Ingredients: One professional off-road racer, two mechanics, an adventure journalist, and a Dakar dreamer. Place driver and co-driver/navigator in a 5.4L Ford SVT Raptor and the other team members and spare parts in a Man 4x4 truck. Start on a podium in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and mix with sand, silt, mud, rock, and rain over a diverse range of terrains. Bake for 14 days and 5,877 miles at temperatures ranging from freezing to 130 degrees, at elevations from sea level to over 15,000 feet. Finish: Drive across the podium, once again back in Buenos Aries, and collect the Open Production Class win. It was our recipe for success.
Sound easy? Trust me, it wasn’t. And the 4x4 gods were with us.
“Sue Mead and Darren Skilton, from the U.S.A.,” called out the French-accented voice over the public address system. Motivating the throttle of our nearly bone-stock Ford Raptor, I steered our race truck onto the podium in the arena of the La Rural Exhibition Center, in Buenos Aires. The Molten Orange pickup, decaled with “Race #374” and a bevy of sponsor logos, was riding at a slight tilt, after losing the weld of the passenger-side rear shock mount the previous day, just 10 kilometers shy of the finish line at the Bandero race track on the outskirts of Cordoba. Sitting at my side was professional off-road racer Darren Skilton. I was the “Dakar dreamer,” and it seemed almost beyond comprehension that we and our teammates—mechanics Troy Johnson and Dan Moore of the FabSchool, in Riverside, California, and Chris Collard, our media manager, of Rocklin, California—had completed the 2011 Dakar Rally and won our class. Why were we so surprised? We were low-budget privateers and were among the 35 percent of starters who completed this complex and demanding off-road rally.
Dakar is a two-syllable word that encapsulates one of the top five adventures on the planet. Begun in 1977 by French wrangler and motorcycle racer Thierry Sabine, Dakar is the place name of the capital city of Senegal, located on the northwest bulge of the continent of Africa. It was once where the world’s longest and most arduous 4x4 rally came to its finish, after its start in Paris. But that was before the famed off-road event was forced to cancel in 2008, due to Al Qaeda terrorist threats. Dangers, such as unexploded land mines, as well as gun-wielding bandits that held up racers and pilfered their vehicles, weren’t new to the rally. In fact, during the 2000 edition of this legendary event, when I was Skilton’s co-driver, we were airlifted from Niamey, Niger, to Libya “for safety” when 350 Islamic terrorists threatened to do harm to us as we motored through the Sahara Desert. It was then that my dream began: To return to the Dakar, but to be the driver of record.
This year was the 33rd edition of the Dakar. It marked the third time that the rally was held in the western hemisphere, run across the belly of South America, in Argentina and Chile. Despite the location change, today’s Dakar has carried forward the values of Sabine, who initiated the now-legendary event after he became lost on his motorbike, during a rally in the desert sands of Libya. Although Sabine encountered rigors, he became enthralled with the beauty of the landscape and wanted to share it with as many adventurers as possible. Today, it’s organized and sanctioned by the Amaury Sport Organization (ASO); this French media group describes Dakar as an “extreme rally-raid.” ASO also puts on the Tour de France and endurance off-road rallies in other countries.
This 2011 Dakar saw 407 teams from around the globe, in Motorcycle, Quad, Auto, and Camion classes, take on the dizzying dichotomy of great tracts of land that ranged from canyons and riverbeds to the Andes Altiplano plateau and the immense dune fields of the Atacama Desert. The nearly 6,000-mile course included close to 5,000 miles of race stages. For those who love off-roading for the challenge of technical and high-speed driving, as well as for the beauty and diversity of the places it takes them, Dakar is a piece of heaven on earth. Beware, though: You must be mentally and physically fit and be prepared that there will likely be days and nights of hell.
Nothing Is Easy About Dakar
By Chris Collard
The sun was settling low on the Chilean desert, burning its last rays into my already parched skin. Two thousand yards to the south I could make out activity of a few vehicles near one of today’s checkpoints, then a dust plume spearheaded by a small red speck. Behind me lay the vast arid Atacama, one of the driest regions on the planet. I took a swallow of my near-empty water bottle and grabbed my camera—in hopes that the vehicle leading that dust trail would be my teammates Sue Mead and Darren Skilton.
Seven months earlier, I’d received the call from friend and fellow journalist Sue Mead. She asked if I’d be interested in heading to South America as the media manager for the Dakar Ford Raptor Team USA. It took all of two seconds for my reply, “Yes, please.”
I’d been staked out at the apex of a turn for seven hours, waiting desperately to capture images of our team in action—after all, this was my job and the only reason I was here. As the dust cloud grew closer, it was clear that it was not a Ford Raptor. I looked west: 30 minutes of light left. I’d last seen my team at 0900. After a broken shock mount on the previous day’s stage, they’d arrived in the bivouac at 0700, ate, and studied their new route book while Troy and Dan, the mechanics, fixed the truck. At 0900, Sue and Darren put their helmets on and buckled back in.
I’ve been fortunate to cover events for Four Wheeler in Mexico, Australia, and Africa, and I can tell you that nothing about Dakar is easy. Not for the drivers or navigators, not for the support teams, not for the organizers, nor the media. It is a 24/7, 14-day marathon to the finish. This was day seven.
Sunburned, dehydrated, and feeling sorry for myself, I flipped on my headlamp and hiked back to our MAN support truck. Sue and Darren arrived two hours after dark. Dog-beat tired and ready for sleep, they still had another 249 miles of the Atacama Desert to cross this night—we would see them again at 0600 in Arica, Chile.
Of the 156 starting vehicles, only 55 saw the checkered flag. We were 40th, and First in the Open Production Class. In the pouring rain, I fired off frame after frame as they drove the Raptor onto the podium in Buenos Aries. Drained, beat tired, and soaking wet, we all were nearly in tears (yes, grown men and women). I tip my hat to all who endure the hell that is Dakar.