In the early ’90s, Franco Acerbis and Casey Folks brought the Dakar Rally to America. The Nevada Rally, the only true rally-raid event ever held in the U.S., ran in 1993, 1994 and 1995. It was an amazing feat of organization and planning that would have been impossible for anyone else to assemble. This is a first-person account of what it was like to participate in that first Nevada Rally, back when rally racing was still in its infancy abroad and unheard of in the U.S.
By Ron Lawson
IT COULD HAPPEN; IT DID HAPPEN
A rally in the United States was never likely. A year earlier I would have said it was impossible. For the record, a rally is more adventure than race. It’s like ten Barstow-to-Vegas desert races on ten consecutive days. It’s a high-speed race from town to town that consumes almost ridiculous mileage. The riders roll out of town each morning in what’s called a Transfer section. They aren’t racing in this section, but just have to cover distance. Then they get just outside of town to the start of the Special. For the next five to eight hours, it’s an all-out race. Then the riders get to the end of the Special, which is followed by another Transfer, another town, another short night of sleep and another day. It goes on and on. A rally isn’t really a race between riders. It’s a contest with a rider on one side, and time, distance and fatigue on the other.
Also, there are tricky parts thrown in for fun. For example: The course isn’t marked. Each rider is given a book with the route explained in it. It basically says things like, “Go 170 miles. Turn left.” Following the road book is a skill in itself.
For another example: You have to go 80 miles between gas stops. If you allow for about 20 miles of being lost, that means you must have a five-gallon fuel tank. Ever go off a jump with five gallons between your legs? It’s kind of like sitting on an epileptic elephant sideways.
For yet another example: You have a maximum time to finish each special test. If you can’t finish the, say, 170-mile section in, say, six hours, you forfeit the day. In other words, you get no credit at all for even getting out of bed.
So what are the chances that such an event could be held in the U.S., a land that can’t get the bureaucratic okays for even one Barstow-to-Vegas? What are the chances that we could race straight from one town to another, without the combined forces of the environmental elite finding something that is endangered along the way? Franco made it happen, though, with the help of Best in the Desert race organizer Casey Folks. That’s the most fantastic part about the Nevada Rally. It happened.
I DIDN’T MEAN IT, GUYS
The next question (and most important to me, at least) is what was I doing there? Back a year ago or so earlier, I had committed to ride in the rally. A safe bet, I thought. It will never happen. Wrong. So there I was. In Vegas, in August. On a KTM 550 with a seven-gallon gas tank. And I wasn’t alone. There were about 100 other riders wondering why they were there. Usually, when you are unsure of yourself, you gain assurance from the people around you. That didn’t really help here. The people around me were all looking at me like I knew what I was doing. My roommate for the trip was a South African named Gary Hilton Smith. The questions he asked when we were unpacking worried me: “Say, are you going to change tires during the rally?”
“I don’t plan on using more than one or two tires a day,” I answered, not willing to accept the true nature of his question.
“Yeah, I have 12 new Metzelers in the KTM chase truck. How many tires did you bring in your truck?” I asked, getting more nervous.
“How did you get the bike here?”
“I rode it from L.A. It’s an XL600 I left with a friend several years ago. I paid
$400 for it then, but it’ s not in good shape now like it was then. By the way, do you think I should carry a canteen?”
Then there was Scot Harden, a man at the other end of the preparation spectrum. Scot had been eating, sleeping, breathing and living the Nevada Rally for almost a year, ever since he first heard it was going to happen. Scot knew more about the rally than the people who were organizing it. He knew rallies (he won one in Africa), he knew Nevada (he was raised there) and he knew his KTM 600 inside out (he works for KTM). By the time the event actually began, Scot had rally coming out his ears. His brain had overdosed on rally. He was so prepared and so organized that he was exhausted.
