Sunday, August 9, 2015

A new motorsport adventure Pt 2, Of Bourbon + Bumps & Bile ….

I left the US Coast Guard fifteen years ago with nearly 3000 hours of helicopter flight time. In that period I had occasion to fly in some of the most beautifully perfect and horrifically miserable weather conditions imaginable. Not once in that period did I puke.

This was an oft-voiced statement in the months leading up to my first real race with “Patent-It! Racing”…..and at this point I’m betting you can see where this story is going but we’ll get to the self-deprecation in a bit. 

In Off Road Racing there are a number of different sanctioning bodies that run races. Some large and prestigious like the Baja 1000 and some small and not particularly well known outside of the off-road racing community. The largest of the organizations is “SCORE International” (Southern California Off Road Experience) and they run most of the big races in Baja such as the San Felipe 250, Baja 500 and the grand-daddy Baja 1000. Second only to SCORE is an organization called “BITD” (Best In The Desert) they run a bunch of well known events in the US such as the Mint 400 (made famous by Dr. Hunter S. Thompson), Henderson 250 and their premiere event, the Vegas to Reno. There are a number of other organizations as well such as “MORE” (Mojave OffRoad Enthusiasts) and “SNORE” (Southern Nevada off Road Enthusiasts) and others that run smaller more “club-level” events. Think of SCORE and BITD as “F1”, “WEC” or “NASCAR” and the others as the equivalent of the “SCCA” or “NASA”. 

The smaller organizations often have big-name participants that use those events for testing or tune-ups for the larger more prestigious events. Steve and Tony wanted to get us all in a real race before our target event later in the summer so they registered us for one such event. The “Caliente 250” in Caliente, Nevada (Google Map). If you aren’t familiar….I wasn’t, Caliente is a small rail town in Eastern Nevada about 150mi North of Las Vegas and 30mi West of the Utah border. It’s in the high desert and sits at about 4300’ above sea level. The annual event is hosted by the aforementioned “SNORE” and is one of the biggest annual happenings in this cool little Nevada town. 

Driving across Nevada is always interesting in one way or another. On our way home my friend John and I experienced the weirdness that exists along the  "Extraterrestrial Highway"  (NV-375) and spotted a bunch of Antelope and a few Desert Bighorn Sheep. Going both ways we were treated to impromptu airshows by some of the worlds best aviators in F-16's and F-18's. Things got a little uncomfortable on the way to Caliente though. 

Following a trailer full of "Science"....

Now, let me say that I'm sure there are a lot of good people in North Las Vegas but our stop there made us want to do just one thing. Leave. 

We pulled into a Lowes just off the highway to buy a few things we needed to set up our pit in Caliente. Wooden stakes, surveyors tape and a mallet.  In the midst of the causal conversation surrounding checkout the gal behind the counter looked up at John and asked, "So, were you planning on killing someone with this stuff?" Dumbstruck, John politely asked her to clarify her question. She went on to explain that earlier in the week some guy that lived around the corner came in, bought a mallet and a few other items, went home, killed his girlfriend and was caught attempting to dispose of the body. She went on to explain that the Sheriff's office had been at the Lowes for the last few days reviewing security tapes and interviewing employees. But that's not all...she further explained that there had been a number of similar instances in the 9 months (WHAT?!?!) that she's worked there. We paid and got the fuck out of North Las Vegas before some Lowes customer buried our bodies in the desert.

The people of Caliente really open their doors to the Off Road racers and seem to enjoy the spectacle of Trophy Trucks and 800hp buggies rolling (at the posted speed limit) through their town as they move to and from the pits, tech and even a portion of the actual race that runs right through town. 

Race buggies outside the restaurant/casino/bar....because, Nevada.

For this race Steve Lisa (team owner) and I would be driving the teams Class-10 buggy to get more familiar with each other and to give me more experience in calling the turns at a more reasonable pace while Tony (Steve’s son) would drive the Class-1 buggy with his navigator to continue to test and develop the buggy. A Class-10 buggy is allowed an unlimited suspension and chassis but is required to run a sealed, production small-displacement (sub 2.5 liter) engine. Most often the GM eco-tech 4cyl rated at about 250hp.

Class-10 on the left, Class-1 on the right

Is there anything that doesn't look good in Gulf livery?

Our goal was simple. Get me used to riding shotgun off-road with my head down in the cockpit reading the GPS while calling the turns for Steve. Sounds simple enough, right? Well, it isn't. It's pretty tough and it's even tougher if you're an idiot.

Before the race we had the opportunity to pre-run the course and record a GPS file that I would use the next day. During the pre-run, I would enter way-points for various trouble spots on the course. Things that we’d like to avoid making contact with such as trees, boulders that were bigger than the buggy, deep washes that crossed the course that could, if hit at sufficient speed rip wheels off, ravines to the left/right of the course that if we fell into we might not be found…ever. That sort of thing…

While we were doing this Steve took occasion to advise me that in a certain portion of the course I might get a bit nauseous because of the terrain. The route at this point was quite twisty and rolling left-up-down-right-down-right-left-up etc for about 10mi and we were rolling through it at a sedate pace during the pre-run and I scoffed (internally) at the idea…mainly because I’m a bit of a prideful asshole.

