THE ORIGINALS: Colin Woodberry, Marg Tegart and Des Woodberry were influential figures in the early days of the Hattah Desert Race. Photo: PAUL MENSCH

By MITCH RODD

THE tiny township of Hattah is really known for three factors.

The name is a palindrome (spelt the same way backwards), it has a national park, and is host to arguably the toughest off-road motorbike race in Australia.

Before the crack of dawn on a Sunday in July each year, the unique scenes of bumper to bumper traffic and illuminated brake lights head towards a race track best described as ‘in the middle of nowhere’.

The iconic Hattah Desert Race has this year attracted 750 senior and junior riders, who will tackle soft dirt, ripple strips, sharp elbows and tiny gaps through Mallee scrub.

Riders gain an instant badge of respect from their counterparts if they can say they’ve conquered Hattah.

Next weekend, July 6-8, the Hattah Desert Race celebrates its 20th anniversary.

Anyone who know anything about Hattah recognises the famous names like five-time champions Warren Smart and Toby Price. The efforts behind the scenes, however, are what has helped transform the event into the juggernaut it is today.

Ahead of next week’s event, here is a look back at how the event was saved from extinction and became one of the premier sporting weekends on the Sunraysia calendar.

IN THE BEGINNING

THE conservationists got their way in 1979.

Since the start of that decade, the BP Desert Race had been staged for off-road warriors at Hattah. Bike riders, car drivers and even those in buggies got their fill.

The race, however, was said to be destroying the natural habitat. The land had to be preserved. The race was disbanded.

Australian Off-Road Racing decided to take their four-wheeled machines down south to Sea Lake. The Sea Lake Mallee Rally has been going strong ever since.

There was indecision, however, regarding the future of the race for two-wheeled riders.

Locals from the North West Victorian Motorcycle Club (NWVMCC) would head to the Finke Desert Race outside Alice Springs each June, and every year, the yearning for the return of a local event grew stronger.

“We always thought we wanted to have our own desert race back,” Des Woodberry said.

“We always strived to get it going again, but a lack of a venue was the main reason that we couldn’t bring it back.”

Almost 20 years after the last BP Desert Race, NWVMCC members Andrew Keogh and Tom Ryan indicated they may had finally found a venue for their beloved race.

A mutual friend, Lenny Crowen, owned some land at Hattah which he made available for NWVMCC to utilise.

“The land was virtually where the previous race used to be,” Des said.

The Hattah Race, of sorts, was reinstated in 1997, thanks to a motley crew of volunteers from the NWVMCC, including Des and Colin Woodberry.

Les Banbury was the clerk of course and Les Gates was the race steward, roles the duo held until 2006.

Because there was a great unknown about entries, the format was a ‘Pony Express’, which sees two riders utilise one bike.

A total of 54 riders took to the track, proving there was indeed support from riders.

The race had been saved, and the challenge had been laid out to ensure it had a long-term future.

THE FORMATIVE YEARS

IT was 1998 when it became officially known as the Hattah Desert Enduro.

Any event organiser knows a faultless first attempt is a rarity, and NWVMCC wanted to build the size, excitement and prestige of the Hattah race.

“It was a bunch of blokes who got the race kicked off, marked out the track and all that sort of stuff,” Des said.

“It wasn’t until Marg Tegart came along that Hattah took off.”

Ray Tegart was the NWVMCC president in 1998, and his wife, Marg, was also heavily involved in the organisational ranks.

Ray would eventually take over as Hattah race steward in 2007, alongside new clerk of course Geoff Gunn.

Marg became race secretary in 1998, but her efficiency in the role saw it further develop into that of event co-ordinator.

“It all stepped up when Marg got involved,” Des said.

“The entries, the administration work and things that a lot of us blokes weren’t very good at, she did brilliantly. Marg along with Dave Arnold, also got a lot of major and class sponsors on board.”

The race of ‘98 saw 70 riders take part, with Craig Rutherford securing overall honours.

