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 sand-blasting 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 off-road 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 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-by-sides, 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 four-wheeler 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!”