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Vegas to Reno

As half of our support team waited with me at pit 2, the big question was “Where is Gordie?” The race was underway, Tim had started first, and Gordie was supposed to take over at pit 2. I was expecting to take the reins at pit 4. But where in the world was Gordie? As the clock kept ticking, it was apparent that Tim would be pitting here soon, and Gordie would not be here to replace him. Just as the race is getting underway, the best-laid plans are suddenly going awry!

The “best laid plans” began months ago, when my partner in business Gordie McCarty, my son Tim and I decided to race the famous “Vegas to Reno” race, hailed as the longest off road race in the United States. We actually started by identifying our ultimate goal- to finish the race. That is a noble goal, as the bike must go the distance in spite of flat tires, crashes, incredible dust, and running with trucks. The racers must go the distance as well, overcoming incredible obstacles, of which the greatest would be exhaustion.

The course was 526 miles long consisting of dirt trials and roads, gravel and sand washes, dry lakebeds, and some of the nastiest silt imaginable. Thick, fine silt the consistency of powder snow that would grab your front wheel and hurl you into the dust in an instant.

In order to finish the race we must be fully equipped from the start. So we started with a new bike, an XR 650 Honda. This model (although highly modified) was what had been winning races in the near past. As race time approached, we worked on bike setup.

The next key to finishing the race was the riders. Training regularly and vigorously was our key to success. Gordie practiced in Sacramento, mostly on motocross tracks, on his Yamaha YZF250- not exactly a desert bike, and not necessarily in the desert, but riding and training just the same. He also did cycling classes regularly, which are truly a brutal workout- a great cardio builder.

I trained by exercising at the YMCA 3 times a week, as well as Tae Kwon Do, and riding 100 miles a week in the desert.

Tim trained by being Tim. He raced motocross and lived his 200 MPH life.

Would we be ready? I was 48 years old. Was I nuts? Did I think I had what it took to race 185 miles (my portion) in a single day? What about Gordie? He will start the race riding a bike he has never ridden before, with little to no desert riding experience. Tim had little time on the 650, and really wasn’t training. However, he was in great physical shape- provided he didn’t get injured before race time. Well, we had enthusiasm, and we would make the best of it.

When I signed us up for the race, I found that we could have pit support from American Honda! Now this sounded like a great idea, as we really didn’t know what the hell we were doing. I contacted Bruce Ogilvie from Honda, and got it all set up. They would fuel us, replace flat tires, and help with broken things (please dear God, no broken things!) This was a great encouragement to Team Rock Stars (our team name, as we were sponsored by Parsons Bros. Rock Retaining Walls).

Bruce Ogilvie (who is a living legend in the desert racing world) sent us pit information and specific instructions on setting up the bike. So, I started getting the bike set up. That required changing the muffler, air box, and jetting. Now it was running faster! Next was making it run dependably. So, I safety wired spokes, bolts, and plastics. Finally, Pirelli tires with heavy tubes front and rear.

There was still plenty more that needed to be done. We needed fire extinguishes, numbers on the chase trucks, 3 complete fanny packs with tools and parts, matches, and water. Extra parts were stocked for mid-race repairs. Not only was it the longest off road race in the United States, it was beginning to feel like the most expensive.

Gordie flew into town at noon the day before the race. That gave us enough time to run home, go for a quick ten-mile ride with him and his Dad. At least he rode the bike before the race! We all went to the Suncoast Casino for the rider’s meeting and tech. Now it is beginning to sink in- we are entering the Vegas to Reno race with a bunch of RACERS! Bikes, trucks, buggies, and quads- every kind imaginable! Teams with matching shirts, huge vans with tens of thousands of dollars of parts, tools, and equipment. Trucks and Hummers tooling up the parking lot, shaking with barely constrained horsepower. What were we doing here?

I was beginning to feel like some idiot who mindlessly signed up for this race without really knowing what we were doing. (Which was largely true.) Of course, dropping the bike as we unloaded it in the parking lot wasn’t a great confidence builder, either. (“Hi! We’re the idiots that will be in your way tomorrow, and I’m the head idiot, Kevin!”)

First stop, the Honda van. Bruce Ogilvie told me to stop by so he could have a look at the bike. While Bruce helped us tremendously, he didn’t help my feelings of inadequacy, as he took apart and fixed various screwups I had done to the bike. Then Johnnie Campbell stopped by and gave us a few tips. Johnnie Campbell!! JOHNNIE CAMPBELL!! That’s like playing a game of pickup basketball in a schoolyard, and Michael Jordan stops by and gives you a few tips. I was starting to like this sport. The people are still real. What a treat!

