Jab your finger in the center of an Australian map and you’ll likely be within a hangnail’s distance of the three-day Finke Desert Race. In this beautiful wasteland trucks roar and bright sunlight illuminates drivers battling against fatigue and inattention. High noon is the worst. Lose the shadows or let your mind drift and you’ll wake up to a sandy whoop swallowing your front wheels.
Tatts, part of a huge Australian betting/lotto group (sort of like McDonald’s for gamblers), is the major sponsor for this year’s 39th annual Finke Desert Race. Running from Alice Springs to Finke, a remote desert community, and then back again, the Finke is one of the top off-road races in Australia. Trucks, buggies, motorcycles, quads, and even those side-by-side lawnmowers-without-a-deck-ORVs all compete in the Finke. Just not at the same time.
Finke has a few quirks. Starting position is determined on the Saturday via a one-lap time trial over an 8-kilometer closed course. Called the Prologue, the trucks and buggies run trials in the morning ensuring the track is well and truly roughed up for the motorcycles that have a poke in the afternoon. You want to do well in the Prologue as clean air is a huge advantage in Central Australia’s dusty desert environment.
Another oddity: Taking advantage of the Queen’s Birthday holiday, the actual Tatts-Finke race starts on Sunday and ends on Monday. The competitors stop overnight in the small community of Finke. Their times are recorded for the first half and the next day they run the same course backward to Alice Springs for the finish, totaling 452 kilometers.
7:30 a.m.: Ninety buggies, trucks, and lawn mowers are flagged off at one-minute intervals, followed at noon by 426 motorcycles and quads. It’s pretty hard to police such a long stretch of desert so event organizers rely on Aussie common sense, and spectators generally stay off the course. If you’re thrifty like me, an added bonus is the free admission: Find a spot alongside the track, set up camp, and enjoy your ill-gotten gains.
Maryvale Road parallels the course for the first 60 kilometers, leaving plenty of room for the estimated 12,000 spectators. Most people drag campers and spend the weekend alongside the course. We more or less settled at kilometer 40 then moved to other vantage points several times during the race.
Because of its proximity to the world-famous, tourist-friendly Uluru rock, Alice Springs is easy to get to from anywhere in Australia. So if you find yourself in Oz around the beginning of June, c’mon out. Grab swag, an ice chest full of coldies, and plenty of sunblock. Go to www.finke desertrace.com.au for all the info I left out of this story.