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.
The win by Gerard de Rooy of the Netherlands and the Italian constructor Iveco made history, as it was 25 years afterGerard's father Jan, a legendary driver and Dakar winner, had won the famed rally. On board this year were Darek Rodewald (co-driver), and Belgian Tom Colsoul (mechanic), as this class allows three in the cab of the behemoth vehicles, which are popular in Europe and Russia, but are relatively unknown in America.
"I'm a bit moved, but I'll keep my sunglasses on. The entire race was terrific. I was 22 years old when I embarked on this, and now, a decade on, we did it exactly 25 years after my father won the Dakar," de Rooy said. This year's first-place finish was also especially gratifying for De Rooy because a back injury forced him to drop out in the opening stage of last year's race. Even though De Rooy was injured in an Iveco, he enjoyed the support of Kamaz.
"After dropping out last year, I had to wait a month before getting back into action. I went to the Kamaz factory in Russia to meet a specialist. The Russians offered me the services of their physical therapist. They wanted me to be in shape for the Dakar. They wanted a good race. In the end, the Kamaz drivers are rivals only in competition."
The second-place finishers in the Truck class were also from the Netherlands and motored in a Trakker Evolution II Iveco, with Hans Stacey (driver), Hans Van Goor (co-driver), and Bernard Der Kinderen (mechanic).
"Jan De Rooy [one of the team's sponsors] called me because he wanted one of his Ivecos to finish on the Dakar podium," said Stacey. "He thought of me because there are not many guys capable of doing it. I wanted to start at maximum attack speed, but after 50 kilometers in the first section, I went through a river and nothing happened, but my springs were broken, so I had to slow down. I pushed in the first section but in the last section I took care and prayed to God that my suspension would hold out until the finish. It was a very dangerous stage for trucks, but I'm happy to be here at the finish again."
Third in the Truck class was Team Astana from Kazakhstan: Artur Ardavichus (driver), Russian Alexey Kuzmich (co-driver), and Nurlan Turlubaev (mechanic), piloting a Kamaz. Team Astana is the first team not just from Kazakhstan but from throughout Central Asia to participate in Dakar.
"The T4s [big trucks] defy logic," said Darren Skilton, who is the U.S. representative for the Dakar. "Everybody who comes to the Rally cannot believe how fast and thunderously loud they are, with their big wheels and high ground clearance -- the ruts even don't bother them."
A native of Bellflower, California, Robby Gordon drove the No. 303 SPEED Energy/Toyo Tires Hummer to a fifth-place finish overall, after suffering a number of bad breaks, which included getting lost, a rollover, mechanical issues, and towing and helping his teammate, top-seeded Nasser Saleh al-Attiyah, the Qatari driver who won an epic duel in last year's rally against Carlos Sousa. (Al-Attiyah was forced to retire after Stage 8 due to mechanical problems.) Along the way, Gordon and co-driver Johnny Campbell posted 10 top-five stage finishes in the 14-stage event and won three stages. Although some racers would have been pleased with these results, Gordon was dissatisfied.
"Last year, the Dakar was an agonizing defeat for me. Dropping out on stage four was not only a bitter pill to swallow, but more importantly was an embarrassment. I've always thought that second place is just the first among the losers. So I'm afraid we're fourth among the losers!"
A passionate racer, the high-strung Gordon was hurt by being called a cheater regarding sophisticated air inflation system he developed. "I'm very clever -- a bit of a MacGyver -- and I exposed the ASO Dakar Rally organizers and officials to this system ahead of time," said Gordon, who felt he was chastised when he started to dominate the rally. Now, back in the U.S., Gordon has a full schedule of NASCAR races and off-road events.
Darren Skilton drove his Revolution "6" 2WD buggy from Baja Automotive to one of the race's more memorable finishes. During the first half of the Rally, his vehicle was plagued by fuel problems. Late in the race, numerous other problems occurred that Skilton described as "an emotional rollercoaster." At Stage 14, the esteemed American racer was aided by Australia's Geoffrey Olhom, as the duo had to tow the vehicle 9 kilometers, when it was then literally pushed over the finish line by Skilton's teammates.
Well-known on the off-road racing circuits of Dakar, in Baja, and around the globe, Skilton's never-surrender attitude has been widely celebrated. This was his seventh Dakar and he had hoped to finish in the top 15. "The car is fast and it's lighter than a Hummer," said Skilton, who was thrilled to start this year in the new buggy and to have his father, well-known racer Clive Skilton, on his crew. Undaunted by his trials, Skilton plans to be back with a small fleet of buggies, now that he's learned how to improve them for the rigors of Dakar.
A native of San Diego, the popular U.S.-based McMillin drove a Jeep Grand Cherokee with co-driver Gary Arnold. Unfortunately, the four-time winner of the Baja 1000 watched his Dakar dreams die when the McMillin Racing Dakar team's Jeep suffered a blown head gasket and warped head that forced him to the sidelines during Stage 2, which he could not finish.
This was especially disappointing, given that McMillin said before the start of his first Dakar: "I've been thinking about this race for a long time. Finishing is priority one. For sure, I'd like to win my class (Open Score), but I have no idea of what to expect...at the age of 55, I am coming to see what the Dakar is all about. I hope to do a good job so I can come back."
After the event, he said, "The best part was experiencing it first-hand, as there is no way you can begin to know it from TV or the stories of others. You really can't compare it to the Baja 1000 -- it's a different game. The worst part? The lack of sleep and the dust-bowl bivouacs. But I would absolutely go back under the right circumstances!"
