A baked, barren wilderness to those who first visit, the Mojave Desert is a land of coyotes, tortoises, hawks, rattlesnakes, mesquite, juniper and of course, Joshua trees. It’s a place of severe contrasts: searingly hot days and bone-chilling nights, violent dust devils, mystifying mirages and spellbinding sunsets. El Mirage Lake is a dry lake bed in the Mojave Desert of San Bernardino County. The lake is located about 9 miles (14 km) west-northwest of the town of Adelanto and 10 mi (16 km) north of Highway 18 in San Bernardino County. The dry lake, at an elevation of 2,840 ft (870 m), is approximately 6 mi (9.7 km) long. Most people may not be as familiar with El Mirage Lake as with its neighbor to the north by 30 miles or so, Rogers Dry Lake, the central geographic feature of Edwards Air Force Base. There the golden age of test flight saw the birth of manned turbojet flight, Chuck Yeager break the sound barrier and on the morning of April 14, 1981, the wheels of Space Shuttle Columbia touch down for the first time.
It’s with this provenance that the region of El Mirage dry lake bed has been home to Land Speed Racing for more than half a century. About 60 years ago a group that had been racing on the dry lakes for several years decided to incorporate and create a new racing organization which would enforce safety procedures and promote the sport. Hence the birth of the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA), with four one-day events held each year during the summer months and two two-day races in the spring and fall. The race day starts with a drivers’ meeting, patrol meeting, announcements, and national anthem. The duration of the race usually lasts as long as the weather and course conditions hold up. Vehicles are lined up for the starting line according to their current season points standing. All race information for the event is announced on a loudspeaker and broadcast on an FM frequency (88.7) for all spectators on the lake bed. During the summer months, temperatures can soar to 112 degrees Fahrenheit or 44 degrees centigrade, so shade is a must, as well as sunscreen and plenty of water.
With all the sunglasses, water and sunscreen we could pack, a group of us headed out to El Mirage Lake for a weekend of camping, racing and fun in the sun. The passion of the racers and spectators is really a special thing to witness, let alone the sights, sounds and smells of a weekend of land speed racing. All types of vintage cars and motorcycles can be found on the lake bed, from near stock to highly modified to completely purpose built for one thing – to go as fast as possible within the approximate 1.25 mile length of the laid out course. Speeds approaching 300 MPH are as common here as blown gaskets and piston rods. I can’t imagine the feeling of the drivers of these machines, both so engineered for a single cause; they’re closer to test pilots than simple drivers.
As we rested in the shade out at our campsite, watching these speed demons roar past us all weekend, a passage from Milan Kundera came to mind: "The man hunched over his motorcycle can focus only on the present instant of his flight; he is caught in a fragment of time cut off from both the past and the future; he is wrenched from the continuity of time; he is outside time; in other words he is in a state of ecstasy. In that state he is unaware of his age, his wife, his children, his worries, and so he has no fear, because the source of fear is in the future, and a person freed of the future has nothing to fear.”
I’ll be waiting all winter for next year’s season opener with a newfound respect for the community, sacrifice and exhilaration that make up this strange, classic slice of California culture. And for all the sunscreen we brought, next time we’ll have plenty of ear plugs as well.