Crowds flock to Awafi to marvel at the drivers of 4x4s taking part in the National Sand Drag Championship. The action is hot, but at least one car finds it a little too hot to handle.
The new beasts of the desert
RAS AL KHAIMAH // The first 4x4 exploded into flames before the competition began, sending crowds running to safety.
Fire extinguishers were not enough to stop the raging flames of car 25, called Dangerous. A fire truck rolled forward. Plumes of dark grey smoke coiled from its doors, which swung open to reveal a charred interior. Its grill was completed melted.
"Did you see that?" asked Abdulla al Hebsy, an onlooker. "Dh300,000. Whoosh. Gone."
In the sport of sand drag racing, courage is required. The driver had just fled to safety when the first dark smoke rose from the engine, caused by an electrical shortage.
In Ras al Khaimah the Awafi Desert Festival is synonymous with winter. For many, the Awafi race is its highlight.
This year's festival honours sand drag racing, a sport that has risen in popularity over the past five years that combines urban drag racing with a love for the desert sand. More than 35 competitors entered the Awafi UAE National Sand Drag Championship 2010 to compete in the eight and six-cylinder categories for a first prize of Dh35,000.
A green 4x4 with an engine too big for its bonnet started the eight-cylinder competition. With a shower of smoke, sand and a deafening roar, it cleared the 100 metre sand track in 3.4 seconds.
Khalid Hariya, the UAE's favourite football commentator and wit, wound up the crowd with his an impromptu song about Awafi.
At the base of other dunes, 4x4 drivers parked side by side to see who could rev their engine the loudest. Quad bikers huddled together to smoke midwakh, protected from the clouds of powdery sand by ski masks, keffiyahs and googles. Saloon cars were half buried in the dunes, not quiet able to keep up.
Obaid Ibrahim, an Emirati in his mid 20s, said he found tranquillity in the petrol fuelled chaos.
"I feel so relaxed," he roared over the blast of engines, tapping his barrel chest. "I am born in Awafi."
"We release his beast," said Khalid bin Shagra, an engine tuner from Ajman's RSG garage who enjoys celebrity status among off-roaders. The garage, sponsored by Bin Suroor, dominated last year's dune race.
Sand drag racing requires a different strategy to its urban counterpart. "It's totally different because the cars are 4x4s. First of all, you have to modify the body to be lightweight. And for the engine the body has to be a lot stronger to control all this power," said Mr bin Shagra.
"This year we made lots of change to our cars, like the shocks and suspension, so that the car sticks to the ground. Since we started maybe eight years ago, every race we find something that has to be done. Modifications never stop."
Another RSG advantage is Khalid al Balooshi, 30, a professional drag racer who does a 10-race pro-modified circuit in the US, from Houston to Dallas.
"For me, this is a local race, it's for fun," said Mr al Balooshi. "I hope to win but I need some luck."
Though hundreds crowded the bowl to watch the drag race and do a little dune bashing of their own, it proved less popular with crowds than the annual race up the sand dune.
"We wanted a change. All the racers, they prefer the drag race because on the hill they blow their engine," aid Hamad al Shamsi, the deputy general director of the RAK department of economic planning, who organised the festival. "But they love the hill. Maybe, inshallah we will do it at the end of the festival."
The Awafi Desert festival ends on January 8.