The richest off-road race in the Southern Hemisphere, Finke, held annually since 1976, in June on the Monarch’s birthday weekend, in one of the most remote areas of the world, is also known internationally, for how challenging it is and nationally, as the ultimate, off-road race in Australia.
The infrequent flowing Finke River is considered the oldest riverbed in the world. Starting just south of Mount Ziel in the Northern Territory, it finishes at Lake Eyre in South Australia…
The two-day Tatts Finke Desert Race with over 600 competitors, starts 10 km south-west along the Stuart Highway from Alice Springs with the race track running south for 226 km along sections of the old Ghan railway service road. It crosses the Finke River, ending at Aputula, a small Aboriginal community, known also as Finke.
Deadset keen racers, hoot down the difficult, considerably corrugated, multi-terrain desert track… of mulga, sand, spinifex and lots of red dust… for the prestigious King of the Desert Trophy and 10 grand prize money.
About 150 cars/buggies leave in the morning, roughing up the track for the bikes to leave in the afternoon…
Most that survive Day 1, start all over again the following morning to race back, along the same but extra, heavily gouged-up track. To qualify for Day 2, the first leg must be completed within four hours, so an average of at least 70 kmph, is essential.
Local hero, David Walsh holds the race record, setting a new one with his 2022 double crossing of 3 hours 35 minutes and 45 seconds… wow! For anyone, professional or not, getting there and back is a huge conquest.
It attracts other big names like Toby Price and Daniel Sanders and over the years, has taken its fair share of lives and handed out some sorrowfully serious life-altering injuries. Daniel Sanders whilst training for 2023, has broken his femur, so at this stage unlikely to race.
Approximately 12,000 spectators camp alongside the track to soak up the action whizzing by and enjoy the crispy cold winter nights with stars shining only as they do under the desert skies. I was one of those spectators for about four years in the early ‘90s… a huge, long weekend, for the competitors and spectators alike.
So… it’s kinda difficult to picture why a petite female, 5’6” weighing in at a muscley 63kg wants to risk life and limb to race Finke!
Meet Naomi Findlay… 32 from north-east Adelaide, South Australia.
“I’ve lived and worked throughout Australia and travelled overseas, funded by house sitting and drinking water at lots of parties. I love the outdoors, nature, beaches, camping, riding, 4WDing, sunsets and enjoying new experiences.”
“I keep fit and have competed in some major endurance and obstacle course running events. My running score is in the top 1% of women in the world. I’m determined, don’t do things half-heartedly, always give it 100% and I love setting myself challenging goals.
“In 2021, I lost my dad to an aggressive lung cancer. Buying a motorcycle helped me cope with the grief and loss… and 12 months ago, at the age of 31, I took up motocross racing.
“My first ride on a track was in September 2022, crawling around in first gear on my 2008 Yamaha WR 250 cc.
“After just eight months pursuing motocross, I started racing including competing in the Moto X Nationals in 2022, being placed 19th in Australia. I decided my next challenge is Finke!”
Naomi rode in the Yeah the Girls event earlier this year where I heard about her desire to race Finke. Knowing firsthand how hardcore this event is, the thought of this seemingly normal lass, with minimal off-road riding and racing experience, taking this on headfirst, certainly piqued my interest.
Within 12 calendar months, she’s had 22 events, equating to 70 gate drops… no other gal in SA has done that. Naomi’s done Club, State, National, off-road, enduro and motocross racing throughout Victoria, Northern Territory and South Australia… all in prep for Finke…
Pinning her down for a chat was testing in itself, as every day for the past 11 months, she’s dedicated 100% of her focus… to Finke.
Speaking with her over the phone, on her morning commute to work, I got a clearer picture of just how busy her life is, her passion for the commitment she’s made and her drive not to fail.
Originally a Primary School Teacher, she feels she now has her dream job as an Education Officer with the Department of Environment and Water. She has a huge variety in her work week, from talking to kids at schools about sustainability management and biodiversity to community workshops like… what plants to plant to attract butterflies and bees. Naomi is very grateful her employer has been so supportive of her Finke quest.
As an elite athlete, Naomi already has amazing health and fitness, a tremendous help to keep her mind and body sustained, while she dedicates the time, energy, sacrifices and resources to keep up the fitness level required for Finke.
