And in the lonely cool before dawn
You hear their engines rolling on
But when you get to the porch, they’re gone on the wind
After 43 years, motorcycle racing returned to the Mint 400 off-road race Saturday. Like the lyric from a Bruce Springsteen song, there seemed a bit of poetry in that.
Only the lonely cool before dawn was more like a George Thorogood “Bad to the Bone” chill at half past 5 a.m.
Angie Wright of Henderson, longtime boyfriend Derek Stephens, their poodle, Phoenix, and her dirt bike “Son of Frankenstein” — and 159 other desert motorcycle riders and support crews — transformed Interstate 15 South into a modern day “Thunder Road.” They were on a pilgrimage to the Mint 400 starting line in Primm behind Buffalo Bill’s.
A few miles north of the Jean/Goodsprings exit, they may have noticed a billboard extolling the “WORLD’S LARGEST CHEVRON.”
Even the filling stations on the road to the Mint 400 foretell of a vast and enormous adventure.
The World’s Largest Chevron opened last July. Had it been around when Sports Illustrated hired Hunter S. Thompson to write photo captions for the 1971 Mint 400, one can only imagine the fear and loathing it might have engendered.
For Angie Wright, racing in the Mint 400 was more about fearing it than loathing it.
She had had success on the regional motocross circuit, but that was more about racing guys of similar expertise and experience over a few laps on a manicured track, not for six hours or more over pockmarked terrain resembling a desolate moonscape against grizzled veterans who had been doing it for years. Those in her inner circle tried to talk her out if it. This diabolical thing known as The Mint was out of her wheelhouse, they said. Out of her comfort zone.
“Have you seen the movie ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas?’ ” she asked with a circumspect smile after it was much too late to reconsider. “There’s the part where Johnny Depp says this is bigger than the Super Bowl — this type of race, these guys, they’re crazier.”
Hunter Thompson’s exact quote about the Mint 400 reads thus: “In some circles, the Mint 400 is a far better thing than the Super Bowl, the Kentucky Derby and the lower Oakland roller derby league all rolled into one. This race attracts a very special breed.”
Angie Wright was not so delusional to think she could win it. All she wanted to do is go the distance. To be part of the breed.
Two weeks before her final practice day for the Mint, snow blanketed the motocross course at Western Raceway near a dot on the map south of Hoover Dam called White Hills, Arizona. So she talked about riding motorcycles rather than doing it.
As consolation prizes go, it was like a game show contestant receiving a lovely parting gift.
She said her dad rode dirt bikes, her brother rode dirt bikes. And since 2010, when Chris Wright got a new dirt bike and gave his kid sister his old one — it started out as a 2006 250r Honda but soon became known as “Frankenstein” owing to parts that were bolted on so a petite teenage girl could ride it — Angie Wright has followed the dusty path.
When she met Derek, who competed as pro, she started to get more revved about her own riding, and winning trophies on the regional motocross circuits. But it has never been about trophies, she said. None are on display at the apartment in Green Valley where she and Derek live.
“It’s just a getaway from everything,” Wright says about riding dirt bikes in open spaces. “When I go out there, everything just kind of shuts off.
“It’s just me and my dog, my bike, my boyfriend, and we’re having a good time. It’s an isolation, but a freedom feeling. Which sounds really cheesy. It’s very hard to explain why I ride.”
When Angie Wright pulled away from the starting line Saturday, she popped a wheelie on the second hand-me-down dirt bike she had received from her brother.
Freedom at last.
Isolation to follow.
Going the distance
Six hours, 15 minutes and 52.458 seconds after popping that wheelie, Angie Wright crossed the finish line. The only woman in the Ironman amateur class, she came in 45th among 61 riders. She idled toward a platform where she was congratulated by a young woman wearing a painted-on cycle uniform and a painted-on smile, and a guy holding a microphone who was dressed more comfortably.
Stephens doused his girlfriend with bottled water. Supporters with pink and purple hair cheered. Her dad said he was proud — “Her first desert race, and I can’t believe she picked the Mint 400,” Lloyd Wright said.
By then Angie’s motorcycle looked like Nicolas Cage’s in “Ghost Rider” after it caught fire.
Riding a motocross bike with bolted on parts is probably not the ideal way to approach the Mint 400, Angie Wright said. She said her neck and shoulder muscles felt like guitar strings. A turned up palm revealed a nasty blister.
The mental challenge was even more taxing than the physical one, she said.
Runners at the Boston Marathon encounter Heartbreak Hill. Dirt bike riders at the Mint 400 have to contend with Chokers and Thumpers and a course that looks nothing like the green line on the map they hand out during tech inspection, because Google Earth does a lousy job illustrating teeth-chattering terrain.
At the Mint 400, it isn’t long before the green line starts to look like Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo in a mescaline influenced haze. Beware of rocks, cactuses, potholes the size of moon craters and giant bats and Chevron stations.
“The last 30 miles, you’re pretty much talking to yourself — ‘I can’t do it; no, I can do it,’ ” Wright said as she sucked on a can of Boost Oxygen, one of her sponsors.
The lonely cool before dawn had yielded to warm sunshine. Angie Wright removed her helmet, ran her fingers through a serious case of helmet hair and basked in it.