The Rigid Industries SCORE Desert Challenge turned out to be a bigger challenge than expected for many racers. The weekend started fairly pleasantly, with a nice set-up for the tech and contingency line on a tree-shaded street in the very friendly town of Imperial City. But it was super hot, about 107 degrees, with waves of heat radiating back up from the pavement. The city had intertwined a nice section of local vendors, which included things like fish tacos, ice cream, jams and jellies, pies, and even a barbecue stand, all of which provided some comfort and relief.
The long-jump contest, the only thing that made this event feel anything like the Laughlin race of which it was purported to be the 19th edition, was held at the fairgrounds on Friday night. Imperial is the center of a hotbed of off-roaders, with many offroad playgrounds available to them. Some are racers themselves, and many are big fans. They all apparently wanted to see the long-jump contest, and the result was reported to be the “a record crowd for the arena.” Jeff Dickerson, in a Class 1 car, jumped 173 feet to win the event. Dickerson, an Imperial Valley resident, hadn’t raced since 2011, when he won the long jump contest at the final Laughlin event.
The humidity level went up steadily during Friday, and as everyone headed out to the track, there were some brief rainshowers. Just as folks were settling into their parking places, a huge windstorm blew by, knocking down one of the VIP tents, (which fortunately had no VIPS in residence at the time), and an out house. But as fast as it blew up, it went on past, and, although there were showers with lightning in surrounding areas overnight, none fell on the track.
Marty Coyne, whose property was the site for the track, has a total of 640 acres and a neat square bit of it contained all of the racing, spectating and parking. A small section near the center of the square contained all the equipment and personnel needed to make the race happen. Then there was the big man-made oblong hill on which the VIPs were seated and below it a small section labeled “general spectating”. The start/finish area was in front of those spectators, and featured four turns and three long jumps, as well as the spot where they came into and went out of the infield. It then snaked around the perimeter of the square on three sides, in a serpentine with a total of about 26 turns, and one brief section of two-way traffic. The pits ran along the east and west sides of the giant square formed by the course, and a big area for spectator parking was in the u-shaped center, so it was probably good for spectating also. A lap was 7.85 miles long. While going through contingency, Rob MacCachren described the course as “very narrow – hard for passing and also very dusty.”
Laps were long enough so that the entire field would be out of sight for several minutes each lap, and, depending on where you sat, you could see only certain sections. The VIPS would have to swivel in their seats a bit, but they had the most extensive view, yet even there, it was difficult to keep track of who passed whom. At night, with the track in complete darkness, it was a guessing game, but if you knew a car’s light pattern you could keep track that way.
There were a couple of races on Friday evening. They included all the smaller classes, about a dozen in total, the first heat being for smaller, lighter vehicles, and the second for the big, heavy vehicles. All events were to be eight laps long. The course was marked at the turns with orange cones that had reflective tape on them, and they were fairly visible, but the drivers relied heavily on their navigators and GPS. The ground is a fine dirt, not quite as fine as silt, but darned close. It did not pack down hard anywhere, but developed ruts and bumps, and flew up in great gouts of dust from the cars’ tires.
Each heat had a time limit, and they ranged from an hour and a half, to two hours and fifteen minutes. And here, there was some similarity to the old Laughlin events, in that the cars would be out of sight for most spectators for about half of each lap. There was no big TV screen in the infield to show what was going on out on the track. nor could the action be seen very well, because of the dirt being thrown up by the cars.
There was some very good, close action in the infield section, but the jumps were definitely single file.
Timing and scoring had the same problem they’d had at the April event, in that their automated scoring system didn’t work, apparently because of the heavy dust. They had to resort to keeping track by hand. This resulted in some difficulty with lap counts on the first night, and at least one car was flagged in a lap early, then told to go out and do another, while some others went around an extra lap before being flagged in. In general, each team figured out how to keep track of their own laps, and that seemed to be the best solution to the problem.
Except for the Trophy Trucks, who threw up so much dirt and dust that they were virtually blind in the outer reaches of the track, which had received no water, most of the racers enjoyed the event. The Trophy Truck drivers were very vocal in their disappointment, and had a long “meeting” to decide whether or not to race the second day. Ultimately, Coyne and Roger Norman arranged to have the course watered “all night”, so that the dust would not be such a problem, and the Trophy Trucks agreed to race on Sunday. It turned out that the track was watered from about 4 a.m. until start time, but when the Trophy Trucks took off they found it was still not wet very far down. The water settled in the turns, making them muddy and slippery, but elsewhere it quickly went to dust. It was apparent that after a few laps it as no better than it had been on Saturday, so the event was halted after four laps. Part of the problem appeared to be availability of water. Coyne’s property is in the middle of nowhere and it was an expensive and time consuming problem to get the trucks filled and refilled and run them back and forth. Coyne said that he’s going to try to have a well dug, so he’ll have his own water supply in the future.
Except for the Trophy Trucks, who were blinded by their own dust, most of the racers enjoyed the event. It was a points event, so it was mostly the points chasers who attended. Quite a few were there to keep a tight grip on their points lead. It’ll be interesting to see how Coyne and the SCORE officials solve the problems for any future events.
Photography by Art Eugenio.
Words by Judy Smith