The scrutineering and prologue of the event was held at the NWVMCC’s Jambaroo  Park base in Koorlong, before  competitors headed down to the track and camped out while bands played live music well into the Saturday night.

The first two races were club-based events. However after a growth in rider numbers, organisers made the ‘99 race an open event.

Reportedly, the decision wasn’t overly popular with local riders.

“To have an open event you have to have a national licence and that was more of a cost for riders,” Marg said.

NWVMCC took the race back a step in the new millennium and kept it at club level for 99 riders. Organisers, however, still harboured ambitions of making Hattah a major event.

In 2001 NWVMCC negotiated with Motorcycling Victoria to allow both one-day and national licences in the same open event, meaning both categories could take part.

“As race secretary at the time it was quite a headache, as it was a lot of paperwork!” Marg said. “But we did it because we wanted to capture both sides.”

The 2004 race attracted 150 senior riders and 60 juniors, but the single day licences were becoming a burden as numbers grew.

Decisions made in the next few years would help raise the profile of the race even further.

THE BIG TIME

The Hattah Desert Enduro became a full open event in 2005.

By this time, all scrutineering was completed at Des Woodberry’s Sunset Cycles shop in Red Cliffs on the Friday of the event.

Sign on was on the Saturday morning, followed by senior prologue and juniors, before the big race on Sunday.

Colin Woodberry had previously sponsored the race to provide prize money, but major sponsors were now being attracted to ensure its growth. Strange Drilling, a Western Australian mining company, came on board in 2005, before Honda became the major sponsor from 2006 to 2008.

While Hattah was a significant event for those closely involved in racing, many locals without an interest in motorbikes weren’t aware of how big it was, or could become.

The shift in mentality came via hosting scrutineering at a ‘Meet and Greet in Feast Street’ on the Friday night in 2006.

“Having the scrutineering in town was a huge success,” Marg said.

“Mildura City Heart and Mildura Rural City Council came on board and were fantastic support. They really helped to put the race out there a lot more and increased the interest.”

Hundreds of two-wheeled machines were lined up side-by-side down Langtree Mall.

Locals wanted to see what all the fuss was about, and it was a sight to behold.

Adding to the atmosphere was John Kontrec, who had worked with the team from day one as their commentator, conducting interviews with competitors.

As entries grew to 650 in 2016, room was simply not available in Mildura City to hold the event.

Quandong Park, home of the Red Cliffs Football Netball Club, host the Friday night event for second time this year, but Marg said it was the exposure in Langtree Avenue that helped the popularity of the race to explode.

The event underwent a name change in 2008, becoming the current moniker of  Hattah Desert Race.

“It became a lot more professional from that point onwards,” Colin Woodberry said.

“We actually had to begin capping numbers as the track couldn’t cope with the entries, and it was getting ripped and rutted up by mid-race,” Marg added.

After the 2010 event, Marg would finish her 12-year stint as event co-ordinator and race secretary, as 300 seniors and 125 juniors took to the track.

“It was a lot of organising over those years but I had a tremendous team of volunteers to work alongside,” she said.

“I’m still passionate about the NWVMCC and so is Ray. However it was time for me to step down and let some new blood step in.

“I knew it was in good hands. I am very proud of the last 20 years and where the Hattah Desert Race is today.”

THE INTERNET AGE

SOME people must have assumed Y2K eventually hit in 2016.

In scenes reminiscent of fans awaiting Ed Sheeran tickets to go on sale, riders wanting to compete at Hattah had to book immediately.

All 650 entries were reserved within just eight minutes. This year, 750 entries were booked in a similar timeframe.

Race secretary Gary Leeson said Hattah organisers had “created a monster”.

“There is a comment someone put on social media once that said ‘the race to enter Hattah is more intense than the race itself’, and it’s absolutely spot on,” he said.

Gary took over Marg’s role as event coordinator and race secretary from 2011 until 2015, before handing the reins to Jenni Gledhill while retaining the secretarial role.

