You hear a lot of strange noises at night from inside a camping tent. In the California desert, there’s coyotes yipping and screeching under the moonlight, plotting heinous crimes against household pets. In the woods of Vermont, it’s the trademark “Who cooks for youuu?” hoot of the barred owl, which is an unsettling thing to be asked while you’re squatted down in the dark with your pants around your ankles. Nothing compares, however, to the piercing backwoods racket happening in southern Tennessee during Red Bull TKO weekend—when the harshest hard enduro race on this half of the planet is in full tilt.
In the dense forests of Sequatchie, TN, campers have heard sounds for years that simply defy explanation. The locals have attributed it to an urban legend known as “The Banshee of Sequatchie,” an elusive humanoid cryptid said to haunt the mountains around the nearby Trials Training Center for demons on dirt bikes.
Whatever it is, it’s been happening around the end of August every year since 2011. Without fail, dozens of people report hearing strange noises like aluminum cans being crushed from dusk till dawn, human-like screams and laughter coming from deep within the forest, and the unmistakable sound of two-stroke engines ringing throughout the night like a gang of chainsaw-wielding madmen felling trees by moonlight.
I’d been following this phenomenon for years, but this August I decided to travel out to the Sequatchie Valley wilderness myself to investigate. What I discovered there in the woods of East Tennessee is not for the faint of heart, so consider yourself warned before reading further into this tale of supernatural spectacle.
What Goes On in the Wilderness
I spent three nights in those woods, but it took all of three seconds to solve the mystery of the “The Banshee of Sequatchie.” Here in this sleepy little town with a population of just 16,000 people, it turns out the folks at Red Bull have been sponsoring the most challenging off-road race in North America right under our noses. I was stuck in the middle of the 2023 Red Bull Tennessee Knockout hard enduro championship, and I was in for 72 hours of sheer madness.
Like all urban legends, it turns out the TKO started from humble beginnings. The competition first ran back in 2011, and saw just 50 racers competing for a very modest cash reward. Nowadays the TKO is unrecognizable from that first undertaking, with some 500 riders and thousands more fans descending on the small town for race weekend.
If you’ve never been to a hard enduro event before, it’s important to understand what you’re missing. There’s a reason people drive thousands of miles across the country for this event, some even coming from as far as South America for a glimpse of the action.
Hard enduro racing is, by its very nature, a bewildering spectacle to behold. It’s a lawless free-for-all where the race course is the forest itself, and if you’re a spectator the best seats in the house are general admission, standing room only, and mere inches away from the action.
Race fans file into the woods in giant waves, jockeying for position around the steepest hills, rockiest creek beds, and muddiest ruts for a chance to see dirt bikes do the impossible. Their favorite riders squeeze by so close you can see the sweat streaming down their faces and fill your lungs with the sweet smell of their two-stroke smoke.
Catching mud in your teeth from a spinning tire is like catching a home run at a major league game, and for fans who stray a little too close to the action, catching a front tire to the chest isn’t out of the question either.
What makes the Tennessee TKO particularly attractive to fans is its unique schedule. Because the race is run in a “knockout” format, with three major events on Sunday alone, you get a chance to see near-constant action from Friday afternoon all the way through Sunday evening.
All you have to do is load up your cooler, pitch your tent, and prepare to enjoy three days of one of the South’s most cherished traditions: Raising hell in the woods.
Prologue: Friday Qualifying
For me, the action started promptly on Friday afternoon, with amateur hot laps beginning at 2 p.m. The short 1-mile lap determines each rider’s starting position for Saturday. But with some 400 amateurs lining up for a chance to race against the pros, spectators get a full four hours of constant race traffic to soak up before sundown.
This is another important hallmark of TKO tradition: The contest started as an open invitation to amateurs and pros alike, and the format remains unchanged in this regard.
This year’s amateurs included teenagers too young to drive on public roads, as well as men too old to know a TikTok dance when they see one. The Red Bull TKO is also unique in that it hosts the first-ever all-electric class in the sport, the ECR eMoto, which means this is also one of the only races on the planet you can see electric motorcycles compete head-to-head with gas bikes.
Friday is only a brief taste of the action, but it’s a good indicator of what’s to come during the weekend. Over the course of that short mile, I saw a 13-year-old boy crying tears of joy after crossing the finish line, as well as a grown man weeping hysterically after repeatedly falling into a rocky creek bed.
When they say hard enduro, they’re serious about the “hard” part.
Six-time TKO winner and AMA Endurocross Champion, Cody Webb, knows this better than most. He’s run this race every year without fail since its inception, and doesn’t mince words when it comes to the Tennessee backcountry.
“They chose this area because it’s incredibly nasty, rocky terrain, and it’s incredibly hot and humid,” said Webb. “Usually in hard enduro we just do one massive, terrible race. This one builds in difficulty and then ends in one big all-out sprint to incorporate more actual racing rather than just suffering. It honestly makes you suffer more because the intensity keeps getting higher. It’s a death trap.”
