Ron recounts one of his early desert race days through relentless dust and scorching heat while en route to international competition.
Story by Ron Keys
Photos by Tom and Lori Jenkins
Palmdale, California, the middle of the Mojave Desert at the Prospector Desert Race. It’s nine o’clock on a February morning in the winter of 1970, and the intense southern sun is just beginning its ascent into the deep blue sky. They say it’s a dry heat, but it still burns through my jersey. My thighs sizzle inside my leather pants. I try to relax, but my palms are sweaty and tense as I grip the handlebars in anticipation. Every nerve ending is on fire with the connection between eye and limb, in harmony, awaiting that moment when the vying of one man with another will culminate in a resounding explosion of sound and a collision of energies. It is another of those precious memories – moments in the past, never to be forgotten. One hundred percent focus is the order of the day.
I quickly glance left and then right, muscles taut in anticipation. As far as I can see in both directions, men stand beside silent motorcycles, waiting for the moment. I wonder if they all feel what I feel, and again I wrestle my senses back to the present. I must focus on that man standing in the back of a pickup truck a mile away, beside the oily black smoke rising into the crystal-clear morning air, holding an American flag to signal the start. I zero in on the man with the flag, trying to catch the slightest movement to give me an edge over the competition.
Suddenly the arm moves slightly, and before the flag waves completely, I’m mounted and kick-starting my stock Jawa CZ motocross bike. The engine responds, sucking a gulp of high-test gas through its side-float Jikov carburetor and roaring to life. I leap aboard, jam it into first gear and release the clutch, all in a single, fluid motion. The huge knobby rear tire bores a deep groove into the hard gravel desert floor as I lean my chest over the handlebars to stay on that razor edge between maximum traction and wheel standing. Like a man on a tightrope, I balance on the edge and shift up, clutchless, through the gears until I’m in top gear. My experience riding in the green forests of Ontario provides no advantage here. With the throttle twisted full on, I careen in death-defying, reckless abandon across the desert, shifting my weight from one foot peg to the other, weaving left and right, avoiding the death-trap sagebrush and Joshua trees that grow everywhere.
With only one rider ahead of me, I follow the telltale white ribbon markers that show me I’m on the course. I slide sideways around a left-hander and accelerate toward a series of lime lines across the trail, indicating danger ahead. I have 998 riders behind me and one ahead as I launch the bike into a dry riverbed. I make a sharp turn in the riverbed, right into the fallen motorcycle of the number-one desert racer, Whitey Martino. Almost on top of him, I have to wait until he picks his bike up before I can get by. A precious lost moment, as in my peripheral vision I can see far too many riders blazing by. Of all things, he yells an apology for blocking my way. What etiquette, Whitey! What a way to start my first desert race!
By now I’m in the middle of a dustbowl with only one way out: ride like hell to get the lead back again. Accelerating hard, I take foolhardy chances, riding blind in the dust and dirt, only able to see a few feet in front of me, when suddenly and without warning, I’m over the handlebars, hurtling through the air, not knowing which body part is going to make contact with Mother Earth first. My life passes before me, and I hope upon hope that this won’t hurt too much. The air in my lungs gushes out, leaving me breathless as I slam into a huge rock, landing right in the middle of my back, where my kidney belt provides minimal cushioning…