It has been a tough couple of months’ post knee reconstruction and I have been trying to fight off cabin fever by hitting the rehab flat out. As I can’t do too much else I made rehab my no.1 priority by knuckling down for approximately 30hrs per week aiming to accelerate my healing and get me back out and about.
During this time, I had a thought come to mind, I wonder if the KTM desert team needs a spare set of hands to help out for the Finke desert race. I had never been to Finke before nor been in the desert either. I gave a call to team manager Glenn Kearney and it was confirmed, I would be heading out for a week to Alice Springs and spend a couple of nights camping in the desert doing the 160km fuel stop.
This was just what the doctor ordered, I was extremely excited and counted down days prior like a kid waiting for Christmas.
I met up with my long time buddy and ex mechanic Lewie Landrigan at the airport and both of us expressed our excitement all the way to Alice Springs. Upon arrival to the workshop it was apparent there was a lot going on and still a lot to prepare. Over my years of racing, I had met most of the team and the people drafted in like myself but there were a few faces new to me, the riders.
I will be the first to admit I previously hadn’t paid too much attention to Finke over the years as it hadn’t been on my radar to race so the riders on the team David Walsh and Callum Norton were complete strangers.
Hearing the ‘master’ Walshy’s story of ‘the ones that got away’ due to bike failure and injury along with being referred to as the bridesmaid for so many years I was eagerly keen to see him potentially wrap the story up in 2019.
Then there’s Callum, the ‘apprentice’ if you like, he’s young and keen to make his mark in the desert scene. After his first attempt in 2018 coming to a screaming halt with a bike failure whilst on return from Finke in 3rd place I figured he’s not going to be afraid to twist the throttle and try to beat the master and desert veteran, Walshy.
This had me thinking that I probably should look into how many times KTM has won the Finke in the last ten years. By my research, KTM’s desert team has won 7 times from 2008 to 2018, but what is also just as impressive is the upward trend of KTM’s being purchased and raced by privateers during this time frame as the percentage continues to climb thus really making the desert orange both by landscape and racecraft.
After meeting the guys and talking about their previous experiences and results I immediately had huge respect for what they do.
Each day and night the team would gather for lunch and dinner and chat about what has been done and what needs to be done, I thought that this was great and created a positive team bonding environment plus plenty of laughs.
Before the event has even begun the team has been working tirelessly for months preparing just for this one weekend of racing. As soon as the summer months are out of the way and things have started to cool down in the desert the KTM team flies to Alice Springs for testing and pre-running the Finke race track. They may have these ‘test/pre-running weeks’ three or four times between February and June just to get the riders and bikes dialled into the terrain and what is expected of them come race weekend. It’s not uncommon to do 8000kms pre-running I have been told!
The commitment KTM has to this race is second to none, there is simply no other team out there willing to go to these lengths or spend the budget just to be the fastest to Finke and back.
I feel this is where GK really earns his money, the amount of packing and preparing trucks/utes, checking off all equipment for each pit stop including satellite phones, etc etc. The list simply goes on and on far beyond writing it all down in here but it really was an eye-opener for myself. One crucial part of the race is the pit stops, fast and efficient is the name of the game here and we simulated this procedure many times before the event. Everyone had their own job and everyone was designated to two small teams per pit stop. For me I was working with Lewie pitting for Callum, Lewie was the fueler and I was the catcher. My role was to direct Callum to me, catch his bike upon arrival, remove the fuel cap and hand him goggles, sports gel and or water.
Even though we simulated this prior to the event I think mentally I rehearsed my roll a hundred times as I was anxious not to make a mistake as there was a lot on the line.
I’m a bike man through and through but I was keen to get to scrutineering to check out the trophy trucks and buggies. These machines are so impressive to me as most things have to be handmade such as welding frames and many other parts and components, plus the huge $$ tagged onto each vehicle.
Additionally, at the scrutineering night, I fully realised how big this event really is. There were literally thousands of people walking around in the middle of Australia with a larger percentage of the people travelling thousands of kilometres just to get to the event.
Due to being in the 160km pit crew, we were only able to see the first 15 or so bikes do prologue. The first bike away was local hero and lead KTM rider Walshy, he cleanly made his way around the track coming to the finish with a nice 5-second buffer over second place. As Callum’s starting position was later in the day we were informed of his results over the radio on our way into the desert. Unfortunately, there were some issues on his prologue run with another rider and he placed 13th just over 15 seconds behind the master Walshy.
