Off Road Feature
As one of the toughest long distance desert races in Australia approaches, convoys of competitors head to the ‘Red Centre’ to take on the unforgiving outback terrain.
All in the name of the glory one would be bestowed in being able to say - ‘I won Finke.’
In the moto world, and in the larger racing world at that, it holds a huge amount of weight to be victorious at Finke and Honda’s team this year, Penrite Honda Racing, is certainly ready for the challenge.
For those unfamiliar with the race, it is best described on the official Finke website: “it’s an off road, multi terrain two-day race for bikes, cars, buggies and quads through desert country from Alice Springs to the small Aputula (Finke) community. The race is held each year on the Queen’s Birthday long weekend in June.
“Finke” as it is commonly known, is one of the biggest annual sporting events in the Northern Territory and has the reputation of being one of the most difficult off road courses in one of the most remote places in the world. Finke is unique and the most fun you can have with a helmet on!”
It might be difficult for some to reconcile that ‘one of the most difficult off road courses in one of the most remote places in the world’ could be ‘fun’ but look at it this way - Honda man Jacob Smith is about to take on his 10th Finke! So it surely must be fun for those who keep going back for more especially if Jake’s been competing in it for a decade.
“Makes me feel a little old to be honest,” said Smith when asked how he feels about the milestone.
Born and raised in Condobolin NSW, and we certainly think 29 years young is more accurate, Smith is married but with ‘no kids…yet’ he adds.
Riding dirt bikes has been most of Smiths life, along with his brother Todd; they have a long history of off-road racing from a very young age.
“I guess it all came from my brother Todd, he is 4 years older than me and was racing so I guess it was natural for me to follow him and start racing.. I was about 3 when I jumped on a bike and began competing.”
Three? Wow, what did mum think of that? He laughed and answered, “Yeah I’m not sure to be honest…at the time no doubt she would have been onto my dad making sure I had all the safety gear. She never really watched many races from start to finish but would just listen to the commentary and hope we were okay.”
He tells us it was a natural progression for him to go from local club riding to fully-fledged comp riding when he was 8 years old and as the years have gone by, the stakes have raised along with them.
“Todd was always the one when we were little who showed the most potential. It wasn't till I was around 8 or 9 that I started caring about results and showing some real potential and from then on I've always been chasing the dream!”
Chasing dreams has become a lifestyle for Smith, with many of those dreams becoming a reality. In 2003 Jake won junior National and State MX Championships and came 2nd in a Supercoss Championship too. Then in 2005, came 2nd in the U19’s MX Championship (which back then was called the National Cup)
Then that brings us to Condo
Held in Condobolin, it’s a hometown race for Jake and ‘the biggest and best off road navigational rally held in NSW*.’ We can all agree that it’s certainly a very impressive ‘Condo career’ so far, competing in the race 10 times and only missing a podium finish once. Of those 10, four were overall first place finishes.
The race is run on private properties around Condobolin and according to Jake; there can be up to 250 different instructions on a 140 km stage, so the navigation component is intense.
He won his first Condo 750 in 2007, then again in 2013, 2016 and the fourth victory was again this year (2018). The 30th anniversary year for the race which marked a very nice start to his 2018 campaign.
“I had a really solid weekend at Condo this year and the race pretty much went exactly to plan, I held back a little in prologue to start 6th on day one and worked my way into the lead at around the 100 km mark of the first stage, from then on I led for the rest of the race.”
Along with Condo, Jake has also conquered the Australasian Safari, which was a tough off-road race held in Western Australia, the last one was held in 2014.
He racked up multiple first place finishes in that one too – in 2009 and 2012 as well as two-second place finishes in 2007 and 2011. The 2011-second placing was actually behind his brother Todd, who took first so that was a very nice win for the Smith brothers.
You could also argue he’s mastered the podium finish at the Yellow Mountain Cross Country – after taking one each time he’s competed there, including 1st place in 2010, 2013 and 2015, 2nd place in 2007 and 2008 and 3rd place in 2014.
Looking through his list of accolades, it’s clear he has worked hard to maintain consistent podium finishes and overall wins, noting out of nearly 20 years of racing he only looks at two of those years as what he called ‘bad seasons.’ With so many years of top-three placings across such a variety of races, it would be hard to see anything but an overall win as a bad season. Those are nice odds if you were a ‘betting man’ (or woman) and very nice stats to look back on.
