If you attend the 2019 Donner Hare Scramble this month, expect to hear the word “carnage” quite a bit. The word’s become synonymous with this race not only due to the gnarly course terrain, but because that’s what resulted when a shoulder-season sleet storm hit in its first year.
Since then, fans hike up the Donner Ski Ranch-based racecourse in search of it. They pump their fists and cheer in creative combinations of sympathy and encouragement as riders do their best to remain upright during the climb’s rockier sections. When the carnage is at high tide, drifting pillows of Sierra Nevada moondust make it hard to determine which boot is connected to which leg amidst the twisted, pulsing heap of plastic and aluminum. And sometimes, a bike will sail, sans rider, from the smokey metallic quagmire, causing a crescendo of joy from the crowd and drowning out the throbbing, 4-stroke orchestra as the bike bounces to rest next to a bulk of granite.
Welcome to uphill dirt bike racing.
The Donner Hare Scramble is part of a series of events overseen by the American Motorcyclist Association’s District 36, which was founded in 1955 to promote and govern racing in northern California and Nevada. Specifically, a “hare scramble” is a type of race designed for rugged, untamed courses that enter forests and erratic, steep terrain over several miles.
A leader becomes the “hare,” and the group has to catch her or him before a time limit expires or a designated number of laps are completed.
Campers, team tents, branded vans, vendor booths, and tailgate parties form an ad-hoc, mile-long village on the west slope of Old 40. It looks like Squaw on a fresh-pow Saturday, except no one is complaining about the parking. Bikes perch on mechanic stands above toolboxes and under pop-up canopies, and friends and families in stiff-brimmed hats stand by with cans of energy drinks and light beer. There’s even champagne spraying and big replica checks awaiting the winners.
In short, the race is everything this kind of mountain-town, adrenaline-thick event should be, and it’s largely due to the promotional efforts of Brian Garrahan.
A 20-year professional racer, Garrahan is now a motocross skills coach and event promoter. He’s also a member of District 36’s board of directors.
“We’re expecting 500, maybe 650 riders in total. The 7- and 15-year-olds will ride on Saturday,” Garrahan said in reference to the Oct. 19-20 race.
The weekend-long event includes kids’ races, amateurs, and professionals. Saturday night there’s a moto climb event.
“The kids’ racing is great. It gives these kids who only see their riding buddies every few weeks a full weekend together,” he said. “On Sunday, we’re racing all the amateurs and professionals, it’s about a 9-mile course.”
Garrahan, who lives in Santa Cruz, raced at Donner Ski Ranch “ … back in 1995 and ’96,” and always wanted to get back here. Once he became a promoter, he proposed it to District 36 and Donner Ski Ranch. “It being one of the last privately owned ski resorts helps,” he said.
The parking and overall location provide flexibility and, most importantly, space. “Because of the parking lot and lodge itself, there are more vendors, more events, there’s live music on Saturday night,” Garrahan said.
He has to produce maps because there’s so much room for spectators.
“It’s a really spectator-friendly course,” he explained. “And we have different sections for them to visit, such as The Slabs, Spectator Hill, and Jersey.”
And relative to all the carnage?
“Well, the first year we did this race we had, like, an October typhoon roll in, and it was snowy and hailing and sleeting the whole time, and the course became super gnarly, so [carnage] became the catchphrase,” Garrahan said, and with a matter-of-fact laugh, added, “The racers either hate it or they love it. It’s definitely the most challenging racecourse most of these guys will face.”
It’s not a surprise that the Donner Hare Scramble is as well-attended as it is, considering Truckee and North Tahoe is home to many riders and racers, and many, many miles of trails.
Jamie Fawcett of Truckee is on the board of Truckee Dirt Riders, a nonprofit organization that advocates for dirt bikers and friendly collaboration among different types of trail users.
Without active cooperation, only one side is usually heard — the non-motorized one.
“The Forest Service wanted our club to become a voice after some trails had to be closed off of the 06,” Fawcett said, in reference to the well-known, recreation-centered forest service road. “They want trails for everyone, and there needs to be someone to vocalize it.”
Truckee Dirt Riders was at first an enthusiasts’ club, a group of local riders and friends, but they became a 501(c)3 nonprofit last year as way to formalize their advocacy.
“Our focus has become working with other groups, such as mountain bikers, equestrians … and we all need to work as one. People arguing about trail access only ties the hands of the Forest Service,” he said.
Fawcett said they’re reaching out beyond Truckee and North Tahoe to explore how other trail groups work, and to include them in their efforts. Fawcett mentioned Truckee Trails Foundation, Nevada County Woods Riders, and to the north, Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship.
“But what makes our area so great as a place to ride is the hundreds and hundreds of miles of trails, the unmistakable views, and the fact you can link high alpine forest with desert down into Nevada,” he said.
Fawcett was quick to note how inclusive the sport can be, and that riders are always excited to have someone to ride with.
“If someone wants to learn, come to one of our meetings or find the closest motorcycle club,” he said. “People will be happy to help, from bringing you on a ride or helping you choose a bike, that’s what we’re here for.”
Apparently, it’s not only about the carnage.
DONNER HARE SCRAMBLE
WHEN: Oct. 19 – all youth racers, ages 4-10. Oct. 20 – Adults & pros.
WHERE: Donner Ski Ranch
WHY: Pros are competing for a $3,000 prize.
MORE INFO: ama-d36.org