Flying on the crest of a sand dune

Thousands watch as Awafi Desert Festival starts with souped-up battle of the 4x4s, as daredevil drivers take on 90m climb.

Ras al Khaimah - January 29, 2010 - The driver of this truck from RSG Garage in Ajman flies over the top of the dune during the Awafi Desert Festival in Ras al Khaimah January 29, 2010. (Photo by Jeff Topping/The National) The dune is at a 70% angle. It's 90 metres high. *** Local Caption ***  JT001-0129-AL WHAFI_F8Q4626.jpg *** Local Caption ***  JT001-0129-AL WHAFI_F8Q4626.jpg
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RAS AL KHAIMAH // The air was heavy with the smell of diesel fuel, red sand spat from wheels and the roar of engines almost drowned out blaring music. The stage was set for 21 drivers to tackle a 70-degree, 90m-high dune to win the title of UAE champion. Thousands of people made their way to the red dunes of Ras al Khaimah to watch the annual dune race yesterday on the opening day of the Awafi Desert Festival, which continues until February 5.

Prize money more than doubled this year to Dh216,000 (US$58,000) for eight and six-cylinder categories. That reward was small, however, compared with the hundreds of thousands of dirhams that competitors had spent on their engines. "Do you believe that our friend spent $85,000 to bring his engine from the United States?" said Khaled al Falasi, 43, a veteran competitor from Dubai, who was at Awafi with five of his sons.

Mr al Falasi believed that simplicity is the key to success. He had spent a modest Dh200,000 on his gold Nissan Patrol, a model favoured for its light weight. He has replaced the engine with a Toyota Land Cruiser's motor and added a single turbo charger. He had forgone the colourful graffiti-inspired paint job preferred by younger competitors, instead opting for a modest decal of "mashallah" on the front and side doors.

"Last year, I had second and the year before I had third and today, God willing, I am number one." Only two of 43 competitors reached the summit of the giant dune last year. The 4x4s started from a standstill at the base. At times, flames flew from the huge engines. When a competitor reached the summit, the crowd burst into whistles and cheers. The afternoon's first competitor, from Saudi Arabia, only made it a third of the way up the hill.

But after an hour, four competitors had already reached the top, one flying over the crest. Khalid al Balooshi, 30, was the first driver to hit the top. He built his 4x4 from scratch, working six hours a day over the past four weeks at the Ajman RSG garage. The 2,500 horsepower Fulton racing engine was imported from the US. "Motorsport is becoming bigger and bigger," said Mr al Balooshi. He is one of three drivers representing Bin Suroor, a sponsor with three 4x4s that were favoured to win the competition. Many drivers have sponsors but the prize money is theirs to keep.

The competition was won by Khalid al Resaai, from RAK, who cleared the dune in 5.5 seconds. Fadel Abdulrahman, 29, a sponsor from RAK, paid Dh90,000 to remodel a Nissan Patrol that his friend would drive. It was not about money, he said, but prestige. "This game is in my blood," he added. "It's so exciting. I love the engines' power," says Abdulla al Neaimi, 18, a spectator from RAK. Sheikh Faisal bin Saqr, the chairman of the RAK Financial Department and head of the Festival Organising Committee, said: "It's for the young people who want to thrill themselves by living on the edge.

"It came by itself. Young people used to race against the highest dunes and then we wanted to organise something that was safe and modern. It means adventure."