It's been said time and again by anyone who has entered the most notorious, toughest, baddest off-road race in the world that just to finish is an achievement. Most competitors in the Dakar race, like those in Baja races, are amateurs. They have little hope of winning against incredibly well-financed professional teams-their goal is just to finish.
Anyone who followed coverage of the 2006 Dakar race on TV would be forgiven if they missed a small but significant result-a Chevrolet truck won its class for the first time. Admittedly, the Silverado, which is loosely based on a SCORE Baja Trophy truck, only managed to finish in 51st position out of 68 finishers, but it won the newly created Open Score category. Driven by Frenchman Eric Vigouroux with navigator Alex Winocq, the Pro-System Racing team were naturally ecstatic at achieving their goal of finishing.
Their results were more noteworthy in a couple of stages near the end of the 15-day race when they finished in the top 10-amongst the factory teams from Volkswagen and Mitsubishi. It showed that the vehicle and the driver were capable of running among the top runners.
Earlier in the event, the other "car" in the Open Score category was putting on a similar performance, running among the top 10 on several stages. It was a Hummer H3, driven by none other than Robby Gordon, with fellow Baja competitor Darren Skilton as his co-driver.
For a long time, Baja racers have dreamed of competing in Dakar, but only a few have done so. Likewise, many Dakar competitors have dreamed of competing in Baja but even fewer have done so. While there may be similarities between the two races, the vehicles that compete are different. Essentially, Dakar vehicles are mostly highly modified tubular-framed SUVs with suspension setups and all-wheel-drive systems more akin to a World Rally Championship (WRC) car. They have restricted wheel travel of only 10 inches, while power output and/or engine capacity is determined by weight and other factors. They're excellent vehicles for crossing sand dunes and traversing relatively smooth fast tracks at high speed, but they would have trouble coping with the extremely rough terrain found in Baja.
The Dakar organizers created the Score category to encourage competitors with more traditional Baja-type two-wheel-drive trucks to enter. Vehicles in this class still have more restrictions than in a SCORE race, as they are limited to 20 inches of wheel travel and power output is restricted. However, the rules allowed Robby Gordon to modify a Trophy Truck without too much trouble. The biggest difference is that his Dakar race truck has independent rear suspension. Oh, and it has a pseudo-Hummer H3 body. Thanks to his relationship with General Motors, Gordon was able to get financial assistance from Hummer to run an H3 race truck.
Along with sponsorship from Jim Beam, Gordon put together a team within a short period. It was a gallant effort to create a winning U.S. car. Although it was a longshot, Gordon got a lot of credit for trying. "I want to be the first American to win," he said. "It's something I've dreamed of doing."
Gordon's Hummer looked monstrous compared to the regular SUVs that made up the majority of race vehicles. He was a center of attention at the start, just as he was last year when he drove for Volkswagen in a race Touareg and finished 12th, despite crashing and stopping to help repair a teammate's car.
Gordon's spot on the high-profile VW team this year was filled by Mark Miller. Baja fans know Miller as an extremely competitive racer who has won several times in his Chevrolet Trophy Truck. He has also competed in the Dakar twice before, including a class win in 2002 in a Toyota Trophy Land Cruiser. He also drove in the Pro-Systems team in a Chevy truck in 2004 but failed to finish. What's more, his navigator on each occasion has been Dirk von Zitzewitz, a veteran in this key seat who was also Gordon's navigator last year.
This year's running of the 28th, 15-day, 5,652-mile long Dakar race began in Lisbon, Portugal, on New Year's Eve. It is no longer called Paris-Dakar, as it was until a few years ago. It is now just "Dakar," as it starts in a different European city each year but still finishes in Dakar, the capital of Senegal in western Africa.
From its beginning, the race across the deserts of northern Africa has always been about teamwork, with the co-driver's ability to navigate miles of sand dunes with no tracks counting for as much as the driver's skills at keeping the race car from bogging down. However, sophisticated GPS navigation systems have enabled the better-equipped crews to virtually eliminate the odds of getting lost. This year, the organizers severely cut back on the use of GPS equipment, so navigators had to rely on a printed road book and compass to find their way through the unforgiving desert terrain and along ill-defined tracks. Everyone got lost several times during the event.
Regular Dakar competitors-and there are hundreds who come back year after year, such is the addictive nature of the adventure-know that the long stages in the Sahara are the make-or-break stages. It's there that the eventual winner starts to shine. The level of competition at the top has gotten extremely fierce, with two manufacturers determined to win. Mitsubishi currently dominates the event, having won all but two times in the past decade. Volkswagen has emerged as the preeminent challenger-it's determined to wrestle the honors from the Japanese manufacturer.
