I first met Bryan Wood (or as many people call him, “Woody”) years ago when I hosted the Beater Olympics. He came by to cover it for RideApart, and he didn’t hesitate to throw a helmet on and join in on the fun. Since then he’s covered motorcycles for publications all over the internet, but you can find him nowadays at Clymer or on his personal site, Pilez & Driverz. Months ago, he gave me a heads up that there was a secretive event happening in the desert, but unfortunately it was on the day that Vy and I flew out for our Spain story. Thankfully, Woody got in on the fun and was kind enough to share how it went!
The Desert Race – Joshua Tree, CA
Story and Photos by Bryan Wood
This adventure started with the 21st century’s version of a conversation overheard at a biker bar, or a hand-drawn map found in a parking lot, or a phone call on a lazy Friday, after the workday had ended and the beer drinking started in earnest, with third-hand rumors about a motorcycle race simply called “The Desert Race“.
The first notice I saw as a post on Instagram by Icon 1000, announcing that entries closed in just a week. The poster was cool, there were over a dozen reputable, hip, sponsors involved, and the date was just three weeks away. Unlike your typical race announcement the location was on a need to know basis, near Joshua Tree, but only given the day before the event. Was this for real?
The name was so generic as to make Google practically useless, and once I did dig up a website, it didn’t have much more useful information to give. The promoter was something called “The Revival House”, but that was another dead end. There was no sanctioning body, and the classes were very loosely defined. When I finally was able to contact the organizer, I was even more confused, because entry was free, beer was free, lunch was free, and there no need for a green sticker or a spark arrestor.
Space was limited, and strangely, even spectators needed to get on the list. While hemming and hawing and trying to borrow a bike, entries closed 5 days early. Luckily I was able to sneak on the list with my wife, thanks to having already been in contact with folks at Revival house. I hit up Abhi to see if his Beater Olympics XR350 still ran, but instead ended up with my brother-in-law’s Honda XL185 (a low mileage vintage bike still rolling on the tires it came with in 1980).
The Desert Race was either going to be every off-road racer’s dream event or some sort of outlaw fiasco, but either way, I was going to be there and racing in it.
I marked it on my calendar and waited for the email to come with details on the location. Meanwhile, my wife in her digging had randomly turned up another event the same weekend, also in Joshua Tree called “Desert & Denim”. Suddenly there was another possibility: was this “Desert Race” just going to be a backdrop for some hip, expensive fashion marketing?
Despite what the flyer said, location details didn’t arrive until the day before the event. Even then, the mystery continued, with everyone just told to meet up at a bar in town, and we’d caravan to the location at noon. It seemed this event was to be the motorcycle race equivalent of an underground rave. We were still game, so we loaded up and headed east.
If we were all going to be murdered or exploited for fashion, at least it seemed like we would be in good company.
We made good time and got to the bar while the locals were still enjoying Bloody Marys along with what appeared to be some of the racers. It was a wildly varied bunch on an odd assortment of motorcycles. There were the expected vintage Huskys and Yamaha enduros, quite a few old British desert sleds, some modern bikes, and some that didn’t look like they belonged at all.
Oddly enough, I think there were two old Montgomery Ward street bikes, right out of someone’s basement and only one on a set of recent issue knobbies. Seeing the competition, I was no longer worried about the bald, 40-year-old, original issue tire on the back of my Honda XL185 (through this bald, 45-year-old writer was still an issue). One local desert denizen was entered on his stock, vintage Suzuki TS185, the same bike he had ridden on all the way from Joshua Tree to Johnson Valley to watch the King of the Hammers in the spring.
But, no one at the bar knew anything either.
Round about noon, someone got up in the back of a pickup and started giving instructions. We all went back to our cars and formed an orderly caravan of trucks, vans, choppers, and bikes, following along further out into the desert. We turned off the paved road five miles later and continued on the loose sandy trails. At one point, after a slow 90 degree right, there was a fairly substantial hill, which had the bikers who had chosen poorly and ridden their Harleys to the event going down time and again.