Now we are heading into the desert down the service road in a constant convoy of dust as there are hundreds of vehicles heading south all for the same reason. The whole way down I got a history lesson from the crew who had experienced Finke over the years, “this is where that happened” and “do you remember what happened here?”, this was the common trend of conversation.
As we are hurtling down the service road the boys constantly point out the old remaining Ghan railway spikes sticking out of the dirt road ready to punch a hole through your tyre. These same railway spikes are the same ones that all of the finishers get if they complete the race within the allocated timeframe. Pretty cool I thought.
Finally, we arrived at the 160km pit stop area and started organising to make camp. We decided to commandeer an old shed looking construction, it had a fire pit which was nice but we had to rebuild the roof as it was half hanging off and just in case somehow it could rain on us in the desert.
During this time we were greeted by black flies which, to begin with, seemed tolerable but as the next two days progressed the black flies became a hot topic of discussion and frustration and we would all go to great measures to try and figure out how to get rid of them.
The first night in the desert was pretty relaxed and uneventful though our old mate Damo sure did keep us entertained for the most part. First thing in the morning we all arose and got our day started, everyone had their own jobs to do. Garry headed down the track with a stack of spare wheels in case one of the boys destroys one. Dave headed back up the track to set up for communications. Dave would tell us who is coming in advance if they looked ok or appeared to have had a problem and finally the time between them and the surrounding riders.
Once we got the notification that Walshy was approaching with a nice cushion of time between the second-place rider we were all on standby. Walshy came into the pits really fast and almost clipped a post on the way in. He didn’t say too much just clear and simple comments and his crew did their job perfectly and he was in and out in no time, a class act.
Sometime later Dave let us know Callum was on his way and had made up substantial time on the other riders, upon arrival he was a little more unsettled than Walshy but we nailed the pit stop and got him back on track and on his way south to Finke. And just like that our job was done for the day all over in no time but it was undeniably intense almost as intense as racing!
That night once the dust had settled GK called us on the satellite phone to inform us of the day 1 results:
David Walsh 1st with a time of 01:55:25.7 giving him a buffer of just over 5 minutes on second place.
Callum Norton 4th with a time of 02:04:03.2 but winning the 450cc class.
Our second night in the desert was a little more eventful as we found ourselves up to a little more mischief due to boredom but nothing too out of hand away from having a good time. There sure are some colourful characters in the desert and things can get a bit strange out there so its best that what happens in the desert stays in the desert.
A little earlier than the previous day, the boys rose and the trackside personnel of Dave and Garry parted ways with us to their locations for the day.
Once again it was our time to shine as Walshy came into the pits with a healthy lead on the second place bike, he matched the previous day’s composure and cleanly entered and exited the pit stop in great time and fashion. Still managing a healthy buffer over second place.
Unfortunately, things began to get a little worrying as Dave hadn’t called through with Callum’s position for some time. Eventually, the news came that Callum had been passed by another rider and had lost sometime early in the race. The crew were preparing for the worst, preparing spare parts if needed awaiting his arrival.
Finally, we got confirmation over the satellite phone he is ok and approaching us. When Callum arrived it was visible he had some discomfort and briefly explained he had crashed early on and was feeling the effects. Once we got him sorted and checked the bike was ok he was on his way back to Alice Springs in the hope to make up lost ground.
With both the guys passed through our pit area it was time to pack it all up and race back to Alice Springs to hopefully have celebration drinks or drown our sorrows.
By the time we got back to Alice Springs it was official that Walshy had won the 2019 Finke desert race! His first time ever after so much heartache from bad luck over the years. Everyone was so happy for both him and the team.
Callum had toughed out his crash and managed to get 2nd in the 450cc class despite his misfortune, a gutsy effort for the aspiring apprentice in only his second attempt in the desert.
2019 gave KTM another Finke desert race title plus continued to build a dominant desert racing legacy that no manufacturer can match at this current time or the foreseeable future.
There is so much more I could write about from this experience but it would simply go for too long, but what I will say is I have so much more respect and admiration for these desert racers and teams for what they have to go through and put on the line.
And who knows maybe one day down the track if the stars align yours truly may even have a crack at the biggest desert race in the country.