Virginia City Grand Prix Off Road Enduro
Wild West moto shootout
Text + Photos: Mike Blanchard
Feature | On a Saturday night I was waiting around in a packed saloon. It was the end of the first day of the Virginia City Grand Prix motorcycle race. We were all waiting for the, by then, hour-late award ceremony to take place, and there were conversations all around me as riders and spectators talked over the day’s racing. One in particular caught my ear.
“I was in the air and it was one of those slow-motion moments where I thought, ‘Don’t die.’” Turns out 18-year-old Henry Anderson had misjudged a turn while waiving to some spectators and went off the edge of the road, flying into the tree tops and down the steep rock scree embankment.
Jeremiah Goulett had been following Henry when he went off the road. Goulett pulled over and went back to check on the kid. He sacrificed a top-10 overall finish to make sure Henry was OK. “I was so happy to see him sitting up.” Goulett said. “I thought he was a goner. I saw him cartwheeling through the air and land on his head.” Luckily he only tore a bunch of ligaments in his left arm.
Goulett winced as Henry showed off his arm tucked away in a sling. Out the side of his mouth he said, “We’ll let the kid find out how much that hurts. Would be less pain if he broke it.”
This year, 2019, was the 48th anniversary of the Virginia City Grand Prix. The GP is an off-road race that winds through the hills and canyons surrounding the historic mining town in the hills east of Reno. The event is put on by the Outlaws Motorcycle Club and run as a non-profit event to benefit the club and its chosen causes. Over 1,000 riders, including 65 pros, signed up for the punishing race, which is run over two days.
The Saturday race ran over a 25-mile course and was for pros, experts and amateur classes. On Sunday there were a number of classes run on a slightly shorter 23-mile course, including vintage, big adventure bikes, bombers, a team relay, and the women’s, masters and novice classes for several age groups.
2019 saw changes to the race that included a section of obstacles on the main drag of Virginia City.
Curt Chapman recently took over the reins of the club and the VCGP.
“We have a new leadership team this year,” said Chapman. “We are focusing on taking the race to the next level, the next era, with more fans and sponsors. We want to bring the energy back into town.”
When asked if the town is behind the race, Chapman replied, “This club donates lots of money to the town. The race is healthy and we want the town to benefit. Up here it’s like, ‘Let the good times roll.’ It’s the perfect place for it.”
People come from all over to help out, but many of the volunteers and course workers are locals. On Sunday, Max Ramsey and his two sons were posted in the sun deep in Seven Mile Canyon below Flowery Peak to help riders crossing the creek find the split between the brutally hard straight climb up to the cemetery or the only slightly less gnarly, roundabout way up the hill.
“This is our first year,” said Ramsey, who works for the local school district. “The boys love it. They helped build the course in front of the museum.” The kids stood on top of the roll cage of their dad’s 4-wheeler in a cloud of dust and cheered on riders as they passed.
Like the desert surrounding Virginia City, the race is tough, really tough. The defining feature of the race course is rocks, and more rocks and dust, and then some more rocks … oh, and very steep hills. Did I mention dust?
People who take this on are dedicated. Many of them are desert and Baja racers who seek out the toughest courses to challenge themselves. But there are a fair amount of motocross racers as well drawn to the looser, wide-open vibe of the GP. A race like this is a competition against other riders but in many ways it is a chance to measure yourself against a significant challenge. Riders come back year after year for the party and the race.
The first group of riders to start on Sunday was the Ultra Masters over-70 group, some of whom have competed in every edition of the race. The oldest rider was 82-year-old Roy Watson. He was prudently followed by a course marshal to make sure that there were no disasters for the man who has ridden in every edition of the Grand Prix.
Over and over I heard from riders who said the VC Grand Prix was a bucket-list race. And it ain’t for the money. First place pro wins $2,100.
Henry Anderson’s story is not in any way unique in the history of the Virginia City Grand Prix. In one of the women’s groups there was a broken arm in the first mile and there have been fatalities in years past. Roughly a third of the riders failed to finish this year, mostly mechanical DNFs, but there were some injuries as well.
There are bound to be injuries in off road racing, hell in all types of racing, but the organizers work to make sure it is as safe as possible, and riders generally look out for each other. The other thing is that the men and women who ride this type race are the type of people who accept risk. These are not the safety Nazis. This is a group of people who recognize that risk, and overcoming it, makes life better.
By the end of the race, riders are exhausted; bone-deep tired with many suffering from dehydration, cramps and arm pump. In the pro open class the fast lap this year was set by Austin Walton at 40 minutes and six seconds, but at the end of the four hour marathon it was 19-year-old Dante Olivera who managed six laps to win the race.
Saturday night is famous for a big party on C Street. The bars of the old mining camp are overflowing with riders who raced earlier in the day mixing it up with spectators and crews. The prudent riders in the Sunday groups were in camp getting hydrated and rested up for their race.
This is the first year that the Grand Prix has been run without announcer Moto Mouth Don Covakis manning the mic. Before the race began there was a tribute to Covakis, with his family and friends, all wearing red Moto Mouth T-shirts, enjoying a shot of Southern Comfort, his preferred beverage, with the new announcers.
Covakis, a judge by profession and a beloved figure in Northern Nevada off-road racing, passed away in 2018. He was wonderfully foul-mouthed and loved to pull a cork, but he was dedicated to helping kids and worked hard for youth programs. This year, organizers inaugurated a race for kids in Covakis’ honor called the Moto Mouth Mini Grand Prix.
Covakis had been the announcer of the race for 45 years with one exception. He was banned one year for an excess of exuberance and something to do with throwing a wet T-shirt contest, without any T-shirts.
For the spectators the VCGP is a great opportunity to see top-flight off-road riders compete in an unusual format. Many of these riders compete in long-distance desert racing, which is hard for spectators to see. The riders just stream past and are gone.
At the VCGP if you pick one of the several vantage points in and around town, you get the spectacle of riders coming by within feet of you the whole four hours of the race. It’s like you are in the action. To be honest, it is very hard to tell who might be winning as you watch. After the first lap the riders are mixed up as the frontrunners lap the tail-enders. But that doesn’t really matter.
These types of events are all about spectacle. It is just as important for the riders as it is for the spectators. They give each other something. The riders get energy from the crowd and the onlookers get a thrill from the riders. There are reasons why this event has lasted for almost 50 years. The setting is picturesque, the racing is tough and it is one hell of a spectacle.
Keep your eye out next year about the end of March for this laid-back race. Virginia City is easy to get to. It is less than an hour east of Reno and well worth the trip.