Heading out to pre-run, helmets were put on just after this pic was taken...

For the remainder of that day we took the two buggies through tech, made final preparations to the buggies and our gear, had a few good meals and drank. Kind-of a lot. 

Stupidity in progress......

The next morning I woke feeling a bit dehydrated but without a headache despite consuming about 1/3 of a bottle of Bourbon and quite a lot of beer. After a light breakfast and a bit of Gatorade I was feeling fine and ready for the race….or so I thought… as we geared up and headed for the staging area to await our turn to begin our 250mi of desert racing. 

Steve on the right and myself gearing up to race...

Now this 250mi race isn’t a point-to-point affair. Instead, it’s four laps of roughly 62mi with each lap starting in the town of Caliente, running out into the mountains of the surrounding high-desert and returning. The video below shows some highlights of TJ Flores’ (who’s won this race a number of times) laps a few years ago.

In this form of racing the vehicles don't start en-mass as in most forms of racing but at timed intervals. The organization keeps track, via computer of each vehicles individual start/finish time then calculates the finishing order (overall and within classes) based on each vehicles total elapsed time. Usually the Trophy Trucks and Class-1 buggies go off first as they are the fastest and then the slower classes start with each individual starting at what is usually a 30sec interval. While we waited for our turn I had the time to consider what was about to happen. We are getting ready to take off for 250mi of desert racing on a route I’ve seen once, the guy sitting next to me owns the car and is trusting me to tell him which way to go and not get us both killed, I’m sitting in the buggy which despite its smaller size compared to class-1 is still capable of well over 100mph on darn near any terrain, I’m wrapped in a three-layer nomex fire suit, wearing a full-face helmet hooked up to a forced air system to provide dust free air for me to breathe, I’m wearing a neck restraint designed to prevent separating my skull from my spine during heavy impact, I’m strapped in via a crash harness to a carbon-fiber racing seat that is rated to withstand over 12,000lbs of force in a crash, it’s over 100deg out and I have to pee!

Luckily, we had well over 5min before it would be our turn to start the race. I had time to unstrap, climb out of the buggy and run behind someone’s race trailer and find out that I don’t have to pee, it was just nerves and I’m still dehydrated. 


Once back in the buggy we made our way to the start line and counted down the 30sec interval from the buggy ahead of us. The start light turned from red to green and we were off……we ripped away from the start accelerating to over 60mph before making a hard 180 degree turn down into a wash. Back up to about 80mph in the narrow wash between the 15’ high walls of dirt and rock on either side. ½-way down the wash we came upon 4, steamer trunk sized boulders where yesterday there stood a single boulder the size of a Smart Car. Beyond that, the wounded remains of a Trophy Truck that had hit the boulder, smashing it into 4ths and ripping the right front suspension and a portion of the roll-cage completely off the 8000lb beast.

Yup, this shit just got real.

We continued down the wash at over 80mph I called out the next turn, “Hard left 90!” and Steve jumped on the brakes, turned in, set the buggy into a drift and nailed the gas. We kissed the top of the berm beyond which was a 5’ drop into the river which runs through Caliente. A class-10 buggy would later blow that corner and wind up in the river. We raced along the bank of the river toward town.


Tony Lisa hauling the mail in the Class-1 buggy...more Braaap!

When we reached town we made a hard 270 degree turn up out of the river bottom, onto a paved road and then onto one of three railroad bridges that we’d have to cross on each lap. The bridges are about 8” wider than the buggy. Yeah, that’s 8 INCHES. 

We had it pretty good. The Class-1 buggy that Tony was driving is about 8” wider than the bridges so he had 4” of tire hanging off of either side. Get it wrong, you fall off the railroad bridge and into the river. One of the Trophy Trucks did just that.

Once past the three bridges the lap really began in earnest. We ripped along a farm road adjacent to NV Hwy-93 at over 90mph then made a hard right up into the mountains. As we crested the rise we saw the plateau ahead of us and the tell-tale dust plume of the next buggy on the road. Steve asked me if I was ready to start racing and I replied, “Get him!” and it was on. 

We were ripping across the plateau at 95-100mph getting closer and closer to the next buggies dust cloud and just as we entered it, a series of turns appeared on the GPS screen. We’re doing just under 100mph, blind, with another buggy an undetermined distance ahead and we need go through a pretty complex series of corners, cross a wash and pass between two steel fence posts that demarcate a private grazing area and BLM land. I’m doing my best to keep the information stream to Steve coming at a pace that gives him enough time to react to not only what we need to do but to what the guy ahead of us (who we can’t see) might do as well. 

After what seemed like forever but was probably a minute or two Steve came over the intercomm yelling “siren, siren!” and I looked up and just like that, the engine cover of the buggy in front of us was 2’ ahead. I laid on the siren and he didn’t move. I hit the siren again and again he didn’t move. Of course, like us, he has an un-muffled race engine behind him and he’s probably a bit busy as well… so Steve hit him.

