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4Strokes.com Articles: My First AMA D37 Desert Bike Race by Dale Wagner
Desert dirt bike racing is a LOT tougher than it looks!
Malcolm Smith, J.N. Roberts, Larry Roeseler, Dale Wagler ...one of these things is not like the others!
For those of you who don't know, this weekend I headed out to my first desert race. It was waaaaaaaay the hell up at Red Mountain (go to Willow Springs Raceway, then keep on going for another 40 minutes).
I have been haunting the AMA District 37 Website for a couple weeks now trying to get a feel for what's going on, and how things work, and finally decided to give it a try. So last week I sent in my application for a District 37 Desert Racing License. The application was filled out to enter me as a novice rider. Novice riders are the 2nd step up the ladder, with beginners being the first. The people told me that beginner was more for people new to dirt bike riding in general, and that I should probably join as a novice, so that's how I filled out my application. Novice riders can choose to do only the first loop, or both loops; beginners only do the first loop. In this type of race, a Hare & Hound the 2nd loop is different, and more difficult than the first; each loop is roughly 35 miles.
The steward who I sent my application to wouldn't be out to the race until Sunday morning (I went out Saturday), and I needed to get my license and numbers from him. So I hooked up with the Viewfinders club, and when I arrived they showed me around a bit. About an hour before sunset three riders were heading out for a little practice run (you aren't allowed to run on the course, just the bomb run (very first section of the course) and I think we avoided that). Anyway, these guys were all expert class (the highest class) and were GONE when we went out. However, much like LAB (Los Angeles to Barstow), they waited for me from time to time so I could catch up. Well, after about 5 miles I was out of breath and getting tired; this made me rethink the whole "novice" thing. At one point, heading through a series of whoops, we hit a "G-out" which is apparently desert slang for "Giant ass, scary ditch"! I was far enough behind them not to see them hit it so barreled into it at about 35 mph. I just remember thinking "Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit" in my helmet, shifting all my weight back on the pegs and pinning the throttle.
...we freakin' launched!!! I felt the suspension bottom-out then I was airborne. I was actually amazed that I hadn't simply collapsed when I hit, but there I was, flying through the air with the back wheel coming around and the whole bike getting a little sideways. At that point I remembered to get back on the throttle and sure enough, she straightened out a bit and BAM!! we were back on the ground ...and still doing a good 30 mph.
Shortly afterwards I came upon my new riding buddies, who were stopped, and I was going to tell them that I simply couldn't ride like that anymore. I didn't get a chance to speak yet when one of them, who was sort of bent over his bike looked up and said "Shit man, I'm seeing stars after hitting that damn G-out! ...so at least I wasn't the only one that it caught by surprise.
Well, this whole exhausting, and humbling experience made me rethink novice class as I said, so first thing this morning (Sunday) I headed over to the Invaders MC camp (where my steward was going to be) to change my classification to beginner if at all possible, and get my racing number. It turned out not to be a problem, and I was assigned the number V356, which means "Veteran" because I was over 30 years old, and 356 because I was the 365th rider to be signed up in the veteran class. This means, that I was almost surely the lowest ranked person on the entire starting grid!
After registration (which took about an hour and a half) I was ready to go ...or at least, ready to gear up, and sit on the line for 45 minutes while they send off all the faster classes. You see they run the expert class first, then 15 minutes later send off the amateur class, another 15 minutes and it's the novice riders turn, then beginners; 15 minutes behind us they would release the quads onto the course.
Now, nobody gave me any instruction on how to line up, I had to ask to find out that I was in the 4th line. You are also given a fender card which has all your information on it (name, class, racing number, club, etc) that you are supposed to tape to your front fender ...now nobody told me how this is done either. So I taped it on right up front so my information was easy to read, right? Apparently not! You see the card goes on upside down (with the blank back showing up). The rider checkpoints mark your card that way so at the end they can verify you made all the checkpoints. So I was at the line tearing duct tape off my fender and turning my card over. I got it done in the nick of time, with barely 43 minutes to spare! LOL!!!
So now it's race time. So what about the actual race you ask? Let me preface this by telling you that I had no intentions of going balls-to-the-wall. My goal was to finish the race, and not get hurt!
So here I am, sitting on my XR400R at the starting line. The three faster classes are now long gone and I find myself parked between a couple go-fast modern day race bikes which are, in turn, surrounded by slightly more than 100 other hi-tech race bikes. ...and here's me, with probably the only bike in the field with a license plate and blinkers! LOL!! The flag went up and everyone shuts off their engines. Foot on the kick-start, bike in gear, hand on the clutch, just waitin' for the flag to fall.
In my helmet, my mantra is "relax, you're just going on a trail ride, with 120 other bikes ...all at the same time!" Honestly, I wasn't even nervous. Just waiting, and watching the flag.
The flag dropped, so did my right leg. The trusty XR fired up with that first kick, I dumped the clutch and I was racing! "I know I got a great start!" I would later tell my new friends at the Viewfinders' camp, "Because I got passed by at least 80 motorcycles!!!" In truth, I did get an excellent start, as was later confirmed by a Viewfinder rider that I was lined up next to. There were, in my field of vision, less 6 bikes ahead of me coming off the line.
