Return of the Bikes
Words by Bill Bryant | Photos courtesy Mint 400
“There he goes. One of god’s own prototypes. A high-powered mutant of some kind never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live, and too rare to die.”
—Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Desert racing is a wildly enigmatic sport generally associated with Fast Guys, Rich Guys and Dumb Guys. If you’re going to try it, you just gotta figure out which one you are gonna be. The endurance required is the long-format sort. It’s not the skills that win a Supercross, or that get one through the harsh terrain encountered in this kind of racing; it’s the thousands of micro-decisions that happen over hours and hours of riding that make the difference.
Part of the charm is this — the only qualifications required are that your machine and helmet pass tech, and that you can afford the entry fee. Prep your bike or buggy properly; have your logistics, fuel and navigation wired tightly; and you’ve got a chance of success. This sport was built on the backs of hearty individuals who did their best work hundreds of miles away from other humans. You’ve got to love it unconditionally, because it does not love you back. The desert can smell arrogance miles away and takes crafty pride in humbling the richest and most talented riders, no matter their previous successes or accomplishments in other arenas.
The origins of desert racing can be traced back to 1962, with Dave Ekins (Bud’s brother) and Billy Robertson Jr. These two legendary pioneers traversed the then-unpaved Mexican Federal Highway 1 for 950 miles, from Tijuana to La Paz, on Honda CL72 Scramblers as a publicity stunt for American Honda. Thirty-nine hours, 56 minutes after they started, a new form of racing had been born, and it was a filthy little underdog of a baby with mischief in its bloodshot eyes. Dune buggies and modified 4x4s soon followed, and a culture of desert rats speeding through the deep ruts and rocky traverses of the Southwest U.S. and Mexico has been constantly evolving ever since.
The Mint 400, also known as “The Great American Off-Road Race,” first ran in 1968 and was shuttered after a twenty-year run, when the hotel it was named after was sold. Resurrected in 2008, it came back with a festive bang, and has truly grown into its nickname. A mind-blowing parade of race cars down the Las Vegas strip and two days of partying with racers, vendors and spectators on Freemont Street has only grown the festive atmosphere, while designated pits, restricted viewing areas and heavy-handed involvement from the BLM has morphed the event into a modern-day spectacle of off-road racing, all while making it safer for everyone involved.
2019 was the first time motorcycles had been invited since 1976. The scariest aspect of racing on two wheels is the thought of a Trophy truck barreling through the choking dust directly behind you. It is a very real threat — and not one to be taken lightly. The Mint 400 organizers fixed this by putting the bikes on the course Saturday morning, followed by the vintage cars and side-by-side classes later that afternoon. Modern bikes did three 85-mile laps, and the vintage bikes (including a sick XR500 side-hack), along with the half-dozen interlopers on Harleys, were required to finish just two. Once the cars got on the course, any bike still moving was pulled off at the next checkpoint and considered a DNF. The big boys in Trophy Trucks and unlimited buggies didn’t race until the following day. Not mixing two-wheelers with cages was an upgrade in safety that no one complained about.
The Gnarlys on Harleys were a race inside a race. Inappropriate as they were, their performance shocked not only spectators and fellow racers, but the riders themselves. Arnie Wells from Idaho was one of the only guys who had ever been to an actual desert race. A pillow freshly strapped to the seat of his mostly stock Sportster on lap two spoke legions about his experience that day. The team of combat veterans known as Warrior Built Racing has some race experience in Baja on bikes and in their Class 11 Volkswagen. They had the audacity to attempt the Mint 400 on an Ironhead Sportster. Ironheads are notorious for not making it home from the bar, let alone finishing a grueling race like this. Fueled by tenacity and passion, it still wasn’t quite enough to get them across the finish line.
Another outsider, Doug Karlson, had ridden a dirt bike only a few times, and had never even tried his Harley in the dirt. What he lacked in experience, he made up for with an infectiously positive attitude and a sense of humor that didn’t quit, even when his body wanted to. Mark “The Rusty Butcher” Atkins and teammate Mikey “Virus” Hill, along with BMX Pro Barry Nobles, have serious skills on two wheels, no matter the bike or conditions. Mark was plagued with mechanical issues and rode about half a lap while missing the foot peg on one side of his bike, after it ripped out of the stock mounts.
Improvised mechanical fixes, long the staple of off-roading, got him back on the course several times, but it made his first lap time slow enough that he was pulled at a check point somewhere on lap two and sent packing. Barry and Virus swore to stick together and “just finish” but couldn’t stifle their competitive instincts. What was supposed to be a fun, let’s-just-make-it-the-whole-way vibe turned into a real battle for first place as lap two progressed. Both riders hammered their 500-pound-plus machines all the way to the podium with no real mechanical difficulties, short of losing gear and quite a few get-offs. In the end, Barry made it to the finish line and quickly exclaimed “I’m the first Harley, right?!” Not long after that, Mikey pulled in, number plate and headlight dangling by a zip tie and mumbled something like, “I thought I had the fucker!”
That’s racing. No matter how you start out, you still want to win.
After the champagne was popped, interviews were given and the guys regrouped, the day’s battle was relived a few times, and the toxic seed that is desert racing took root in these six riders. If Harleys can battle it out in the Hooligan flat-track courses across the country, why can’t they start competing in desert races, too? The days are brutally long and the rewards are few, but the smiles per gallon are impossible to quantify.
Knowing the competitive nature of this crew, the bikes will get prepped better, training and testing will ensue and another generation of reckless weirdos will do their best to hurtle themselves across a desert on bikes that were never intended for it. Dave, Billy — and even old H.S. Thompson — would be proud.