So how did he come to ride for Honda? Many riders have to chase opportunities where they can get them so long term brand loyalty can often be a rare sight… but then there’s Jake who has consecutively been with Honda since 2009, adding there were early years in his career where he was on the #RideRed train as well.
“Looking back on it Honda was really successful with Mcgrath and in Australia had a strong presence in the Junior MX scene, HRA (Honda Racing Australia) was almost every kids dream and became mine quite early. They had a big setup in the pits, always looked good and most of the time the riders on the team were winning so from a very young age, that was a dream of mine to ride for that team which I did in 2004.”
Coming into his 26th consecutive year of racing dirt bikes, you could imagine it would be difficult to pick a best moment in a long and very successful career but Jake had a pivotal moment to share -
“The one that comes to mind is my Junior National MX Championship. It was something I dreamed about for so many years as a kid, and then when I started to show that I could compete at national level I worked hard to get there. When I won, it was truly a dream come true and I also pretty much signed my deal to ride for the Honda Junior Team (HRA) at the presentation night after winning that title so it was a moment where all my dreams came true at once.. It was a really special time for me and it’s why it sticks in my mind so well.”
And so, the Power of Dreams!
Competing at the top brings great highs and some tough lows. The pain of ‘almost’ can be hard for many athletes to really get over. Jake acknowledged that he tries not to do this but there are certainly instances in his career where moments of ‘almost’ have replayed in his head.
‘I tend not to overthink races too much these days and just take note of things I can improve on. Looking at what worked well which comes with experience I guess, but there is a moment that I tend to think about every now and then back in 2005 at the National Cup Championship.. it’s basically the MXD Championship these days…’
“It came down to the last moto of the year between Ford Dale and myself for the championship and I think we both made plenty of mistakes that moto but it came down to the final lap. I left the door open on a downhill section, Ford block passed me, I couldn't pass him back and he won the Championship by 1 point…”
We can all feel for the young kid who loses by 1 point, in any sport at any level. All though this probably doesn’t come close to some of the toughest moments Jake experienced later in his career -
“I've had to overcome plenty of injuries as many of the top guys have and also lost some good mates to racing which is really tough! As far as actual racing incidents go, I think the toughest moment in my career so far would have been the Dakar in 2011.
"I'd just turned 22, never been overseas before in the biggest race in the world and not knowing truly what I was in for. From getting food poisoning on day 4 to riding over the Andes with just normal riding gear - mx gloves included (gets down to 0 degrees and below) to the lack of sleep it was definitely the toughest but one of the most rewarding moments in my career.”
What about off the bike - do professional riders often have day jobs?
Well, yeah some certainly do…
Apart from ‘professional dream achiever,’ do you have a 9-5 job?
“I sure do. I've worked fulltime throughout my whole career. It's always the dream to race fulltime but it just never worked out for me. I did my apprenticeship with Essential Energy straight out of school and worked there for 9 years. Now I work with my parents and brother in our metal fabrication business.”
Working and riding would be a difficult thing to juggle, so we wondered if Jake had ever imagined a life where he didn’t race or own a dirt bike. Well we think you can imagine his response: ‘Not for one second do I think about a life without dirt bikes!!’
“No doubt, it will slow down at some stage but I will always have and will ride a dirt bike. I don't feel like dirt bikes define me as a person but they have played a major part of who I am and the privileged life I've had so far.”
What if you didn’t race bikes but pursued another professional sport instead? Jake surprised us with his answer; ‘I always toss this one up to my mates and I think I'd either go surfing or golf just for the life style and cool places all around the world you'd get to go or I would be a V8 Supercar driver.
Competing at a high level for any professional sport entails lots and lots of preparation, no brainer! Some have teams of people working with them, whether it be on game plan, coaching, mechanics – the list goes on.
Jake still works on his own bike and with his mechanics when preparing to race when he can; “I like working on my own bikes and helping the mechanics out. I can do most jobs including engine rebuilds etc. I'm very lucky to have a good team around me so I don't need to be working on the bike as much but definitely like to get in and help out.”
“I work with a trainer in the gym, in the pre-season 4-6 times a week focusing on a lot of strength/endurance work, then during the season back to 2-3 times a week and do some more on bike training/riding.” That brings us back to Finke – how does one prepare for such a mountainous race? ,Finke; present day, how are you feeling in the lead up this year?
