When Merrill's Pratt Leads, Others Follow - on Dirt Bikes

Investment bankers have been known to take clients on some wild rides, but few bang them up as thoroughly as Richard T. Pratt of Merrill Lynch & Co.

Every May, this Moses on a motorcycle leads bankers, lawyers, friends, and family members 50 miles into the Utah desert on a dirt-bike trip that might have been dreamed up by Evel Knievel.

One time, an investment banker nearly severed a finger in a mishap along the trail. Another year, a rider broke a collarbone. A novice plunged 40 feet down an embankment and lived to tell the story.

They Come Back for More

Amazingly, most come back again and again for more punishment. Last year, 40 joined Mr. Pratt's mechanized hike, which includes two nights around the campfire, where motorcycling talk sometimes devolves into a discussion of high finance.

Some of the bikers bring spouses and children, who stay in camp to cook for the riders if they're not up to the rigors of motocross. One investment banker dragged two nannies along last year to look after his camp-bound kids, recalls a participant.

The event's exclusivity has much to do with its appeal. Mr. Pratt's desert wheelers include some of the industry's most successful dealers. Alumni speak of the trip as though it is a rite of passage - a rough-and-tumble test of will that confirms both their stature in the industry and their physical and mental durability. Mr. Pratt thinks they come just because it's fun.

"I'm outlandish at times," said Mr. Pratt, who was chairman of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board in the early 1980s before the thrift crisis escalated. When the host is outlandish, other people feel they can shed the "envelope of conventionality" they hide in most days and be themselves.

Mr. Vartanian says the first time he rode, he gripped the handle bars so tightly, his hands wouldn't open for days afterward. On the flight home, he couldn't use the utensils to eat his airline meal.

Alumni of the event own their dirt bikes and store them at the garage of Mr. Pratt's home near Salt Lake City, sometimes for convenience and sometimes to hide them from overprotective spouses. Mr. Pratt has close to 30 in there now. Newcomers can buy bikes put up for sale by dropouts.

The bearlike Mr. Pratt, 54, has been riding motorcycles since the age of 12, when he was a newspaper delivery boy. He rode one to work when he was chairman of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board from 1981 to 1983 - where he worked with Mr. Beesley and Mr. Vartanian - and forgot it when he left town for his current Merrill Lynch post selling mortgage-backed securities and capital-raising plans to S&Ls.

The first day of the annual trip is spent carting the bikes, tents, and riders out of Salt Lake City to the base of the Hole in the Wall trail, a patch carved out of the desert and rugged mountains by early Mormon settlers in the state's four-corners region.

The trail starts off gently among the cottonwoods but soon deteriorates into an inhospitable landscape that alternates between two-foot deep sand and rock and hills.

"The wheels spin rapidly in the sand and then hit the rock and grab hold," said Mr. Beesley. That can send a biker flying.

The riders pitch their tents and spend the first day around camp, getting used to the bikes. The next day, they challenge the trail 50 miles into the desert toward Lake Powell and back. Even with a day of practice, "it's like throwing someone into the English Channel to learn how to swim," said Mr. Pratt.

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