We were barreling down highway 395, a stretch of road I’ve spent more hours on than I care to remember, but that’s a given as it’s a gateway from Los Angeles to the high deserts of the Mojave, my home away from home. The van was loaded with my 1996 CR500, a bunch of tools, and a few basic camping supplies. She was humming along at 75mph with the site of a 100 mile race firmly set in her sights. We were headed to a stretch of tumbleweeds outside the town of Ridgecrest, CA, a land of rocks and sand that has seen more than her fair share of races over the past sixty odd years. Not being the first race out there only added to the mystique of the place and was bound to fuel the stories passed along by the campfire. Racing history wasn’t the only history that ran deep in these parts, the tales of the frontier and ghosts of those hosts were hidden in the myriad of collapsed mining shafts and abandoned mining camps that littered the valley for miles around.
There is something about the smell of desert air and an unobstructed horizon that just fosters a sense of freedom. Motorcycles, gasoline, and camping only reinforces that buzz. That's what this is all about and the crew over at Biltwell got all that right. This being their first go at putting on a desert race, they invited a few hundred of their closest pals, strung together a 25 mile race loop, and dropped the start banner at 10am-ish.
But I’m getting ahead of myself… We pulled up amongst the other vans, trailers and tents late Friday afternoon and got straight to dusting the cobwebs off my 1996 CR500, nicknamed the ‘Kamikaze’. A particularly temperamental beast, born as a 500cc two stroke motocross machine, that over a heavy investment of time and elbow grease, I have slowly massaged and made into a real desert weapon. Sure, I could have brought out the newer desert race machine, but hey…this is the inaugural Biltwell 100 and there was the craziest collection of vintage bikes, street bikes, Harley Davidsons, adventure bikes, and even a few pull start mini bikes here to compete, not to mention an equal part of characters that owned them. This was going to be an event that is much more about good times than lap times! After a few hot laps around camp, shaking down the bike and making a few tweaks here and there, the ‘Kamikaze’ was as good as it was going to get and we were ready to stretch the throttle cable in the morning and try to survive the 100 mile event.
With the sun setting the campfire became the brightest light around and people came in like moths. Each arrival accompanied by the sound of the ice chest opening followed by the spit as a can of ice-cold Gilly’s Lager was cracked. Everyone's favorite storyteller and photographer, Mr. Mounce Smith busted out some of Baja California’s finest oysters and got too shucking. We all imbibed a little race fuel for the body, the syrupy conversation that ebbed and flowed and was perfect for our minds and more than a side full of laughs that always goes well for the soul. A look around revealed a lot of familiar faces lined about but there was also more than a few new and even a dog or two.
We woke to the sound of machines and the intoxicating smell of bacon by the campfire. I laced up my favorite pair of boots, grabbed my Bell brain bucket and rolled the ‘Kamikaze’ over to the riders meeting. I have been racing in the desert since I was 11 years old, so this was a familiar sight. 150+ racers huddled around as Mr. Biltwell himself gave the welcoming hellos, do’s and don’ts. For nearly half of the racers this was their first time lining up 50 wide on a bomb run, and boy was it about to get dusty…
With the drop of the start band, we took off, I ate the roost of about 10 bikes in front of me as I blindly worked my way through the pack. Hooting and hollering as I passed my buddies and pals, working my way towards the front. Race mile 3, race mile 6, a little back and forth with the number 2 place rider. Race mile 8 went by and I had the leader in my sights, clicked the Kamikaze into high gear and I was right on his tail, when disaster struck… The bike lost power and seized. Boy, what a drag.
I now had a front seat view and watched the entire pack of racers pass me by on the back 40. Was I bummed? Sure! But hell, that’s racing! Before long a vintage Husqvarna came along sputtering to a halt in front of me. We both shook our heads, exchanged a few unpleasant words for our underachieving machines and laughed it off.
Here we are on this rock floating through space, trying to defy gravity itself on a chunk of metal and rubber across the desert plains. Life ain’t that bad, and we had an icebox full of cold Gilly’s Lager back at the truck! Now if only we could find the truck….
Till next year!
- Forrest Minchinton