Many factors in these years helped build the event to the ‘monster’ it is today, but a few in particular stand out.

Online entries were implemented, allowing for faster access to booking a ride.

There was also a greater push for sponsorship and exposure, exemplified by the additions of major sponsors KTM (2011-15) and Penrite (current).

The junior race also built in size and stature, and the influx of youngsters continuing to enter proves it has worked in spades.

“Over the last five or six years we’ve tried very hard to mirror image what the seniors do with the juniors,” Gary said, “and it’s created a magnificent off-road event for junior riders.

“On the Saturday, which is senior prologue and junior race day, they get to rub shoulders with some of the best off-road racers in the world.

“The seniors prologue is on exactly the same track as the Big Wheel juniors, so you’ve got kids who are 12 and above who can compare their times to Toby Price or Josh Green, or whoever their idols might be.

“Often we will get some of the junior riders inside the top 10 or 20 in the prologue against the senior riders.”

A COMMNUITY EVENT

AN event of this magnitude does not just happen without support and volunteers.

In a time where it can be hard to convince people to put their hand up to work for nothing, the Hattah Desert Race crew came up with some simple, yet ingenious, solutions.

“To make it work you need so much help, and we now have 150 volunteers down there each day,” Gary said.

“We actually pay people to come, but we don’t pay individuals, we pay their club or organisation, and that money goes back to those clubs as a fund-raiser.

“It’s not just the NWVMCC who benefit out of this event now, it’s schools, footy clubs, the CFA, whoever wants to come and volunteer some time. It works in as a true community event.”

Other aspects such as catering and providing a first-class medical facility helps tie everything together.

“We recognise that if you’re going to get people to volunteer their time, even though the club is being rewarded, we still need to look after them,” Gary said.

“We provide meals for officials and volunteers, and those girls do a brilliant job.

“What we provide at Hattah with the medical side of the event is second to none.

“There are three doctors, an anesthetist, two micro ambulances and three ambulances on stand-by in the event of a catastrophe. The triage set up is quite unbelievable.

“It’s not just about the competitors. If you get 3000 spectators down there, chances are someone could have a health event out of that as well. You’ve got a duty of care when you’re looking after something of that size.

“There’s a huge expense with all of that, you don’t get all that for free, but that’s all part of the event.”

INTO THE FUTURE

THE Hattah Desert Race has come a long way from humble beginnings.

“It makes you proud,” Colin Woodberry said.

“We (the early organising committee) don’t have much to do with it now, but the new committee have taken over from us and kept the ball rolling.”

“In the early stages it was hard to get people to help, but it’s got to the point where so many people are volunteering to help out and want to get involved,” Des said.

“It’s one of those races where a rider just has to be part of it,” Marg said.

“It doesn’t matter where they finish, it’s a bucket list item to say they’ve ridden the Hattah Desert Race.”

There will always be comparisons between Hattah and Finke, but Gary said the races are two totally different dynamics.

“Although they’re both off-road races, they’re both bloody tough in their own way,” he said. “If you’ve completed either of these national events, you’ve done a good job.”

Gary said the skill set of the volunteer group was a major factor in its success over the years.

“The people who sit on the race committee are totally dedicated, as it takes up as much time as a part-time job,” he said.

“Their skill sets are unbelievable in the areas they cover. A lot of them aren’t club members either, but everyone has their own role.

“Our track preparation and repair each year is a huge job and they continue to provide us with a world-class surface for all our competitors to race on and enjoy.

“The start of each event at Hattah is unique and it is a daunting task to try and line up 700 bikes in their correct order. Over the years our starters have got that spot-on with absolute minimal fuss.

“We love being part of this event. We have to sincerely thank the efforts of the volunteers, major sponsors, the landowners, and everyone who gets involved with the race has made it what it is today.

“It’s an amazing team that runs this event.”

The stories and memories that arise after 20 years of the Hattah Desert Race would be enough to fill a hardcover book.

Hopefully it will just be part one of a series.