The Dakar Rally has become legendary for its off-road dangers and drama, especially its previous African editions, which began in 1979. When the race moved to South America in 2009, many worried it would lose its rigors, altering the character of what was branded the toughest motorsports endurance event in the world, with Bike, Quad, Auto, and Truck Classes. But there was nothing to worry about -- the first three editions in Argentina and Chile gained notoriety, and this year's event was no less exciting.
This year, there were four deaths associated with the Rally, and one of the race stages that ascended the high, spiny peaks of the Andes was closed when a snowstorm made it too dangerous to continue -- and the next stage was also closed for the same reason. There also were significant trials for all but one of the U.S.-based racers. Many will also remember it as the year when crowd-pleasing, off-road and NASCAR racer Robby Gordon made world-wide headlines with his "kiss my a--" retort to his top-running challengers, whose Mini rally machines he caustically dubbed as fit "for girls." All of this was after Gordon bested the Mini teams by more than 20 minutes, during the stage that followed allegations from frontrunners that he had cheated by using an illegal air inflation system on his Hummer H3. (For the record, this system was approved by ASO Dakar Rally inspectors in both 2011 and 2012.)
The 14-day off-road rally, which started on the outskirts of the Atlantic coastal city of Mar del Plata, Argentina, and ended some 8300 kilometers (5157 miles) later in Lima, Peru on the Pacific, was called one of the toughest ever by many competitors who participated in multiple Dakar rallies. Only three U.S. teams finished out of the 12 that crossed the start podium.
The most-publicized American team was Gordon's, featuring legendary biker and former Dakar racer Johnny Campbell as co-driver. The duo finished fifth in the Auto class, driving a Hummer H3. A big surprise in this year's rally was that the biggest rival in such a hard-core off-road event was actually the Mini -- and several of them, at that. Though he was a crowd favorite, off-road and NASCAR racer Gordon was accused of using an illegal tire-inflation system on his Hummer H3. The competitors believed that a pipe in the engine bay was sending extra air into the engine, presumably from the tire-inflation system, therefore was improving performance. All vehicles in this rally adhere to strict rules when it comes to air restriction, so the accusation was that Gordon's team had gotten around the rules. (For the record, the air-inflation system was approved by ASO Dakar Rally inspectors in 2011 and 2012.)
To show that his H3's performance was not being affected by the tire system, he disabled it before starting Stage 12. But even with the tire system disabled, the Hummer bested the Mini teams by more than 20 minutes in that stage. Gordon also made worldwide press for some of his wildly successful, high-speed driving maneuvers. He hit 136 mph on a steep downhill sand dune at the end of a race stage in Chile on a descent that many approach with caution.
Also newsworthy: Well-respected co-driver Andy Grider, who has teamed with Gordon in the past, walked away from his competitive and rudely argumentative Argentinian teammate Orlando Terranova at the end of Stage 4, after being seeded ninth at the start of that stage. The bold move on Grider's part took the pair and their Toyota Hilux pickup out of the rally, as substitute racers are not allowed after the start. Four-time Baja 1000 champion Mark McMillin's Jeep Grand Cherokee overheated and failed on Stage 2 in McMillin's first Dakar attempt, while well-known U.S. desert racer Darren Skilton made it to the finish following a truckload of mechanical and other trials, but had to be towed the final 9kilometers of the Rally, after his 375-hp 2WD buggy's gearbox broke. Skilton and his co-driver Skyler Gambrell, who was new to Dakar this year, had to be pushed over the uphill ramp that led to the podium, with the buggy's motor still running, which allowed Skilton to claim a 62nd-place finish. Americans Rob Rill and co-driver Benjamin Slocum, both experienced in Baja and WRC racing, took on their first Dakar in a BMW Desert Warrior SUV, but, after losing brakes on the race course on Stage 2 and helping Mark McMillin get off the course, Rill and Slocum were disqualified because of missing too many checkpoints. Also in the Auto class were Canadians David Bensadoun and Patrick Beale, driving a 3.0-liter BMW diesel buggy; the duo became the first Canadian team to finish a Dakar in this class, placing 40th overall.
In the motorcycle class, only Ned Suesse, of Colorado Springs, Colorado, completed the grueling event in the Bike class, placing 53rd in his first attempt. Internationally known biker Jonah Street, from Ellensburg, Washington, suffered mechanical issues on Stage 2 that ended his hopes for a top finish. American motorcycle rider Quinn Cody, last year's Dakar Rookie of the Year, had a horrendous high-speed crash on Stage 3 that left him with head, collarbone, and shoulder injuries. U.S.-based biker James Embro was forced to withdraw when he was injured during the transport over the Andes in a snowstorm when he was struck in the face by a rock thrown up by a passing Dakar truck. Bike instructor Bill Conger, a neighbor of Gordon's in North Carolina, had problems from the start on his first Dakar and was knocked out on Stage 3, whereas 65-year-old Mike Stanfield, who broke his foot on his first Dakar attempt last year, was forced to call it quits again this year on Stage 5. Twenty riders quit that day alone, with the experienced riders calling it the hardest Dakar ever.
This year's new route allowed competitors to discover unique lands. Ralliers drove from the Atlantic to the Pacific, across the Andes, and through the Atacama, the world's highest and most-punishing desert. It was the first time the Dakar had entered the country of Peru, taking advantage of a variety of off-road tracks and dunes that competitors described as some of the toughest along the route. The rally came to a close in capital-city Lima, with 97 Bikes, 12 Quads, 78 Autos, and 60 Trucks making it to the finish line -- 249 of the 443 vehicles that started the rally in Mar del Plata.
When the dust finally settled after two weeks of racing, the winner in the bike category was Frenchman Cyril Despres, riding a 450cc Rally KTM. He said toughest Dakar of the 12 he's raced. The world-renowned biker, who has competed in some 90 total races over his career, won by seconds over second-place finisher Marc Coma of Spain, also riding a 450cc KTM. Coma has achieved three first-place finishes at Dakar, including last year's top honors. The duo traded first- and second-place stage wins throughout the rally, bringing great drama to each day. "The 2012 Dakar is without a shadow of a doubt the toughest Dakar I have ever raced in. It was very demanding physically but also such an intense psychological battle," said Despres at the finish.
Frenchman Stephane Peterhensel won his tenth Dakar (his first in South America) piloting a Mini on the X-Raid team that fielded three cars. "Peter" dueled throughout with his teammate Joan "Nani" Roma, of Spain, who placed second, while Giniel De Villiers of South Africa, who was a first-place winner in 2009 and placed second in 2010, took third-place honors driving a Toyota Hilux pickup. Fourth place was garnered by Russian Leonid Novitsky, also in a Mini. Although Gordon took fifth overall, he took three stage wins, and pushed all of the frontrunners throughout, but setbacks cost him time penalties. Winning the two-wheel-drive category was Frenchman Ronan Chabot in an SMG buggy, while Xavier Foj of Spain topped all in the production category in his Toyota Primas.
The race in the Quad class was a hot contest between siblings who love to ride and race together. First place went to defending champion Alejandro Patronelli of Argentina, who managed to pull off his second Dakar victory in a row in his Raptor 700 Yamaha. He placed second in 2009 behind brother Marcos. . This year, second place went to Marcos also riding a Raptor 700 Yamaha. Marcos was forced out of last year's rally due to an injury.