I was somewhere between the two extremes. Okay, okay, I was as disorganized as Gary and as stressed out as Scot. That’s my idea of a compromise. For a bike I got a stock KTM 550 because I never heard of one breaking anything except a muffler. FMF made a new muffler for it, and I bolted on a Scotts steering damper and a seven-gallon fuel tank. I also put the air conditioner at home on “low” for a week. I’m big on training.
Let me skip to the end of the story. I finished. I ended up 19th out of 49 finishers, and I’m actually proud of this blinding display of mediocrity. The KTM ran all six days and all 2000 miles. It ate I00 gallons of Trick Racing gas and four gallons of Maxima Super M. I completely shredded ten Metzeler tires, broke the subframe once, burned up eight sets of brake pads and had to rebuild the rear shock three times (improperly twice and properly once). That’s reasonable, considering how much stuff you would wear out in 20 100-mile desert races. Having used up that many parts and lived through that much mileage, I can only offer one piece of advice to anyone hoping to tackle such a project. It isn’t much, but it comes at the expense of lessons learned the hard way. It’s short and deceivingly simple:
That’s all. Bring lots and lots of help. Bring all your friends to help. Make more friends, just so you can bring them. Bring your enemies. Bring everyone you ever met and everyone they ever met. You will need them all.
Most riders brought one support person to pour gas during the day and work on the bikes in the evening. By the third day, that person would be completely used up. The riders start every morning at 6:00 a.m., so they have to be out of bed by 4:30. The gas crew, in order to beat the riders to the first gas location, 80 miles away, had to be up by 3:30 or 4:00 (if they drive fast). Then, as soon as the rider comes through that first gas stop, the support victim has to be on the road, wide open, trying to reach the next location on time. This goes on and on. Then, at 5:00 p.m., the rider comes into town, says, “Oh my, how tired I am, poor me,” and hands a wreck of a motorcycle to his already exhausted support person. Tires and brake pads have to be changed. Frames have to be welded. Maybe a top end has to be rebuilt. Then someone has to get 20 gallons of gas for the next day. If the mechanic is lucky, he will get to bed by midnight. Of course, he has to get up again at 3:30 a.m. the next day.
The only answer is to bring lots of people, so you can throw them into a big pile as they get used up. How many people did I bring? One. Me.
WILL RIDE FOR FOOD
I became a great beggar. I begged for the KTM guys to carry my gas cans. I begged for Kent Nichols and Gary Jones to help me with the bike. Anyone standing nearby was begged from. It didn’t help much. I still was working late and getting up early. It’ s amazing how stupid you get when you aren’t getting enough sleep. It’s worse when you start off a little on the stupid side. In the course of the race, I had some disaster strike me every day. Sometimes two or three disasters would strike. All of them were the product of gross stupidity. For example, on day two I got lost, which is no big deal in itself. Everyone got lost everyday, to varying degrees. At first it seemed like the end of the world to be off the course for five minutes or so. Later, it became routine. You would start applying levels to your lost-ness. If you got a little off the course–for, say, five to ten minutes, that would be a first-degree course departure. If you wandered around for 15 to 30 minutes, that was second-degree. If you ended up someplace where the government tests things that make very large craters, then you were third-degree lost.
Anyway, I was in the middle of a good, second-degree course departure, and my IQ was dropping ten points for every mile I got farther off track. It’s the nature of true sleep-deprivation stupidity to not recognize the condition; I didn’t know how stupid I was becoming. So when I found my way back to the course, I naturally started going in the wrong direction. It didn’t even shake my conviction when I saw riders going the other way. I’d just spin my finger around, trying to communicate that they had better turn around. I actually got one guy to turn around and follow me. He probably got even less sleep than I did.
