, stop, collect cheque and rinse off with champagne!”

Toby Price was unable to compete in the bike division due a Dakar Rally injury from early in the year; however, instead he competed in the Trophy Truck class. Photo: Jerry Bernardo.

Toby Price was unable to compete in the bike division due a Dakar Rally injury from early in the year; however, instead he competed in the Trophy Truck class. Photo: Jerry Bernardo.

The Heavyweight Contender

Miles Davis – Melbourne, VIC

BMW R1200GS

JB: You have set a lofty goal for yourself: ride 2,200 kilometres from Melbourne to Alice on a pretty much stock beast-of-a-bike you plan to compete on. If all goes to plan you will then return to Melbourne through the Simpson Desert back to the safe confines of your couch. Please tell me you beefed up the suspension on your 240 kilos “race bike.” [Estimated weight with fuel.]

Miles Davis: We didn’t do anything to the suspension, this bike it really is standard. My race is not going to be about attacking whoops, this is more of an endurance test. The mindset is to get to the finish and the big whoops you have to go slow. There are a few spots where you can relax and open her up a bit but it is an endurance test. The bike is not designed for this but our goal is to get it through in one piece. I worked for BMW for ten years and only just recently resigned a few weeks ago. This race was organized while I was still there, so it is not only a personal goal but a marketing activity for BMW as well. No flags and banners and promo girls—just a bike and a rider.

Miles Davis knows how to challenge himself and a motorcycle: race a 240 kilos (529 lb.) BMW R1200GS in the Finke—and finish! Photo courtesy of Miles Davis.

I got carried away the other day and had a “moment.” This bike has no real margin for error so you just can’t get carried away. On my 450 I can kick back and throttle out of things and wheelie tap or jump. You have to respect the size of the bike and for a moment there I was out of my zone. In hindsight it was a good thing because now it has squared me up for the race itself. It was a bit of a wake-up call.

Insofar as finishing, I wouldn’t say I am oozing with confidence, but I know it is going to be a really big challenge. I feel prepared, so I just need to execute well.

[Miles Davis came across the line of the 2017 Tatts Finke Desert race in 441st position out of the 453 riders to finish. His total time [on track] was double that of the winner Daymon Stokie.]

The Smiling Bridesmaid

Ivan Long – Husqvarna Factory Support Rider Buttrose Earthmoving/Schwarz Excavations

Husqvarna FE450

JB: The last time I saw you here [at Finke] you were a KTM mounted racer. How did the switch over to Husqvarna come about?

Ivan Long: Husqvarna took a chance and approached me to ride for them and I wanted a change. Jeff Leisk and Husqvarna Australia got behind me and that put a bit of fire in my belly. We all put our heads together for six months and put this program together and look where we are now! [smiles]

Out here on the Finke track [when we are testing] we try to back it down a bit, but we still are doing about 145-150 km/h across the whoops. Yesterday I had no rear brake from about the 80 kilometres mark all the way to Finke. I had no way of slowing down—you just can’t grab the front brake while you are in a heap of whoops. I just hung off the back of it and held it on the rev limiter in top gear. On day one we got to Finke in fifth and moved up a few positions [today] to grab second—we’re pretty happy.

The Legendary Finke Track

Michael Vroom – 2001 Finke Winner on a CR500 [15/36 gearing] - Alice Springs local

JB: The Finke track is 238 kilometres long and has to be ridden in both directions to complete the race. What makes this battered stretch of desert [and race] so special?

Michael Vroom: The track is in a unique environment and that makes it an equally unique track. The track itself is a mixture of whoops, rocks, sand and hard pack. Add all of that together and string it out over 238 kilometres. The Finke track has 42 years of history behind it and much of it has been traversed for all of those years…it is pretty hammered. The lead up to the event gives it a good beating as well.

“The track itself is like a living breathing animal that constantly changes.” – Michael Vroom

The volume of cars and bikes on the track [each year] certainly has a big effect. Come race day it is very different from when the guys pre-ran it just two weeks before. The reason it gets so beat is the number of vehicles and the overall speeds. The buggies each year [more than anything] have more and more horsepower and they are doing massive amounts of damage to the track. Combine that with the sheer volume of riders every year. Two years ago, there were 250 to 300 entrants in the race now there is 600. With numbers like that [on track] it certainly takes it toll.

Chris Jackson (left) and Michael Vroom – 2001 Finke Winner and Alice Springs local. Photo: Jerry Bernardo.

Chris Jackson (left) and Michael Vroom – 2001 Finke Winner and Alice Springs local. Photo: Jerry Bernardo.

Personally, I think it is too many bikes. It may be good for the event, the town and the organizers but as far as trying to enjoy the race and have a competitive run at the track, it is almost impossible: there is too much dust.  This year the conditions are particularly bad. Leading up the race we usually get a bit of rain but there wasn’t a drop—there’s not a lot we can do about that factor.

