Story first aired on CNN International on February 10, 2014:
LIWA OASIS, United Arab Emirates – If you think drag racing is extreme, you should try doing it uphill and on sand.
Dune bashing is an action-packed motorsport popular in the Gulf, enjoyed by both local Emiratis and foreign tourists alike.
It is not for the fainthearted and accidents are not uncommon. It is a sport that enthusiasts say requires not only speed and power, but also nerves of steel.
Perhaps nothing tests all of these better than the Liwa International Festival, which ended last month, where 100 dune-bashing competitors battled it out to be the fastest up the tallest sand hill in the UAE.
The 30-meter-high “Scary Hill” (Tel Moreeb in Arabic) earns its name thanks to the dizzyingly 50-degree steep slope.
The government-funded festival is claimed to be a celebration of the desert landscape and the Bedouin culture. One competitor who shrugged off the fear factor at the recent event was Ahmed Al-Mashgouni of Team Sandtoyz. “For me, it’s normal because I’m Bedouin,” he said. “This is not scaring me.”
The annual event also features a classic car show, as well as traditional sports such as falcon, camel and horse racing. But this year it was the dune-racing challenges that attracted most attention, with spectators and participants coming from across the region.
Al-Mashgouni had an American mechanic to tune his buggies. His roaring, six-cylinder vehicles, with modified, turbo-charged engines, were the fruit of his travels around the region — Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait — that brought back homemade, sometimes crudely built, bikes and buggies.
“We are using a two-speed transmission,” said Al-Mashgouni, winner of his class in the latest tournament. “The normal one is one speed. It’s especially built for us.”
In contrast, Jasem Al-Ali of Team Victory learned how to build his vehicle from online videos. “It was a 200-horsepower engine. Now it’s 1,100 horsepower,” he said.
Sand dune racing is not a cheap hobby. The cars are built mostly with foreign parts. And even in this oil-rich region, the fuel needs to be imported from America.
Salem Al-Dahmani’s modified truck cost him $100,000 — about ten times the modest prize the race awarded. But passion not money is motivation for the competitors.
“If you go to Japan, people are crazy for drifting,” said Al-Dahmani of Team Champions. “If you go to the U.S., people are crazy about drag racing. Here, we’re crazy about this sport.”