A beige-colored dirt track snaked out before me and ran through a low-bush scrub clear to the edge of the horizon, where the dry land rose up and met the clouds. The terrain reminded me of some of the topography of the Baja 1000 race course, and it brought back memories of similar tracks in Mali and Burkina Faso, Africa, when I competed in the 2000 Paris-Dakar Rally. This realization cemented a thought I've had for many years of four-wheeling-many off-road landscapes and environments look exactly like other lands around the world. It's the cultures that are often different.
That was exactly the case now; it was the third day of the 2009 Dakar Rally and I was at the wheel of a four-wheel-drive VW Touareg organization/press car. The rally rules and regulations were the same; the setup of the "special" or race stages of varied geography that were book-ended by "liaison" stages on tarmac, when in populated areas, was the same; but, there were no African mud huts, nor locals balancing large basins of water atop their heads, and the native tongue here was Spanish-not French as in North Africa, the rally's ceremonial home and namesake.
It's a year in off-road racing that will go down in the record books. The Dakar Rally (ne Paris-Dakar Rally, from the earliest days when it started in the French capital), fabled as the world's longest and most grueling motorsports event, found success in its all-new venue: A 9,578-kilometer-long-run through the heart of South America, for its 31st edition. Far into the future, when archaeologists find artifacts from this legendary event on two disparate continents, they might wonder about the sudden and unusual migration of this passionate tribe of man and machine. Was there a plague or a poor corn harvest? Or, perhaps these continents were connected by a land bridge for a short period of time? What exactly was it that brought 500 racers on motorcycles and quads, and in cars and humongous trucks (the T4s) westward from the dunes of the Sahara across the Atlantic; to travel from Argentina's capital city Buenos Aires and its Atlantic shores to Chile's Pacific; to cross the snow-capped Andes twice; as well as travel through the Atacama desert?
Although the rally's home had been Africa, since it began in 1979, last year's event from Portugal to Dakar was cancelled 24 hours before the start, as a result of Al Qaeda threat and the killings of French tourists and members of the Mauritanian military along the rally route. That was the worst news possible for an increasingly-popular motorsports event that was also plagued by a growing number of other more minor terrorist events and the ever-present danger of unexploded land mines along sections of the rally route in North Africa.
The good news? The Latin American nations of Argentina and Chile went after A.S.O. race organizers and solicited this international event that drew participants from 49 nations this year, and saw 251 finishers: 113 bikers, 13 quad riders, 91 car teams and 54 truck teams.
Motorsports history was made when Volkswagen's Race Touareg 2, driven by Giniel de Villiers and Dirk von Zitzewitz (of South Africa and Germany, respectively), crossed the finish as the first manufacturer to win this rally under diesel power. Placing highest ever from the U.S. were racers Mark Miller, who garnered Second in a VW Touareg 2, and Third-Place finisher Robby Gordon, who raced in a Hummer (see sidebar). Also victorious were Marc Coma in the motorcycle category, Josef Machacek in the quad, and Firdaus Kabirov in the truck categories. Volkswagen also placed Sixth, in a Touareg driven by Dieter Depping of Germany; and Mitsubishi, with one finishing car, and BMW, with two finishers, grabbed another three of the top 10 slots, giving the race's new diesels six top spots in the rally.