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Spinning Wheels: A Trip Through the Desert

by Chris Leone // Website // Twitter
Images via Chris Leone

Forget sunscreen. Forget even water. I’m convinced that the most important thing to bring to an off-road race is your own toilet paper.

I’m also beyond grateful that I didn’t have to learn this lesson the hard way.

I was in Nevada last week for my first-ever trip to General Tire Vegas to Reno, the seventh round on the 2018 Best in the Desert calendar and the longest off-road race in the United States. The 530-mile point-to-point race commences with contingency from Las Vegas on Thursday, kicks off roughly two hours away in Beatty on Friday morning, and ends overnight in Reno. This endurance test features most of the sport’s most talented men and women, as well as its fastest trucks, cars, motorcycles, quads, and UTVs.

It was also my first event with Jim Beaver since joining the Down and Dirty Show team. I’d gone to the Parker 425 with him years before, but we didn’t make it to the starting line after an engine failure in qualifying. We were entered in a Trick Truck in that event; this year, Jim and his brother Trent would be splitting driving duties in the Vision Wheel and General Tire-backed Polaris RZR in the Pro Turbo class, with James Hill and Bryant Shontz calling the notes.

What I’ve gotten myself into doesn’t remotely resemble the racing I’m used to. When I was a kid, it was paved ovals in New Hampshire all the way, from local tracks like Lee and Star Speedway to what was then New Hampshire International Speedway. We did IndyCar and lower-level NASCAR races for years until we finally got Winston Cup tickets in 2000. The one race I got to see Dale Earnhardt run in person was run with restrictor plates after Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin Jr. died at the track earlier in the year. The only exceptions I had were the handful of times my family went to the Canadian Grand Prix.

My first off-road race of any sort wasn’t until 2011, when I went up to the New England Forest Rally for Rally America—a group that, although I didn’t know it back then, I’d be working for less than a decade later. From there, I was hooked on rally, and later rallycross; I spent five years working for Red Bull GRC as its social media manager and media director, and it was actually at my first event as a series employee, the first open GRC Lites test in January 2013, where I met Jim.

To make a long story short, with the end of GRC this year I’ve found myself in a terrific new role working for Jim, but also number of unfamiliar situations. Vegas to Reno, though, was one of those situations that I was looking forward to the most. Off-road racing takes all of the normal aspects of motorsport—the speed, the endurance, the logistical challenges—and cranks them up to 11. It requires a whole new set of skills, and most importantly, the ability to learn and adapt to as much as you can on the fly.

The most important of those lessons came when we got to the start line on Friday morning. With 366 entries, Beatty was absolutely packed—and that’s even with the motorcycle and quad competitors starting the race at 5:45AM, more than four hours before the fastest Trick Truck and Class 1500 qualifiers. Considering that there are only so many porta-potties in the area, it’s not the world’s most glamorous place to take a dump.

It also means that your amenities may be… let’s just say “lacking.”

Fortunately for Jim, fellow UTV racer Sierra Romo was on hand to bail him out with a roll of toilet paper before he found himself in an uncomfortable situation. With that crisis averted, it was just a matter of counting down until our turn to hit the starting line and get out on course.

Jim and James took off at around 11:30AM local time, 18th in a stacked Pro Turbo UTV class of nearly 60 entries. Not long after, Trent and I took off as well in our chase truck, heading into Beatty to pick up Will Turk from our pit team and run to the first pit. The logistics to a program like this are impressive the first time you see it in action: our primary pit vehicle was a box truck, but we had multiple other chase pickups running up the highway, each with different personnel and different responsibilities. Aside from carefully planned route books, long distance radio communication was a must, although we ended up going to cell phones whenever possible because of faulty wiring on ours.

We hit the first and second pit areas just to make sure that everything was running smoothly. When we saw the #915 pass through, we took right off. From there, it was back onto the open road, taking our place in a convoy of thousands of other vehicles and personnel to get to the next stop.

As different of a discipline of racing as this is to anything else I’ve covered, that part of the deal felt familiar from the second we got going. The biggest adjustment for me? The scenery.

I’m a lifelong Massachusetts native—I grew up an hour north of Boston, and have lived in the city for the better part of the past decade. My city was built to the shape of the land, with roads sized for horses and carriages. The skies are usually full, whether with skyscrapers and offices in the big cities or trees in the suburbs, rural areas, and forests. When I see the word “visibility” in a weather report, it’s essentially meaningless, outside of a particularly foggy day. Visibility is dictated by wood and concrete, and nothing else.

You don’t get this sort of thing in my part of America. You can’t.

Out in the desert, it’s different. There’s still so much of America whose only indication of human engagement is the two lanes of pavement we’re driving on and the occasional power line. It’s a drastic departure, but instead of feeling anxiety over the lack of civilization, more than anything I just felt relief that areas of the world like this still exist. There’s just something peaceful about a drive through the desert.

On paved roads, that is. Racing is racing; it doesn’t matter what you’re driving, where you’re driving it, or who you’re driving it against, it’s going to be intense. 530 miles of desert terrain, especially with intermittent rain showers throwing a wrench in the works, are going to lead to some of the most intense driving of your life. I didn’t ride along on this one, but it doesn’t take a ride through rocks and sand to figure that one out.

Even as the least important person to our pit stops (my responsibilities were grabbing a ten-second quote and a couple of photos), you feel the intensity. Just like any other series, crew members race around the car to pack it full of fuel and repair damage, although we didn’t need to change our tires once. Just like any other series, not everything goes to plan with the folks around you, meaning sometimes you have to pit sideways. And just like any other series, there’s a rush in getting out of your stop barely ahead of a competitor.

We had five fuel stops planned on Friday, plus a handful of additional check-ins with Checkers Off-Road. The third fuel stop at Coaldale was when we planned to make the driver swap, with Jim and James getting out and Trent and Bryant getting in.

Our chase vehicles got there. The UTV didn’t.

We started getting updates that the car was stopped at race mile 233 in the late afternoon. After waiting around for a while at Coaldale, taking pictures of the graffiti-covered abandoned buildings nearby, Jim and James got going again for a while, then had to stop again multiple times. Eventually, they got the UTV off course for the team to try and work on it, but the fans were no longer working and it would go into limp mode fairly quickly after it started. Although everything else was fine, we weren’t able to run at race pace, and at that point, it was time to call it.

As disappointing as it was not to finish, that’s just a part of racing. It’s pretty self evident when you think about just how grueling an event like Vegas to Reno is for both drivers and their vehicles, but multiple team members reminded me that more than half of the field typically won’t finish an event like this. Unfortunately, that was the group we were in this time around.

Still, it’s hard to trade the adventure aspect of an event like this for anything. The sights you come across when chasing a desert race inspire everything from awe to amusement. From the natural beauty of bright blue skies and towering mountain ranges, to crazy hole-in-the-wall businesses and other establishments, you genuinely have no idea what’s coming next your first time on the trip. With how little sleep I got over the course of the week, the unpredictability certainly kept me on my toes. I never expected to see the words “alien,” “cathouse,” and “brothel” all on the same sign, but here we are…

Congratulations to everybody who made it to the finish line on an incredible accomplishment. I’m sorry that I wasn’t able to join you in Reno, but there’ll always be more opportunities to go racing. Jim and James were setting an incredible pace while they were running, and I’m confident that we’d have been right in the mix if not for the fan issue.

For now, though, I’m just grateful to be sleeping in my own bed tonight. And believe me, I’m well stocked with toilet paper.

The views expressed in Spinning Wheels are those of the author and do not reflect the views of any other entity.

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