Ain’t it strange how you fall into stuff sometimes, and nervously chuckle your way through only to come out the other side and think, “Wow, that was madness — got to do that again …” Well back in January, it happened while I was in Qatar. Having been to a beer conference in Dublin (yeah I know, large cliché going there), my trip home just happened to coincide with some soft, sandy heaven in the Middle East.
The opportunity for a stopover in the dunes arose when I discovered AirBnB would allow cheap accommodation in an area of our world normally reserved for $500 rooms. A random comment to my AirBnB host linked me with a 10-year veteran of the dunes, and a bunch of world-standard drag racing at a facility which makes Meremere look like a goat track.
I had nothing more than an expectation of a leisurely drive into the desert, little did I know Thursdays begin the Arab world’s weekend, so every man and his cat was out bashing around. And we’re not talking a casual 50kph wallow in the sand here, as soon as we hit the dunes our speedo went to 140 while watching many, many other bashers sprint by as if we were standing still. It was about this time our driver, aptly named Jihad, turned and asked, “Do you scare easily?” I have a penchant for giggling like a schoolgirl when things get a bit hairy, so through my laughter the answer was, “No, get on with it, this looks like fun.” With that, we plummeted over what felt like a 50-metre cliff face … It was probably 70 degrees, but for a first effort I soon realized this was going to be more than a leisurely tourist drive in a Nissan Patrol. I never actually asked Jihad if he’d done any work to his 4x4, but my instinct says it was fairly warm.
The area we visited is near Doha’s Sealine Beach Resort not far from the border with Saudi Arabia. This south-eastern corner of Qatar is certainly an adventure playground for locals, and kilometres of quad, jeep, buggy and even camel rides greet you while dunes approach in the distance. After a quick stop for a cup of mint tea and to take pics of camels while tyre pressures were dropped to a lowly 10psi, and we were off leaving a wake of sand behind us.
Half an hour of rim riding and diving over the edge when least expecting it had the chuckles flowing thick and fast. Some of the action was most certainly YouTubeworthy. Do yourself a favour and search out “Qatar sand dune bashing,” that should give you an indicator of the fun we had.
As the sun began to drop, a casual comment from Jihad about Friday being race day didn’t go unnoticed.
Surprisingly, in among what appear to be neverending mountains of sand, Qatar has an area that sits below sea level, and when the tide rises so too do inland seas. At low tide, however, the flat beds become the quickest corridors for travel, as I found out en route to our Friday destination. It struck me while doing 140kph, sliding sideways through traffic, that those mad Arab drifting videos we secretly admire are a little more practiced than you might realize. With a solid 45-degree angle of attack, the locals all appear to maintain composure as they toss the wheel, change music on the iPod, light a cigarette and hold a conversation at the same time, never even looking as if sweat could bead on their foreheads.
I hadn’t a hint of what to expect, but in what seemed like no time, we approached a virtual herd of machines gathered in a dune valley. Dropping over another nearvertical sandbank to be greeted by 1000 off-roaders was not something you’ll forget any time soon. Sure the dunes had plenty of traffic, but this gathering was a mind blower. And all were parked as if they had arrived for a drive-in movie.
Once again the giggling began as 4x4 after dune buggy after glorified golf cart after daily-driven work ute ploughed headlong at a dune easily 100 metres high. To this day I still don’t understand the competition, but it appeared that he who rode the rim (or close to it) for the longest time went home with the largest dune cred.
Most competitors were running harshly-boosted sixes, with the occasional LSX doing duty across the face of the dunes. Limiters and wastegates were abused most of the time, with anything from two to six occupants all laughing their way across the sand. Roll cages are at a minimum, and the spectacle of a sideways drift at 70 degrees with a 10-metre sandy rooster tail in its wake is something you have to experience in the flesh.
As night fell, so too did the madness that is Qatar dune bashing. A procession of four-wheel drives headed for Doha, or one of many encampments in the dunes. And yes, I was still giggling as we weaved our way through the lunacy of Arab motorway traffic.
Strangely enough, after a day out in the sand I came to realize there was method in the apparent randomness of the driving. Yes, it appears to be chaos at all times, yet when everyone drives in the same manner it becomes normal.
The next day Qatar Racing Club hosted its annual International ADRL drag-racing series, with racers from America, Canada and Europe all striving for victory over Arab State entries out of Qatar, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain. That’s at least eight nations meeting in the one spot, NHRA could never boast that much diversity in its championship.
Racing was dominated by the Pro Modified nitroussnorting 15-litre doorslammers, while the Import ranks were dominated by 2JZs. The Arabs have managed to transplant them into everything from GT-Rs to Datsun 240Zs, and even down to KE70 coupés and American foxbody Mustangs. And they’re fast — with the quickest team over the day being the Get Boost R32 of Mohammed Haji, from Bahrain. His back-halfed Skyline went as quick as 4.45 at 171.96mph (276.7kph) in the eighth mile. That equates to 6.85 in the quarter mile. And this from a homebrewed combination based out of a budget-constrained operation.
A solid 25 entries contested the ADRL series, and they’re just like Kiwis when it comes to their addiction to racing. A Kuwait-based team blew the plenum in their last pass late on Friday night, so packed their car up, towed it 700km, fixed the problem and drove back for the next day’s racing. There’s no flying in parts in this particular division of racing, they’re all doing their own thing, and coming up trumps while doing so.
The facilities at QRC are built to NHRA specifications, and they even fly in American track prep and operations teams to ensure the best possible grooming of the facilities. Entry is free for spectators, and if you’re lucky enough to score VIP passes, then goldupholstered Laziboy-esque thrones are your grandstand seating for the night’s activities. Down the bottom end of QRC there is full garaging for competitors, and the world-renowned Al Anabi team has complete workshop facilities headed by Australian Ivan Pavlovic and a team of Americans. Their headquarters is a lolly scramble of exotica, with everything from a Jun-prepared 350Z to 322kph Nissan Patrols hidden in the depths of a rugby field–sized warehouse.
Working closely with the Qatar royal family to draw suspect activities off the streets, QRC also hosts a full drifting arena down the bottom end of the track. I didn’t catch any of the action unfortunately, but that just gives me another excuse to go back. Then there’s the Qatar mile land-speed racing, along with plenty of sand drag racing and dune climbing, as well as an exotic-car graveyard rumoured to measure five square kilometres just outside of Doha. Add these and a couple of crazy car museums to the list … did I say I am going back? Too right I am!