By Jason Adams #103450
Photos by Sabine Albers
Last year I was given the opportunity to ride a specially prepped Rooney Special Airhead BMW in the AustralAsian Safari Rally, touted as the “the toughest, most demanding off-road race in the Eastern Hemisphere.” It’s seven days and 1,500 miles through western Australia’s grand Outback. It was an opportunity I could not refuse. Plans were made over several months, support was garnered from a multitude of sources and in September I got on a plane with a bag full of gear in tow, bound for the other side of the world.
I’ve been racing my own BMW R100GSPD in several events here in the United States for a few years, and I was looking to step up my game a few notches. This was the chance I had been dreaming of.
When I arrived in Perth, I was greeted by Paul Rooney himself, and Ken Redwood, who was to be the third member of our team. I also met the bike: based on a 1983 BMW R65, it had loads of modifications to make it race ready. In fact, between the lightened engine, modern front end and longer driveshaft and swingarm, there wasn’t a single thing on the bike that hadn’t been caressed in some way. It sure looked different than anything else in the 40-bike starting list.
I had only four days to acclimate to the new machine, but managed to put about 500 training kilometers (311 miles) on it before I was supposed to ride it in anger.
The first day was the Prologue, a short sprint to determine the starting order of the first real day. Since the course is so long, and therefore unmarked, we must navigate our way by road book, a written description of the necessary track, which is depicted on a paper scroll that’s bolted to the handlebars. Well, let me tell you: riding is one thing, navigating is another, and when you combine the two it’s a third altogether. About three kilometers (1.8 miles) in I made a wrong turn and discovered, to my chagrin, that less than 10 minutes into my first major international race I was pretty sure I was going the wrong direction! Things improved slightly after that, and I had a great time following the bouncing helmet of the guy in front of me across some verdant grassy prairie-like terrain.
Day one’s course was to be over three stages, totaling almost 400 kilometers (249 miles). About 30 kilometers (19 miles) in, I was attacked by what I would come to see as an absolutely ferocious environment. A small tipover resulted in the throttle cables being torn ungraciously off the handlebar! As I stood there, looking at the potential of my first rally being drained away in the first hour, a fellow competitor who would prove to be my guardian angel throughout the event stopped, eyeballed me up and down, and handed me a small hose clamp, and then sped off! I spent an hour figuring out how to make the twist grip reach the carburetors, and eventually got back on and finished the day. I did not expect my bush mechanic repair to last longer than 200 meters (218 yards), but it finished the day! My crew was quite impressed as well, when I finally rolled into camp.
Day two, and I was rolling along quite well, until the Outback once again gave me a good whack. This time, a small crash put a hole in the gas tank and ripped off a spark plug wire. One of the many modifications done to this BMW, ordinarily a two-cylinder/two spark engine, was to install a second pair of spark plugs, ostensibly done to improve the fuel burn. In my case, I was able to disconnect one half and simply run on the remaining pair of spark plugs. Again, I lost loads of time, but my crew was happy I was able to bring the machine home without a penalty.
Day three was the one that almost stymied me completely. The terrain had changed from very sandy and some beach runs along the dunes to one more inland and extremely rocky. About 200 kilometers (124 miles) from the start, almost at the end of the second of three stages for the day the bike began misfiring. I thought it was just having its teeth rattled out, as I was, on the rocks, but after simply scaring me for a while it simply quit. I exhausted my mechanical knowledge trying to figure out the problem, and when that failed, I made the decision to push the bike the final two and a half kilometers (1.5 miles) to the finish. I would not be able to make the third stage of the day, but at least I would get a tabulated score for the stage I was on! I was determined to finish.
That night while I ate dinner and marked my road book for the next day, my expert team traced the problem to a faulty ignition control unit. It was replaced and we were back in the rally!
Day four was mercifully without incident. Lots of sandy tracks, and not a soul but occasionally my fellow competitors, the timing control staff, and the odd kangaroo to see. As it turned out I was not the slowest rider in the group after all, provided nothing else went wrong!
Day five and I was learning my lesson as to how to ride at a more sensible pace, one which did not elicit crashing, which in this environment caused more damage than I ever remember sustaining. My guardian angel, an Italian who spoke no English named Francesco, and I struck a deal (in pidgin Latin, as I speak only a little French) to ride together, as we had a very similar pace, and he had just changed his top end overnight. We could help each other if there was a problem. I, of course, had problems and slowed him down considerably, but he was the kindest soul imaginable and helped me through both a flat tire in the morning and a failed starter motor in the afternoon, to his own detriment. This day was very stressful because after the tire change, I had no spare tubes, and after the starter motor failure, I couldn’t afford to stall out for the remaining five hours of intense riding! Beyond all expectations, we reached the finish, together.
Day six, and I told Francesco he must not wait for me any longer, which was not entirely altruistic, as I could barely stand to ride in his dust for another five minutes let alone 400 kilometers (249 miles).
I was right on his heels for several hours until I found that my rear brake cable had snapped, and I stopped to repair it with some fence wire that was laying around. What felt like weeks on the trail later, I hit a major dip and broke my foot peg off. I did the final 120 kilometers (75 miles) of some of the hardest riding I have ever done in my life standing on one foot.
The final day was a sprint home along the beaches of western Australia, at times with bits of the Indian Ocean lapping at my heels. It was with a primal scream that I reached the final checkpoint. I had survived the hardest race, in fact the most difficult and by any measure the best ride of my life.
At the awards ceremony that night we were reveling in the camaraderie only available to those who have been together through hardship when I hear my name announced over the din. Apparently, for my efforts I had been awarded something very special – the Andy Caldecott Spirit award. Andy Caldecott was an Australian hero to many. He had won the Australian Safari outright, many times. His superior riding ability, coupled with a strong determination, gregarious personality and striking humility had made his tragic death while riding the Dakar Rally in 2006 a national sorrow. But rather than remember him in sadness, the award was given to remember him for his positive qualities. I was shocked and humbled that my experience was deemed worthy of such an honor.
My teammates and fellow competitors very respectfully informed me that next to first place outright, this was the highest award that could be given, and some would say more so. I hold it incredibly dear.
The next day I had to say goodbye to the bike, my team and Australia, as I headed home. Racing is many things to many people, and I had some simply unforgettable experiences. I realize that I am approaching middle age and am not a fast rider in the grand scheme of things, but there are some things more important than winning the overall; the most obvious is probably simply participating. A major life lesson, if I may quote Ned Seusse, a rally racer of excellent repute, is “commitment is power” and simply committing to do something is a very strong exercise. To quote Paul Rooney, “Racing is very addictive.” I have a ridiculous desire to once again enter the fray, as soon as I can, to do the best I can, because it doesn't matter so much that you win, only that you give it your best, and have a great time doing it. That’s why I ride motorcycles.