Some of this involves:
- Weekend racing of Moto X events, sometimes a 3-4 hour drive to and from, camping overnight
- Running at least once a week
- Gym 2-3 days a week
- Regimented prep for her many meals and snacks
- Working full time… sometimes from home to catch up on housework in her lunch break…
- Her half-hour lunchtime from the office, consists of buying groceries, responding to her sponsors or arranging for bike parts, fixes, races…
- Given up alcohol
- Not eating out
- No new clothes
- All holidays saved for training and the event
- Raising funds for cancer research
- Bike servicing
- Sponsorship obligations
- Social media promo
- Building a team for her race pit-crew
- Monitoring nutrition, ensuring she’s choosing the right fuel to maintain her for all of the above…
It’s a continual go-go-go…
Historically, there have been less than 10 female Finke entrants; this year Naomi emailed the Finke Race Committee saying, “It was high time they had a women’s class,” and to her amazement, they released a women’s class which she is now part of.
At the time of publication, there was a record high of 19 women entrants. With the number of female competitors increasing, the traditional King of the Desert Trophy may soon need an updated title.
Naomi’s racing number is 427, 4 for her birthday on April 4 and her dad on 27. For Finke it will be 927 to reflect the women ‘s class.
She aims to:
- Finish the double Finke crossing
- Honour her dad
- Encourage other women in motorsport
… and to have fun.
Say what? Fun? Seriously? This race is huge… it’s formidable… it’s perilous, a unique race pushing the riders to their limits and beyond. Fun is not the first word that comes to my mind with Finke. Even with all the practice and prep, just one rock underneath, unseen… one whoop landing done wrong… and it’s all over!
Naomi, having just returned from 10 days of training up at The Alice, understands the perils she will face and is ready to face her fears and do it anyway. She’s aware of those who have died and/or been severely injured at Finke, “Which is why I am taking my training and preparation so seriously,” she emphasises.
“This race is no joke; I’ve pushed my training to an intense level to be prepared.”
Naomi admits she’s comparatively inexperienced to take on Finke… “I’ve not grown up around any motorsport, so 2 years is a very short time, as a novice rider, to be doing this.
“I’ve had to decide… do I want this; do I want to race Finke? To get past those fears, I have to be 100% in the moment.”
Although she relies on some respected mentors, encouragement and the support of good friends, she’s very solo with so much more… loading/off-loading the bike, servicing, cleaning, ongoing mental strength, driving to and from events, with no life partner to vent and confide with and her family a distance away.
“I’m mostly self-funded; I’ve put in a huge amount of work to get sponsors to help with Finke… they’re an immense help but cover a very small percentage of the total costs and I do a lot of self-promos. That being said I want to acknowledge the amazing people who have helped and inspired me along the way and my sponsors!
- Pitmans Motorcycles
- Chicks on Wheels
- Aqualyte Hydration
- Adelaide Retaining Walls
- AL Williams Joinery
- Terminus Hotel Morgan
“I’m all in, determined at every stage, despite the challenges and setbacks, I will not give up.
“Losing dad was the impetus, the push to go buy a bike… but after a long-term relationship ended in August 2021, that’s when I started riding.”
Naomi is an ordinary woman, she’s just like you and me… though she has extraordinary dreams and a dogged determination. She’s had some of those major dreams and goals shattered, her plans for kids… family, put on hold… but what has emerged from tragedy and heartbreak is the love for her riding, strength and the fact she just gets on and does stuff.
“Having something to focus on helped me get through the perplexities after the break-up… it took a while to find my feet after the separation, finding a place to live, as I was staying with friends… then I got my dream job and things started to come together.
“Riding helps me stay strong and I’ve secretly thought that it would be so cool to race Finke but never thought I’d be at that riding ability… I always thought it was way too dangerous…”
Day 1 of the race is on Sunday 11th June, with Day 2 on the 12th… and ready she is, as much as she can be. “The hardest thing is having confidence in me as a rider. I am to my ability, but I need to work on my mental strength to twist that throttle more.
