Americans make their mark on the world's toughest race
Picture this: Robby Gordon, the infamous off-road and NASCAR racer, is on his way to possibly winning a 324-mile-long stage in the African savanna. He's over halfway through and has built up a good gap over his main competitors and there's just one past champion in front. Gordon's in fine form and elated to show everyone that as a rookie he can beat the veteran drivers at their own game.
But it's not to be. Instead, he has to give up his race and become a mechanic for two hours as he removes the steering from his car and installs it in another race car driven by a woman.
Robby Gordon-a rookie? Robby Gordon giving up a potential win to help another competitor? Something's very different in this picture.
Dakar. Baja. They are two magical names to anyone interested in auto racing. The dream of competing in, let alone winning, the Baja 1000 has driven thousands of competitors over its 37-year history to try their hand at one of the toughest races in the world. Baja's fame has drawn competitors from all over world. And every one of them has stories to tell of their adventures south of the border in Mexico.
Dakar might not be as familiar on this side of the Atlantic, and it's a younger event, having started 10 years later than Baja in 1978. However, its stature has grown such that it now draws competitors from all over the world and has become a major event that auto manufacturers spend millions to try and win.
For example, Mitsubishi might be in trouble as it faces an uncertain future, but one thing is certain-in Europe and Japan, it has a tremendous reputation as a manufacturer of tough SUVs because it has now won the Dakar no less than 10 times.
It's no wonder that Nissan, Volkswagen and, to a lesser extent, BMW have spent millions of dollars in an attempt to dethrone the champs. It's the sort of epic battle between auto giants that attracts so much publicity in other forms of racing, such as NASCAR, F1, and Le Mans.
Two years ago, Volkswagen embarked on its most ambitious ever race campaign when it decided to enter the Dakar race with the goal of winning the prestigious event. Volkswagen previously won the race 25 years ago, in 1980. However, the competition was not as tough and the publicity generated by the event was minuscule compared to the hoopla surrounding the race nowadays.
In 2003, VW entered two Tareks, which were actually heavily modified California-prepped Jimco buggies, powered by a turbodiesel engine. The company hired Jutta Kleinschmidt as its main driver, with Fabrizia Pons as her co-driver. Kleinschmidt was already an experienced Dakar veteran, having started racing motorcycles before moving over to cars and eventually joining the Mitsubishi team. In 2001, she became the first-ever woman to win the event. As a hero in Germany, it was natural for VW to pick her as the star of its fledgling team. She had also proven she was an excellent person to be involved in testing and developing the super-sophisticated Race Touareg that VW planned to develop for its campaign.
The first year was more of an exploratory event for VW as it developed the car and team. The fact that Kleinschmidt managed to finish in Eighth position was encouraging as it showed the engine and transmission were capable of competing against other vehicles.
In 2004, VW debuted two race Touaregs, with Frenchman Bruno Saby driving the second car. He was also a former Dakar winner, so the team now had two top drivers. Both drivers did well running with the race leaders, but a major engine problem on Jutta's car when the engine drowned in a deep river crossing, put an end to her chances of winning. Saby finished in 6th position.
During 2004 VW entered three other rally-raid events in Turkey, Morocco, and Dubai. The best finish was Third place for Kleinschmidt in Turkey. From VW's perspective, these races were really just test events as they prepared for the assault on the 2005 Dakar. Last summer, VW announced the addition of a third car, for yet another former Dakar winner and WRC ace, Juha Kankkunen from Finland.
However, the real surprise came on Thanksgiving Day last year, when VW surprised everyone by announcing that Robby Gordon would be driving a fourth car. Gordon had tested for VW, along with other drivers last summer, for a spot in the third car. But once that ride was given to Kankkunen, everyone assumed the three-car team was finalized. With Red Bull sponsoring the VW team as well as Gordon's Baja Trophy Truck, his addition to the VW team made sense.
Experience counts for a lot in Dakar. With three previous winners on the team, Gordon, despite having won Baja several times, was still regarded as a rookie.
What's more, it turns out Gordon had never raced a four-wheel-drive vehicle before, and certainly not a diesel. Neither had Gordon raced with a navigator previously, so it was definitely going to be a new experience for him as he learned to listen to the navigator telling him where to go and how fast to drive. In rallying and Dakar, the co-driver/navigator can make the difference between winning and losing. Make one wrong turn in the dunes, and you can easily get stuck for hours.