Story and Pictures courtesy of By Bryant Blakemore
2020 has proven to be extremely exciting for the Texas Desert Racing Association with a renewed vigor for the sport brought on by bringing in Bryant Blakemore as Communications Director and a drive to provide quality events throughout the year. The current COVID situation in the country has created interesting situations across the states and across many operational facets. The world of off-road racing has not escaped its difficulties however it has created some unique opportunities. The TDRA was first hit with complications from COVID in May when one of our property owners was unsure if utilizing his venue would be possible. Not wanting to cancel any events we moved this event to a different venue and altered it to be a Test-N-Tune weekend for our racers to shake down their vehicles in preparation for the 2020 Race to Midnight coming up July 10-12.
The itch to race has been growing more intense throughout the year, especially with western events being postponed or canceled. Many racers were more than ready to put some dirt under their tires and spend time on the course against their fellow competitors. Being cooped up in the house with little to no activity is no place for the adventurous spirit of those who race in the desert. This was immediately apparent with the increased chatter about our July event, the Race to Midnight. Racers from all over the country were discussing the event and making their plans to attend. We saw almost double the preregistrations as normal and come race weekend we set an association record with 66 total entries across all our classes!
Tech Inspection saw teams rolling in not only from Texas, New Mexico, and Oklahoma, but also Arkansas, Florida, and California. All showing up with determination to beat the incredible heat and the spectacular course offered by the Texana Ranch. 66 competitors were separated into multiple classes for the morning and evening events:
- 13 Bikes
- 8 Quads
- 7 NA Production UTV
- 6 Turbo Production UTV
All raced in the morning event. A 3-lap race with a Grand Prix style finish. Most of these competitors were new to racing with the TDRA and a handful of those were new to desert racing entirely.
- 6 Air Cooled
- 4 Heavy Metal
- 4 Rock Racer
- 2 Pro UTV
- 6 Water Cooled
- 10 Unlimited (Spec TT)
Rounded out the entry numbers for the evening event. This event was where we saw our most diverse set of competitors with entries from literally coast to coast.
Once competitors were tech’d they could prerun the course. Handlebar and Production UTVs Friday afternoon in preparation for their Saturday morning race and the rest of the classes Saturday midday. Prerunning at this event was only limited by time. Many of the competitors only made 1 lap as the heat was strong at that time of the day. A couple even decided to sit out of the race after their experiences during the prerun. Racers new to the Texana Ranch were surprised at how rough the course was and how challenging it would be under race conditions. These thoughts dwelled in their minds as they prepared for race day. The course proved to be rough enough that even during prerunning the herd was thinned as some cars failed before the race even began.
Racers in the Spec TT, Rock Racer, and Water Cooled classes were allowed a voluntary qualifying lap Friday evening if they chose. We had 17 racers participate on the roughly 2 mile course with Jeff Bader in his Brenthel Industries / Vision Wheel Spec TT taking the pole position with a time of 3 minutes and 16 seconds. The first three qualifiers were only 3 seconds apart and all racing different brands of trucks. Would we see similar results come race day? Another interesting note on qualifying was Brannon Clark beating out 2 Rock Racers and 1 Spec TT in his water cooled buggy. All these racers would lead the pack at the start of their race in the order in which they finished qualifying.
Saturday morning came quickly and with no sign of relief from the heat the competitors fired up their machines and headed for the starting line. After a brief driver’s meeting competitors were lined up in their starting order. Production UTVs were first off the line broken into two classes, NA and Turbo, numbering 13 total. This is our entry level UTV class allowing for lighter requirements while maintaining a positive degree of safety. These cars do not share the course with the bigger full-sized race vehicles, only with other UTVs and the handlebar classes. Following the UTVs were the 13 bikes, staggered in pairs starting with 30 seconds between them. Once the dust cleared from the bikes 7 quads took to the course. Uniquely most of these quad racers had never participated in an event like this with a handful of them even riding bikes more suited for East Texas gumbo than the rocky terrain presented to them by the Texana Ranch. This would be a challenging morning for all the competitors. They raced towards a GP finish meaning that after the first racer in their class completed all of the laps every racer afterwards was finished no matter what lap count they were on. Out of all the morning competitors only 4 completed the 3 total laps, all of those being UTVs. Fastest lap of the morning was set by Tom St. Peter / Nine-O Powersports in his Polaris RZR on his third lap with an elapsed time of 57 minutes and 14 seconds. All the competitors seemed to enjoy their time out on the course. Even those which difficulties. The new racers took away a heightened sense of adventure and some education, ready to start preparing for their next jaunt in the desert!
On to the big show!! There was feeling of suspense in the air as the evening approached. Temperatures soared to over 110° challenging racer and race vehicles. Those competitors not used to that type of heat struggled with it inside of their race suits during staging, eager to get under way and use the movement of their vehicles to help cool flesh and metal. This environment was a challenge to the air-cooled vehicles, with air temps near operating temps it was difficult to cool the mighty VW powered machines.