And we were still miles from the start of the race.
The secret on this sort of surface, is, of course, to just keep moving, and not step on the brakes, or turn suddenly. I was not expecting the challenge to start before we had even reached the pits, but here we were. I think we all made it, but I was most impressed with the woman behind me in a 1970s diesel Mercedes Benz on all-season radials.
Just drive as slow as you have to, but as fast as you can.
We finally arrived, and it turns out we had been a bit lost, which explains the overland safari we’d taken. The Desert Race base camp was maybe 40 acres, with a recently installed travel trailer, porta-potties, and the like. Added proof that there must be an easier way to get there was the Toyota Prius rental car that the showed up minutes later to deliver cases of hard cider.
The Race is On!
As you may have gathered, this was a very loosely organized event. We had a sort of rider’s meeting, and we all started getting our bikes unloaded and ourselves geared up. We were to line up and take off, first come first served, with a minute gap between us, and follow a ribbon around the unimproved desert that was all around us.
Like all hip motorcycle races, there was an alt-model flag girl to wave us off at the start, and two more at the finish line on the other side of the pits, to score us as we finished.
There was no real sense to the lineup, but they did try to get the big vintage twins up first, then the more modern vintage dirt bikes, and finally the modern bikes. One poor misguided fool, with more fashion than sense, thought he was going to race on a recent vintage BMW GS adventure bike, but had a hard time even getting out of the pits.
It was hard to keep track of who was turning in a fast time watching from the pits, and from the starting area it was impossible to get any sense of the “track”. Finally, I lined up behind some ancient, inappropriate, 2-stroke scrambler (possibly a Montgomery Wards Riverside 175?), which at least had the advantage of new universal trials tires. Leaving 60 seconds after him, I had caught him still picking up his bike at the first corner, 100 yards in.
We swapped places a few times, as my bald, 70s vintage rear tire had no interest in traction, and put me on the ground 3 or 4 times. My adversary’s bike really had no business in the desert at all. We were actually relatively equally matched and wore ourselves out on that lap that seemingly went on for miles.
Pretty sure I was 5-10 seconds ahead at the finish, or actually a minute and 5-10 seconds. Between the heat and my lack of racing in the past 3 years, I was worn out and welcomed the lunch break.
I was still laying flat on my back in the bed of my truck 20 minutes later, trying to recover and wondering if I had another race left in me, when Wolf, the organizer, came with the bad news. Their pinup model based scoring system had failed somehow, and they only actually had a lap time for one bike/rider!
It was decided to run the races after lunch in a group format, where we all lined up and went at once, like a proper old school desert race. Wolf would ride out to the edge of the property and light a smoke bomb. Then we would be flagged off and all head for the smoke as fast as our bikes, guts, and skill would take us. The goal was to make a u-turn around the smoke bomb, then ride even harder back toward the start.
This format proved to be a lot more fun, and easier to score. We ran a half dozen races like this, some broken into classes, some as 50 bike free-for-alls.
It really is exhilarating to throw yourself at a target like this, and trust your reaction times and skill to save you when, for instance, you suddenly see a ditch. Or (and this actually happened out there in Joshua Tree) when you discover an upright piano behind a patch of sage bushes.
In the end, who cares who won? I thought I had taken notes at the awards ceremony, but apparently, I only wrote down the names of the models/flag girls. There were way more prizes from the sponsors than riders, and once we all had taken some cool swag, they started tossing gifts out to all the spectators too.
The promoters of “The Desert Race” – the Revival House – have a whole new dirty adventure lined up for the riders in the Pacific Northwest. The Desert Race Oregon is currently signing up riders and spectators for an event October 13th, somewhere in the vicinity of Fort Rock, Oregon. All I know is that if they come back within 300 miles of L.A., I’m gonna be right there and better prepared this time.