Race Report: I started last and finished almost last

It's tough to keep your chin up when you're constantly being beaten.

Emme Hall Former editor for CNET Cars
I love two-seater, RWD convertibles and own a 2004 Mazdaspeed Miata for pavement fun and a lifted 2001 Miata for pre-running. I race air-cooled Volkswagens in desert races like the Mint 400 and the Baja 1000. I have won the Rebelle Rally, seven-day navigational challenge, twice and I am the only driver to compete in an EV, the Rivian R1T.
Emme Hall
6 min read

My competitor blew past me so fast, and the dust was so thick, I couldn't even get his number.

"Jeez Louise, how is that car going that fast," I asked myself. My right foot firmly planted on the floor of my class 1600 desert race car., 70 mph was all I could make in this stretch of the course at the McKenzie's Rage at the River race in Laughlin, Nevada this past weekend.


Catching a bit of air last weekend.

DezertWife Photography

Rage at the River is a short course race. The weekend is set up into hour and a half heats for the different classes, as opposed to open desert races where all classes are out on the same course at the same time, and the race may take 6, 10 or even 15 hours to finish. We raced once on Saturday and once on Sunday, five laps of 13.5 miles each. The course is fast with lots of jumps, rough turns and a section of "whoops" that rattle your brain...and your kidneys.

My heat consisted of a field of over 35 buggies. Class 1600 is limited, so there are very strict rules about how these cars are built. Engines must be Type 1 VW 1600cc. Transmissions must have no more than four forward gears. Suspension, CVs and brakes all must be within a certain spec. Essentially we are all driving the same car. and all the fast guys had come out. As I sat in staging on the first day, I thought to myself, What the hell am I doing here? I just race for fun. These folks are the pros.


My co-driver, Mark, and I after Saturday's race.

Martee Burke

We started three at a time, 20 seconds apart. The green flag dropped, I dropped the clutch, but instead of taking off with the other two cars, my air-cooled VW motor sputtered. She didn't die, but as the other two cars headed up the dry riverbed, my car struggled to maintain any kind of speed. I floored the gas in second gear, but it was like the car had left her guts at the blackjack table in one of the local Laughlin casinos.

A minute later, the three cars that had started behind me came tearing by. With the gas pedal still to the floor I wondered if my race was done already, but suddenly she kicked in and roared to life. I soon caught up with the guys that had just passed me, and even passed one of them myself. Phew...we live to run another race.

We soon came to The Drop Off. I have no idea how steep it is, but when you come up to it, the ground drops away and you get airborne regardless of how fast, or slow, you're going.

A lot of the racers "send" their vehicles down this hill, getting massive air and keeping their speed up, all at the risk of a spectacular end-over-end crash. My racing philosophy is JFF, or Just F---ing Finish, so I timidly crept over the crest in second gear at about 25 mph. My co-driver and I still got a thrill and there was less risk of breaking my car.


This is not me. If this jump goes wrong you're looking at a lot of money.

DezertWife Photography

The rest of Saturday's heat ran without incident, save for a pretty nasty nerf. When a faster car catches a slower car, it's acceptable to nerf, or give their rear a little tap. The cars are loud and it's tough to see behind you, so nerfing is a way to say, "Hey, I'm here!"

But there are best practices and nerfing someone as well as nearly pushing them over a 20 foot embankment is not cool. My rear cage is damaged and my exhaust system was pushed forward about a half inch. Nerfing, when done correctly, should not result in this kind of damage.

Sunday's starting grid found me starting closer to the front. We decided to keep the engine off during the long half hour wait while in grid to see if that helped with it sputtering off the line.

When the green flag dropped the engine kicked in with all her 90 horsepower and we were off. No sputtering, just pure VW buzz. I was flat out up the riverbed but the other two got the best of me.

A word here about VW drag race starts. Often it comes down to weight. My car weighs 1,850 pounds. The minimum weight is 1,550 pounds, and a lot of my competition are running cars at or close to that weight. With all things being equal, my 300 pounds of fat make a big difference. I can be pinned in fourth gear and a lighter car is going to be faster. It's physics and I can't beat physics.


Trying to stay in the groove.

DezertWife Photography

To save weight for this race we took a few things out of the car, namely the spare tire. This figures prominently in the following paragraphs.

About halfway through the first lap, I found myself in the dust of a few other cars. We all dove into a sharp left-hand turn and I powered out, even though I couldn't see more than one foot in front of me. I knew the next section was really rough and that it was better to stay left, but essentially I was driving blind.

When the single-car crash came up out of the dust I barely had enough time to flick the wheel to the right. He was on his side, and while I avoided a full-on crash, I still hit his rear wheel assembly, giving me a flat rear tire and no doubt giving the two racers who were still inside the incapacitated vehicle a Code Brown of their own.

We untangled ourselves and limped the car on the flat tire to the hot pits. When we got there the crew found they didn't have a rear spare. There had been some major communication issues and all they had was a smaller front tire for us. We couldn't wait for them to retrieve the correct tire, so the front tire went on the back and we took off, coming in the next lap for the correct tire.



Emme Hall/Roadshow

As we came around at the end of our fourth lap, I thought for sure we would get a checkered flag, signifying the end of our race. We had lost a ton of time by driving on the flat tire and then two pit stops. But no, we made the time cut-off and got to start our final lap.

It was my best lap yet. My turns were on point and as I came into a hairpin I thought, I bet I can do this just a bit faster than last time.

Famous last words.

I started the turn, the back end slid out a bit, slammed into the side of a rut and the tire came right off the wheel.

Driving on a flat is one thing, driving on the wheel is quite another. I fund my racing program on my own. I don't have sponsors or a huge bank account to buy new parts for every race. We were so far behind it didn't matter if we finished or not, and rather than destroy the wheel (and I would later learn that I had destroyed the wheel with the first flat tire), we decided to pull over and wait for help.

It always sucks to not complete a race, and while this short course race is a lot of fun, it's tough for me to get beaten so badly. Even though I felt like I drove the best race I could with the resources I have, it's disheartening to see the lead cars beating me by nearly three minutes on each lap.

Of course, there are places I can improve as a driver. I need to be faster in the turns and I still have fear, which makes me lift the throttle and lose time. Intellectually I know that maybe if I had a lighter car I could cut that three-minute lead time in half, but I often come away from races feeling more like a failure than a real race car driver. It's tough to stay positive when you end up in 25th place at the end of the weekend.


Team photo!

Martee Burke

I just keep telling myself that the goals in my program, aside from JFF, is to spend time with my friends and to challenge my fears. To hang out in the pits and tell race stories. To look at the Drop Off and think, "You may die if you drive off that," and drive off it anyway.

So in some ways, I'm a winner.