Off the beaten track - and then some. That's where Ridgecrest is. Since we can't go to every race of every series, we're forced to cherry pick during the season, and thus far, we've sat out MDR's Ridgecrest round. We're not the only ones. MDR California Championship Series racers can throw away their worst race when the season points are tallied, so many choose to sit out Ridgecrest and keep all the points collected at the MDR races in Barstow and Lucerne. Searching for new scenery this year, we made the drive up the 395 to Ridgecrest, California.
State Highway 395 slices through some of California's most open areas on its way from Hesperia through the eastern Sierras and finally to the populated communities around Lake Tahoe. Most of the time it has only two lanes, which means that if you need to pass, you'll need good judgment, a heavy right foot, and a healthy engine. Get stuck in a lineup behind a slow-moving semi, and you'll have little choice but to settle in and wait for a chance to get around the sluggish behemoth.
Although off the beaten track, Ridgecrest itself is home to all of the amenities and creature comforts that suburbanites demand when deciding what's "civilized" and what's not. Motels, restaurants, shops, theaters, medical care, and car dealerships are all found in Ridgecrest. Smoggy air isn't. One caveat: Don't be too picky, because the closest alternatives are in Bakersfield, Barstow, and Palmdale, each a few hours' drive away. Once in town, we quickly crashed out for the night in a clean, well-kept, reasonably priced room.
Race morning dawned cool and crisp, the mercury rising in tune with the sun's ascent. For spectators and photographers, shorts, T-shirts, Gatorade, and shade were the way to go. Racers had to be, well, racers: prepared and willing to deal with whatever the terrain, weather, and the competition threw at them for 200 miles.
The cut-and-dried numbers for the 2006 MDR Ridgecrest 200 were 53 entries, 42 starters, and 21 finishers. The 34-mile course within the Spangler Hills OHV area had it all: dust, rocks, hills, sand, and whoops. Adding to the course's treachery were whoop sections that degenerated into nasty Supercross-style moguls, and rock after big-screen-sized rock waiting for those who strayed from the course in the dust.
Why bother? Early-season races often attract 100-plus racers. With less than half of that crossing the starting line at Ridgecrest, there's a great opportunity to race on a relatively uncrowded course. There's also less chance of carnage due to nerfing or other race-traffic-related mishaps, so there's another great opportunity to run a successful race and get to the finish line under the time limit. The uncrowded course means that rather than a throwaway race, Ridgecrest presents a chance to make up valuable points and close the season points gap between you and your nearest competitor. Finally, Ridgecrest offers a change of scenery, and the scenery is really good!
It didn't seem right to go to a new neck of the woods and not go exploring, so we finished the adventure by visiting a bit of the natural and a bit of the historical. The Trona Pinnacles jut sharply from the bed of Searles Dry Lake and are found after a short drive to the northeast of the Spangler Hills OHV area. It's as if you've driven through an intergalactic wormhole - the pinnacles don't seem to belong on Earth.
After we finished at the Pinnacles and re-entered Earth, a short drive south on 395 and a 1-mile detour brought us to Randsburg. Randsburg is a living ghost town that sprang to life after gold was discovered on the side of Rand Mountain in 1895. Gold is still being profitably extracted there, thanks to modern ore-processing methods.
We're not about to say that Ridgecrest is desert racing's best-kept secret, because that phrase has been beaten to death. What does seem fitting is to call our drive off of the beaten track time and gas money well spent. We'll be there for MDR's 2007 round in Ridgecrest. Will you?
The Trona Pinnacles
When you're done playing in the Spangler Hills OHV area, a short drive on Highway 178 brings you to a marked exit for the Trona Pinnacles. The BLM road leaves the highway behind and winds its way out onto Searles Dry Lake. Tucked into a corner of the lakebed is a series of tufa towers made of harder and more resistant material than that which eroded around them. The otherworldly Trona Pinnacles left us wondering if we'd suddenly become members of a Star Trek away team. Since most of the Star Trek away-team members tended to die, we were extra careful during our visit. Several mines dot the area (mines in general dot the whole Mojave) and some are safe to explore, but most are not. Several mines are built straight down, so caution should be used when exploring in mining country. If there's a fence around a vertical mine shaft, it's to keep you safe, so take a photo or two and move on. There is no admission fee to the Trona Pinnacles.
Randsburg: Living Ghost Town
While the label "living ghost town" is a self-contradiction, it's also the best way to describe a place where gold was discovered in 1895 and is still being extracted in paying quantities. Randsburg's population peaked around 1899 when the town bustled with 3,500 residents. Today, a few residents remain, living off of either mining or tourism. In addition to gold, silver, tungsten, and borax are also mined in the area.