The MINT 400: Chapter 2 “The Morning Lakebed”

The MINT 400

Chapter 2 “The Morning Lakebed”

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“Whosoever is delighted in solitude is either a wild beast or a god.” – Aristotle

Open, empty spaces affect people differently. Some feel small. Some feel adrift. Some feel alone. Some feel empowered. Others feel larger than life. What I feel in an open, empty space is possibility. It’s the same feeling I used to have as a boy when I played for hours in the old field across the dusty dirt road from my childhood home. In that moment… anything is possible. A sweeping expanse of earth speaks to a creative part of me as well as opens up an introspective neighborhood in my mind where I can just think… or not think. Both are welcome.

Those of you who know me know this is funny. I am a full-blown extrovert. 100%. No question about it. I don’t believe I’ve ever met a stranger, actually. You would think I am most happy in a huge room full of people… and I am, frankly. There is a manic energy that comes from others that is hard to beat… almost intoxicating. I am surround by people almost constantly, both professionally and personally. The one thing that can give it a run for its money, however, is an open expanse of undeveloped land. I know this is ideal for many, but for me, it’s so rare that it’s more than that: it’s church. If you’ve ever been alone in Johnson Valley, or Moab, wheeling out at Table Mesa, or fishing in that little bend in the river at the base of Libby Bluff as the sun comes up… well, you know what I’m talking about. It’s a great place to meet God… and to meet yourself.

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But back to business: Having never shot a true, full on desert race, I approached the morning with anticipation and excitement. Yes, King of the Hammers has desert sections… yes, Dirt Riot has dust… yes, Short Course has cars whipping by at high speed and in tight formation… but all of those are completely different than the raw, on the edge expanse of true desert racing. The entire course was not available (mainly due to accessibility), but the majority of the course was mine for the taking. Where did I want to go first?

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Logan Goodall was the only racer I really knew out on course, so besides getting shots of Logan, the morning was my testing ground for the big show in the afternoon. I was truly on my own until noon with no real agenda or responsibilities. I had previously planned out three main areas where I wanted to test shoot that would give me a sampling of tight canyon action, high speed desert panning, and the whoops / berms / jumps that Trophy Trucks are supposed to just eat alive. With Logan’s class leaving the line last, most of the field was past my first two locations, so I tossed my gear into my dirty, beat up truck and headed toward the lakebed.

I headed north up the I-15 a little over 12 miles to the next exit and followed my course map to the place where the county road was closest to the course near “Rockets” lakebed. The MINT 400 and Best in the Desert do an excellent job of providing media credentials and vehicles tags, so getting through security and race ops was easy and professional. I tucked my truck in the edge of the desert, grabbed my camera, an extra pack of smokes, some water, another Monster, and with my shemagh in place, I began walking into the great unknown.

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The number one rule of race shooting is to be safe. This means knowing your surroundings, knowing the course, planning your exit strategy in case of emergency, and of course… use common sense.  Another general rule is this:  Race shooting is much like fishing. The easy access points will have the most people / competition fighting for the same shot / fish. Since the end of the lakebed was right at a checkpoint with easy access to the highway, I decided to hike two miles in and shoot from mid straightaway instead of at the end. (Again, those of you who know me are saying “What? You actually hiked? You didn’t die?” Yes. I hiked into the desert and didn’t die. Allegedly, there was a Dairy Queen out there somewhere, so it was worth the risk.)

I arrived at my chosen destination ahead of the race pack. I could see back over my left shoulder the cloud of dust that told me the leaders were still 15 race miles or so away, so I had time to study my surroundings. The course markers were right down the middle of the lakebed, east to west, and there was a slight breeze from the north, so I elected to shoot upwind to stay out of the dust. Being a racer, I know that when you hit a lakebed, the plume of dust from the driver in front of you is so thick, that the tendency is to swing out of the dust line for clean air. This means that cars would be working their way out and to their right… towards my shooting location… as the race wore on. I had my long lens, so I opted to start shooting about 300 meters away and decided I would work my way in or out from there as needed.

With all the planning done, there was nothing else to do but fire up a smoke and wait.

It wasn’t long before I heard that enigmatic sound of a throttle being held wide open; the siren song of horsepower and adrenaline has a sound all its own. Harsh and dulcet simultaneously, the severe sound of an engine being flogged is music to my ears. I adjust my stance, bring my camera to my eye, and search for my prey.  Of course, the helicopter was a big clue.

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Being spit from a cloud of angry dust, the first car made the turn and burst onto the lakebed. With a four-mile stretch of open land, I was able to follow it the entire length of the lakebed as it stretched its legs, joyful to be free of the tight turns of the canyons and unpredictable tenor of the whoops. I could feel the rush from the driver as he saw wide-open, clean air and mashed the pedal as hard as he could, pushing his machine to the limit. As an advance party of an invading army, he devoured land with a steady and practiced hand. Before I knew it, he was gone… and all that was left was the confused, mute dust and the feeling that something special was about to begin.

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As more and more cars of all different colors and styles made their mark on the lakebed, I worked closer and closer to the course… confident in my understanding of the race flow and terrain and mesmerized by the onslaught of speed and engineering. That’s when it happened… the wind shifted hard and I suddenly found myself downwind of the course, blind, and very much in danger.

With visibility less than 150 feet, I relied upon the compass I had marked on the ground at my feet for direction (old habit… when I get set up, I mark a compass rose on the ground as well as an arrow back to where I parked.) With my eyes taken away, I had to rely on my ears. The first few cars were still south of me (in front of me) where they had been all day so I stayed put, but I started to hear a sound to my left… to the east… that wasn’t where the other cars were. I readied myself for a quick retreat when I saw it… a car passing behind me. NOT GOOD. I was in very real danger and I knew it. An orange vest was not going to save me with this sudden change in visibility. Despite my best planning, the unpredictable nature of desert racing had called my number.

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I quickly gathered my pack and waited for the sounds of the engine to fade as I prayed for silence and for safety. When both came, I sprinted as fast as my little gnome legs would carry me to the south; to clean air.   With a healthy dose of “that was frickin’ scary” racing through my veins, I moved ridiculously well off of course to the south for the rest of the morning. Ironically, this yielded most of my best shots, as the light was much better with the dust blowing north and I had some scrub brush for perspective in the shots.

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I was so enamored with the lakebed and the seemingly endless supply of unique desert cars that I almost abandoned my plan of checking out the whoops section near RM 35 and the tight canyons of the rock quarry near RM 51. With a wistful look back at “my spot”, I trudged back to the truck, drank my Monster, and headed further up the course to catch Logan on lap 2.

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I’ll be frank. I was pretty disappointed with the rock quarry. I anticipated tight canyons and interesting rock, but all I found was piles of abandoned concrete and construction waste, a few gravel piles, and way too many orange media vests. In this aspect, Arizona rock crawling and Ultra4 has ruined me. I was expecting more. The best part of the rock quarry was the elevation drop heading into the road crossing entering the quarry. I camped out there for a good half hour, getting shots of Logan and a few others. By then, it was time to head back to main pit and begin prep for the afternoon race. As I was driving back to main, all I could think of was the dynamic possibilities of the lakebed in the afternoon sun and how I had gotten to spend the morning in church. God sure does make good stuff.

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(Coming soon: Chapter 3: “Race Prep”)

In case you missed it, click here to read: Chapter 1: Wake Up!

Follow on Twitter: @thedustygnome

©2015 The Dusty Gnome

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