No matter how well you plan for something, there are always “variables”. One of our big variables was Tim, as he had been sick the day before the race. He had been running pretty hard, and the flu seemed to catch him in a weak moment. Gordie assured me Tim would suck it up and perform like a master come race time.

Race day comes early after a late night to bed getting the last preparations done. We got up at 4;30 and headed to Pahrump for the start of the race. (Why is it called “Vegas to Reno” if it starts in Pahrump? Because Pahrump makes it sound like it starts in some piss-ant little town- which it does). The early start is so the first riders can begin at daylight, as the time from the first rider to the last finisher is 21 hours. I hope that’s not us. One chase truck took Tim and I to the start. We would make sure Tim got going okay, and then head for pit 4, where I would take over for Gordie. We couldn’t see Tim start, as it was around a half mile of walking to the start, so prudence told us to believe he would start okay, and we would get in place.

Since we were far enough ahead of Tim, we thought we would stop at pit 2 to see Gordie take over for Tim. I was shocked to see the way the leaders came in to pit. This was really a race! The pit crews swarmed the bikes after they slid to a stop, fueling them and changing riders in a flash! In mere seconds the bikes were refueled and tearing off into the desert! It was a scene of controlled chaos as multiple bikes entered and exited without hitting one another. As time went by, we began to wonder where Gordie was. He should have been at this pit by now. Was he lost? Perhaps a flat tire on the truck? Did he go to the wrong pit? Finally, Justin (my chase truck guy) and I decided I had better get ready to spell Tim, as Gordie wasn’t showing.

As I started getting my gear on, the adrenaline started to flow, both with anticipation of the race far sooner for me than I expected, and the uncertainty of where my teammate was at this time. Added to the confusion were reports from the racers that most of the racers were lost in the desert from missing the arrows. Wasn’t the course marked adequately? Was Tim lost? Had he run out of gas? At last, the red bike with the headlight appeared, and a pit guy announced the number as 934. Here comes Tim! As the crew swarmed the bike with fuel, Tim’s few comments were “I passed 21 guys!” “We all got lost back there!” and “The bike is fine.” Lastly, “Go Dad go!” Suddenly I was off! A quick right turn, and a long straightaway, going through the gears, yelling at the top of my lungs, “yahoo! I’m racing the Vegas to Reno!”

I was following another bike from a distance, and reeling him in. I was going to pass this guy! I got by him briefly before hitting my first section of silt. As I sank into the silt, it clutched my front tire, and the rear tire began slewing around to the right. The natural response to this phenomenon is to slow down- definitely the wrong thing to do! I immediately feel off the left side in a huge cloud of silty dust. The dust was so thick, I couldn’t see my front wheel. I struggled to right the bike, and heard a sound that frightened me- the sound of approaching bikes behind me. Could they see me? Would they hit me? I changed my focus from starting my bike to waving my arms wildly so the first approaching bike didn’t hit me. He saw me and went by. My relief was brief, as I was again enveloped in a cloud of choking dust, and could hear another bike coming! Once more I waved my arms and avoided another collision. Another cloud of dust. Another bike. Another cloud of dust. I finally had enough time to get the beast started and get going again, only to fall down again within 300 yards of the last time! The same scenario happened as bikes continued to pass me, and I continued to struggle to continue.

I was finally able to proceed slowly, with both legs splayed out each side as stabilizers to prevent another fall. This was slower and more tiring than normal racing! Fortunately, the silt ended and I was able to get up to speed again. However, the silt would attack me numerous times again throughout the day, with the same dismal results. Another problem with continually falling in the silt I that I always fell to the left, burying the air cleaner side of the bike into the dust. Causing it to plug and choke.

Just a few miles before the 4th pit, I came upon a famous dry lakebed, a smooth surface that was supposed to enable me to achieve “maximum flat out speed”. Maximum flat out speed on our XR650 is approximately 105 M.P.H. However, due to the excessive dust from the bikes and quads ahead of me, I was unable to go that fast. Maybe old age and intelligence had a part, as well.

A few side notes on demoralizing factors of my race;

Tim passed 21 riders before giving the bike to me. Tim is a much faster rider than me; so all 21 of those riders passed me. Also, Tim didn’t veer off course as much as many of the experts that were ahead of him, so he beat them to the second pit, where he turned the bike over to me. I was then passed by all of them as well. So, I started my leg of the race with the words “I passed 21 guys” ringing in my ears, and was promptly passed by much more than that.

I have ridden in the desert for many years, and had never encountered silt like that before. The first time I tried to go after getting upright, the front wheel was literally stuck in the silt. I was afraid of the silt for the rest of the day, and slowed down every time I got to it.

