Mention Dubai in the U.S., and you're likely to get a blank stare. It's a city halfway around the world--literally. But European tourists, especially those with Porsche Cayennes, will give you a different reaction; Dubai is home to one of the biggest desert off-road races in the world.
When they step off the plane, most visitors are reminded of Las Vegas--the Middle Eastern city is full of theme parks, luxurious hotels (including the world's only seven-star hotel), extravagant shopping malls, and construction, left, right, and center.
Dubai is as far removed from one's image of the Middle East as is possible. There are SUVs galore on the wide freeways, including a liberal sprinkling of Range Rovers and Mercedes-Benz models. Luxury cars abound. This is obviously a place of wealth. What's more, it doesn't derive a majority of its income from oil. And, unlike what you'd expect, Dubai predicts that its oil will run out within a decade. Dubai relies on tourism more than anything. With sunshine and 100-degree weather almost year 'round, it's becoming a veritable Disneyland for millions of sun-seekers and shoppers from cold, damp northern European countries.
We were in Dubai to cover the UAE Marlboro Desert Challenge. United Arab Emirates is a federation of seven small states (emirates), situated on the Persian Gulf across the water from Iran and bordered by Saudi Arabia and Oman. Dubai is the second-largest emirate.
Until 1971, the British ruled the area, and that influence can been seen everywhere. Dubai uses the square three-pin electric sockets found in Britain and in many of Britain's former colonies. The people don't drive on the left side of the road, but nearly every sign is in English as well as Arabic. While fuel is measured in gallons, the similarity ends there--most gas stations have small mosques beside them for traveling Muslims (who must pray five times a day).
Despite tremendous cultural differences, everyone seems to get along well: Dubai is full of ex-pats from Britain, India, and many African countries. Walk through a shopping mall or stroll the beaches, and you'll feel as though you're in Europe or the United States.
Once you leave the thoroughly modern cities in the UAE, you immediately enter vast tracts of sandy desert with a few scattered villages and homes. Although the roads are few, they're beautifully paved, with trees planted alongside. In most areas, there are relatively new saplings that haven't yet grown more than a few feet. Apparently, there's plenty of water available to irrigate millions of trees. The rulers believe that planting enough trees can change the climate, helping make the country even more attractive.
We were advised to maintain the speed limit of 90 kph; imagine our surprise when we saw a pickup truck gaining speed on us from behind. We let it pass, to discover it was a local farmer with a camel in the truck bed.
In the heat haze up ahead, we spotted a pyramid. Upon hearing it was a car museum under construction, we stopped for a look. Inside, there was an enormous Dodge Power Wagon, a four-times full-scale model that actually runs. Although we weren't allowed in, we were told there are four bedrooms, six bathrooms, a kitchen, and a large living area inside, making it the largest motorhome in the world. Outside, there was an even larger trailer home, officially the world's largest, according to the "Guinness Book of World Records." It's a sphere with the earth painted on it, containing eight bedrooms and nine bathrooms. Owned by the "Rainbow" Sheikh, the museum will house his fleet of cars, including seven customized Mercedes painted and trimmed in the colors of the rainbow.
Our caravan of VW Touaregs ventured on, nearing the race's base camp. The UAE Desert Challenge is one of six rounds of the international FIA World Cup for Cross Country Rallies. The rules allow the same cars and trucks that run in the Dakar rally to compete here as well. Because of that, the Challenge is used by many manufacturers as a shakedown test for Dakar, which takes place three months later.
We passed a palace set on a lush green hill and left the main highway. The group took a rough road covered by blowing sand and proceeded to a Wadi (dry lake). Here, a bivouac was erected for the contestants who'd camped there for four days. They ran long competitive timed stages from the camp into the dunes and back each day. We arrived just in time to see the leaders finding their way over pure sand dunes, with no visible tracks in most places. In this terrain, the going is tough, and it's all too easy to navigate the wrong way around a dune and end up sinking into the soft sand. The secret is to keep momentum and have low air pressure in the tires.
The leading modified Mitsubishi Pajeros (Monteros), which seemed to win most of the races, finally had some serious competition from Volkswagen, BMW, and Nissan. VW had highly modified Touaregs with 2.5-liter turbodiesel engines. BMW ran relatively stock-looking X5s, also with diesels. Nissan ran gas-powered Frontiers; Mitsubishi's entries also ran on gas.