“I know everyone says it but I feel I'm in good shape for the race this year, my bike is really good and I'm happy so hopefully we can have a good, clean run.”,Talk us through a Finke training day, if you were up there for training, what does that look like? “Generally we are up around 6:30am, brekky, load up bikes and all the gear and be at the track around 8am. Un-written rules is ride south direction only till 12 noon and North only from 12:30. On a normal day we are back in around 3-4pm. Wash and service bikes and get ready to do it all again the next day”
South, North, Repeat…but preparation starts long before you even arrive in Finke for testing so when does Jake ramp up his training and really get into Finke mode?
“I physically start preparing in the gym before Christmas, I like to do the bulk of the off bike training Dec to Feb and then get into more riding once the season starts. Logistically it’s a 6 month process to put everything in place from the bike to pre running to the race itself. We generally do three separate trips for testing starting in March before we get up to Alice 8-9 days before the race.”
If you’ve not raced Finke before then you wouldn’t truly know the intensity of preparation that goes into getting your body right to stay on the bike for that amount of time, and also the mental preparation as well.
“At Finke you can be out the track for 8 hours a day, not all riding but generally a full run to Finke and back would be around 4.5 hours ride time. At home I like to do it MX style with 30 minute motos, depending on time after work to how many motos a week I can squeeze in.”
Many may undertake special eating plans, Jake tells us he doesn’t really have a special diet but his wife usually gets a food plan sorted for what he needs to be eating and when, to make sure he gets the correct amounts of protein, carbs and fats for the race to be at his peak.
Headspace comes down to staying relaxed: “I try stay as relaxed and positive as possible before a race, maybe a few good tunes to get me in the mood. There's a saying: ‘poor preparation leads to poor performance’ and it’s pretty true so I make sure I prepare well which gives me a good frame of mind coming into the races.”,If you aren’t an Alice Springs local, getting to Finke for testing in the months leading up to the big race can be expensive and a lot to organise. Jake acknowledges that they still put in 30-40 hours riding/testing the bike down the track but this probably isn’t as high as some of the hours others may put in.
“Many of us can be restricted by time and budget as it's not cheap to fly riders and mechanics to Alice and pre run big Km's and also time away from work.”
Then you need to factor in the hours spent physically working on the bikes, getting them exactly right for race day. Jake tells us, “It would be scary to add the hours up, put it this way: I wouldn't like to be paying someone an hourly rate on the hours that actually go into preparing for this race.”
Now, the all-important question: what about pre-race rituals?
“I used to be a little superstitious but I'm over that now, I was a big one for the correct red race undies but that's long gone now!”
Surely the lucky red jocks would still get a gig Jake, we don’t believe they would be long gone… Tomorrow it all begins. Jake has done it so many times; his race day regime works like a well-oiled machine, like just another day in the office.
“Race day is long. Most of our team is already on their way to Finke to be setup for the overnight stop so it’s a little sleep in maybe 7:30, a good breakfast is key. Get to the start line around 9am for sign on and riders briefing, keep up the fluids and food during the morning. Usually gear up around 11am and make sure I have everything I need. The race starts at 12pm and it goes from hanging about all morning to full throttle for two hours! Hopefully I make it to Finke in under two hours and then I go straight into recovery with an ice bath, plenty of food and maybe a little afternoon nap.”
“At night I hang by the campfire with the boys then off to bed for me by 8:30 - 9pm. It really does feel like you hang about most of the day then - Bang! it's on for 2 hours – then down time till the next day and do it all again!” This relaxed approach makes the race sound almost inviting, perhaps a stark difference to how his first time racing Finke played out.
“Ah yes back to my first run, I was 20 years old and like most watched a few YouTube videos before heading up there but not really knowing what to expect. I think Todd and I were the only riders without steg pegs on our bikes and we only pre ran about 80km of the track beforehand, so we had no idea where we were going or what we were in for. I qualified in the top 20 and ended up 12th outright in my first go which was pretty cool.”
What tips does Jake have to offer to young riders out there wanting to pursue racing, in particular Off Road/Enduro as a career – “WORK HARD, on and off the bike but just enjoy it as much as possible”
“For desert riding you need to be in good physical shape and strong to hold onto the bike at high speeds, but the best advice I could offer is to just enjoy it as much as possible and take advantage of every opportunity you get to race your dirt bike!”
He adds; “Give it your absolute best every time you get on your bike and make sure to have fun because it's not worth anything if you’re not having fun.”
Ah so there you go, confirmation that he certainly does find Finke fun because why bother doing it if you don’t…
We wish Jake and the entire Penrite Honda Racing team all the best for the race this weekend!
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