Robbie Gordon drives Hummer in 2009 Dakar Rally





This year’s Dakar Rally was everything a race should be, S. T. Karnick writes.

It’s true that the United States is a NASCAR nation, and the competitiveness and grit of that sport say some very good things about our national culture. But that shouldn’t stop us from appreciating other forms of motorsports, and January is a good time to make a case for rally racing. Whereas NASCAR (like most auto racing) features highly skilled and aggressive drivers racing under highly controlled conditions, rallying is rather more free-form, while requiring great skill and intense concentration. It involves going from one place to another over varied road conditions—and more often than not, no roads at all.

One of the biggest and most important rally races in the world is the Dakar Rally, a two-week endurance race taking place almost entirely off-road. Since its inception in 1978 the race has usually been run from Paris, France, to Dakar, Senegal in Western Africa. Motorbikes, ATVs, automobiles (in several classes), and trucks compete separately. The terrain is often quite treacherous, ranging from scrub to desert to rocky patches to sharp inclines, and successful navigation is essential.

The 2008 Dakar was canceled, unfortunately, because of security concerns, after al Qaeda terrorists murdered four French tourists on Christmas Eve 2007 in Mauritania, where much of the race was to take place in January of 2008. The terrorist organization also reportedly threatened to do violence during the event. Thus the disappointing cancellation.

This year the race moved across the pond, to Argentina and Chile, and if anything it was even better than the other recent Dakar runs. The terrain of the 6,000 mile South American version of the race appeared to be rather more varied than the African route tended to be, with much less of the long, flat stretches of scrubland and more hills and sharp turns. In addition, the South American locals seem to appreciate the race much more than the former African host countries.

The U.S. television coverage, on the Versus channel, characterized this year’s race as Dakar Reborn, and it was an apt description.

The race began on January 3 and ended this past Sunday, with Versus showing a very good half-hour summary each day. On Sunday at 3:30 p.m. EST, Versus will show the Dakar Rally Review, a one-hour summary of the race that will give newcomers an excellent overview of this year’s competition.

This year’s race had special interest for Americans, as two U.S. racers—Mark Miller and Robbie Gordon—were in contention in the automobile category throughout the race. Miller was driving for the VW team, and Robbie Gordon was piloting his signature Hummer, a two-wheel drive vehicle which one could hardly imagine could be really competitive over such varied terrain. Both Miller and Gordon started out rather disappointingly on the first day, but both quickly worked their way up in the standings to end up on the podium at the end, with Miller finishing second and Gordon third.

There was plenty of drama throughout the two weeks, such as motorbike champion Cyril Despres riding most of stage 1 without a back tire after it was shredded by the rocky terrain. Race leader Carlos Sainz had to drive much of stage 5 without power steering and no windshield, after rolling his car. American motorcyclist Jonah Street, from Oregon, had no budget or team sponsor but still challenged the top riders and their well-financed teams, winning stage 5 before having to drop out later in the rally after tearing a ligament in his right wrist during a tumble.

A particularly exciting sequence in the Versus coverage was a shot from the inside of Robbie Gordon’s Hummer as he rolled the vehicle, cracking the windshield, and then righted it and continued driving.

Probably the most dramatic moment was when Sainz, handily leading the race by 27 minutes in Stage 12, drove his VW Touareg off an unmarked 13-foot cliff and landed in a gully. As Sainz tried to move large rocks out of the way in hopes of clearing a path so that he could resume driving, he got the bad news that his navigator was too badly injured to continue. That meant Sainz and his copilot were out of the race. Meanwhile, he had to wave off another car, as it was about to plunge over the edge and crash into the ravine where the Sainz’s injured navigator was being attended by medical personnel. Sainz’s action thus averted an even worse disaster.

In all, the 14-day rally provided numerous crashes, collisions, slideoffs,and rollovers, but the real excitement is not in those mishaps but simply in appreciating the amazing skill of the drivers and their harried navigators.

Miller and Gordon achieved the best finishes ever for any Americans at Dakar, and Miller might have won the race if his team had allowed him to challenge the eventual winner, South African Geniel De Villiers. But he couldn’t because De Villiers was Miller’s teammate, and with both of them well ahead of the pack, the team didn’t want to risk having both of their VW Touaregs crash or go down with mechanical trouble and fail to finish the rally when the victory was all but sewn up.

Despite Miller’s obvious disappointment at not getting a chance to take the crown, his and Gordon’s great success in this year’s rally bode well for future American teams, as does Jonah Street’s impressive performance in the motorbike category. Like the Baja 1000 road rally race that takes place every autumn in Mexico, the Dakar Rally is a fascinating test of both strength and endurance of both men and their machines. Like all the best races, the Dakar rally is as much a test of character as it is of skill, ingenuity, and organization.

It’s a fascinating event, and Sunday’s Dakar Rally Review will be well worth watching.

—S. T. Karnick