Newbie Dakar competitor Ned Suesse, of Colorado Springs, Colorado, was the only U.S. biker to complete the rally, crossing the podium in 53rd place. An experienced biker, Suesse, who had dreamt of being on the start line of Dakar for years, has invented products for motorcycles, including a folding rearview mirror.
"I was fortunate. I had such a clean race and was never caught by the big trucks and most days by only a few cars. My training was a lot more technical than it needed to be, and therefore I was able to enjoy the Rally and the terrain -- all except the fesh-fesh [silt] and rocks of Chile. My mantra was 'no stops.' When you give up the initiative and stop, it's hard, but you don't get into trouble riding too slow. The only way for me to get through mentally was not to look at the big picture," said Suesse.
"Some years ago, I saw a group of motorcycles racing through the dunes in Mauritania on TV. The sight was so surreal and yet beautiful. I wanted more than anything to be there, doing that. I never thought it could happen. I committed myself to being on the start line in 2012, by doing lots of riding and wearing out tires like crazy practicing."
Jonah Street, currently of Ellensburg, Washington, was "bummed" about going out on day two after competing in six previous Dakars, with three finishes and one seventh-place finish. "I spent the last two years organizing myself and this past year did more training than I've ever done, plus I had a really fast bike. It was surprising and frustrating."
Street raced a YZ450 Yamaha, until electrical problems forced him to withdraw. "I knew the bike wouldn't make it through the dunes," he explained, "so unfortunately, the Dakar rally ended for me right there."
A native of Laguna Beach, California, the popular competitor, who was a seventh-place Dakar finisher in 2010, had high hopes after 2011. "Last year was hard," he said. "It was the first time I organized everything myself with my own team. There was no opportunity for me to test my bike prior to the Dakar. My mechanic saw the bike for the first time in Buenos Aires. We really lacked time."
Street has just announced his retirement, although the world-class biker says he's been planning it for a while. "My kids are getting older and, although my body is still in shape, my hands aren't those of a 20-year-old," said Street, who turns 40 in March. "I always thought I'd be done when my eyes changed -- not my hands," adding that his full-time work as a mason hasn't helped. "I have no complaints. It's been 21 years since my first professional race and I've been to 27 countries and raced on every continent but Antarctica. I might come back to racing in a car or as a team manager, however."
Quinn Cody suffered a high-speed crash during Stage 3. The rider of a CFR 450X Honda escaped life-threatening harm, but was wracked with head, shoulder, and collarbone injuries. A few hours after the accident, he said, "So many people put so much into our Dakar entry -- months and months of work and to have this happen. To be leaving now, after Stage 3 -- it's just a bummer."
Quinn raced Dakar for the first time last year, capturing a Rookie of the Year Award for his ninth-place finish overall. Naturally, he had high hopes, and a top experience from last year to remember. As he said before this year's race, "My first Dakar was an incredible experience. I had no idea what I was in for. The Dakar changes you."
Along with Robby Gordon, American co-driver Andy Grider made headlines around the globe for his participation in this year's Dakar. After an argument with his Argentinian driver, Orlando Terranova, Grider abruptly quit the Rally following day four. "They started seriously arguing yesterday," Team Overdrive manager Jean-Marc Fortin told television crews. Then Grider "decided to quit and not start this morning." Grider, who finished third with Gordon in 2009, later issued a statement that he left Dakar for "personal family reasons." His departure was significant for Team Overdrive, as Dakar Rally rules specify that co-drivers cannot be replaced mid-race. Terranova had been seeded in the top 10 for the 2012 event.
Total Distances, including Liaison Stages:
• Motorcycles and Quads- 5196 mi (8363 km)
• Cars - 5202 mi (8373 km)
• Trucks - 5177 mi (8333 km)
Motorcycles and Quads were separate classes, but assigned the same number of miles.
With 14 special stages, the 2012 Dakar Rally provided participants with 2500 to 2700 miles of competitive racing. For each class of vehicles, the total number of racing miles varied slightly.
• Motorcycles and Quads - 2737 mi (4406 km)
• Cars - 2604 mi (4191 km)
• Trucks - 4151 mi (2579 km)
Of the 443 vehicles that started the Dakar in Mar del Plata, only 249 finished. Finishers by class:
• 97 motorcycles
• 12 quads
• 78 cars
• 60 trucks
There were four deaths. The first occurred near the end of the first stage, when motorcyclist Jorge Andres Boreo died after a crash. During Stage 2, an ultralight aircraft carrying two spectators -- father and son -- crashed. Both died at the scene. The fourth death was another motorcycle rider, a fan from Colombia, who crashed while following the race.
Why are T4 and T5 Trucks so popular in Holland?
Sue Mead interviewed Fred M. Krijgsman at Xtreme Adventure Reports about the popularity of the vehicles in the Truck class.
As he explained, "One of the first guys in the Truck world, Jan de Rooy, made the race popular, especially with his big trucks, and in the beginning with some special-built ones, with a double-cab in the front and rear, and engines with massive amounts of horsepower. He made the big Dakar rally trucks famous here in Holland, but also in the event. Now his son Gerard is taking over, while his dad is more a like a general team manager in the background.
"Further, the Dutch people are adventurous, like to travel, and like to explore. Holland is one of the main gates to Europe, with a big harbor in Rotterdam, so a lot of trucking containers come into Europe here. A lot of Dutch people and companies are involved in trucking. And to have a living legend like Jan de Rooy racing in the famous big trucks made it popular for the Dutch people and Dutch truckers. Of course, there are many other Dutch rally legends that have taken part in the Dakar, but Jan de Rooy is certainly leading the list of all those people. If Dutch people talk about Dakar, they also talk about Jan de Rooy." -- Sue Mead