Taking the podium in Santiago were 124 motorcycle riders, 26 quad drivers, 89 car crews, and 60 truck teams that proudly celebrated their arrival, as the president of the Republic and a worldwide audience congratulated the finishers of the 2013 Dakar. After 14 days of racing some 5000 miles, 67 percent (299/449) of the vehicles on the start list in Lima made it to the end. All -- whether simply starters or the fortunate finishers -- have a story to tell.
Among the finishers were three American teams with fascinating stories. Robby Gordon came to win; the rebel racer garnered a couple top stage wins and numerous top stage finishes, but also collected a batch of bad luck. He never gave up trying -- which is one of the reasons he's loved around the globe. Johnny Campbell, who at 41 is past his prime as a motorcycle rally racer, signed on as a Honda rider, bike tester, and "waterboy," with literally no time to train, but the Baja favorite crossed the finish, even after a couple crashes resulted in injury, plus posted a second-place finish on a day when he started 70th. Kurt Caselli, who was asked by KTM to replace one of the world's top racers, had a week and a half to prepare, 30 minutes to ride his rally bike before the race, and had never read a rally book; the newbie to Dakar came home with two first-place stage wins and a 31st place finish.
They call him the American Rebel and a cowboy, and Robby Gordon likes it! The showman and internationally renowned racer finished his eighth Dakar hungry for the overall win that he is sure he has in his back pocket, but has yet to capture.
"We blew it on day one," said Gordon, referring to a 10-minute penalty that turned into 30 minutes for he and navigator Kellan Walch. Walch has a Dakar stage win on a motorcycle to his credit and also raced with Gordon in 2011, when the team was forced to retire at stage 4. Last year, Gordon was ousted due to the non-conformity of his Hummer, a contentious issue with the Dakar organization, as Gordon's setup was approved before the start.
"Or, if we could have just started on day 5, because we were one of the fastest cars in the event and led most of the way points again," explained Gordon, who drove his 2WD SPEED Energy MAPEI Hummer to two stage wins and eight podium finishes this year, despite a rollover on day 4 in the dunes that cracked the Hummer's radiators and sapped time from the team's standing. "I was also frustrated by the cancellation of stages, because I think we should have won those and placed seventh," added the crowd-pleasing driver who made history during his first Dakar in 2005 in a VW Race Touareg, as the first American to win a stage in the car class on the Dakar. After another stage victory, he put in a spectacular barrel roll on his way to finishing 12th overall that year.
Could've, would've, should've, you might think. But, the truth is that's the Robby Gordon story. The 43-year-old is one of the best of the best and just won the 2012 Best in the Desert title. He's talented and hard-working, but this year's rally (as well as others) consisted of ups and downs. Successes? He's placed third overall at Dakar in 2009, and he's loved by the fans where ever he goes. What you've gotta love, though, is that Gordon doesn't stop. A Dakar press release during the event offered this: No matter the outcome of the stage, the two continued to battle, capturing eight podiums and two stage wins in the world's toughest off-road race.
Make no mistake about it: Gordon's mission is to win overall, so he could have closed up shop after stage 4 and gone home; others have. But Gordon said that continuing with the Rally would help overall in developing the Hummer to make it stronger to come back in 2014 to capture the ultimate goal in an overall win. He planned to win the Dakar in five years. It has been eight. But he'll be back. He believes he has the fastest car in the field, and has just one dog to hunt. He wants victory and, if possible, to humiliate his rivals.
When he finished 14th overall, the showman spun his Hummer in his signature donuts for hundreds of fans waiting to greet him. And, while Gordon's team needs rest after several days of camping in the desert, he returned stateside to begin racing immediately, first with the Best of the Desert Parker 250, followed by the King of the Hammers. That doesn't even account for his NASCAR participation and his own off-road racing series, Stadium Super Trucks. Now, that's a racer you've gotta love!