In the past three years 80% of the riders here have been first timers. The event has a real bucket list status to a lot of people in Australia, all they want to do is Finke. It is a very expensive event to attend with the interstate travel and other costs [the entry fee is $650] I think for many they do the race once and that’s it. The overall costs are prohibitive to many. But, having said that, it is a unique event and still does attract a lot of people.

The Battered Finke Virgin

Mark Arnst – DERT/FAHQ Racing

CRF450-R

JB: During your first-ever Finke prologue you grabbed a great starting spot. The trouble is, you found out straight away that everything changes after that flag drops. Can you tell us how your race unfolded?

Mark Arnst: I prologued to 24th position and was happy with that. The race [itself] was lightning fast and it was really tough. I had four big crashes but it was the last one [just three kilometres out of Finke] that ended my race. The track was so different from when we pre-ran it. During the race [with 599 other bikes on course] the track definitely changes. It’s in a class of its own with the combination of the dust and all of the hidden obstacles. This race is a free-for-all, you have to be on it the whole time. Racing the Finke is just a bunch of successive “oh shit” moments and I had four major ones, plus all of the little ones that I somehow managed to keep at bay. It was that last one that put me out of the race. I am not too sure what happened as my memory is a bit foggy. I came out of the Finke River and hit a hidden square edged bump while my suspension was fully compressed and that left me sunny side up, scrambled eggs style—I was done. Apparently, I was out for around ten minutes and talking some shit and dribbling a bit so they threw me in the Royal Flying Doctors service plane and took me back to Alice.

[“Mark Us Delirious” had a massive concussion, a broken helmet, a broken neck brace, a big ass black eye, gravel rash on one whole butt cheek and was limping around at work the next day like the ghost of Evel Knievel.]

A smirking Arnst concludes: “Finke does something to you: it leaves you smiling no matter what happens. I will be back next year to do it again. They build us differently for this stuff, we’re not just weekend Harley riders—we are true motorcycle racers!”

Even though he didn't finish the race, Mark Arnst vows to return in 2018 and finish what he started this year. Photo: Jerry Bernardo.

Even though he didn't finish the race, Mark Arnst vows to return in 2018 and finish what he started this year. Photo: Jerry Bernardo.

The New King of the Desert

Daymon Stokie – Active8 Yamaha Yamalube

WR500R

JB: You came into the race this year just looking for a decent result because your hand looked like the belly of a freshly fed python. Can you tell us how it happened?

Daymon Stokie: I crashed about three months ago at the Gascoyne Dash [a 350-kilometre-long race in Western Australia] and broke the 3rd and 4th metacarpals (fingers) in my hand in the crash but kept on riding and managed to take the win. At the hospital I had surgery and they put fourteen screws in there and it has pretty much been hell ever since. I have 75% percent less strength in my left hand so I literally went into the race this year looking for a top five finish. I rode within myself all weekend as everything seemed to unfold around me. I just tried to keep it together and ride a smooth race. About 100 kilometres into day one my hand just deteriorated. I was really struggling to hold on and was dreading the race back today.

“On the way down to Finke [my hand hurt so badly] I was kind of hoping my bike would blow up. [laughs] I would never, ever quit [a race] but that thought kept popping into my head, if that puts it into perspective for you.” – Daymon Stokie

Once I saw that David Walsh was out of the race [10 kilometres into the start of day two] it gave me a bit more motivation. [KTM’s David Walsh prologued to first position, made it into Finke in first and left on day two with no dust and a cushy five-minute lead. Walsh’s KTM 500’s bottom end let go just 10 kilometres out of Finke ending his effort in heartbreak for the Alice local.]

Stokie did not let his hand stop him from finishing (and winning) this year's Finke. He defines the toughness required to finish the race. Photo: Jerry Bernardo.

Stokie did not let his hand stop him from finishing (and winning) this year's Finke. He defines the toughness required to finish the race. Photo: Jerry Bernardo.

The track [this year] was the worst I have ever seen it by far. Coming into this race I think everyone thought it was going to be a bit smoother because of all the work they did to it. With all of the traffic that has been up and down it, fuck it was bad. As a racer who has won the Baja 1000 I can honestly say that I am more stoked on winning the Finke [than Baja] because I am from Alice Springs and I spent all those years watching the race as a little kid. I feel super bad for David; he was the fastest guy all weekend and he’s my good mate but that is the way it goes. I am pumped that I could bring it home.

[Stokie’s win is the first win for Yamaha since Stephen Gall won the Finke back in 1986.]