For 2006, Volkswagen entered no less than five of its 275hp, high-torque turbodiesel five-cylinder Touaregs in its third year as a full factory team (not counting 1980, when VW won the second-ever Paris-Dakar race). This was one more than the four 270hp gas-powered six-cylinder Pajeros (Monteros) from its archrival. Why so many vehicles? In the Dakar, it's inevitable that at least one or two cars in a team will break or crash, so the only way to even hope for an overall win is to have top drivers in several cars to better the odds that one or two will be on the podium at the finish.
At the end of the sixth day, just 11 minutes separated the top 10 leading vehicles, which consisted of all five VWs and three of the four Mitsubishis, plus two Schlesser buggies. Up until then, the race was as close as it has ever been in the event's history. Volkswagen had led the charge, while the more experienced Mitsubishi team hung back until the first truly grueling desert stage on the seventh day.
At the end of the 312-mile-long stage on the seventh day, Mitsubishi's Luc Alphand was as surprised as anyone at having set the fastest time of the day as he had suffered problems. But he had fewer problems than his closest competitors and he now led the event by three minutes over teammate Stephane Peterhansel (and winner of the previous two year's races). More important, he was six minutes ahead of Jutta Kleinschmidt in the leading VW. What's more, over two hours now separated the new leader from the car in the 10th spot. Mitsubishi's strategy, the same as last year, had paid off, though barely one-third of the event had been traversed.
Team VW's Miller found the stages in Europe the most challenging, as he was not used to muddy, tight WRC-style rally stages. But as soon as the race got into more familiar desert terrain, Miller's skill came to the fore and he worked his way up to fourth overall and third amongst the five VW drivers. Sadly, any chance for him to win overall came to an end on the infamous seventh day when he rolled off a sand dune and lost time righting the car, only to roll again. Despite losing two hours, this setback only dropped him to ninth place overall, as most other teams had even worse problems. Day seven just proved that Dakar is one tough race-and a Touareg is a tough race car-if you can roll twice and still continue in a strong position.
Robby Gordon was suffering more, though. Like Miller, Gordon didn't shine in the large Hummer during the three European stages. Once in Morocco, however, Gordon ran as high as fifth position before he started having some technical problems. Limping through stage eight, he had the misfortune to hit a clump of camel grass, which broke the radiator. By the time he and Skilton had dug themselves out of the sand and repaired the vehicle, they arrived too late at the final checkpoint for the day and were disqualified from the race.
Gordon's race was over, but Miller had a fabulous run on the long desert stage before the rest day with a strong third-place finish that elevated him to seventh place overall. He and the rest of the drivers and navigators got a well-deserved couple of nights in a hotel in the bustling and very sandy city of Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania.
The starting order for each day's stage is determined by the driver's finish position the day before, which meant that Miller was able to start third after the rest day. This would normally have given him a great opportunity for a stage win, as he'd be free of dust thrown up by competitors in front. But it was not to be. Team orders dictated that he wait for teammate Giniel DeVilliers from South Africa, who was running in third position overall. Miller had to follow him through the 375-mile-long special stage that eventually took the race out of the vast sand dunes of the Sahara. From now on, the VW team's primary goal was to support DeVilliers, as he was the only one with any chance of an overall win.
A win for VW would only happen if the two front-running Mitsus ran into trouble, as they had too great a lead in elapsed time. And one did-on the 12th day, when Peterhansel, the overall leader, hit a tree and broke his suspension. Although he was able to limp through the stage, he lost four hours to his teammate and was out of contention for his third straight overall win. Mitsubishi's hopes now rested with former French ski champ Alphand.
Usually, with only three days left in the 15-day race, there is little doubt as to who is going to win the Dakar. However, this year the race between Alphand and DeVilliers was tight, even though they were also trying to drive somewhat conservatively to make sure they would finish. It was nerve-wracking for both teams. But there were no more mishaps among the leaders before the race ended in Dakar-Alphand took the checkered flag for Mitsubishi while VW had to be content with second place for DeVilliers. Still, it was one position better than last year, and VW had proven that the turbodiesel Touaregs were finally a match for the gas-powered Pajeros. Mark Miller managed to maintain fifth place, finishing right behind Peterhansel and second among the five VW drivers. His was the second-best-ever finish for an American driver in the toughest race in the world. "Comparing Baja to Dakar," says Miller, "is like comparing kindergarten to college."
Robby Gordon is determined to try again next year, hopefully with a second Hummer (potentially with a Duramax diesel engine) for another experienced American driver plus a much larger support crew. Mark Miller is hopeful he'll be back driving one of the VW Touaregs again. Pro-Systems will return with one or two Chevrolet trucks. And who knows? Maybe more Baja racers will show up-the draw of Dakar is tremendous. Sooner or later an American driver and/or an American vehicle will win the most prestigious off-road race in the world.