Finke Desert Race bikes and cars hit the track under radical new safety standards

Hundreds of competitors on dirt bikes and in cars will attempt to tackle Central Australia’s harsh landscape in the annual Finke Desert Race, widely regarded as the country’s toughest off-road motorsport event.

The iconic race sees competitors travel the old bed of the Finke River from Alice Springs to the remote community of Apatula, then back the next day.

International sports star Toby Price is back to defend his title in a trophy truck, but Finke’s seven-time champion has nothing left to prove.

With his record win last year, Price became the first person to win both car and bike races at the famed event.

Alice Springs resident and two-time Finke winner David Walsh will be competing in the Bike Rice for the 15th time, hoping to retain his title as King of the Desert.

Toby Price and sailor Jason Duncan celebrate their victory in the prologue race on Saturday. (ABC Alice Springs: Xavier Martin)

Rising star to watch

At 22, Danielle Foot already has five Finke races under her belt and was the fastest woman on a bike in the 2021 edition.

This year, she’s upping the ante and attempting both back-to-back car and bike races.

Foot will race to Finke in a Can-Am Turbo alongside his father as navigator, then be helicoptered back to the start line to race on a bike again, doing the same in reverse on Monday.

smiling blonde girl in shed with dirt bike behind her
Danielle Foot is aiming for victory.(ABC Alice Springs: Xavier Martin)

“We hope to win class 3 [bikes] again…and the fastest female award, and also getting back into the Can-Am and making history,” Foot said.

“You don’t have anything else like it in Australia. It’s one of a kind.”

Round-trip race

While some competitors race to win, many others entered simply for the thrill of racing and the goal of crossing the finish line.

For Alice Springs resident Ben Fitzgerald, running has been an important part of his life.

When he traveled to the central desert to participate in what he thought would be his third and final Finke race in 2008, Fitzgerald was set up on a blind date.

Three years later, moments after crossing the line at Finke, he proposed.

“Fortunately she said ‘yes’.”

man and 16 year old girl sitting next to each other in garden, dirt bikes in background
Ben Fitzgerald and his daughter Sharnee Muller will compete side by side in the bike race.(ABC News: Xavier Martin )

This year, he will compete alongside his 16-year-old daughter, Sharnee Muller.

“Since I got my first decent bike, that’s when I really thought, ‘I’ll do this as soon as I’m 16’. It’s definitely on my to-do list. and now it’s really here,” she said.

Fitzgerald said the main goal was for both of them to finish the race safely.

“Once you get off the line on the first day of the race, there’s so much going on. There’s so much bikes and dust, holes that weren’t there when you were racing, crowds. It’s like the world has stopped for this one time.”

Focus on spectator safety

Race organizers have promised this year’s event will be very different with sweeping new safety standards introduced in response to a serious crash last year that left one dead and two injured.

Nigel Harris, 60, died when he was hit by a vehicle that veered off the track and slammed into a group of spectators.

“We are really at a crossroads,” said race director Antony Yoffa.

A motorbike on a first track with spectators on either side.
Spectators traditionally crowd the edges of the track to watch the event. (ABC Alice Springs: Samantha Jonscher)

The race usually attracts around 10,000 spectators, many of whom have set up campsites along the remote track.

Marshals will enforce the new rule that all spectators must keep at least 20 yards from the track.

There is also a ban on camping, cars or fixed structures within 30 meters of the track.

The new minimum standard for competitors is that they must have participated in a Finke Race or similar off-road event to be eligible to participate.

Mr Yoffa said there would be a “world-class” team of around 60 paramedics working on the race, including St John Ambulance staff at each checkpoint and aboard three helicopters .

The car race will start at 7:30 a.m. this morning, followed by the motorcycles from 11:45 a.m.

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