Last Updated on May 16, 2023

Desert racing is a variant of off-road racing practiced in a desert environment, which is characterized by harsh, hostile terrains and extreme hot, dry weather. It is an extreme motorsport that can be practiced on four-wheeled such as UTVs, ATVs, dune buggies, rock crawlers, or two-wheeled off road vehicles like and dirt bikes (i.e. desert motocross racing).

When it comes to desert racing, the appeal is the inhuman conditions to which means and men are subjected: dust, mugginess, sand dunes, sharp stones, impassable ups and downs, constant lack of water, bring humans to the limit of survival and mechanics to the limit of failure.

Just as with desert marathons, this type of environment makes for the ultimate challenge and most rewarding of experiences.

Desert Racing: Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge
Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi, Winner of the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge 2017.

History of Desert Racing

Off-road racing events in the desert were first held in Southern California in the 1920s. The first Big Bear Run, forerunner of modern desert racing, was held in 1921 and ran for several years.

The first official desert race was held in 1967 in Mexico. It took place across the cities of Tijuana, Ensenada and La Paz, and was run for almost a decade by the National Off-Road Racing Association (NORRA), which was founded by Ed Pearlman and Don Francisco in the same year. The race was initially known as Mexican 1000, then as Baja 1000, today the event is sanctioned by SCORE international.

Today desert racing has become a widespread sport in countries all over the world where there is a desert, including the United States, Mexico, Algeria, Senegal, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, and Australia.

Desert Drag Racing

The terms drag racing, drag biking and sprinting refer to a form of motorcycle competition against the clock, on four- or two-wheeled vehicles. Riders compete one-on-one with knockout heats. Desert drag races are mostly held in the Arab Emirates, with the “Liwa Hill Climb” staged annually on the Moreeb Dune, a 300-meter hill wrapped in soft desert sand.

Desert Racing Competitions

Best in the Desert – Mojave Desert, USA

The “Best In The Desert” (BITD) is an American off-road racing association based in Las Vegas, Nevada. They sanction several desert races and events such as Vegas to Reno, Parker 425, Henderson 250, and the Bluewater Desert Challenge. Best In The Desert Inc. Racing was founded by off-road legend Casey Folks and is owned and operated entirely by his sons Daryl and Bryan Folks.

The philosophy of the organization is to provide top quality, world class Off-Road Racing events, and more importantly to make those events exciting, spectacular, fun, different, well paying, and most of all, affordable.

King of the Hammers – Mojave Desert, USA

If you are looking for a unique desert race that combines off-roading with rock crawling, King of the Hammers is for you. The event takes place on “Hammertown”, a temporary settlement in Means Dry Lake at Johnson Valley, California every year at the very end of January and beginning of February.

The race has evolved from 12 teams racing for bragging rights and a case of beer, to more than 530 teams competing before more than 80,000 fans in person and 2 million watching online. Due to the incredible success of King of the Hammers, Hammerking Productions created the Ultra4 Racing Series.

In 2022, Ultra4 is slated to hold 11 races coast-to-coast, King of the Hammers being the year-opener. Currently Ultra4 has races in the US, Europe, Australia and an exhibition in China. These races take place on both public lands and in private property around the world. 

Finke Desert Race – Northern Territory, Australia

The Finke Desert Race, or Tatts Finke Desert Race, is a two-day off-road desert race for motorcycles, cars, buggies and quads across the desert from Alice Springs to the small and remote community of Aputula (formerly known as Finke) in the Northern Territory in Australia.

Finke desert race is one of australia’s largest and most popular annual sporting events. The race is usually held each year during the Queen’s Birthday long weekend in June.

Dakar Rally – Sahara Desert, Africa

Dakar Rally is a decert race founded by Thierry Sabine and inspired by an incident he had during the Abidjan-Nice Rally in 1977. Sabine got lost on his motorbike in the Libyan desert and became fascinated with the hardships he had to face in the desert landscape, he started to come up with a route that would go from Europe to Algiers and Agadez, eventually ending in Dakar, the capital of Senegal.

Today the rally raid is organized on a yearly basis by the Amaury Sport Organisation.

Desert Racing: Dakar Rally
Marc Coma, winner of the Dakar Rally 2006

Desert Off-road Vehicles


A trophy truck, also known as a Baja truck or a trick truck, is a vehicle used in high-speed off-road racing, with long travel suspension and high horsepower engines. They are designed to run as fast as possible on off-road terrains and are intended for desert racing only, road use is illegal.

These vehicles are properly known as “trophy trucks” when racing in SCORE International sanctioned races, and “trick trucks” when racing in Best in the Desert sanctioned races.


All-terrain vehicles (ATVs) are race cars designed to go off-road in a variety of terrains. They generally include a piggyback seating position, handlebar steering, and the ability to maneuver through a variety of terrain conditions including sand and desert dunes.

Dune Buggies

A dune buggy is a type of off-road vehicle designed for use in sand dunes or on beaches. The dune buggy is very often a highly customized vehicle that is removed to save weight, and the engine is very often upgraded for more power.

The tires are generally quite wide and sometimes have hollowed out lugs that help the vehicle gain grip on loose sand. Dune buggies are often used in tourist areas for carrying out so-called “desert safaris” or dune bashing activities.


Desert dirt bikes are a type motorcycle designed for use on rough terrain, such as unsurfaced roads or tracks, and used especially in scrambling and therefore ideal for desert races.

Dirt bikes are designed for riding on dirt, mud and sand and made with a higher lift than street bikes and have knobby tires for gripping dirt roads.

Desert Travel: Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah, USA
Dirt Bike Riding in the Desert


Sand Sledding
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Your n°1 source of information on the world of sandsports and desert adventure travel. Our articles are the result of extensive research, personal experience, and knowledge-sharing within the global sandboarding community.