Toby Price made history at this year’s Tatts Finke Desert Race, claiming his sixth motorcycle category win to make him the most successful rider in the event’s 43-year history. As in 2016, Price was also attempting to do the ‘Iron Man’ double of winning both the bike and car categories: racing a KTM 500 EXC-F in the former and Chevy V8-powered Trophy Truck in the latter - a feat of logistics as much as it is of speed and endurance.
While Price was clearly the man to beat in the field of more than 600 bike and quad entrants, he wasn’t the only star, with the likes of Beau Ralston, Jack Simpson, Andy Wilksch and Brodie Waters all lining up for the start at Alice Springs, as well as experienced Finke campaigners like Ivan Long, who was teaming up with Sam Davie in the Husqvarna Motorcycles Desert Racing Team. Four-time Finke winner Ben Grabham was back, making his first start in the iconic two-day enduro since 2015, while 2013 runner-up Jacob Smith was aiming to take the Finke win that has so far eluded him.
Names you wouldn’t expect to find at Finke, like Beau Beaton, were also entered, along with former AFL star Tony Lockett, who’s now a multiple starter and true devotee of the event. All riders spared a thought for last year’s winner, Daymon Stokie, who passed away following a racing accident this past January. A minute’s silence was held on 9 June at the same time Stokie started his prologue run in last year’s Finke.
This year’s Finke followed the same two-day race format as usual, with a short prologue on 9 June, the 226km run from Alice Springs to Finke on ‘Day 1’ (10 June), then the return run to Alice Springs on ‘Day 2’ (11 June). There were some new additions for 2018, though, mainly around improving the spectator experience.
Live streaming of the arrival at Finke, improved finish line and pit facilities at Alice Springs and a night-time street party with entertainment and market stalls (held in conjunction with the meet ‘n’ greet and autograph sessions held on 7 June) were amongst the new inclusions.
Also new this year was the ‘Kay Wharton Fastest Female Category’ trophy for the top three female finishers across all bike categories. The award was named after the former Finke race doctor and five-time bike category entrant.
PROLOGUE Under the banner of the ‘North Star Pastoral KTM Desert Racing Team’, Toby Price was back in the bike category at Finke after missing last year’s two-wheel campaign due to the broken leg he suffered at the 2017 Dakar. Making his mark early, the 30-year-old laid down the fastest time of 4 minutes 58 seconds on the dry and dusty 8.3km prologue circuit, but that was only 0.4 seconds ahead of Long (Husqvarna FE 450), last year’s overall runner-up.
Third in the prologue was Smith, riding a Honda CRF 480R for the all-new Penrite Honda Desert Racing Team that was aiming to capture Honda’s first outright Finke win since Jacob’s brother Todd was victorious in 2013. The Penrite Honda team also included former class winner and third overall in 2016, Mark Grove (CRF 250R), experienced Alice Springs local Caleb Auricht (CRF 250) and Finke rookie Callum Norton (CRF 450R). This trio finished the prologue in eleventh, sixteenth and tenth, respectively.
Behind Smith, Alice Springs’ Luke Hayes (KTM 500 EXC-F) was fourth fastest, followed by Davie (Husqvarna FE 501), Nathan Trigg (Sherco 450 SEF), Kent Collins (KTM 500 EXC-F), Danny Leane (Husqvarna FE 450) and Ben Grabham (Beta RR 480), with the aforementioned Norton completing the top ten.
David Walsh, another Alice Springs local and Price’s team mate in the North Star Pastoral KTM squad, had a disappointing prologue and would start day 1 from 28th.
DAY 1 On an uncharacteristically warm morning for both the region and the time of year, the car category opened the day’s racing, followed by the bikes. Despite some mechanical issues, Price took his #487 trophy truck to second place in the car category, in what was a good start to his Iron Man campaign before flying back to Alice to be first away in the bikes category just before noon.
Showing the sort of pace and racecraft that’s taken him to five previous Finke wins, Price was uncatchable on his KTM, fastest through all the checkpoints to Finke and finishing in 1 hour 57 minutes and 45.6 seconds; more than four minutes ahead of the next best rider.
That next best was Walsh, who made up for his poor prologue with a swift Day 1 effort, passing plenty of competitors along the way to present as the strongest challenger to Price’s chances of a history-making sixth Finke win.
As good as Walsh’s run was, the most impressive performance on Day 1 was undoubtedly that of Norton. Despite numerous Hattah Desert Race starts, the 17-year-old had never ridden at Finke before, but he tackled the tough course like a pro. Third fastest into Finke at 2h11m05.5s, Norton was only 13m19s behind Price and 9m07s behind Walsh.
In his Finke return after missing last year’s race through injury, Jack Simpson (KTM 500 EXC-F) was fourth fastest, followed by Collins, Trigg, Grove, Auricht, Angus Gelly (KTM 500 EXC-F) and Beau Dargel (KTM 500 EXC-F).
The dust, big whoops and testing sections, particularly in the early part of the course, caught out many, including Smith, Long, Davie and Grabham, who were among more than sixty riders that failed to finish the first day, while a further fourteen finished outside the required time to complete the 226km run.
Smith, Long and Grabham’s DNFs were all mechanical, with the latter lucky not to crash after clipping a dead tree at the 55km mark that ripped the fuel lines out of his Beta’s tank. Long’s DNF came at 175km, just after the Mt. Squires fuel stop, due an unknown mechanical gremlin, with the reason for Smith’s mechanical DNF also unconfirmed at press time.
