Strange Revival

"The Salton City 500 began in 1961 and ran for ten years," says Scott B. Davis. The 500-mile boat race was held on a triangular course in the Salton Sea, a 35-mile-by-15-mile saltwater lake located just east of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, about 120 miles from San Diego. Davis, a photographer and desert enthusiast, recently came across an article in a 1962 issue of Desert Magazine that detailed the race. "Here were glorious photos and full stories -- 25,000 people came to the first event. One of the things I really enjoy doing when I travel through the desert is to animate history." On Saturday, December 8, Davis will host the inaugural return of the Salton City 500, but with a twist -- instead of boats, remote-controlled submarines will be raced. "I've always had these fantasies of strange revivals out there," Davis says of Salton City. "It was originally built to become California's Riviera, to compete with Palm Springs, but it sort of did a belly flop in the '70s when the sea flooded. It all went downhill, and now most of the communities are abandoned."

Fewer than 1000 people reside in Salton City. Davis, a San Diego resident, is intrigued by the "colorful characters" who are attracted to the area. "There is a man who is known as Hunky Daddy who lives at Bombay Beach on the east side of Salton Sea," says Davis. "He fought in the Hungarian Revolution in the '50s, and when he came to America he found his way to Salton Sea. He lives in a modest shack and, to be quite frank, he drinks a lot. He speaks very broken English and sounds and looks and feels like someone out of a David Lynch movie."

The decision to race submarines instead of boats was as conceptual as it was practical. "I don't own a boat, and I don't want to buy a boat, so how to re-host the Salton City 500? Any event out there would be underwhelming by nature. The city is abandoned -- it's a forsaken place -- so no matter how grandiose you tried to make an event, you'd draw a small crowd at best. So I thought, 'Just make it an event.' I've got a sign that says, 'Submarine Races Today!' I'm going to put it out on the highway so that passersby might think, 'What? A submarine race? Turn around!'"

Contestants can enter the race at any point before the starting flag drops at 1 p.m. Though Davis has posted information in desert newspapers and at the Los Angeles Center for Land Use Interpretation ("which seemed like the perfect organization for weird stuff like this"), he currently has only two contestants, one of whom is himself. Davis's submarine, purchased online, cost $30, is made of plastic, and is five inches long. Because the range of the remote control is around 25 yards, the race will be held 10 yards offshore. Instead of the original 500 miles, the subs will race 500 yards in a triangular course. The race is expected to last no longer than 30 minutes.

"When you think about it, you actually have to have a very small submarine in order to race it close enough that you can see it and operate it," says Davis. Buoys will be set in the water to mark the course, and the submarines have headlights, which Davis believes will be viewable in the daytime. Davis's sub has not yet been used outside of his bathtub. Saltwater, Davis explains, is more buoyant than freshwater. "I think it will add to the challenge of the whole event and allow the most consummate professionals to rise to the surface." Bumper stickers (one of which is on Davis's truck) and T-shirts will be sold at the event.

Davis's friends and family are not sure what to make of his efforts. "They started with 'What?' and then just went to laughter, followed by the usual litany of questions, like, 'You're really going to do this? Do you think anybody's going to come?'" When asked what he hopes to achieve, Davis says, "I want this race to revitalize the golden era of the sea, while offering a new interpretation of a submarine landscape [the entire area is 227 feet below sea level]. I just saw a woman [Marta Beckett] perform an opera in the desert over the weekend. She's been doing it every week for 30 years, audience or not. I'd like to be part of this same legacy. This is an event that may or may not be noticed, but in any case, there it is. Or was." -- Barbarella

Salton City 500: Racing toward New Depths

Saturday, December 8

1 p.m.

Salton City Yacht Club

Salton Sea Road off Route 86

Cost: Free

Info: 619-804-2590 or e-mail [email protected]

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