That might seem a bit odd but it is the norm in desert racing. The trucks and buggies are required to run a siren to alert a vehicle ahead as to your presence. If they hear it, they are supposed to pull aside where safe and allow you to pass. They don’t usually hear it, or they pretend not to, so the next method of communicating your desire to overtake is to apply a firm bump to the rear of the vehicle ahead. The firm bump would destroy a normal road car but these things are built a bit tougher than that.

Our first lap would continue, during which we’d pass another 3-4 racers. We passed through what was the most fun part of the course which descends down a gravel wash (flash flood path in the winter) that twisted down a deep canyon between 80-100’ rock walls. The wash sinuously threaded its way between the canyon walls as we drifted and darted back and forth at ~80mph. Stunningly beautiful terrain and an utterly amazing way to experience it. Then we got to that twisty bit that I mentioned earlier and I remembered Steve’s advice from the pre-run. He told me that if I started to feel sick I should let him know and he’d slow down to drive only what he could see while I brought my head up and got some fresh air and recovered. I remembered the advice…then ignored it. 

I bore down, concentrated on my job and powered through it. Eventually we cleared that part of the course and I started to feel better. But that was the first lap….of four.

Our second lap began and I’d be gifted with a number of reminders as to the seriousness of all of this as we came upon at least a ½-dozen racers who’d blown a corner and wrecked or suffered mechanical failures ending their day. As our second lap continued we managed to catch a few other racers and we got caught by one or two. Things were going quite well.

Then we got to the twisty bits again and….it got ugly. 

I felt the nausea building. The sweat on my arms and neck turning cold, the excess quantities of saliva, the shame. At this point, if I’d followed Steve’s advice I probably could have got it under control and made it through. But I ignored it. Again. 

Instead, I tried to knuckle down and power through it once more because as previously mentioned, I’m a prideful asshole. A dehydrated prideful asshole. A prideful asshole with… ok I’m admitting it… a hangover. A prideful asshole who is now vomiting inside of his helmet at 80mph in the desert while holding up a closed fist in front of his driver trying to get him to stop the buggy because one cannot speak while one is upchucking a bilious puree of red Gatorade and cliff bars. 

Have you ever imagined what it might look like to spew a fountain of yack inside of a closed face-shield on a full-face helmet? 

Kinda like that.

I've done some gnarly stuff in my life. Flew in rescue helicopters in horrific weather, raced MtB Downhill, solo paddled the Green River, surfed the North Shore of Hawaii. I thought I'd be able to essentially throw my jock out on the floor and be able to do this w/o a great deal of effort. 

Instead, there I stood, next to Steve’s buggy, throwing up on my boots, the front of my fire suit and inside of my helmet covered in puke as one, then three, then six, then more of the buggies and trucks we’d worked hard to overtake passed us by. Each passing vehicle reinforcing the sudden realization that we’d been running a very competitive race and were likely in a podium position (in our class) and I’d fucked it up. 

The dust from each passing racer settled on me, sticking to my vomit soaked fire suit, adding additional layers of guilt to the disgusting mess I’d made of myself and the inside of the buggy.


I mentioned in the lede of the first piece in this series that my intent was to chronicle the learning curve of going from rank novice to professional racer. I’m hoping to impart at least some of what this feels like both good and bad. I think I’ve buried myself in self deprecation and enough graphic descriptions of the bad for now. The good is that I’m gaining competence. We did another lap and though we were out of the running at that point it went very well, Steve and I were clicking in the cockpit and we were going fast. The good is that I’ve learned a valuable lesson in humility and in the need, especially where professional racing is concerned, to listen to those with exponentially more experience than I have. The good is that Steve trusts me enough to let me do this again. 

Mainly though, the good is in learning and improving. This race taught me a lot about myself and about the path that I've embarked on. This is no joke. Nobody is getting paid for any of this but it absolutely is serious business. The Trophy Truck that drilled the boulder, the Trophy Truck and buggy that fell into the river, the buggies and trucks that we saw torn up beside the race course…in each case everyone was alright but in each case they weren’t far at all from being very much NOT alright. The gear, the preparation of the buggy the logistics, the training it’s all meant to make us competitive second but first to help us survive if shit goes wrong. 

I wasn’t taking this endeavor seriously enough before this race. I am now. Since then I’ve lost 35lbs. I’m fitter and stronger than I’ve been at any time in the last 6-7 years. Most importantly I’m humbled and ready to learn more.

As I write this I am less than a week from the next opportunity to learn. As I said, Steve has trusted me enough to let me do this again and that opportunity will come at around 9:30am on August 14th. On that day Steve and I, along with his Son Tony, Tony’s navigator, Mickey and the rest of the “Patent-It! Racing” team will race in the 2015 BITD Vegas to Reno (Maps Here & Here). 543 miles of desert racing over ~9hrs (if all goes well) starting just outside of Las Vegas and finishing just South of Reno. 

Steve and I will race the middle 1/3 of the course from just South of Tonopah to a small mining town called Gabbs, NV. Tony and Mickey will race the first and last 1/3…..and in a week or so I’ll tell you about it. 

The good, the bad and the ugly.

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