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Race Report: We can't win for losing, off-road in the Mojave Desert

Desert racing is always a gamble -- and we lost big time at the Mojave Off Road Enthusiasts Sierra LED 250.

I zipped up my fireproof Nomex racesuit and immediately started sweating. It was late afternoon in Barstow, California and over 100 degrees. I still had my fireproof shoes and gloves, kidney belt and helmet to put on, and 125 miles of desert to conquer.

It didn't work out quite as planned.

Co-driver Chad apparently thinks we are number two, instead of the preferred number one.

Martee Burke

This race, organized by the Mojave Off-Road Enthusiasts (MORE), started at 5 p.m. and would take us through the night. This is not your regular night. This is desert night. No street lights, no ambient big city light, just flat-out high desert dark. I am, well, petrified of racing in the dark. Fortunately, I have a great light sponsor in Sierra LED Lights and with two light bars and three smaller spot lights on my car, I was ready to rock.

I race a two-seat class 1600 desert race car, number 1617. It's powered by an air-cooled Volkswagen engine that puts out less than 100 horsepower, but with minimal body panels, it's relatively light. Still, momentum is key to racing one of these. It's all about keeping your foot in it for as long as your courage allows.

My car is prepped by Martha Lee Motorsports, an organization that mentors local teenagers through racing. They go to shop nights and learn about teamwork, responsibility and cooperation. Some even get to co-drive with Martha Lee in her race car. It's an awesome program and I'm proud to be a part of it.

Desert racing puts all classes out on the same course at the same time, so I was sharing the 36-mile track with everything from high-powered trucks to nimble side-by-sides, or UTVs. All these race cars means all kinds of dust. I was glad to have a front amber light to help cut through the haze.

Co-driver Chad gets a good luck kiss from his best gal, Tammy.

Martee Burke

Beside me sat my newest co-driver, Chad. His job was to read the GPS, keep me on course, keep an eye out for anything coming up behind me and give me pep talks. This was his first race and he seemed calm, yet excited. Poor guy didn't know what he was in for.

As soon as we got the green flag, the engine started to sputter a bit. My immediate thought was that the foam in the fuel cell had migrated to the fuel line. Or maybe a bug had stuffed the fuel line with chewed up leaves (it happened to me before). But before I could really worry about it, she caught and we were off like a bat out of hell.

Our course took us on narrow razorbacks, over rough and rocky cross-grain sections and through high-speed washes. At one point we came down off a mountain on a track barely wide enough for my small class 1600, never mind the wider trucks.

Down the middle of this track was a washout, so I had to place my tires very accurately, all while in the dust of another vehicle. Chad saw the rock a split second before I did and called it out, but it was too late. Boom! We went right over it, smacking the skid plate hard enough to gouge a hole in the 1/4-inch aluminum.

Road crossings can be rough. Too much speed and it's bye-bye baby.

Kay G Photography

As we completed our first lap, Chad hit the horn in celebration. Except, no beep sounded. All I could think was, "Oh more thing to fix." Then, a few miles later, the GPS flickered out.

"Never mind," I said. "We've been around once and the course is marked. We'll just have to remember the turns."

The second lap proceeded cleanly and I employed my race strategy of JFF, or Just Fucking Finish. There were sections I knew I could take faster, but with the added risk of wadding up the car or breaking down. I don't have the money for a new car, so I play it safe. JFF, baby. JFF.

Go, speed racer!

JT Media

We started lap 3, after which I was to give my car over to Mark and Steve, my clean-up driving team to finish up the remaining three laps. At race mile 2 of this third lap the engine really started sputtering. My right foot was mashed to the floor, all my energy coursing through my leg, willing my car to go faster. She would catch, then sputter, catch then sputter.

We came around a turn that led to a steep uphill. I already had lost momentum and there, stopped in the middle of the track, was a truck. This is not unusual and drivers always try to move off the course when broken, but sometimes it's not possible. I swerved right, putting the car sideways on a hill, then dumped us back on the track.

We were already in first gear and floored. There was nothing more I could do. Chad and I chanted together, "Come on, come on, come on," but it was not to be. We stalled three quarters of the way up the next hill.

The larger truck had gotten running again so I backed down the hill and pushed my starter button. Nothing. No crank, no click, just silence. Now we were in the middle of the track, primed to be hit by the next competitor.

Fortunately, a MORE safety vehicle was right there to tow us off the track. He gave us a jump and we were able to get to a safer location before 1617 died for good. Diagnosis: bad alternator.

It all made sense. The engine sputter, the electronics going out...we were running on pure battery and she finally gave up the ghost. We had made only 80 of the 216 required race miles.

What's the best way to drown some Did Not Finish sorrows? Coke from a glass bottle and Mexican food!

Martee Burke

As I watched the sunset, waiting for my team to come rescue us, I felt proud to have made it that far, but disappointed that I didn't get to face my fear of racing at night. But mostly, I was glad that I got to spend time with my family and friends, all united for a common goal. It's an amazing feeling when everyone has your back.

Mitchell Alsup took first place, while season points-leader Wheeler Morgan earned second. 70-year-old Bob Scott took third, on his birthday, missing second by 19 hundredths of a second. I'll have to live with Did Not Finish next to my name.