The same day, later on, they gave us a break between two special tests. My brain power had leveled off somewhere in the “idiot with some hope” range, so I decided to put on a new tire for the next special test. I had been giving my gas and parts to anyone who would take them to the gas stops. My gas was with the KTM pit crew and my tires were with Jimmy Lewis’ pit crew, so naturally I stopped with Daryl Folks’ crew to change the tire. Why? I don’t know, but they clearly didn’t want me there. I didn’t realize I was in the wrong pit area until I had the wheel off and was running out of time. By the time I found my tires and gas, I just had a few minutes, so I stuffed the wheel into place without noticing the rear brake pads had fallen out. I started the special test pumping my brake, wondering why it didn’t work. Eventually, the piston hit the disc, cocked sideways and ruined the caliper.
Another symptom of degenerating intelligence is unwarranted optimism. Later in the rally, by the time I had sunk to a level between “idiot with no hope” and “needs institutionalization,” I was getting ready to start a test and looked down to see my carburetor spewing gas from every possible tube and orifice. I kicked the carb twice, jiggled the bike and bounced on the seat. The carb still looked like a Rain Bird gone crazy. They told me to go, so I went. “It will be fine,” I told myself. When I arrived at the first gas stop an hour later (it was only 40 miles out), the bike should have used two gallons of gas–but my entire five-gallon supply went into the tank. It still wanted more. I grabbed someone else’s gas and poured it in. It was, of course, straight gas and I used another two gallons.
“Hey, you’re leaking gas,” someone said.
“It will be fine,” I replied.
At some point in the next 80-mile section, the Goddess of Math graced me with just enough intelligence to realize that I wasn’t going to make the full distance. I stopped, yanked off the carburetor and float bowl and eventually fixed the problem (a rock in the needle seat). However, it took several tries. Give a carburetor to a six-month-old infant and see how well he can overhaul it.
ENOUGH ME (FOR NOW)
I could go on and on with story after story proving my stupidity, but I would rather not. Everyone was getting a little stupid as the event went on. The winner, Alain Olivier (he’s not from around here), simply was the man who retained more brains than anyone else in the course of the race. He didn’t win any of the special tests until the last two days. The fastest man was Dan Ashcraft, who won five of the special tests. Dan had stupidity attacks of his own, though, starting on day three. He got hopelessly lost. That put him back in the dust on day four, where he crashed. He still had a shot at winning the event, though, when his Honda XR630 got stupid (the ignition failed).
Another Honda rider, David Trolli (an Italian; Europeans were everywhere) was the second-fastest man, but he got lost on day five. Why were so many people getting lost? Navigation really is the hardest part of the rally. It’s especially bad if you start in front of everyone else, as the previous day’s winner always does. So the lead man is racing through turns while trying to follow the course outlined in the road book. You do this by tearing out the pages of the book and taping them together. Then you put the resulting roll into an oversized route-chart holder. The problem is that the holder is always winding and unwinding itself, so when you look down to see if you turn right or left at mile 165.8, the holder is showing which way you have to turn at mile 234.1. Then you have to roll it backwards, and by the time you get it sorted out the turn is long gone.
Back where I was, navigation was easier. You just followed the tracks. That way, you only got lost in the spots where everyone else got lost. Some of the more experienced riders played possum in the early stages, hoping it would make navigation easier. They quickly learned that dust was a much bigger problem than getting lost. Casey Folks had actually marked most of the major turns, which is not an ordinary rally practice at all. So if you got lost despite the book and despite the markings, you deserved to get lost. No one, on the other hand, deserved the dust. Most of the rally was on fast, straight dirt roads. Everyone goes fast on fast, straight dirt roads, and speed makes dust. If you had a good crosswind, you could see the next rider, maybe a half-mile in front of you. Then the wind might change and you would be completely blind- at 100 mph. Scary stuff.
For the most part, though, what the rally consisted of was big vistas. Typically, you would be on a dirt road in a valley where you could literally see for 100 miles. In some cases you could see where you would be in an hour. The course just stretched on and on.
