EVENT: FINKE DESERT RACE, NT

The Finke Desert is an as­ton­ish­ingly tough off-road event. We raise a beer to its 41st run­ning.

4 x 4 Australia - - Contents - WORDS GLENN TOR­RENS PHO­TOS ELLEN DE­WAR

IT’S 8.20am and de­spite the sun it’s about 6°C. Two blokes are propped in camp chairs on a small dune of Aussie red sand. One of the blokes wipes his face with the sleeve of his footy jer­sey, shakes his head as if to snap him­self out of a daze, then lifts the lid of a blue ice­box. He pulls out two beers, pops the tops and with com­i­cally ex­ag­ger­ated po­lite­ness of­fers one to his mate who smiles brightly and of­fers a jaunty “Cheers!” in re­turn.

With the for­mal­i­ties out of the way, both lads guzzle half their break­fast beers in one swig and then lean back on their 10-buck thrones, gaz­ing over the track­side bunt­ing to the lumpy sand that’s soon to be pounded by 160km/h, 600hp off-

road rac­ers. These blokes are two kings wait­ing for the day’s en­ter­tain­ment to be­gin.

Wel­come to the Finke! It’s one of the most down-to-earth yet in­cred­i­bly in­tense mo­tor­sport events in Aus­tralia. It’s a flat-out sprint across the desert from Al­ice Springs to the dot-on-the-map com­mu­nity of Finke (Aputula) and back to Al­ice the next day. Each day is 225km of gut-shak­ing, sus­pen­sion de­stroy­ing sand­blast­ing that takes hu­man and me­chan­i­cal en­durance al­most to the limit. Be­ing held on the June long week­end means the Finke is a great rea­son to get out of town for a week in win­ter. So that’s ex­actly what we did.

There’s up­wards of 10,000 campers scat­tered along the dusty race route. Just like at the an­nual tour­ing car races at Bathurst, many of the spec­ta­tors have been com­ing back for years – decades even – to the same sites. Hand-painted signs mark sites for fam­ily and friends: Wog’s Camp, Ru­na­muk M8, Camp Red­neck and Camp Mad­ness, to name a few.

Take for ex­am­ple Lyn­lee Sleep and Chuck Rite­nour. The Al­ice Springs cou­ple have been track­side at the Finke with a bunch of mates for 23 years. Each year, the mob dresses in match­ing out­fits – this year it was po­lice uni­forms, but in the past they’ve dressed as lep­rechauns, pris­on­ers and even San­tas.

We also had a quick chat to a crew from Cap­tains Flat, in south­ern NSW, who had made Finke the turn-around point for their an­nual out­back tour­ing hol­i­day. Like plenty of other campers, they were set-up in a prime po­si­tion to see these of­froad racing ma­ni­acs blast past.

In­clud­ing the pro­logue – a short, fran­tic sprint to de­ter­mine pole po­si­tion and the event’s run­ning or­der – the Finke is a three-day event (Satur­day to Mon­day). How­ever, the fun be­gins on Fri­day evening when spec­ta­tors can get up close to the com­pe­ti­tion ve­hi­cles dur­ing the scru­ti­neer­ing ses­sion. Lined up side by side is the most in­cred­i­ble dis­play of off-road ve­hi­cle tech, from bug­gies bud­get-built by blokes in back­yard sheds to

The cor­ru­ga­tions are two car lengths long and half a me­tre deep

the half-mil­lion-buck tro­phy con­tenders.

The Finke be­gan as a bike race be­tween a few mates, but these days there are classes for en­duro bikes, quads, side-by­sides, 2WDS, 4WDS and bug­gies with nat­u­rally as­pi­rated or turbo mo­tors. The rid­ers and driv­ers are all gun­ning to be King of the Out­back on two wheels or four. There’s also the chance to be­come a Finke Iron­man by run­ning the event in a four-wheeler then catch­ing a he­li­copter back to Al­ice Springs and start­ing again on a bike – as Toby Price did this year. The 2016 Dakar win­ner (on two wheels) fin­ished Finke in second place on four then won the mo­tor­cy­cle di­vi­sion later that after­noon. He in only the second per­son to achieve Iron­man sta­tus and he placed higher in both classes that the other Iron­man, Billy Ged­des.

The 41st run­ning of the Finke drew a full field of 600 bikes and 140 four-wheel­ers. In fact, the ini­tial al­lo­ca­tion of 110 four­wheeler spots filled within a day of event en­tries open­ing, so CAMS ap­proved an ad­di­tional 30 places. With the event’s grow­ing in­ter­na­tional rep­u­ta­tion, it’s sure to get big­ger.

These days the tro­phy trucks – pur­pose-built off-road mon­sters with scream­ing 6.0-litre V8s and around a me­tre of sus­pen­sion travel at both ends – reach Finke in the short­est time. The fastest of these ma­ni­acs do it at an av­er­age speed exceeding 100km/h.

The way these com­pe­ti­tion ve­hi­cles cope with the ter­rain is noth­ing short of as­ton­ish­ing – it’s a les­son in tech­nol­ogy for any­one who has an in­ter­est in the dura­bil­ity of off-road ve­hi­cles.

The sound of the first ap­proach­ing com­peti­tor on the Sun­day morn­ing was un­for­get­table. It was Toby Price’s tro­phy truck singing to­ward us with the bel­low of a V8 Su­per­car, but un­like a V8 Su­per­car there didn’t seem to be any back­ing off for cor­ners. These things lean on their cogs at all times.

With re­cent out­back rain, dust wasn’t as much of an is­sue for com­peti­tors or spec­ta­tors as it would have been in drier years. How­ever, with just about ev­ery­thing in the event loaded with big gobs of power, there was still plenty of rooster-tail­ing.

The amaz­ing sus­pen­sion sys­tems al­low the bod­ies of these rigs to stay level, while the wheels seem to do dou­ble-dis­tance fol­low­ing the ter­rain. It’s all about sus­pen­sion travel, strength and con­trol. The cor­ru­ga­tions are two car lengths long and half a me­tre deep so there are no cheap, red-painted strut spac­ers or ebay sus­pen­sion pack­ages mak­ing the run­ning here.

If you’re look­ing for a des­ti­na­tion for your next tour­ing hol­i­day, put the Tatts Finke event on your got-to-go list. As the fella from near Cooma com­mented: “Jeez, now I’ll never see any other part of Aus­tralia. I’ll use all my hol­i­days ev­ery year to come back and watch this!”

The track runs from Al­ice to Finke – Springs and back again.

lined 10,000 fans More than this year. track-side up when 600hp swag. over­sleep past your You won’t thun­der­ing go mon­sters

Rigs are pur­pose-built to tackle the bru­tal, un­for­giv­ing land­scape. Lyn­lee, Chuck and co make the pil­grim­age to Finke each year.

and Most rac­ers have V8 en­gines a me­tre of sus­pen­sion travel.

4X4 Aus­tralia and WHEELS con­trib­u­tor Toby Hagon com­peted in a stock Mazda BT-50 ute and fin­ished second in class.

South Aus­tralia’s Jack Rhodes and David Pullino.

Spec­ta­tors can en­joy a drink or two ... or three.

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