This changed quickly. The riding area is very, very sandy (I hate sand) and chock full of whoops ...like a full mile of whoops with no break. I wasn't in a hurry to crash, so I just found a comfortable pace and went. I didn't really count, but I'd say that in the first 5 miles 20-30 bikes passed me. Once on the actual course (as opposed to the bomb run), the route kept shifting left and right which kept me from being able to read the terrain for more than a few dozen feet ahead. This made me keep my speed to a comfortable level, and people were picking their way past me until I was pretty sure I was in dead last position.
Soon the course turned right (South) into a sand wash that, as luck would have, was ALSO full of whoops ...only deep, sandy whoops!!! It was here that I had my first, and only crash of the day. The front-end hit some really deep soft sand and simply swapped ends too fast for me to do anything and we just kind of plowed into the sand. No damage to the bike or me though, so all I had to do was catch my breath, and take a drink from my hydration pack. I was dying of thirst because you can't take your hand off the bars long enough to grab the drinking tube. On the plus side, I found out that I was, in fact, not nearly in last place, as another half a dozen bikes passed me while I was picking mine up. LOL!
The sand wash continued on for another mile or so then headed up into a ridgeline to run back west (another right). This was the part of the course that I had been warned was the "really gnarly" section. I was warned that the expert guys were coming out of this section looking beat! Well, it turned out to be hard-pack, with some rocks. There were whoops here too, of course, but the ground was harder. "I can ride this!" I said to myself. And so I did. I quickly started to make up time on the guy ahead of me. When he heard me coming he got on it and pulled away; I stuck to my plan of keeping a comfortable pace throughout, and simply let him go. Somewhere up on that ridge, there were a couple yellow jerseys of Viewfinders standing to the side of the course cheering me on, which was actually pretty cool. Soon after that we entered into a hilly section where I passed the guy I had spotted earlier; he had crashed into a bush. He was ok, and looked less than happy as I went by, but a few minutes later he came blasting up behind, then past me. Again, I let him go. Another mile up I found him picking his bike up out of a sand wash that we needed to make a left turn into. I was tempted to beep my horn when I went by ...but that horn is damn near useless anyway! LOL!!
At this point my lower back was really tired from all the whoops, and my forearms were getting a little tired from trying to hold on through all those damn whoops. I was very happy to turn north and find some high speed, but narrow trails. These also had some sand in them, but not too bad. And by now, I was really starting to feel a groove on the bike. I was in 4th gear and running at 3/4-throttle, which is about 45 mph on my XR. Whoops in this section were mostly smaller and I was just blasting through them. There was a road crossing with a dip on the other side, one of the course officials was warning riders about it, but I managed to get a nice little jump off it and clear the ditch on the other side. That was fun!
Shortly after the crossing was the 2nd checkpoint and then a short hill descent. Here the trail got wider and looked to be made for high speed, but I quickly realized that I wasn't seeing any course markers. Now I'm in a race, and it's hard to just stop and look around when you're racing, but that's what I did. In fact, I turned around and headed back the way I came (but off the trail of course, in case someone was coming the other way). Sure enough, off to the east I saw a marker in a bush. Just as I was getting ready to make my way over the guy who kept passing me and crashing came flying by. He looked at me, but kept on going; meanwhile, I jogged over to the east and caught the trail again. Apparently someone had taken out the bush with the course marker on it at the turn. (I can't complain, I center-punched a bush and looked down to find half a tree and a course marker hanging from my footpeg at one point). He he! Anyway, that was the last time I saw speedy the crashing wonder.
The final section led us into rocks and hill climbs. It was here, of all places, that I would finally catch up to, and pass the only 2 people I would pass in anger (so to speak) all day. ...and I got to pass them each twice! By the way, there were a ton of people either crashed out, or broken down along the way, but I don't count them as passes. I'm not sure how to count the guy that kept passing me and crashing...
So I made my two passes in the rocky, steep section and by now I was really feeling the mojo. I was cruising through rock beds, and through whoops. Up hills, and even down them again with some degree of comfort. And then I hit the big hill. I didn't crash, but 3/4 of the way up my front wheel glanced off a rock and sent the bike perpendicular to the trail, basically pointing around the hill, not up it. It took a minute to get the bike turned (the hill was really steep), and this was where my two passes, passed me back. Oh well, the Viewfinders told me that stopping on a hill was the number one time waster, so I wasn't surprised.
I did manage to recover quickly though, and made it the rest of the way up without any problems. After the final checkpoint, and back into some rocky, but otherwise fast sections, I caught my two riders back up and got around them. At this point the 2-loop riders' second loop intersected the first for a while and I suddenly found myself with big two-strokes flying past me like I was going backwards. ...Those guys are effin' nuts!
Anyway, we dropped out of the hills heading south, and back into the valley where we had started. The course turned west and I knew it was the final stretch to the finish line for us 1-loop riders. With (slightly) renewed energy, I got back up on my pegs, pinned the throttle and blasted through the last mile or so of whoops and across the finish line.
The Viewfinders were there to congratulate me, and mark me off their pitboard. Instead of finisher's pins we got coffee mugs, which they hand to you at the finish line. ...it's hard to carry a coffee mug on a dirt bike, dontchaknow.
So that was it. My first race. One crash, one screwed-up hill climb, zero injuries, and a finisher's coffee mug.
Credits: Article written by ZenMoto. Edited by 4Strokes.com.
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