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.
Having won the dubious distinction of crashing more than any other driver in NASCAR's Nextel Cup during the 2004 season, pundits were betting that Gordon would not last more than four or five days in the 17-day-long running of the 2005 Dakar. Few were terribly surprised when he won the first stage in Barcelona, as it was nothing more than a really short 2.5-mile stage along the beach. Veterans knew all too well that a win there was meaningless. Nonetheless, Gordon's first-day victory did mean a lot to him, as he became the first-ever American to win a stage and the first to lead the event overall. (In all fairness, we should point out that American Jimmy Lewis has lead the event and won stages in the past on a motorcycle, but like Baja, the motorcycles are really treated as a separate event.)
The second stage saw a win from Scotsman Colin McRae, without a doubt the most famous driver in the Dakar. Although he might be a former Word Rally Champion and star of the famous computer game, like Gordon he was a rookie in 2004 when he drove for the Nissan team. He finished 20th after getting stuck in the sand dunes in a remote part of the Sahara desert for more than a day. Despite the setback, he vowed to finish the event rather than quit, which would have been easy to do for a star used to winning. McRae was amazed at the incredible will to just finish the event that overcomes top drivers, even if they can't win.
Gordon really impressed everyone when he won the 77-mile-long stage in Morocco on the fourth day and re-took the overall lead. The stage was set for an epic race between these two strong-willed drivers. McRae had said he would win the 2005 Dakar, and he wasn't about to let an American rookie beat him.
Not surprisingly, McRae then set the fastest time on the next stage and took the overall lead with Gordon, who sat nine minutes back in Seventh position after suffering from tire problems and being more cautious.
Now the race had left the relatively developed tracks of Morocco and was heading into the never-ending sand dunes of the Sahara Desert in Mauritania. Everything fell apart for these two drivers on the seventh day during a 307-mile stage. Both rolled their vehicles at high speed within two miles of each other on the first long stage. Fortunately, Gordon and his German co-driver Dirk von Zitzewitz were uninjured, and the Race Touareg was not too seriously damaged. McRae's accident was worse, and he was slightly injured. The Nissan pickup was past repair, and the race was over for McRae and his Swedish co-driver Tina Thorner.
Not surprisingly, Gordon was ready to quit at this point. However, his co-driver persuaded him to stick with it while they waited for the VW service truck to arrive and tow the car to that night's bivouac. The VW mechanics were able to repair the vehicle so it was race ready the next day. However, Gordon was now in 121st position, which meant he'd have to start in that position and fight his way through clouds of dust to pass slower competitors seeded ahead of him. Meanwhile, a good time by Saby had elevated him to first overall, so at least a VW was still leading. With Gordon out of the running for a high finish, he was now under team orders to run behind Kleinschmidt to act as support for her should she need assistance.
By this point, experience and patience was the name of the game. In an event like Dakar, everyone suffers from punctures, breakdowns and getting stuck. Teamwork becomes the order of the day as competitors help each other out.
It was on the 12th day when Gordon became a hero. Suddenly, without any warning, Kleinschmidt's power steering went haywire, and she could not control her Touareg. Although Gordon was behind her, he was ahead in accumulative time with a chance of winning the stage. He stopped to check the situation and quickly realized that in order to save Kleinschmidt's race, the only thing to do was dismantle the steering mechanism from his car and put in on her vehicle. In less than two hours, the task was accomplished and she was on her way.
Despite losing all that time, she managed to hold on to Third place overall-a position she kept to the finish a few days later. It was the first time a diesel-powered vehicle had finished on the podium in the Dakar race, and maybe in any major auto race in the world. "A gigantic thank you goes to Robby! He is an incredible mechanic and changed my steering in less than two hours," said Kleinschmidt later. Meanwhile, Gordon admitted on TV that he "threw a temper tantrum" when he realized he'd have to sacrifice his time on the stage for Jutta.
Gordon eventually finished in 12th position, 21 hours behind the winner, but nonetheless the best finish for an American in a car since Malcolm Smith finished 4th in 1988. More important, VW's great finish would never have occurred had it not been for Gordon's prowess as a mechanic. "Robby Gordon began as a star and ended as a team player" was the VW team's statement on TV during the race show.
"I totally underestimated what it took to finish Dakar," admitted Gordon at the finish. "By far the toughest thing I've done in my life. I'll be back. I want to win Dakar, I'd like to have it on my resume."
The Baja 1000 is a non-stop race that runs down Mexico's Baja peninsula. It takes the winning vehicle about 16 or more hours to complete the race. Pit stops and driver changes are allowed, although it's possible to do the event solo, as navigating the tracks is relatively easy as they are marked and prerunning is allowed.
Dakar is like running 10 Baja races back to back with only a few hours' rest between each, and no driver changes or prerunning are allowed. The route is not marked, and navigation is an essential element if a racer has any hope of finishing, let alone winning.
For many years, the race started in Paris, which is why it used to be know as the Paris-Dakar race, even though it did not always finish in Dakar. This year, the event started in Barcelona and took a slightly shorter route than usual, making it only 17 days long instead of 21 days as it has been most years in the past.
What makes Dakar so different from other events is the fact it runs over so many days and goes from one place to another instead of being based in one or two fixed locations, like most rallies or rally-raids. It also traverses hundreds of miles of desert where there are no trails and it is very easy to get lost. At times, competitors cannot even follow tracks left by other racers as sandstorms cover tracks within minutes.
In essence, each day is like a new race. The teams start in the order they finished the day before and set off at one- or two-minute intervals. Invariably there is a transit stage, which is run at normal speeds and is not timed. Then there is a "special" stage, which is run at competitive speeds nonstop. The winner is the driver with the lowest accumulative time for the whole event. As in Baja, the cars often race on open public roads or tracks, although there is little or no traffic. A speed limit of 30 kph (19 mph) is strictly enforced when the race goes through villages with signs to mark where the enforced speed limit begins and ends. To ensure there is no cheating, speeds are monitored remotely via onboard GPS tracking systems, and hefty time penalties are assigned to drivers breaking the speed limit. The GPS systems are also invaluable for tracking lost competitors.
There are three main classes of competitors: Motorcycles (and quads); cars (including everything from buggies to SUVs and pickups); and trucks. Trucks are those giant four- or six-wheel-drive medium-duty trucks you expect to see on a construction site and are truly spectacular. Originally they were support trucks for the race teams, and many of them still serve that purpose as they can catch up to a disabled race vehicle and do repairs much quicker than the normal service crews that traverse paved highways or use airplanes. However, the truck class has taken on a life of its own, and some of the trucks are pure race trucks that are competing to win-not to service other race vehicles.
When you consider there were 164 cars, 230 motorcycles, and 69 trucks competing in the race this year, along with their support crews, the logistics of organizing the event are incredible.
Each night a bivouac is set up which is large enough to feed more than 2,100 people. Each morning the bivouac is dismantled, placed on board more than 21 cargo planes and moved on to the next night's location where everything is re-assembled. Team personnel, medical staff, media, and the organizers also travel in these planes as they leapfrog the competitors each day. In addition, helicopters follow the race each day for TV coverage and medical assistance. It's a staggering operation, which would make any army general proud.