[Features]

Finke’s Kings Of The Desert

2 months ago | Words: Andy Wigan | Photos: Adam Riemann

With talk of June’s 44th running of the Tatts Finke Desert Race gathering momentum, we reflected on a memorable Ripping Yarn piece that first appeared in the December 2013 issue (#38) of Transmoto Dirt Bike Magazine.
Enjoy!

Ripping Yarn

The amusing events surrounding the 2005 coming together of Finke’s 13 Kings of the Desert in Alice Springs.

In the lead-up to the 2005 Finke Desert Race, the event’s organisers had pulled off what can only be called a coup. Somehow, they managed to assemble 13 of Finke’s 14 Outright winners in Alice Springs for an evening grandiosely billed as “The Legends Dinner”. The 2005 race marked the 30th running of the Finke – an event religiously held over the Queen’s Birthday Long Weekend – and a packed house in the Tattersall’s Casino was treated to a truly memorable occasion that Thursday night.
Two of the great desert race’s pioneering organisers, Damien Ryan and Garry King, were in charge of proceedings. Both were in black-tie and in their element. Over the course of several hours, they beckoned each Finke winner to the stage and got them to reflect on the year(s) they’d ruled the treacherous stretch of Northern Territory desert between Alice Springs and the Aboriginal community of Finke (or Apatula) that lay 230km to its south. One hilarious anecdote after another, the 13 Kings of the Desert painted a picture of Finke’s colourful past.

The crowd was regaled with sensational stories about the mad-as-hell Le Mans starts and bar-mounted fuel tanks in the early days; about the hideously inadequate old bikes, the torturous track’s toll on man and machinery, the influx of the Pro motocrossers in 1980s, the CR500’s dominance,
Randall Gregory’s unbeaten five-year winning streak, and the emergence of the four-strokes as the bike of choice. And common to all the stories was an undercurrent of rivalry between the Alice Springs locals and the out-of-towners; between the guys who grew up in Alice and absolutely lived to race Finke, and the blow-ins who rocked up to pilfer ‘their’ silverware, the prize money and honour.

Needless to say, the Legends put away a fair few ales over the course of that amusing night, and the stories that were too lewd or politically incorrect for the Legend Dinner’s stage were unleashed afterward as the party kicked on in some of the Alice’s more dingy establishments. I kept thinking to myself that if I’d just had a camera rolling, I’d be sitting on one the sport’s best documentaries of all time. Short of that, I decided I ought to at least get a line-up photo of these Kings of the Desert before the weekend was out. So I arranged a Saturday morning rendezvous out at the Finke’s start/finish line.
Come Saturday morning, the agreed meeting time came and went, and there were no more than a handful of the Legends in sight. Ever the professional, Stephen Gall had explained that he’d be on a helicopter en route to Uluru, and couldn’t make it. But the rest of them were simply MIA. It shouldn’t have surprised me. After all, anyone capable of holding it wide open and winning the Finke is generally more concerned with spontaneity than punctuality.

The plan was to get the 12 available Kings to line up under the start/finish banner on the course for a group shot. I’d allowed a good hour between the photo shoot and when the first bikes were due to run the prologue track. But with 45 minutes of that hour gone, the plan was unravelling fast. I enlisted a bunch of mates to join me in scurrying around and rounding up the stragglers. But, honestly, herding kindergarten cats would have been easier. When the ‘final’ King was dragged into position, another would have just gone missing – to ‘have a quick piss’ or ‘just drop the car keys off to the missus’. This happened countless times and, along with lensman Adam Riemann, my patience was starting to wear thin.
Finally, with the first bikes already on the prologue course and race officials giving us the hurry-up, we managed to assemble 11 Kings if the Desert (Darren Griffiths was off in search of a hair-of-the-dog, apparently) and punched out three quick frames. Immediately after that, the sound of a big-bore thumper charging toward the finish line saw the 11 Kings scamper in all directions, and disappear back into the melting pot of humanity that had amassed by this time.

With the image finally in the bag, I had a quiet chuckle to myself about the morning’s shenanigans. And I pondered the chances of getting the Kings of the Desert together again in 2015 for Finke’s 40th anniversary. Given that it’ll be more like 19 or 20 blokes in two years’ time, perhaps it’s time we started rounding them up now.

The Kings…

Geoff Curtis – 1976, 1978, 1980
Phil Stoker – 1977
Peter Stayt – 1979, 1984
Stephen Gall – 1983, 1986
Phil Lovett – 1981, 1982, 1985
David Armstrong – 1987
Alan Roe – 1988
Mark Winter – 1989, 1990
Randall Gregory – 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995
Rick Hall – 1999, 2002
Michael Vroom – 2001
Stephen Greenfield – 1997, 1998, 2000, 2004
Darren Griffiths – 2003

SUBSEQUENTLY CROWNED KINGS…

Jason Hill – 2005
Ryan Branford – 2006
Ben Grabham – 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011
Todd Smith – 2013
Toby Price – 2010, 2012, 2014, 2015, 2016
Daymon Stokie – 2017


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