This brings up an important point. Racers often compare their sport to horse racing, but that's not quite right. Release a bunch of horses, and you wouldn't have a race but a roundup. (Thus the popular pigeon joke: "The hardest part is getting the saddle on the damn things.") Not only can pigeons return home from thousands of miles—a phenomenon scientists don't totally understand but believe involves the earth's magnetic field and know is due to years of selective breeding—but they can also do it at 55 mph (70 or more with a tailwind), and they can go for days without sleep. Their bodies are essentially O2 conversion machines, constructed with hollow bones and richly oxygenated blood, and their oversized breast muscles account for one third of their body weight. They are the Charles Barkleys of the natural world: unassuming and bottom-heavy yet surprisingly athletic. It's no surprise that they've been employed as messengers by empires (Roman) and armies (the U.S. during World War II).
Soon enough, word gets out that I am from SPORTS ILLUSTRATED—and by "word gets out" I mean that Sittner announces it on the microphone and has everyone give me a round of applause. I am then approached by a man in a Hawaiian shirt. Fortyish, he has a thick black mustache and carries a cane, though he doesn't appear to rely on it much. He introduces himself as Gustavo Rodriguez, and it becomes clear he is not a man to be trifled with. He speaks in a conspiratorial tone and emphasizes his points by sketching in the dirt with his cane while saying, "Do you understand?" He tells me, among other things, that he has done "hundreds of thousands of experiments on birds," that he has made "a major discovery that will change science" and that one of the other racers "is a filthy crook." Later he pulls me aside while holding a bird and says, "This one is going to be in the top position." Then he adds, in a whisper, "If this prediction does not come true, you do not need to write anything about me."
Amazingly, Rodriguez is not one of the Classic favorites. Rather, the odds are on the traditional powers, some of whom have entered up to 30 birds, no small investment at $500 a pop. The racers advise me on the unofficial rules of the sport, a list that could go something like this:
1) Don't name your birds. You'll get attached, and then what will you do when they don't return from a training toss?
2) Keep your wife away from the loft. Unless she wants to help, in which case sign 'er up!
3) Avoid talking to reporters about culling. "The one question you shouldn't ask anyone here," says Bob French, speaking low, "is what they do with the birds they don't keep in the loft." Two words: squab dinner!
I am riding in the backseat of a Ford Excursion with Cecil Ward, a veteran pigeon hauler, and his friend Dave Wooten as we trace the route of the race, 300 miles north to Snow Water Lake. As we pass the asphalt dystopia of Las Vegas Motor Speedway and head out into plains of scrub and cacti, the two men try to explain what it's like to be a pigeon. Despite appearances, these are smart birds: They'll choose the side of a hill without a crosswind, catch thermals and, depending on air currents, either rise up to 1,500 feet or skim just above the ground. Hawks and peregrine falcons are among the few predators fast enough to catch them. Wires are even more deadly. The first pigeon in a group may see a power line and scoot over, but eventually one will cut it too close and break a wing. Anything that throws a shiver through the earth's magnetic field—a solar storm, a sunspot—can untrack the pigeons, as can an earthquake. This can result in a "smash," the term for when birds mysteriously disappear.
A less common but more costly problem is theft. In Florida, Dave tells me, someone nabbed half a million dollars' worth of pigeons from a loft. And in Taiwan and Japan thieves string up giant nets to capture birds, a problem so prevalent that race organizers won't disclose the route until after the event has begun.
As we pass ridges dotted with Joshua trees, it strikes me that the irony of this race is that it functions backward. Creatures are released in a pristine mountain setting and make like mad back to a civilization that could not be more artificial, where they voluntarily reenter captivity.