I didn’t realize until later in the race that I could ride off the road to the side and avoid the deep silt. Chock that up to a rookie mistake.

Gordie took over at pit 4 for me. Thank God, as I was exhausted. Was the whole race going to be like this? If so, we would finish in around three days! Fortunately, it wasn’t. However, each leg had its challenges.

Gordie’s challenge came in the form of a flat tie. Worse still, it was a front tire. A rear flat will cause the back of the bike to slew back and forth, but a front flat will cause the front to slew, veering the rider off the trail, or causing the bike to cross rut, and sending the rider on a little trip to the earth. Gordie however, rode his leg like a champ. In one section he demonstrated the phenomenon of gyroscopic flat tires. That is, a tire will acts flat and floppy, giving the rider all kinds of grief, and get worse and worse the faster he goes. However, when the tire rotation reaches a certain speed, the centrifugal force pushes the tire out and it acts inflated. Gordie was able to do this on a fire road, getting up to full speed, approximately 105 M.P.H., for a good eight miles or so. Thank God Gordie is nuts. It helped our time a lot.

My challenge (besides exhaustion and the 7 falls previously described) was discouragement. At mile 300, as I was riding along, I heard a noise behind me, and looked to see the first truck had caught us! The truck was RIGHT behind me- not more than 10 feet, and was quite anxious to pass me, as he was the leader. The section we were in was a tight road with big rocks on either side- no place to pull off and let him by! Finally, I found a LITTLE wide spot and let him by. As I waited for his dust to settle around me so I could see, discouragement, fear and exhaustion settled around me as well.

Soon another truck passed me, and I realized that the next 226 miles would be raced with trucks. I had around five miles to the next pit, and it was just a fuel stop. I was supposed to race the next leg as well, another 26 miles. I decide that if a truck didn’t kill me, I would get off at the next pit and give the bike to Tim. I just couldn’t go any further. I was the anchor to the team. I had let them down. There was no way I’d finish this race. Tim and Gordie would have to do it. As I reached the pit, I saw Tim without his gear on- wearing a t-shirt! He looked me in the eye and said, “Good job, Dad! You’re doing great! Go for it!” In a few short seconds I had a full fuel tank and clean goggles, and was off again! It was an amazing transformation because of those few quick words of encouragement. I began to race again, and not just trail ride! I could do this deal! When I heard a truck, I would just pull over and let him by and then race again! Thank you Tim!

Tim’s challenge came in the form of a missing contact lens. Oh, did I mention that it was dark at the time? Or that the light was messed up, and was pointing at the Big Dipper? That was certainly a tough section! Gordie and Tim were able to get the light in a reasonable condition to illuminate the trail; however it was so dim that you could overdrive the light at just about any speed. Those factors cost us dearly, and Tim was pretty discouraged after that section.

The night took its toll on all of us, as it was so hard to see, we were so tired, and it had been a very long day with a long night to go. However, we continued onward, remembering our goal to finish the race.

My teammates were kind enough to let me race the final leg, and I will always be grateful for that. As they handed the bike over at the last pit, slapping me on the back, we knew we were going to finish this race! Only 26 miles to go! I rode carefully, as it was difficult to see, and I didn’t want to screw up on the last leg. One kind fellow with a Baja light slowed and rode with me for quite some time, which was a great help. Finally he couldn’t stand it any longer, and rode on ahead. I don’t blame him, and I sure appreciated the help! A few miles later I came upon him and a truck. The truck had stopped because a rider had been lying in the road unconscious when they came upon him. Lucky they saw him. He had come around by the time I got there, and had started his bike and took off like a shot. What a race.

There is really no adequate way to describe the finish of a race such as this. Fifteen hours and fifty seven minutes after starting this race, I rode the bike to the finish area, where I was first congratulated personally by Casey Folks, the promoter, and given three little pins, one for each rider, commemorating our finish. Then I ride the bike up onto an elevated platform, where an M.C. interviews me. All my team is with me, as we celebrate our moment of glory! We have done it! We have finished the Vegas to Reno race! People are cheering, the team, elated, are congratulating each other, and it’s over!

Why would people do a thing like this? Why spend all the time and money preparing and racing in such a mad venue? I think we need challenges in life to really see just what we can accomplish. I know the reward is great when a goal is accomplished, and a team pulls together to make it happen. Perhaps it is because so few people can say that they have raced and finished an event such as this. I know for me it was one of the highlights of my life, something so rewarding and exhilarating, that it was worth every penny, every minute, every drop of sweat spent to achieve it. Achieve what? A three-dollar pin? A printed line in the results, 63rd out of 104? Nope. Just an extremely high goal, well accomplished. Thanks and congratulations to all on the team.