Every so often a town would spring up in the middle of no place for no apparent reason. It amazed me how the local inhabitants would take the rally in stride. If a motorcycle race came down the main street of my hometown, it would sure seem weird. The people in Ely and Eureka and Two Toad Junction, though, just kept on washing the dishes as they peered out their windows with faintly puzzled looks. We would briefly flash through towns, maybe gas up, and then head back into the endless desert. You can’t help but admire the beauty of the barren landscapes, but at the same time be a little frightened by the sheer size and distances involved. Out there, you become convinced that the people who talk about the “vanishing” desert are fools. The desert is growing, if anything. Time and time again, we would ride by abandoned dwellings that were being reclaimed by the desert. Walls, maybe a chimney, would stand as monuments to man’ s failed attempt at taming the area.
BATTLE OF THE WOMEN
As the week went on and on, and I got less and less sleep, one fear grew and grew within me. I wasn’ t afraid that I would crash at high speed or that I would get lost and never be heard from again. I wasn’ t afraid that I would run out of gas or break down. One terror outweighed everything. If I continued with my navigation and intelligence problems, it was increasingly apparent that I was going to be beaten by a couple of women. That’s the type of thing that every desert racer has nightmares about. You say I’m chauvinistic? You say I have an ego problem? Of course I do! For what other reason would I race motorcycles?
Both women were very fast. Anna Cody of the U.S. and Jutta Klienschmidt of·Germany were matched against each other and it was billed as a battle of the fastest women in the world. You would think that the two women would have a lot in common. Not the case. Anna was the professional racer tackling the biggest event of her career. Jutta was on vacation in the
U.S. and wanted to have a good time. An na never took unnecessary risks and always rode responsibly. Jutta would sneak up behind male riders and try to knock off their goggles with a slap to the back of the head when she rode by. Anna was met by her dietitian at every gas stop, and was fed bee pollen and health food. Jutta was seen trying to suck down an unfiltered Camel every chance she got. They were involved in a close battle until day four, when Jutta lost her time card. That mistake cost her a massive penalty. After that, Anna, being a smart racer, rode at a relaxed pace. On the other hand, I rode like a maniac the last few days and salvaged my manhood, finishing one spot in front of Anna. Thank you, Lord.
A MILLION STORIES
When it was all over, everyone had some unique story to tell. Harden, after being more prepared than anyone else in the rally, had hit a cow and broke his wrist on day two. He rode that way until the last day, when his KTM that he had prepared so well blew a rod. As far as I know, it was the only KTM to break down of the dozens that were there being rented to the Europeans. Oh, well.
Jimmy Lewis went through three engines in his Kawasaki KLX650. The first one melted an ignition on day one, the next one blew a head gasket on day three and the last one made terminal clunking sounds on day six.
Greg Zitterkopf went home on day three, without saying goodbye to anyone. He just didn’t like the terrain.
Charles Holcomb showed up quietly, rented a KTM and got second overall. Every day he was seen walking around shaking his head and saying, “I’ve never gone so fast in my whole life,” to no one in particular.
Scott Morris actually was leading the rally, halfway through day four. What’s really strange is that he was doing this on a Kawasaki 250. Mind you, this is an event where riders on 600s felt like they didn’t have enough speed. Then Scott blew a rod out of his KX, showing why 250s shouldn’t go so fast. Joey Lane had done the same thing to his KX250 already–twice.
Larkin Wight showed up with his vintage Triumph- the same one that he soloed the Baja 1000 with. He finished the first three days, then scattered the big twin all over the countryside. He seemed to have a good time, anyway. Then again, we have never seen Larkin not have a good time.
Finally, there was my roommate for the trip, Gary Hilton Smith. He had to forfeit two special tests in the course of the event, but he was an official finisher, in 47th place.
On the last day, while an event doctor was sewing up a gash in his leg, Gary was talking about riding the same event on the same bike next year.
I think I might come and pour gas for him. I’ll bring lots of friends.
For Paul Clipper’s book “Nevada Rally, the American Adventure” click the image above.