Aside from these factory teams, there was a mix of modified Land Rovers, Isuzus, Toyotas, and even a couple of locally entered Chevrolet Sierras. The trucks had van-type bodies for aero-dynamics and storage of spare tires and tools, which made all the race cars look like SUVs.
The racing wasn't as ferocious as in the SCORE races in Baja, as this wasn't a sprint but a series of events each day. Stamina, good navigation, and reliability are key ingredients to a successful race team.
On the way back to Dubai from the desert, we learned more about local customs from our tour guides. Mashaal Abdul Rab is from Yemen, and his partner Mark Saunders is an ex-pat from Britain who has lived in Dubai for 10 years. They run one of many companies that take tourists into the deserts each day in SUVs to experience the dunes, have dinner at sunset, and ride camels. These tours are popular with Europeans who never come close to anything like this back home. Mark and Mashaal also help organize the Porsche Adventure Holidays, which offer several desert safaris every year for Porsche owners and club members. It's now a popular vacation for Porsche fans who get to drive Cayennes through the dunes. Additionally, the guys helped Porsche during the development phases of the Cayenne, when the engineers did much of the hot-weather and off-road testing in Dubai. It's becoming a place that attracts European manufacturers who have traditionally used Death Valley for hot-weather testing.
In the southwestern U.S., it's fairly easy to experience the thrill of driving off-road in the desert--although there are far fewer places open to driving than enthusiasts would like. Now, because Europeans have discovered desert off-roading, Dubai is a playground for tourists. Undoubtedly, more Americans will also venture east to play in the sand.
Flash (Crash) Gordon Saves the Day
by John Rettie
Volkswagen pulled a last-minute surprise when it added a fourth car to the three highly modified diesel Race Touaregs it had already entered in the 2005 Dakar Rally. More surprising, the driver was none other than Robby Gordon.
The talented NASCAR/IRL/off-road race driver had never run an event like Dakar before. It was his first race where a navigator was essential, his first competing in a four-wheel-drive vehicle, and certainly his first in a diesel-powered vehicle. History says first-time Dakar contestants, even those with extensive Baja experience, can never hope to win. Naysayers bet Robby would last no longer than a few days; that all changed when he took the fastest time on the first stage--just a short 2.5-mile-long stage on a beach near Barcelona, Spain, but it was the first time an American had ever won a stage in Dakar or led the race.
Imagine everyone's surprise when he won the fourth stage as well--a much tougher 236-mile-long one in Morocco, which put him in the lead ahead of ex-World Rally champ Colin McRae. Obviously, this was going to turn into a battle between the two famous drivers, each racing in an unfamiliar environment (McRae had competed in the 2004 Dakar as a rookie, but got horribly stuck in the desert, finishing in 20th position).
Nobody was surprised, then, when McRae regained the lead the following day. It was now Gordon's turn to pick up the pace, which he and co-driver Dirk von Zitzewitz did. Then they crashed. Luckily, the VW mechanics were able to work on the rolled Touareg, and Gordon was back in the race, albeit in 112th. He had no chance of winning and was tempted to quit. But, they say Dakar gets hold of competitors' minds and the only priority becomes finishing, so Gordon kept driving. However, as part of the VW factory team, he was then asked to act as backup to Jutta Kleinschmidt, the team's star driver. She had worked her way up to third position overall by the fifth day, so Gordon found himself playing a supporting role to Kleinschmidt, digging her out of soft sand and changing tires. On the 14th day, the steering broke on her car.
Fortunately, Gordon was right behind, and he removed the steering rack from his race SUV and reassembled it on hers in less than two hours. "Without Robby Gordon and Dirk von Zitzewitz, we would've had no chance of taking third position," said Kleinschmidt at the end of the race.
Although Gordon couldn't win any more stages, he did work his way up to finish 12th overall. More important, though, he saved the day for the VW race team, enabling VW and Kleinschmidt to garner a first-ever podium finish for a diesel-powered race car.
To no one's surprise, two factory Mitsubishi Pajero Evolutions, driven by Stephane Peterhansel and Luc Alphand, took first and second, giving Mitsubishi its 10th Dakar win. Experience taught them to take it easy the first few days before attacking the rest of the field on day seven, during a punishing 412-mile stage in the Sahara Desert.
What became of McRae? He crashed on the same stage as Gordon and was unable to continue, due to major damage to the truck and minor personal injuries. Gordon surprised Europeans with his ability not only to drive fast but to work as a team player and help other team drivers finish. Expect to see Gordon back in the Dakar race in 2006. He's hooked.