Chasing Desert Racers

At the Best in the Desert/BlueWater Parker 425.

I spent this past Saturday doing one of the things I really love to do: chasing racecars with a helicopter.

The venue was the Best in the Desert Racing Association’s BlueWater Resort & Casino Parker 425, which featured highly modified trucks, cars, and buggies racing on a 140+ mile dirt track through the desert. My client was a television producer who videos these events from multiple cameras and turns them in TV shows. For this event, they had a total of 15 cameras, includibut thingsng one in my helicopter and several in the trucks out on the course.

I flew the helicopter with the cameraman and my husband, Mike, working as a spotter, on board. The cameraman sat behind me with his door off. Mike sat beside me.

We started before dawn at the Parker Airport. I started up at 7 sharp and was warmed up and ready to fly by 7:15. The police escort was leading the 300+ participant vehicles to the starting line on Route 95 in downtown Parker when we began circling about 500 feet overhead. The cameraman had a list of 15 targets he needed to video. The first one was the 15th truck in line at the start. Racers were released 30 seconds apart. When our first target was released, the fun began.

Desert Racing TruckI chased the car down the paved road and onto the dirt track, descending as I left the downtown area. Soon, we were racing beside it just 70 feet up on the long straightaway that heads due east. Mike kept an eye out for wires, calling them out as he saw them. My attention was split between the truck, the wires, and the track in front of me. I worked the cyclic and collective hard, climbing, descending, slowing, speeding up. Both arms and legs worked automatically to make the helicopter do what I needed it to do. Spectators below me went by in a blur. The track made a 90 degree turn to the left and I paused at the inside of the curve just long enough to pivot so the cameraman could keep the camera on the target. Then down the short straightaway to the edge of a steep drop with high wires on one side. The truck descended the hill while I climbed over the wires. I met the truck on the other side and we raced together through a tree-filled dry wash.

“Okay, peel off,” the cameraman instructed.

I turned away from the target and followed the road back. Now we had to find the next target. All we had were numbers — we didn’t know much about how the vehicle looked, other than what class it was in. I had to fly low enough to see them. The first one of us to see a number, called it out. We got the next target halfway back to town. I lowered the collective to slow down and made a sharp 180 degree turn. Then I was on that truck, following it to the wires and into the wash.

We repeated this process about seven or eight times, each time picking up our target a little farther away on the track and ending a little farther down the track. I got to know exactly where all the wires were. Sometimes, I’d look down in time to see a spectator wave up at us or snap a photo. I think there were more photos taken of us that day than of any one racer.

This went on for over an hour.

Then, suddenly we could no longer find any of the targets we needed to video. That started a search up and down the track, flying low enough to read the numbers. Every once in a while, the cameraman would pick out a “trophy truck” or a vehicle driven by someone well-known, and ask me to follow it. I’d follow as closely as I dared, putting the cameraman close to the action. Inside the helicopter, through our noise-reduced headsets, we could sometimes hear the engines of the racers below us or the sirens of the vehicles preparing to pass. We watched one driver slip off the track and race along beside it, scattering spectators who had been standing too close. We shot some video of a modified Hummer flying through the air after a particularly bad bump.

I suppose I should mention here that I wasn’t the only helicopter at the event. There were at least five others: 2 R44s, an Astar, a Eurocopter, and a Bell Jet Ranger. In most cases, they’d been hired to follow a specific race vehicle or team. Once they left the area, they didn’t come back for a while. So keeping an eye out for aircraft wasn’t a serious issue.

After two hours, we headed back to the airport. I shut down and placed a fuel order. Then we drove over to the BlueWater Casino for breakfast. The cameraman the cameraman met with some of the folks he works with to see how many vehicles on his list were still in the race. Each vehicle had a transponder and satellite communications device so it could be tracked from headquarters at the Casino. According to the cameraman, fewer than 50% of the vehicles finish the race. Most of them break. And if you saw the track, you’d understand why.

With an updated list, we headed out again just before noon. We were expecting one of the target vehicles in the pit area, so we stayed nearby. There was a “serpentine” area just east of the airport, with winding, bumpy tracks in a big field surrounded by spectators. I think there was about 5 miles of road there, and it was so twisty that even from the air, I had trouble figuring out the route. We spent about 15 minutes there, filming the action of vehicles skidding around the sandy curves, throwing dust high up into the air. At some point, I realized that I was probably putting on a better show for the spectators than the cars and trucks were.

We spotted a target vehicle as he was leaving the pits and took off after him. More chasing at low level, avoiding wires, slowing when the truck slowed, speeding up when it speeded up. We peeled off and continued down the track, looking for more targets. That’s when we started seeing the breakdowns. Trucks and cars and buggies on the side of the road with parts peeled off of them and drivers bent over their innards. One team was changing a tire. Another was taking the hood off the car. We saw a fender alongside the track. Later, we saw a prone driver with his companion performing CPR. (The rumor I heard was the driver suffered a heart attack or stroke while driving and died on the race course. I have not been able to confirm this yet.)

Desperate to find one last vehicle on the cameraman’s list and looking for exciting footage, we followed the entire 140-mile course. It stretched from Parker through the empty desert as far east as Cunningham Pass (north of Wenden) and around Planet Peak (near the Bill Williams River) to the northwest. This much-reduced map gives you an idea of the distance — I’ve highlighted the track in light red so it’s easier to see.

Parker 425 Map

Much of the course was pretty boring from my point of view — lots of long, straight stretches. In one area, the road ran alongside a set of high tension power lines, making it tough to get low enough to see car numbers. But things got interesting on the last 4 or so miles, when the track headed into the mountains south of the Bill Williams River. The cameraman got some excellent footage of a car winding its way down a narrow canyon. I had to stay high — there wasn’t enough room for me to fly alongside it. But when the canyon opened, I dropped down so he could get some close-up shots.

After trying a few more times to find the missing buggy — we were in touch by radio with the satellite tracking people — we headed back to the airport and I shut down.

We’d flown a total of 5.0 hours. The sky had clouded up and lighting wasn’t as good as it had been earlier in the day. Although we’d planned a third flight for the finishers, the cameraman. The cameraman decided to skip it.

It had been a great day. Not only did I do a lot of flying, but it was the kind of flying I really love to do — challenging, exciting, and with a goal other than going from point A to point B.

Why can’t all my gigs be like this one?

Note: If you were at the 2008 Parker 425 in February and have photos or video footage of a plain red helicopter (no stripe) flying with the cars, please let me know. I’d love to show them off with this post or elsewhere on this site.

February 7, 2008 Update: I added a photo Mike took during the flight to give a better idea of what was going on at Parker.

One thought on “Chasing Desert Racers

  1. Long time desert racing champion and Parker resident Manny Esquerra passed away due to a heart attack at this year’s Parker 425. He will be sorely missed by his family and friends, as well as all of the off road community.

    Godspeed, Manny!

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