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.
When the dust settled, this year's inaugural event in Latin America was distinct as a result of the exceptional enthusiasm of passionate fans-or the fierros, as they're called, in Argentina and Chile. There were also higher temperatures than expected, along with the higher altitudes of the snow-topped Andes. But, for the racers, the organizers, and members of the embedded press, such as I was, it was the same high-adrenaline, motorsports adventure as it has always been, and there were some of the best off-road tracks, water crossings, dunes, and endless miles of backcountry tracks to explore.
At the start of the rally, navigating south and eastward from Buenos Aires, we traveled across La Pampa, a region of Argentina with vast plains-some used for sunflower crops, others for grazing land for cattle, but punctuated by many open stretches that began to soothe our souls, after exiting BA's bustling megopolis. Day two found us following rolling tracks and passing through a narrow spine of mountains, with the small village of Sierra Grande tucked in a verdant valley. We spent the second night of the rally along the shores of the Atlantic, in the port city of Puerto Madryn. Day three brought our convoy of organization/presse and rally vehicles along tracks that led us to the entry of Patagonia, signaling a significant change in terrain, with majestic panoramas of mountains sprinkled with small snowfields, turquoise alpine lakes, and purple and white wildflowers waving in the breeze.
Heading westward, we came to an area known as the Argentinean rios, with long, sandy off-road tracks, the beginning of sand dunes, and an area with rock outcroppings, compared by some to the Grand Canyon. Moving on to Mendoza, the skyline was dominated by the snow-capped, glistening peaks of the Andes. The serpentine track that brought us to Chile, with a sliver of a view of the mighty Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Americas, led us to Valparaiso, a large and modern port city, tucked into the hills that cascade to the Pacific. It was here that we spent our single "rest day," in the middle of the 14-stage rally, collecting ourselves and our gear for the second half of the event.
Now, traveling northerly along the Pacific, we reached the famed Atacama Desert, the world's highest and driest desert, where racers would face a 1-kilometer-tall sand dune, along with hundreds of miles of soft sand and dune ridges. Here, on the edge of the copper mining Mecca of Copiapo, we spent two days camped in the dunes, with views that were reminiscent of African Dakars, as the Sahara desert has been a traditional part of Dakar's legend and lure. The Atacama dunes proved legendary, as well, as only motorcycles and 18 cars were able to complete the full stage in the treacherous dunes, leaving many stuck in sinking sands. As a result, race organizers shortened the course and cancelled the next day's stage, allowing all the rally teams to regroup.
Crossing the Andes a second time, on a more northerly track, we encountered scenery that was truly breathtaking-both visually and physically, as we motored across a pass from Chile back to Argentina that climbed to an elevation of more than 15,600 feet. Like many other places along our three-week-long journey, there were views that appeared just like other places we have been, other backcountry passes we have climbed, and other off-road tracks we have raced or simply driven for the pure joy of motoring in special places of the heart.
For those of us who love four-wheeling, it doesn't matter whether it looks like Mali, the Baja, or Death Valley in the U.S., we were a convoy of people who are passionate about vehicles, about off-road motorsports, and about the thrill of exploring new lands and seeing new vistas. We were blessed to have participated in the 31st annual Dakar Rally-in its 2009 edition, held far away from its ceremonial home, but with just the same love of the journey.
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Miller And Gordon Place, Make History At Dakar
U.S. competitor Mark Miller piloted Volkswagen's 4x4 Touareg 2 through the terrain and travails of this year's Dakar Rally, to place Second in the "Car Class" of this famed event. Miller and co-driver, Ralph Pitchford of South Africa, won the highest placement for a U.S. team in Dakar history. Miller, one of four factory drivers for the German automaker this year, started fourth in the rally. Miller says "psychological strength, extreme concentration, and a relaxed manner" are the attributes that help him achieve success as a racer. Miller placed Fourth in the 2007 Dakar Rally, and finished as best-placed Volkswagen driver and Second Place in the Rally dos Sertes in Brazil in June 2008-including three stage victories in the Race Touareg. In the 2008 Baja 1000, Miller piloted a Volkswagen Baja Race Touareg TDI specifically developed to comply with the SCORE regulations. Miller also has two overall Baja victories in 2003 and 2004.
Robby Gordon and navigator Andy Grider of Team Dakar USA, drove their crowd-pleasing Monster Energy/Toyo Tires Hummer H3 to a Third Place victory in the "Car Class" of the 2009 Dakar. The pair have partnered before in endurance off-road racing, winning the 2006 Baja 1000 in a Chevrolet trophy truck. During the 2007 Dakar, they earned a Stage 6 win and also won the Open Class of Dakar that year, finishing Eighth overall in the Hummer H3. During the 2008, they competed in the Central Europe Rally that ran through Hungary and Romania, garnering Second Place in the Car Class during Stage 1, and winning "specials" during Stages 5 and 6.