Race winners Shannon and Ian Rentsch have a lot of spare time to prepare for next year. (Facebook: Finke Desert Race)
The Finke Desert Race, Australia’s toughest off-road motorsport event, has been cancelled for the first time in its 44-year history because of coronavirus.
- Race organisers say it was an easy decision to make considering the widespread impacts of the coronavirus crisis
- All 800 competitors (650 motorcycles and 150 cars) will have their entry fees refunded
- The Alice Springs economy will take a major hit without the annual injection of visitor dollars
The two-day, multi-terrain race between Alice Springs and the remote Aboriginal community of Finke has been held on the Queen’s Birthday long weekend since 1976.
It not only crowns kings of the desert in two categories, but also attracts 7,000 local and predominantly interstate visitors who inject about $8 million to the Alice Springs economy.
Antony Yoffa, president of the race committee, said cancelling was a straightforward decision given the circumstances.
“I think the Commonwealth advice on gatherings of 500 or more people was one of the factors, but the key one was the NT Government’s advice on travelling to remote communities,” he said.
“The risk to remote community people with having essentially 2,500 competitors and crew going down to the Aputula community at Finke for an overnight camp would have been too great.”
The committee also received advice from the Central Land Council, the governing body for Aboriginal land in the region, which also recommended against continuing with the event.
“Put all that together, it was an easy decision [to cancel],” Mr Yoffa said.
The decision will have a ripple effect across the Central Australian business sector, with the local economy losing substantial yearly income.
“It’s their Christmas hit and they won’t get it, and I feel terrible about it,” Mr Yoffa said.
The average stay for race visitors is six nights and they spend around $1,300 each.
“You’ve got 40,000 bed nights that won’t be purchased this year … people will just withdraw their bookings,” Mr Yoffa said.
The option to postpone until September was discussed by the committee but rejected for reasons including hot temperatures and reduced access to interstate motorsport officials and volunteers.
“We ran the risk of the Government tightening restrictions — the curve might not have been flattened,” he said.
“We just thought it was too difficult.”
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Former kings support decision
Father-and-son driver-navigator duo Ian and Shannon Rentsch have won the car section six times and said the decision to cancel was the right one.
“Any sport isn’t that important at the moment; the health of the community is what matters,” Shannon Rentsch said.
“Instead of leaving it to the last minute, the committee has given people enough time to plan.”
He agreed that it would make a huge hit on the local economy.
“We stay in Alice Springs for about a week, so it’s not only the accommodation, it’s the food, it’s the fuel on the way up there.
“To put a dollar amount on it is hard, but the big teams probably spend up to $15,000 during the race.
“It’s going to leave us with a lot of spare time, so all we can do now is get ready for next year — we might have to take up bush bike riding.”
Acclaimed motorcyclist Toby Price, a two-time Dakar winner and six-time Finke champion, said he shared the disappointment.
“I’m devastated to hear that Finke 2020 is cancelled, it’s something myself and a lot of Australians look forward to every year,
“Safety does come first so we’ll be back more determined than ever for next year,” Price said.
Toby Price and Shannon Rentsch are two legends of the Finke Desert Race. (ABC Alice Springs: Emma Haskin)
Support the local economy: buy local
Alana Richardson, executive officer with the NT Chamber of Commerce, said the race committee made a wise decision.
“What we need to do is band together and make sure that buy-local message is getting out to the community, to members, to support the businesses that are here and are still operating and they are open,” she said.
“It’s not Alice Springs alone; the entire world is suffering through this, so we just need to band together and make sure we support each other and get through it the best we can.”
She said businesses in Central Australia and the Barkly had lost about $2 million because of the coronavirus crisis.
“That’s businesses that have recorded loses, cancellations and refunds to date.
“That’s only going to grow … we don’t want to scare people, however it is going to have a big financial impact on businesses and we just need to make sure we’re supporting those businesses.”
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