The most excitement the desert outside Palmdale ordinarily sees is tumbleweed skittering across the dust. But every Thanksgiving weekend, this strip of nothingness 30 miles north of L.A. is made over with a bit of shine and sparkle for A Day in the Dirt, the annual motocross-meets-the-movies event with rides and races, bands and barbecues, costumes, even skydiving.
In typical over-the-top Hollywood fashion, the racetrack has also been spiffed up with a bit of dramatic flair. Combining the two tracks at L.A. County Raceway into one, the 2 1/2-mile dirt track that is the focal point of the weekend features not only a mudhole jump but also a barn facade for riders to fly through.
By Friday, when the three-day event kicks off, a virtual city will have cropped up alongside the track. Decorated with couches and Christmas lights, and ringed by a white-picket fence, the Day in the Dirt camp is a lot like the artsy, Mojave Desert free-for-all Burning Man, but with bikes.
Held Thanksgiving weekend because it is the only four-day holiday in the film industry, A Day in the Dirt was just that -- a single day -- when it started in 1998. Two hundred were expected that year; 1,000 showed up. It expanded to three days in 1999.
Now in its sixth year, the event is expected to draw 5,000 spectators and 800 riders -- 200 stuntmen and -women, 300 extreme athletes and 300 miscellaneous film industry folk -- "grips, electricians, hairdressers, craft service, everything," said co-founder Jimmy Roberts, 36.
A career stuntman who has been riding dirt bikes since he was 4 years old, Roberts has done motorcycle stunts for dozens of top-tier films, including "M:I-2" ("Mission: Impossible 2"), "The Fast and the Furious" and the upcoming Ben Affleck thriller "Paycheck." He came up with the idea for A Day in the Dirt with his friend and fellow stuntman Kenny Alexander, 41.
Both Roberts' and Alexander's fathers were members of the Viewfinders, a movie-industry motorcycle club that hosted similar races in the '60s. Alexander's father was an electrician for the movies who also founded the Indian Dunes motorcycle park; Roberts' father is a legendary racer and stuntman who won 28 consecutive desert races in his day and, at age 61, will rev up and race this weekend.
Speed TV, a cable channel devoted to car and motorcycle racing, has said that A Day in the Dirt, with dozens of motorcycle superstars both old and young, has more past and present champions on the line at one time than any other race in history.
This year is no different. Motocross champ Jeff Ward and all-time supercross winner Jeremy McGrath are just two of the names who will be racing this weekend.
"This is probably the only event that an everyday Joe can hang out with a superstar and camp with them and be in line to buy a Pepsi with them and be on the race course with 'em," said Troy Lee, 42, one of the event's sponsors.
Like Von Dutch, the California artist who defined the art of motorcycle pinstriping in the '50s and '60s, Lee is the artist whose gear and helmets define and dominate the look of today's extreme sports.
A major sponsor of today's top extreme athletes (from motocross and supercross to BMX and auto racing), Lee also has designed gear and bikes for a number of movies, including last summer's "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle."
A sponsor of A Day in the Dirt since its second year, Lee is the main reason why the event is now as much about extreme sports as about the movies. According to Lee, it's a perfectly symbiotic relationship.
"They both idolize each other," he said.
During A Day in the Dirt, racers from both worlds will face off in a variety of events, including the Moto-A-Gogo, in which two-man teams take turns riding the course, and the Coup de Grace Survival Race, in which it's every man for himself for more than two grueling hours.
With so much talent on the track, you'd expect a little cash to change hands, but no money is at stake -- just goofball trophies.
In previous years, winners have taken home Elvis mannequins and painted refrigerators.
"A lot of these guys don't jump on anything unless they're making $50,000 or $100,000," said Lee. "These guys are out there just for fun."
Set to a soundtrack of buzzing motorbikes, A Day in the Dirt is a loud and colorful affair. With riders decked out in thousands of dollars' worth of splashy motocross gear, mini-skirted women cheering during Moto-A-Gogo and kids running around in layers of Mardi Gras beads, it is more than a race.
According to Alexander, "It's a party, a celebration, a reunion."
Susan Carpenter can be contacted at email@example.com.
A Day in the Dirt
Where: Los Angeles County Raceway, Palmdale
When: Fri.-Sun. Gates open at
7 a.m. Fri., with last practice at
3 p.m.; 6:30 a.m. Sat., last event
at 2 p.m.; 6:30 a.m. Sun., last
event at 12:30 p.m.
Cost: Adults, Fri. $10, Sat. & Sun. $15, 3-day pass $25; kids, Fri. $5, Sat. & Sun. $10, 3-day pass $15; 5 and under, free.