Mention the Finke Desert Race before last week and I might have guessed it was some long lost tribe of the Never Never. For you never know what you might discover, out it in that vast, ancient, tortured red landscape of Central Australia where for 350,000,000 years the Finke River has wandered, finding and losing itself in the arid sand and stunted bush. The river has even outlived the once mighty mountain ranges it drained eons back when dinosaurs ruled the world. The oldest river on earth (though often just a dry riverbed) the Finke has remained, long after the mountains crumbled.
By contrast with that ancient landscape, the Finke Desert Race, has only been around for a nanosecond. But in just 41 years the five hundred kilometer event has grown to rival the world’s fastest and toughest off-road desert race for bikes, trucks and buggies. In the heat, the flies, the dust and the incredible noise I joined a crowd of thirty thousand people to report on an event I had never heard of and a subculture I hadn’t even known existed.
“Mate, this is the Melbourne Cup for the real workers. There are no bloody champagne toffs at the Finke. Out here it’s just beer and dust.” Fred, a semi-retired postal worker from Victoria has driven more than two thousand kilometers be here. He shouts to be heard over the deafening roar of 400 off-road bikes. “This is the sport of working people with dirt under their fingernails. They are the people who drive ‘dozers, put food on your plate, fix your car or deliver your mail. And hear that noise?” he yelled. “That’s not noise. That’s their music. To them, that’s the bloody opera!”
If this is opera then the bloke I’ve come to meet is Placido Domingo. His name is Toby Price. He’s a twenty eight year old NSW farm boy who rode dirt bikes from the age of two and was clearly always destined to become the world champion he now is. In January this year he became the first Australian to win the grueling Dakar Rally in South America by an extraordinary forty minutes. That propelled him to world fame. In the Australian subculture of dirt bikes he was already a legend here, having won the Finke title four times. In his gritty, dangerous, dusty, noisy world there is simply no one on earth fast enough to keep up with him.
“So Toby, how come I had never heard of you?” He is a big fellow, well over six foot and 98kg, fiercely competitive but fortunately, easy going. “I get asked that a lot. This sport is huge in America and Europe but I think Australians are obsessed with ball games, which doesn’t leave a lot of room for much else. But like you say, Charlie, there’s 350 million years out here and I’m only here for a nanosecond. All I’ve got time to worry about is that there are 480 riders and 479 of them want to beat me.”
Racing in America in 2013 Toby came off his bike and woke up in hospital with a broken neck. The Doctors told him he was in danger of becoming a quadriplegic. Three vertebrae had been shattered and although his spinal cord had miraculously remained intact it was unprotected and unsupported. The operation he urgently needed would cost $500,000. “I didn’t have that kind of money and in America the attitude is, well then you’re back out in the street.” Toby had to fly home to Australia with his head screwed into a supportive framework called a ‘halo’. “In Brisbane I had one of the country’s top surgeons. He saved my life and it was all on Medicare. In America I would be in a wheel chair. It certainly made me think we don’t want the American medical system here.” Perhaps that should have also been a career wakeup moment but only a few months later Toby Price was back on the bike.
Arms, legs, feet, ribs, fingers; there aren’t many bones left unbroken in Toby’s obsessive pursuit of victory. “When you come off at 180ks in rough country the human body is tossed around like a rag doll.” He shrugs, “There is no protection. You’ve just got to calculate the odds. I like to win races and if I have to check out on a motorcycle, well for myself I’d have a grin from ear to ear.”
Just as well then that Toby’s mum Pauline is a stoic countrywoman. She remembers a Mother’s Day some years back when her son returned from a race with both arms broken and in plaster. “I just said well that’s my Mothers Day present. At least he won’t be riding for a while. But he was back on the bike in no time. I worry of course but I’m terribly proud of him.”
“You just have to take the good with the bad,” says retired farmer John Price, who is equally philosophical about his tear-away son. “When Toby was a kid you could see where it was all heading. We’ve always reckoned when he puts on that helmet he just sprouts horns.”
Filming him race to another Finke victory this week (it is becoming a bit predictable) it occurred to me that he rides like a jockey. My cameraman tracked with him at what I now hesitate to call ‘breakneck speed’ and the camera catches what the eye can’t see. The track is rough and the bike should be pitching and shuddering but Toby’s body is somehow floating above it all, melding man and machine as if in a smooth slow-motion drift through the desert air. It is a moment of pure transcendent poetry. Then he opens up and in a great roar is suddenly gone. The dust slowly settles and three hundred and fifty million years of silence reclaims the ancient landscape.
As the man said, whatever speed you travel at, in this primordial land we’re only here for a nanosecond.
You can view my 60 Minutes story on Toby Price on 9Now at: