If you're an off-road racer, you expect mud, rocks, sand, and rutted tracks. You know that Mother Nature can dish out high winds, rain, hail, and snow. You also expect difficult navigation and know you could get lost. But how about sharing the racetrack with kangaroos, lizards, and emus? If you race in the land Down Under, it's all part of the enchanting and dangerous adventure.The Australasian Safari Rally is considered the most grueling endurance motorsport challenge in the Asia Pacific region. Some even refer to the annual event as the mini-Dakar, a nod to the world's longest and most brutal off-road rally, which clocks in at close to 6000 miles traveled over 14 days of racing and now is held in South America. That's a fair comparison when it comes to daily rigors and tricky navigation, even though the ASR is a seven-day marathon, following a Prologue stage. It traverses some 2500 miles of brutal four-wheel-drive terrain through the remote and rugged western Australia Outback.

For the 2011 edition of the rally, a total of 83 racers donned race gear in competition categories that included Auto (16 vehicles started and 10 finished), Moto (45 motorbikes started and 32 finished), Quad (six riders started and three finished), and the new Safari Production category, designed to attract showroom-spec autos with minimum modifications (a lone Subaru Forester XT started and finished). Adventure Tour participants follow along and even prerun some of the official rally tracks on motorcycles.

The 2011 ASR route took the cast of competitors, crew, media, and supporters from Hillarys Boat Harbour, located north of Perth on the Indian Ocean, on a northwesterly arc into the interior of the legendary, sparsely populated mining region of the Outback and to the edge of the Great Northern Desert. There were overnight stops in Geraldton, Mount Magnet, and Sandstone; two nights each in Laverton and Leonora; and a finish in Kalgoorlie.

The only American competitor who participated in the 2011 edition was Seth Strait of Rutland, Vermont, making his inaugural run. Other well-known off-road racers from the U.S. who have taken the challenge in past years include Rod Hall and Clive Skilton.

From the start of the 10-mile-long Prologue, or Time Trial, on the first official day of the rally, the severe and rough sections of the race punished even the top racers with spills, rollovers, navigation errors, and misadventures. Damage was a common theme for the autos and took out PWR Performance Products Holden Rally team's Chevy Colorado, driven by Paul and Kees Weel, on the third day. Their kitted-out race truck limped into camp in the darkness after hitting a tree. Both Weel and V8 Supercar Champ Craig Lowndes, the favored winner in the Auto Class, hit trees. After leading four legs, last year's winner Lowndes and partner John Panozzo tipped their pickup on its side. Despite a tow into the end of the stage, with assistance from competitors Murray Young and Paul McBean in car 127, the downtime gave Australians Steve Riley and John Doble, driving the Cairns Coconut Resort's 2008 Mitsubishi Pajero, the time needed to claim a first-place finish in the Auto class.

Finishing the rally in the Stock Production Class was the solo entry of Rob Herridge and Tim Batten, who won in their Subaru Forester XT. The father/daughter team of Terry and Jodi Conner, who motored a 1995 Nissan GQ in the Auto Class, started well in the early stages, but experienced mechanical failures and placed seventh.

Despite the competitive nature of the ASR, a number of stories reflected the rally's spirit, which organizers say brings competitors and officials back year after year. Two tales exemplified that sentiment.

One involved V8 Supercar champ Craig Lowndes and his co-driver. "After we turned the car onto its side on Leg 5, car 177 stopped its race to help us tip the car back onto four wheels. Then car 127 stopped and towed us 12 kilometers to the end of the stage," Lowndes said.

Murray Young, the driver in car 127 (a Mitsubishi Pajero), said there was no question they would stop to help. "It's the gentlemanly thing to do," Young said. He added that asking for time compensation from the stewards hadn't crossed his mind. In the spirit of Safari, just helping a fellow competitor was reward enough.

Then, riding for the Husaberg Racing Team, Michael Heuchan sacrificed a top-10 leg finish to assist teammate Damian Grabham after Grabham's bike stopped for mechanical reasons. "I saw my teammate on the side of the track and had to stop and help him -- it's the right thing to do," Heuchan said. "His bike wasn't going, so we got some fence wire, and using that I towed him four kilometers to the end of stage 10 and then another 30 kilometers back to the bivouac."

The 2012 Australasian Rally is scheduled for September 21-29, 2012. For further information, go to www.australiansafari.com.au.

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