“I asked one of my coaches to give me one tip. He said, ‘You’re not even using the throttle, you’ve got to use the throttle… I’ve got no tips for your riding, your technique is perfect, it’s on point… you will be so good if you can just go faster.’”
Naomi is aware her speed is not up to scratch, which is partly to do with nerves… hopefully overcome by race day. She has put in the hard yards and is ready to face Finke and put any lingering fears behind her, using them instead to power her on.
“I am so determined I will not give up. I will be drawing on that strength from all the people that support and believe in me… I’ll be yelling to myself in my head.”
My Race Plan:
“Prologue is the day before the race, on the 10th June, where I’ll do a time trial on an 8.5 km track to get my starting grid. I want a good start position so will take that as hard as I can within my safety net, to lessen the chance of injury.”
For the race, Naomi is very mindful of her nutrition, for the first gruelling 4 hours. With the bikes not leaving until the afternoon, she hopes to rest in the morning.
Once on the start line goal one is to get to the first checkpoint. She has to turn any doubts into a positive, to fuel her strength for the race.
She now has to be 100% in the moment. “As soon as it’s GO, twist the throttle, that’s it mate!”
“I will try and pick the best lines and push myself to pick up my speed… I will be racing the clock.”
With a standard fuel tank on her 2023 Yamaha WR 250 cc, she will use petrol stops along the track.
“If there’s a mechanical problem, there’s not a lot I can do with the limited tools I’ll carry. My bike is in peak condition, so I have faith in that. I have a pit crew at Aputula who will service and fix anything when I arrive. But there’s nothing along the track.
“I’m running ultra-heavy tubes in great quality tyres, modified suspension and gearing, foam grips and a steering dampener.”
“For me, I’ll make sure my hydration is on point and trust in myself and my physical fitness. Concentration takes up a massive effort and is a major level of fatigue. The challenges through my life have made me stronger resulting in grit and resilience to push through in moments like this where it counts.”
The track has deep sand sections, riverbed sections, rocky sections, multiple dunes and what is well known amongst riders as whoops. Whoops are very deep large, bumps in a track, like corrugations but they are ½ to 1½ metres deep and continue for many kilometres.
Naomi admits, “They are extremely tiring and hard to ride through. Basically… brutal! The pro riders skip over double, even triple whoops, where I’ll be rolling over each one, working on skipping a few where I can.”
Any anxiety creeping in, Naomi will breathe in through the nose, out through the mouth, “I’ll visualise myself succeeding, thinking through all the prep and what’s been put in place. Yes, this is a risk, but as a rider, I have to move beyond those fears and ride so I need to dig deep for that.”
Finishing is a feat in itself… 1 in 5 don’t finish due to mechanical issues, injury and/or fatigue.
Naomi’s set herself a personal challenge… simply something she wants to do… she is doing it in honour of her dad… and she’s doing it because she can. She’s amongst some serious national and international off-road talent… this brave woman isn’t going in to win… there aren’t even plans for that… she aims to just do… she aims to finish!
Being in the moment… “Getting out there, having fun, personal achievement and finishing.”
“To be honest I am completely shit scared; I’m terrified, but at the same time I’m just so determined and incredibly excited. I am more afraid of spending my life wishing I gave it a shot. Life is too short not to live and I won’t spend my life in fear of the what if.”
Since training for Finke commenced, Naomi has sacrificed a year of her life to enable her to give the best of herself out there on the track… a young, intelligent, giving, vivacious, beautiful woman… in her prime for so much of life yet to live. So many opportunities ahead of her… for her career, sports and personally.
She laughs about the lack of a fella currently in her life, having been disappointed with the previous dating attempts; so sacrificing that for riding, was no big deal.
“I’m keen to go on a couple of dates after Finke” she laughs, “I’d rather meet someone doing something I love.”
Naomi is full of encouragement to others. She’ll say to people:
“What are you most scared of doing? What do you dream of? What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail? Go and do that. You only get one chance at life.”
“I’ll come back to that at Finke when I ask myself why am I doing this? This is so crazy like I could be seriously injured…
“I believe in myself! At the end of the day when your time is up or what’s meant to happen, happens. For me, am I going to let fear hold me back or am I going to chase my dreams? If you want to do something you can do it.”
Story by Katarina Dálaigh