The Outdoor Frat House

“The Kuricville Pub”

Kuricville Pub is the camp of XR3PG

The two sides of the multi-faceted Finke experience coin would have to be the race and it’s spectators. Everyone seems to be in town to party [this includes the locals] and while many are there to support someone in the race, the drinks flow quite generously throughout the week. You would be lucky to find a camping spot in the first 80 kilometres of the track and many venture even further down. It’s no secret Aussies can drink with the best of them and the boys at XR3PG have taken it to the next level. The Kuricville Pub is infamous for its debauchery in the dust. The name ‘Kuricville’ is derived from the term “curic.” [Urban Dictionary defines “curic” as the standard unit for measuring human excrement. One curic is approximately 2.5 pounds.]

While I could spend quite some time painting you a picture of the “fun” that goes on down at the 70-kilometre spot they call the Kuricville Pub: just imagine the set of Mad Max, the back of Talladega and Bathurst combined with a Carhartt/Hard Yakka convention all blowing a BAC of around 1.480%.

The crew from XR3PG takes pride in their camp, dubbed the "Kuricville Pub." Tuffy/XR3PG image.

The amount of work that goes into the bar they drag down there and build is amazing. On a lighter note, they do run a fuel stop during the race and take it ultra serious. After the fuel stops flowing the party starts and hits 6th gear in a matter of seconds.

My mate Obsty was on location [down there] this year and filled me in on a few highlights of the fun pioneered by the many diseased livers that just will not die at Kuricville: A makeshift mechanical bull ride built over three filthy mattresses, stockpiles of fireworks that may or may not be legal going off all night [and sometimes striking shit-faced onlookers] drinking games, fighting, fucking and of course, much puking.

“After the fuel stops flowing the party starts and hits 6th gear in a matter of seconds.” – Stephen Tuff

Obsty adds; “One blind drunk guy pulled out a knife and began waving it around as if he may use it. [My call is he wouldn’t have—he was just shit faced and didn’t think this move out.] One of the guys standing next to him casually picked up a shovel and swung it like a cricket bat into the guys head and took him out: problem solved.

[As you can tell real life caveman action figures were in full effect at this gathering.]

“Old mate [slang for some random guy] and his girlfriend came down to party,” Obsty tells me, “During the night the guy went off and banged some other chick. His girlfriend found out and they had a fight. She was barking at him and told him she was leaving him there. His casual reply to her: “Can you leave me the eskie?” [cooler] In the end it turned out she made him breakfast first, then left and even came back later on.

Even Ivan Long's scrapped rear tire (which came off the rim on the way down on day one) gets put to use by the XR3PG boys in Kuricville. Tuffy/XR3PG image.

Even Ivan Long's scrapped rear tire (which came off the rim on the way down on day one) gets put to use by the XR3PG boys in Kuricville. Tuffy/XR3PG image.

These tales are just the receptacle end of the weekend’s relentless mayhem.

*Editors note: Not everyone camping down the track emulates the madness and carnage of the Kuricville crew. There are many “normal” families who enjoy camping and watching the race with a few quiet ones [beers]. While the ability to "hold your liquor" is often fantasized as a competitive advantage, the XR3PG crew seem to be at an elite level of drinking prowess and during Finke week they should always be approached with caution [laughs].

For more information and full results from the 2017 Tatts Finke Desert Race, visit: https://finkedesertrace.com.au/.

The Story Behind the Finke Trophy

"Dan Ashcraft came to AUS and won the Finke in 1996 and took the perpetual trophy home to the states with him. When I got hooked up with Vroomy 11 years ago he asked me if I knew Dan and told me the trophy had been missing since. I tracked down Ashcraft and made plans to get the trophy from him. When I did get it I had the small winner nameplates updated [as it had been missing quite a while] Henge and I flew to AUS with the trophy to a hero's welcome and landed on the front page of the newspaper as we brought the trophy back to Alice Springs. I rode to the gas station just off the 15 freeway in my hometown of Victorville, California on my XR650 to meet Dan. I had a backpack with me as I had never laid eyes on the trophy. He hands me this massive wooden plaque that barely fit in my back pack [unzipped] I rode home on dirt tracks back to my house much slower than I did on the way up to meet him!" [laughs]" – JB

"Dan Ashcraft came to AUS and won the Finke in 1996 and took the perpetual trophy home to the states with him. When I got hooked up with Vroomy 11 years ago he asked me if I knew Dan and told me the trophy had been missing since. I tracked down Ashcraft and made plans to get the trophy from him. When I did get it I had the small winner nameplates updated [as it had been missing quite a while] Henge and I flew to AUS with the trophy to a hero's welcome and landed on the front page of the newspaper as we brought the trophy back to Alice Springs.

I rode to the gas station just off the 15 freeway in my hometown of Victorville, California on my XR650 to meet Dan. I had a backpack with me as I had never laid eyes on the trophy. He hands me this massive wooden plaque that barely fit in my back pack [unzipped] I rode home on dirt tracks back to my house much slower than I did on the way up to meet him!" [laughs]" – JB

More scenes from the 2017 Finke: