x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Battle to be beast of the desert

Racing up and down the dunes is a highlight of the 9th annual event in Ras Al Khaimah.

A twenty-five second exposure captures the light trails of those drivers climbing the dunes as part of the Awafi Festival in Ras al Khaimah. The tournament ends on January 7.
A twenty-five second exposure captures the light trails of those drivers climbing the dunes as part of the Awafi Festival in Ras al Khaimah. The tournament ends on January 7.

RAS AL KHAIMAH // Dressed in a fireproof leather jacket and a sturdy helmet, Khalid Al Rifaei steps into his brother's souped-up Nissan Patrol with only one thought on his mind - revenge.

With a deafening roar, the vehicle battles the red sand as it makes its way up a steep and slippery 81-metre dune, defying gravity and seeming to fly on top of the summit before slamming to the ground.

And just like that, Mr Al Rifaei and his brother Ahmed got their revenge. "They disqualified me last year from third place because I drove two different cars, even though they told me it was OK initially. So I came back to win the first," he says, "and I did."

His victory came in the six-cylinder standard-option category of "Tel Al Awafi", or Sandhill of Al Awafi, a climb challenge where modified 4x4s compete for cups and prizes. This challenge, with 48 vehicles from across the UAE, is one of many activities at the ninth annual Awafi Festival, which ends on January 7.

Cut-and-moulded cars with names such as Tornado and Dangerous, some with actual or fake flames bursting from their roofs or hoods and many with booming mufflers, are a big part of the show.

But most drivers do not race for the prizes, which range from Dh15,000 to Dh50,000. The costs of souping up the vehicle can be at least Dh100,000, so the only reason to race is for the title of "Best Beast of the Desert".

"It is a test of self against nature," said Mr Al Rifaei, who won Dh15,000 and a golden cup. "Only a real man can compete with our tough and powerful deserts."

Mr Al Rifaei, 36, has been competing in desert races since he was a teenager. He says he is known as the "quiet reserved type" when not in the desert, with the "devilish side" coming out only when he hits the sand.

"I am a completely different person when I am racing," he says.

But the secret to his success is his ability to "keep his cool", he says, unlike many other drivers he has seen on the sand.

Working closely with a garage in RAK, Ahmed Al Rifaei owns and provides the cars that Khaled races.

Ahmed says victory is "40 per cent due to the driver, and 60 per cent due to the car".

"These kinds of desert festivals are important for highlighting the best garages in the UAE," he says. "We show the world what a real Emirati is like; he can master the desert with a car he put together with his bare hands."

The 34-year-old also races, but leaves Khalid, the better driver, to lead them to victory. With the support of their wives, the brothers have won more than 13 cups.

Watching from the edges of the dunes, a former racer who cannot help but feel "just a bit of envy" judges the contenders on their technical and artistic ability.

"My blood is just boiling with excitement as I watch them go against the ruthless sands," says Mohammed Al Shehhi, head of the car racing and equipment committee at the festival and a judge for eight years.

"We sit and judge everything: the drivers, from how he launches his attack to how he ends it. Every year we see new talents and learn new moves from the drivers that show up."

Remembering the car of his youth, The Monster, a Nissan 4x4 that he painted in the same "forbidden red" of a police car, Mr Al Shehhi says: "I had a signature move, where I would land on one side of the car when I reached the top. I would hold it for a few seconds as if about to fall off the edge. It really drove the crowds crazy."

He won first place in 1996, 1997 and 1998, and finished second in 1999 when he says he was "betrayed by the nitrous", a chemical agent added to boost engine power.

"Anything can happen when out on the sand. It is part of the fun.

"Having these kinds of competitions helps give our men a place where they can release their aggression and their love for cars and speed," Mr Al Shehhi says.

"There is nothing like the smell of burning fuel as it mixes with sweat and sand."

rghazal@thenational.ae