Kurt Caselli -- 31st Bikes
"It's been on my bucket list for the past 5-6 years. Dakar is the pinnacle of off-road racing," said Californian Kurt Caselli, 29, the talented championship motorcycle rider who began riding at the age of 4 and started desert racing in southern California when he was 12. "I've been riding with KTM for 12 years and was shocked to get the call from my boss one and a half weeks before the Dakar started that KTM of Europe wanted to use me as a replacement for world champion motorcycle rider Marc Coma." Coma, who has won the Dakar three times and placed second in 2012, was unable to race due to a shoulder injury.
"I was apprehensive but wanted to go, and had no expectation to do well, so just showed up with 'How To Read a Road Book,' as I had never ridden a rally bike or read a rally road book," offered the international racing and enduro champ and Baja racer. "Coma sat with me the night before, which was great. Riding-wise, Dakar wasn't that hard. In fact, it was not as technical as I expected, with some pretty basic riding, but it was a bit of a gamble for KTM to put me on their factory team." The gamble paid off as Caselli won two stages and earned the nickname "Special K." He placed 31st overall in bikes.
"They were happy with my finish, but I was frustrated with my results due to some navigation problems getting lost, and losing three waypoints, but it's a learning experience and it makes me want to go back and ride with more experience. The high point was riding a motorcycle in South America for two weeks, meeting a lot of different people, and sleeping on the floor during the marathon leg."
Johnny Campbell -- 40th Bikes
This illustrious biker has been dubbed "Mr. Baja 1000." As the 11-time winner of this legendary off-road race, and a five-time Baja 500 champion, Johnny Campbell revisited the Dakar 12 years after his first run, in 2001; he finished eighth in bikes then and called it an "amazing journey." Last year, the Californian came back to Dakar as Robby Gordon's co-driver and, despite racing all over the world, he still remembers the "amazing" thrill of going down the daunting and celebrated nearly mile-long Iquique dune in Gordon's Hummer at 136 mph. It has a gradient of close to 40 percent.
He thought he was done with Dakar. "I'm past my prime as a racer," said Campbell, 41, who stopped racing professionally in 2008, and owns and operates American Honda's motorcycle racing team. "But a call came in August from Honda worldwide and they offered an opportunity to join the factory team at Dakar, requesting that I ride a new motorcycle for development purposes -- testing was being done for higher top speed, ergonomics, and handling, and an evaluation of the fuel tank's placement -- and to be the 'waterboy' for Helder Rodriques, who had two third-place finishes in the last two years (Rodriques was seventh this year). A waterboy helps fix the bike of an assigned rider and is a parts donor, when needed."
"So, this year was a present to me in my semi-post-racing career and the first time I participated on the HRC factory team. I figured I better do it before I got too old, but it was a challenge to go this year, being that I was not racing or riding when I conducted a test with American Honda in August, and when I already had the next four months of my schedule filled. So, in December when we finalized the Dakar, I really had only 10 days to prepare; I was happy just to be Rodriques' waterboy and to be in the background, as I don't have the aggressiveness I used to have."
It came as a complete surprise and delight when Campbell took second place the day following the biker's two-day marathon stage, without support and sleeping in the desert overnight. By that time, Campbell was tired. "I had a crash on day 3 that left me with bruised ribs. I was already fatigued by early morning wake-ups and long days at the handle bars, plus the two crossings of the Andes; we crossed with 4 a.m. starts that required being overdressed for below-freezing temperatures, and riding in the dark at an altitude that affects your focus."
"When we got to the marathon stage, my job was to help Rodriques, so I had been very conservative in my riding. It turned out that Helger had a problem with a rear tire and his nav switch. So, I gave him my back wheel and automatic Trippy nav system and set off with his wheel and had to switch the navigation pages by hand. However, I started 70th and finished second, due to navigation errors on the part of other riders -- the waterboy with a bald tire that had to take his hand off his bike to navigate!" Campbell enthused.
Despite another fall that zapped him of his core strength, Campbell finished 40th overall, with his love of Dakar intact. "I loved the vastness and remoteness of some of the stages in the deserts that brought mystique and the magic of riding down kilometer-tall dunes, where you can't even see the bottom. I also loved having a motorhome and showers and a physiotherapist as some of the benefits of being part of the HRC team," the semi-retired Dakar finisher said.
All photos copyright ASO