Racing the 2011 Dakar Rally With Ford's SVT Raptor
Danger Drama And Delight
"We have to sleep," I yelled to my co-driver, Darren Skilton, over the sound of the Raptor engine. "It's 4:30 a.m." We had just finished digging our Ford SVT race truck out of the deep sand that had sucked us in as we motored across the lip of a dune. The half-hour-long task required not only shoveling yards of the soft, grainy material that mired our 35-inch General Grabbers, but also lying on our sides to scoop with our cupped hands and drag more of it out from under the belly of our truck, where it was impeding the driveline, skidplates, and side rails.
"Look in the book and see what time the sun comes up," my Dakar Rally partner called back. "The sun rises in Iquique at 7:08," I replied. "All right," he said, in a dejected tone, making it clear he wanted to persevere in our attempt to drive through the dangerous dunes in pitch darkness to the end of the race stage. The finish line, as well as our three teammates and a support truck with spare parts, sleeping bags, and warm clothing, were still 20 kilometers away in Iquique, Chile, and the only two visible passages through the dunes were blocked by stuck race vehicles. We had already passed a number of racers throughout the day and into the evening who were stuck, had broken down, or had given up the idea of further travel in the inky darkness.
My body was shaking. The cocktail of the night's chill and complete exhaustion sank my spirits as I settled into the co-driver side of our race vehicle. I tried to pretend it was a bed, and that my body was prone, instead of sitting upright in a hard plastic Cobra race seat. Fatigue should have melted into sleep after 18 difficult hours of racing, with stops due to a broken shock mount, high-centering on an unseen rock ledge, and getting stuck in silt and sand, but my brain was fixed on high alert and my body ached. Plus, keeping still made me aware that, despite my tight-fitting, fire-retardant race suit, a layer of Atacama Desert sand now coated my skin; it felt nearly an inch deep on my scalp as I ran my hand through my hair. I also knew I would need medical treatment when we reached camp.
There was a compression sore on my back that was rubbed raw from the protective hard plastic that supported my spine -- a part of the HANS device that all racers are required to wear for head and neck safety.
The day's heat that spiked well above 100 degrees had been replaced with temperatures that dipped toward freezing as we sat at an elevation of 9600 feet in the world's highest, most brutal, barren desert. I followed the pencil point of flashlights and headlamps that illuminated swaths of darkness, as fellow competitors worked on their stuck race vehicles, attempted to find a way out of the dune field, or warned others from coming too close. I could also see the running lights and heat-print of other vehicles. That included a small group of motorcycles; a cadre of the humongous T4 camions, one perched like a beetle on its back having tipped over and rolled to the bottom of a dune; and a variety of "autos" (everything from the high-powered, homologated race cars to pickups and SUVs). There were also Dakar organization vehicles joining in the makeshift campground.
As we neared the end of Stage 5, en route from Calama to Iquique, we were situated in northern Chile, where we had crossed over the tall spine of the Andes. Ahead of us were eight more stages and a return trip back across the Andes to complete the 9458 kilometers laid out as the course for this year's Dakar, which started and ended in Buenos Aires. My heart sank as I thought of the race notes for this day alone, because I knew the upcoming five days promised to be even harder and longer.
The writeup of this stage in the Road Book advertised our driving day as a "complete special" where riders and drivers would have to deal with a variety of terrains, each one demanding a special type of riding or driving. It was accurate, indeed, as the nearly 500-kilometer-long race course began with slow maneuvering over rocky and bad track, followed by the crossing of a salar or salt flat, "guaranteed to keep us busy for more than an hour" it surmised--and it did. Next was wide open off-track terrain, ending with a "festival of dunes and a bag of thrills for thrill-seekers." This was where we were now stuck, and the culmination of the day that required motoring a 2.3-kilometer, heart-arresting downhill slope at an average gradient of 32 percent. This was the crowd-pleasing grand finale leading to our bivouac, on the outskirts of this coastal city perched above the Pacific Ocean.
Suddenly, my thoughts became cynical: a festival of dunes and thrills for thrill-seekers? My mind sped by the question "what were they thinking?' and moved to "what was I thinking?" Drifting off to a fitful sleep, I let go of the day, allowing it to float lazily upward to the star-filled sky. Someday I would cherish the memory of this night sky, so I tucked it away and awaited the sunrise.
That was my lowest moment of the 2011 Dakar Rally, the longest and most grueling motorsport race on the planet. I knew it wasn't a race for the unskilled, the unfit, or the faint of heart. I wasn't a newcomer, as I have competed in numerous off-road races and extreme 4WD adventures, and was a co-driver for Skilton in 2000, when this legendary rally was the Paris-Dakar Rally, starting in Paris and traveling through North Africa. As Skilton's co-driver/navigator, I raced more than 5000 miles that year, and we were airlifted over a portion of the Sahara because of terrorists. It was difficult and daunting, but we finished.
When Skilton and I finally crossed the finish line in Iquique, it was 8:30 a.m. We would incur a 16-hour penalty for not completing Stage 5 on time. However, if we were to stay in the rally, it was imperative that we make a two-hour turnaround and be back on the Stage 6 race course by 10:30 a.m. Arriving at the bivouac, my flagging spirits soared as our support crew greeted us and quickly and efficiently put us and our race vehicle back together. In two hours, a welding repair was completed, the interior of the Raptor was stripped of empty water bottles and food containers and restocked, tools and tow straps were restowed, and, after a quick trip to the medical tent to bandage the small wound on my back, Skilton and I were back at the Dakar. It would be 20 hours before we would enter the bivouac at the close of Stage 6, making that close to two days with only two hours of sleep. Our teammates, knowing how exhausted we were, awaited our arrival at the end of the race course of Stage 6. They provided us not only with more food and water but, more important, cheered us on as we slipped away into the darkness for another 400 kilometers of travel, before arriving in camp at 6:30 a.m. for our solo rest day.
These two days on the Dakar were pivotal in our accomplishment of bringing the nearly stock Ford SVT Raptor across the finish line to a First Place finish in our class. We had fought the Dakar -- and we won. "We" was the five of us who championed each other and shared roles and worked through the night and made it together through each day on a nearly 6000-mile-long journey. (Special thanks to Troy Johnson and Dan Moore, who helped prep the truck and also served as team mechanics on the rally.) As our team took the podium in Buenos Aires, we were grateful for our opportunity to compete, thankful to sponsors who believed in us, and indebted to all who competed in the 2011 Dakar Rally. Of the Dakar, it is said, "To finish is to win." But to all who tried and didn't finish, we also honor you and your effort.