Strong words from a man who’s conquered the most challenging tracks on the planet. Webb has taken podiums at the Austrian Erzbergrodeo, a brutal hillclimb out of the country’s deepest iron mine, as well as Minas Rider’s challenge through the jungles of Brazil, just to name a few.
By the end of the day, hundreds of riders had completed the loop. The best ran the entire mile in just under six minutes, while others took nearly an hour to fight their way through. Dozens more weren’t able to complete the short course at all, and quietly bowed out from the rest of the weekend’s proceedings.
The sun set, fires were started, and the strange sounds of the Sequatchie Valley night began…
Saturday: Amateur Knockouts
Saturday marks the start of the amateur racing proper, and the contestants have a tough row to hoe ahead of them. To qualify for Sunday’s pro races (and the prize money on offer), they’ll have to complete two 12-mile courses back to back, with one in the morning shortly after sunrise and a second just after 12 noon.
Both races are limited to a two-and-a-half-hour time limit, and anyone who can’t conquer the woods before the clock runs out gets knocked out by default. The fastest 200 riders from the morning race will advance into the afternoon, and of those 200, only 30 will make the cut to race on Sunday.
As if 12 miles of mossy boulders, muddy creek beds, and hills so steep they’re impossible to climb on foot aren’t hard enough, the Tennessee woods harbor a uniquely nefarious challenge for riders: Heat.
The temperature and humidity of the southern United States come as quite a shock for even the most skilled riders, many of whom are accustomed to racing in milder European climates. Even last year’s world champion, German rider Mani Letttenbichler, had his reservations about the race.
“There are harder tracks than this one,” said Lettenbichler, “but for me as a European coming over, I can tell you it’s the heat and humidity that really get to me. By the time you come into the finish, you’re just ready to throw up because you’re so exhausted.”
And that’s just the first of many finish lines to be crossed this weekend. The heat and intensity are so extreme in these woods, many of the amateur racers who make the cut for Sunday’s main event simply aren’t willing to go on competing.
It’s a war of attrition through and through. Of the 200 riders who qualified for the second race Saturday, only 178 actually managed to complete it. Heat exhaustion, dehydration, and mental fatigue all claimed their fair share of victims that afternoon, but 30 local contenders emerged from the woods victorious, limping their way back to camp to lick their wounds before Sunday’s battle.
Sunday Showdown: The 2023 Red Bull Tennessee Knockout
Sunday’s racing is a three-stage event, with each race adding more obstacles and difficulty to the one before it. This is where pros like Lettenbichler know that strategy comes into play, as three brutal races in one day are as much about skill as they are endurance.
“I can’t even say it’s like a poker game because it’s all luck,” said Lettenbichler. “If you’re in a group of really fast guys, you really have to push for it every race. If it’s not such a fast group, you can relax a little and save some energy for the final rather than just pushing the whole time. There’s some strategy there, but you can’t plan it in advance.”
The first race kicks off promptly at 9 a.m. with the sound of an air horn. It’s a startling wake-up call for those of us who were up into the wee hours making Bigfoot sounds and pillaging our neighbor’s coolers. But as they say around these parts, “That’s just racing, baby.”
The initial knockout round sees fast guys like Webb and Lettenbichler cross the finish in just under 50 minutes, while the majority of the amateur qualifiers lag behind by a full 20 minutes or more. Over half the field is knocked out in the first event, and the 30 fastest riders who survive have little time to catch their breath as the second race starts shortly thereafter at 11:45 a.m.
Fatigue sets in as the second race begins, and riders are hammered with even more difficult sections than the previous race. There’s a notable increase in lap times even among the fastest riders on the course, with nearly an hour’s difference between pros like Webb and the final riders who qualify.
“The terrain out here is just so rocky and relentless.” said Webb. “You’re riding a ton by the end of the day. Normally my hands don’t hurt at the end of a race, but for this race the front wheel is just constantly bouncing off so much stuff. You get to the final race and you’ve got blisters and calluses and you’re just thinking, ‘I really don’t want to start this.’ Your tongue is in the spokes by the time you get to the finish.”
Of the 20 riders who make it to the final knockout, only seven actually made it through all seven laps. Once the dust had settled, Canadian rider Trystan Hart stood atop the podium with his KTM 300 XC-W, followed by the Brit Billy Bolt aboard a Husqvarna TE300i, with third place going to Lettenbichler and his KTM 300 EXC. He looked relieved to be off the bike, and nearly ready to collapse.
“You always just suffer,” he said. “During the race you’re asking yourself ‘What the fuck am I doing here?’ Once you finish you’re telling yourself ‘I don’t know if I ever want to do this again.’ By tomorrow, it’ll be ‘Actually that was pretty cool. I’ll probably come back next year.’”
Looking to add the Red Bull Tennessee Knockout to your own schedule next year? You can keep tabs on the race at the Tennesee Trials Training Center website.