This was an important race for the TDRA and Texas with 10 Spec Trophy Trucks from across the country here to compete for victory. Aside from individual racers bringing out their equipment there were two factory supported teams in attendance, Brenthel Industries and Fusion Off-Road. These two brands were represented not only by the factory on site but also with local Texas racers who also brought trucks of these brands. In addition to the 4 Brenthel Industries and 2 Fusion Off-Road trucks there were trucks from Camburg Racing, ES Motorsports, GFO Prep, and Racer Engineering in attendance. This made for a great shootout shootout style event between all these brands. Jeff Bader in the Brenthel Industries/ Vision Wheel Spec TT took pole position during qualifying and lead every lap of the race coming in first physically and on time with a total time of 3 hours 47 minutes and 39 seconds. However, this only gave him a narrow lead over the top 3 competitors where 1st – 3rd were separated by less than 3 minutes. There were quite a few position changes through the Spec TT event which made for some exciting racing and spectating not knowing who would be coming around the corners through the pits! Despite all the position changes Brenthel Industries took a 1, 2, 3 podium sweep, this included Sterling Miller taking second at his very first race!
While the stories of all the racers will last as memories with them forever there were a couple notable finishes that should be covered here. NOOF Racing in their water cooled Class 5 car set out to test their car and their teamwork during the Race to Midnight. This Texan brother/sister team of Erik and Roxy Neufeld along with an experienced team are putting in the time to develop a serious race program that will be capable of tackling the SCORE Baja 1000 in the future. At the Race to Midnight, their 2nd race ever, the team laid down solidly consistent lap times while practicing driver changes and pit stops. They were able to overcome a flat tire, fuel leak, and the sweltering heat to pilot their car to a 1st in class finish completing all 4 laps with a total time of 6 hours 12 minutes and 15 seconds, less than 45 minutes to spare before the official end of the race! This put the team on the course after dark where they felt like they were on safari, the Texana Ranch is an exotic game ranch so the crew in the car witnessed animals such as Zebra, Aoudad, Wildebeest, Buffalo, etc. as they raced to the finish.
Another notable team at this event was the Coolairos Racing team from Lubbock, Texas lead by Justin Hyden. What an adventure these guys had! To start, this was Justin’s very first off-road race and he chose to compete in a car he had owned less than 2 weeks that had not run or been raced in over 2 years! Justin picked up a beastly VW powered beetle with a decades long racing heritage and prepped it at night after work before the event. With the help of fellow racers, he was able to put together the required safety equipment to outfit his team on such a short timeline and make the race. He arrived the day of the race after thrashing on the car right up to the very last minute. Thinking the race was the next day his adrenaline surged after learning it was in fact later that same day! The team decided to skip the prerun and instead spent time familiarizing themselves more with the car and trying to nap when they could. They arrived at the starting line ready to take on a completely unfamiliar foe with wide eyed determination. Their first lap was used to feel out the car, shake any bugs loose (like a jumpy battery), and become familiar with the track. This strategy, whether forced or not, allowed Justin and his codriver to shave off an hour and a half on their second lap as they found the groove. The car came in after dark to immense fanfare as the team easily won crowd favorite. They drove through the finish with two complete laps and an elapsed time of 5 hours 36 minutes and 46 seconds, enough for a 2nd place finish! This success made all the wild scrambling to prep the car and learn about the sport totally worth it and Justin is now completely hooked on desert racing, welcome to the family my friend!
It is also worth noting that the influence of women in the sport of desert racing is growing and welcomed. We had 6 women in the role of driver or codriver during the Race to Midnight. We do not have a “powderpuff” class. The women racing with TDRA hold their own and compete right alongside the men, often times giving them a run for their money like teenager Jenna White of Arkansas in her modified Jeep Grand Cherokee taking a first in class finish driving all three of her laps for an elapsed time of 5 hours 6 minutes and 47 seconds. Jodi Stewart took the podium in third in her NA Production UTV with her husband Dan as her navigator with an elapsed time of 2 hours 39 minutes and 56 seconds completing her two full laps, Gina Clayton navigated for her husband Scott, Katelynn Lange navigated for her husband Jeremy, Hailey Beal drove her Polaris RZR to a 4th in class finish, and of course Roxy Neufeld with NOOF Racing mentioned above. We will always promote women in the sport as drivers and codrivers and look forward to more joining their ranks.
Overall, this was a spectacular event with 42 out of 66 entries finishing at least one lap of the course. Despite the heat all the competitors enjoyed the race and were happy for an opportunity to get their tires in the dirt this year. The TDRA is extraordinarily grateful to all the competitors who put their faith in us and showed monumental support during this event traveling from across the country during a questionable time. We must send thanks out to all our volunteers who help maintain the course, run race ops, and all the behind the scenes. We also want to specifically thank the Ross Creek Trail Riders for their support providing efficient sweep and recovery efforts during the events. And of course, this event would not happen at all without the support of the Beal family and the Texana Ranch who welcome all of us to their property to have a blast participating in the sport that we love. This is one of the greatest things Texas can provide to desert racing, welcoming private landowners willing to allow us to host such incredible events on spectacular properties. Thank you all for your support and we look forward to seeing you in the fall!
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