Finke DAY 1 Results – Top 5
- Toby PRICE KTM 500 EXC-F #295 01h57m45.6s
- David WALSH KTM 500 EXC-F #299 +4m12.8s
- Callum NORTON Honda CRF450R #X98 +13m19.9s
- Jack SIMPSON KTM 500 EXC-F #296 +14m36.9s
- Kent COLLINS KTM 500 EXC-F #4 +18m10.6s
DAY 2 Similar dry, clear and warm conditions greeted the starters for Day 2’s return run to Alice Springs, where Price’s attempt at the Iron Man double came unstuck early.
After the transmission in his Trophy Truck was replaced overnight, Price bolted in an effort to catch the leading buggy of Shannon and Ian Rentsch, but his challenge was over just short of the halfway mark with a power steering pump failure. While Price said the truck was still drivable, the extra strength and stamina required to actually race the crippled machine would have compromised his chances in the bike leg, so he reluctantly decided to retire.
Extremely disappointed that his chances of doing the double were scuppered again, just as they were in 2016, Price could do nothing more than jump a chopper back to Finke for the bike start.
That is a hard pill to swallow,” Price said later. “Unfortunately, we didn’t make it back (but) we didn’t leave a stone unturned and our Toby Price Motorsport team gave it a red-hot crack.”
Perhaps missing the Iron Man made Price more determined to succeed in the bike category, as he rode hard and fast on the return leg. Despite a tumble at the 100km mark, Price actually managed to shave a few seconds off his Day 1 time, returning to Alice Springs in 1 hour 57 minutes 39.5 seconds to the cheers of the ‘Orange Army’: more than 200 participants in this year’s KTM Australia Adventure Rallye, which had arrived in Alice Springs in time to catch all the action.
Walsh was again the second fastest, and even though his return leg was slower at 2h03m46.3s, he still held enough of a margin to comfortably claim the runner-up spot behind Price.
The barnstorming debut of Norton came to an end on Day 2 with a mechanical failure, but the experiences of this year have no doubt given the Victorian teenager a hunger to return to Finke in 2019.
Norton’s DNF elevated Simpson into third place, making it an all-KTM podium for the second time in three years. In fact, KTMs filled six of the top ten positions.
A more important milestone was set by Price, whose sixth win put him ahead of Northern Territorian Randall Gregory on the all-time Finke winners list. Gregory won five Finkes in a row from 1991, all on a Honda, while Price’s victories have all come on KTM machinery.
“I can’t thank the KTM team enough, they’ve done a lot of hard work and without them it wouldn’t have been possible,” Price said. “I’m just really pumped to get six wins with KTM and they’ve given me so much support every time we’ve been running this race, so it’s cool to top it off for them with another win this year.
“I’m really stoked to come away with outright win number six to take the record, so it’s been a good time. 2010 was a surprise (win) and who would have thought we’d be here celebrating number six today,” Price added. “I love coming back to Finke and playing in the red dirt, it’s always a good time.”
Walsh was upbeat about his result, too: “I was able to push really hard on day one and managed to put myself into second place, so from there it was good to maintain that and take that spot on the podium.
“I’m really pumped for the whole North Star Pastoral KTM Desert Racing Team and to bring it home in one piece to join Toby in a 1-2 result.” While Penrite Honda had their share of disappointment, they took some solace from Groves’s fifth placing that not only made him the highest-placed non-KTM rider, but also marked the best finish for a 250cc bike in Finke history.
The inaugural Kay Wharton award for the fastest female went to Ellyse O’Connor (Yamaha YZ 250F), who placed 291st overall (out of 489 classified finishers) in what was not only her Finke debut, but her first off-road enduro of any type. “I was warned that (Finke) was tough and the dust was just phenomenal… that was the hardest thing I have ever done,” the 29-year-old Queenslander said.
“I had a few crashes coming home and I thought I will never ever come back … but I am already planning next year!” Second and third behind O’Connor were Kathryn Scoble (Honda CRF 250R, 309th overall) and Julie Denyer (KTM 350 EXC-F, 365th overall). Sherco’s Kate Norman was fourth female home and 377th overall.
FINKE Overall Results – Top 10
- Toby PRICE KTM 500 EXC-F #295 03h55m25.1s
- David WALSH KTM 500 EXC-F #299 +10m19.7s
- Jack SIMPSON KTM 500 EXC-F #296 +25m41.3s
- Kent COLLINS KTM 500 EXC-F #4 +35m36.6s
- Mark GROVE Honda CRF 250R #9 +41m58.0s
- Angus GELLY KTM 500 EXC-F #221 +42m21.4s
- Caleb AURICHT Honda CRF 250 #499 +45m29.9s
- Lachlan SUMMERS KTM 500 EXC-F #11 +52m29.3s
- Jerakye ANDREWS Yamaha YZ 250F #494 +54m03.7s
- Nathan TRIGG Sherco 450 SEF #6 +56m13.5s
The 2019 Tatts Finke Desert Race is scheduled for 7-10 June. For full results and further details from this year’s Finke Desert Race, go to: finkedesertrace.com.au
Images: Red Bull Media, KTM Australia, Honda Australia