ON THE LOOKOUT: Robert and Kathy Kirby are long time volunteers at the Hattah Desert Race. At the 2018 event, the husband-and-wife team will continue in their roles as ‘outriders’, who are officials that check on rider safety. This year they will put their brand new response buggy to the test for the first time to help keep riders safe and respond to accidents if they do occur. Photos: PAUL MENSCH

By MITCH RODD

IN an event as unpredictable and potentially dangerous as the Hattah Desert Race, it’s good to know the competitors are in safe hands.

In the 21st year of arguably Australia’s toughest off-road racing event, a record number of riders are set to take part. As well as making it difficult to manage logistically, more machines means a greater potential for accidents and for the track to be in a constant stage of change.

Lucky for the riders, dedicated volunteers like Robert and Kathy Kirby are on-hand if disaster does rear it’s ugly head.

The husband and wife team are part of the ‘outriders’ group. The outriders are exactly as their name suggests, a team out and about around the Hattah track to keep an eye on any potentially injured riders, or any sections of track that may become dangerous.

Both Robert and Kathy grew up riding the two-wheeled machines and believed any way in which they could support the region’s biggest event would be a good thing.

 

ROBERT has been a long time member of the North West Victorian Motorcycle Club (NWVMCC) and was an outrider at the first Hattah Desert Race in 1997.

He has continued to play an important support role since having been in involved in 16 of the 20 events.

He admitted no one involved in the race in ’97 could have imagined the monster the annual event would become.

“It’s certainly not a glorified club day at Nangiloc anymore,” Robert said.

“In the early days we were lucky to get 100 entries, now we get that within two minutes. This year we reached capacity again in eight minutes.

“I don’t think anyone would have thought it would become this big of an event. We have world-class riders coming to compete at one of the toughest off-road racing events in Australia, and it’s in our backyard. It’s amazing, and it’s certainly good for the district with all the visitors coming.

“An incredible amount of man hours go into this whole event.

“Planning for next year’s event happens pretty much straight away, as does track prep. A grader goes over the track a few days after the race to restore it for the land owners. Without them, there is no race and we can’t thank them enough for the use of their land.”

 

AS WELL as being an outrider, Robert makes up part of the phenomenal track crew that looks after the 38km long track.

“Early on a group of volunteers used to mark the track and grade it with their tractors. While it was good we found that as people all mark things differently, some parts weren’t as clearly marked as others,” he said.

“Five or six years ago it was decided to form a track crew where six of us set out and mark the tracks.”

The crew have spent a number of hours over recent weeks getting the track into tip-top shape. Recent rainfall has the track in pristine condition, having eliminated much of the overlying dust.

Kathy summed it up best when she said “Robert knows the track like the back of his hand”.

That knowledge is a pre-requisite for Robert, and an added bonus of having been an integral part of the event for so long.

“We know every corner intimately,” he said.

“We have to make sure everything is right because the riders are relying on us to make sure they get back safely.

“The course changes every lap, and it cuts up quickly with 400 bikes going around it.”

 

THAT need for safety has led to the Kirbys investing in a new machine of their own.

Robert and Kathy purchased a CF Moto buggy through Des Woodberry at Mallee Motorcycles, one of the originals who brought the Hattah race back in the ’90’s.

Traditionally outriders have used motorcycles themselves, however, keeping their own safety in check as well as keeping an eye out for injured riders can be a difficult process.

“I actually came off my bike and hurt my shoulder as an outrider three years ago,” Robert said.

“I had to try and sneak back in without Kathy finding out what I’d done!

“Last year two of the other outrider team members said they were glad they got to be the eyes and ears of the track. I knew that if I wanted to stay involved I was going to have to find another way due to my shoulder. That’s where the idea of the buggy came in.”

The buggy has been set up and fine-tuned for the bumps and scrub of the Hattah race, as well as the NWVMCC’s annual Farmer’s Pony Express six-hour event later this year.

All the additions to the four-wheeled machine have been focussed primarily on the safety of competitors, making the Kirby’s a ‘first response team’ if you will.

“We bought the buggy and set it up with warning lights, first aid kit, fire extinguisher, UHF radio and an LED warning light bar across the back,” Robert said.

“We can also be a mobile repeater station if needed, relaying messages back to the pits. If a rider goes down and ‘ambos’ are needed, we can go back 100 metres, turn on the flashing lights and warn oncoming riders that there is danger ahead. Hopefully we won’t need to use it.

“We also have the gear on board if we need to change certain parts of the track.

“It’s very hard out riding on two wheels, watching where you are going as well as looking out for injured riders and checking track conditions. With two of us in the buggy it should be much easier, and it’s something we can do together.”

In their test rides so far, Kathy has called ‘shotgun’ on the driver’s seat.

“On Mother’s Day we took it out for a spin (at Hattah). It gets plenty of speed and could probably hit 120km/h,” she said.

“Robert and I have always worked well together so when he asked if I wanted to be in the buggy with him it was a no-brainer.

“Being in the buggy is definitely an improvement and the direction we’ve had to take.”

 

ROBERT said it has been an honour to be involved in the Hattah Desert Race.

“I’ve always said the whole Hattah team is the best group of people to work with,” he said.

“We’ve all got our bits to do and come race day it can be stressful, but everything always comes together.

“I feel very proud to be part of this organisation and to help put this magnificent event together.”

The 2018 Hattah Desert Race takes place from Friday, July 6, to Sunday, July 8.