The World Championship Land Sailing Competition was held last month at Smith Creek Playa west of Austin alongside old US 50 (now Nevada 722). It had been held in recent years at Ivanpah in the Mojave Desert of southeastern California, but perhaps that had not been deemed remote enough by the organizers.
Surely Smith Creek Playa — a dry lake bed more than 70 miles east of Fallon and more than 30 miles west of Austin — is remote enough.
This is terrain traversed at a gallop by Pony Express riders in 1860 and not much changed since then, except by the slow increase in traffic along the old trail prompted by silver discoveries in the nearby mountains. Horses and wagons gave over to flivvers, which gradually became automobiles, more and more of them whizzing past the dry lake bed on the Lincoln Highway. When US 50 was realigned a generation ago to avoid the steep climb to Carroll Summit, the broad oval patch of level white ground in the valley reverted to an almost prehistoric quiet.
We arrived in early afternoon on the Saturday of the grand finale, to find a large white tent with a couple of food and drink vendors alongside, and a few hundred people milling around in an adjacent chaos of vans, trucks, trailers, paraphernalia galore, and the vessels themselves, some upright with the front wheel tethered, others tipped over to prevent being swept away by the wind.
Except there was no wind.
The racers and their entourages content themselves with doing equipment maintenance, sleeping, watching movies or cruising the internet via satellite connection. Inside the big tent it was as hot as outdoors, but the shade was welcome. There were tables and chairs where people were waiting for friends, others were at work on their laptops and a couple more on their phones.
Every flag hung limp. Nothing happened. Tedium. Zzzzz.
Until one fluttered.
Two or three more fluttered too, and all at once each one of the flags awakened, simultaneously shrugged off sleep, and began to dance. With slow insistence the wind began to rise and the racers began to move. Some of them went darting off into an empty quarter on the playa but most were dawdling, meandering, just stooging around, biding their time until the race would form up.
We waited too. And waited, until after a while we didn’t wait any longer. The experience of piloting one of those swift little carts in close competition must be thrilling to the max, but waiting and watching from afar: not so much. We left for Austin before the race began, if it ever did, but we didn’t feel we’d missed the most important part. We’d had a taste of that world, seen it up closer than we’d ever dreamed we would, and the race itself was really just another detail. You’ll find all the results and a great deal more here.