The mere mention of the word Dakar causes widespread emotions among racers. Some become instantly excited at what, for many, is but a dream of competing in the absolute pinnacle of the off-road motorsports food chain. Others recall a nightmare of seemingly endless stages, huge distances, constant excessive heat, and long battles against sleep deprivation. A few racers may even break down and shed tears as they recall covering thousands of miles of brutal off-road terrain, only to be denied a finish tantalizingly close to the end.
The wealth of emotions the Dakar calls up is well deserved. It is more than a race. It is an epic, and even life-changing, adventure. The whole crazy idea started in 1977 when the late Thierry Sabine (who was later killed in a helicopter crash during the 1986 Dakar) became lost in the Tenere Desert while competing in the Abidjan-Nice Rally. Somehow, while wandering though this section of the vast Sahara desert, Sabine thought it would make the ideal location for rally.
Not one to muck about, Sabine put his thoughts into action, and the next year the inaugural Paris-Dakar Rally was held. Running from Paris, France, to Dakar, Senegal, it wasn’t any typical rally, but rather the longest in the world—just over 6,000 miles. The crazy notion of racing for over two weeks across huge distances through Europe and Africa was an instant hit. By 1984, entries into race had crested over 400, and most European manufacturers had some kind of factory effort.
After terrorist threats became too big to ignore in 2008, the Paris-Dakar was cancelled and moved to South America for the 2009 running. While the move took the rally out of the remoteness of Africa and brought more of the creature comforts civilization entails, it is still absolutely brutal. In 2014, the Dakar competed over 13 stages and a total distance of 5,637 miles. As if that wasn’t enough, the body that runs the Dakar (the ASO) thought the 2013 race might have been a bit too easy. In response, they created longer and more difficult stages that would push man and machine to their breaking points. It all makes the Baja 1000 look almost cute in comparison.
A Crash Course In Dakar
Among the 431 motorcycles, quads, cars, and trucks that entered this year’s Dakar was a unique team of Americans brought together by the ASO’s innovative Dakar Challenge program. Designed to increase both interest and participation in the rally from American racers, along with similar programs for Australia, South America, and Africa, the Dakar Challenge took the results from the 2013 HDRA Reno 500 and SCORE Baja 500 in Class 10, Class 7200, and Trophy-Truck with the fastest winning a free entry into the 2014 Dakar.
Ultimately, the Dakar Challenge was won by Peter Hajas in Class 10. However, after comprehending the massive task ahead of him, Hajas decided to team up with second-place finishers Jonathan and Jordan Brenthel of Brenthel Industries. For both Brenthel and Hajas, winning the Dakar Challenge program provided incentive to compete in the race and helped a bit with the cost. “We could not have made it there this year without the Dakar Challenge program. It pushed everyone over the edge and gave us the extra incentive to get everything done and get there,” explains Jonathan.
Two factors quickly came into play. By the time the Dakar Challenge was won and Hajas and Brenthel decided to team up, the 2014 Dakar was only a few short months away. Secondly, after giving it lots of review and study, both Hajas and Brenthel decided modifying Hajas’ existing Class 10 car wasn’t feasible and wouldn’t result in a competitive vehicle. A new vehicle was designed and built in an amazing 45 days, before it was briefly tested and stuffed into a shipping container for the long and slow boat ride to Valparaiso, Chile. Once there, the Brenthels drove the racecar (not towed) on the highway the 800 miles to Rosario, Argentina for the start of the 2014 Dakar.
A Harsh Reality
The start of the rally in Rosario, Argentina, is an overwhelming experience and like nothing I have ever seen. According to Rosario city officials, over 1,000,000 people would show up to take part in the podium celebration kicking off the beginning of the Dakar. Each and every motorcycle, quad, car, and truck is rolled onto a podium, and the driver is briefly interviewed in front the constantly cheering Argentinian crowd. If you thought the motorsports fans in Mexico were fanatical, you haven’t seen anything yet.
Even more overwhelming for the extremely small and shoestring budget team of Americans was what lay ahead of them. Jonathan Brenthel put it all into shocking perspective. “Racing the Dakar is like racing the equivalent to two full seasons of racing every SCORE and BITD desert race there is.” When thought of in this light, it was indeed staggering, especially for a quickly formed rookie team (rookie to Dakar, at least) with a brand-new racecar.
Almost immediately, the team ran into problems. The oppressive triple-digit Argentinian heat plagued their racer with fueling and cooling issues. Peter Hajas and co-driver Kevin Selchow had to continually stop during the first day to try to figure out the issue and finished well back in the order.
On the second day, the problems continued to slow their progress and forced the duo into the sketchy gray dunes of Nihuil at night. Both thought it would be wise to wait until morning, as navigating through the dunes at night is close to impossible, (Remember, there are no GPS units allowed in the Dakar). However, a broken alternator eventually ended their Dakar the following morning. With no chase trucks allowed to pop into the course and deliver parts, the Brenthel/Hajas effort was officially over on Stage 2.
They were not alone in their misery. Every team from the United States that had entered also encountered fueling issues on the first few stages, pushing them way back into the order. Both Robby Gordon’s and BJ Baldwin’s crews were hard at work trying to solve the issues. Eventually, it seemed they did, but neither would see the finish line. Robby Gordon eventually retired on Stage 11 only two days from the finish. BJ Baldwin went out on Stage 10. Only the El Martillo Racing team from Canada and Mexico were left to represent America, finishing 52nd with their Jimco-built Dodge Durango.
The Monster MINI Machine
In stark contrast to the American efforts was the extremely well funded and well oiled machine that is the Monster Energy X-raid MINI team. This year, the team fielded a jaw-dropping 11 MINIs, featuring some of the best off-road racers in the world. Included among them were Stephane Peterhansel, Nani Roma, and late addition to the team Nasser Al-Attiyah. All are Dakar veterans who have competed in the rally for years and Peterhansel holds the record for wins with a staggering 11 overall Dakar victories.
To many, it was no surprise when MINI absolutely dominated the Dakar, taking the top three spots with Roma first, Peterhansel second, and Al-Attiyah third. In fact, seven out of the top 10 spots went to MINI. The only controversy happened when Peterhansel was ordered to allow Nani Roma to take the win and slowed his pursuit of Roma allowing him to get to the checkers first.
Some think of the MINI team as a new team with almost unlimited funds that can basically outspend any other team and buy a win. But this is not completely true. Yes, the team is extremely well funded and can bring vast resources to take on Dakar, but it is also one of the most experienced. That experience goes beyond the drivers, too. The head of the X-raid team, Sven Quandt, started racing in the Dakar 1998. He was the head of Mitsubishi Motor Sports’ massive Dakar team from 2002 until X-raid was formed. He knows how to run a team and picked some of the best mechanics, logistical minds, and Dakar specialists to come to X-raid upon its formation.
Beyond that, Quant and the X-raid team field what is an extremely reliable MINI racecar. All 11 entered in the 2014 Dakar finished, a remarkable achievement—over a mind-blowing 62,000 miles of total distance raced for all of X-raid’s racecars. The MINI team also does several rallies throughout the year to test components and drivers, as well as take other wins. By the time they show up at Dakar, they have thousands of test miles on them and are thoroughly sorted.
For Jonathan and Jordan Brenthel, their experience at Dakar provided plenty of lessons. “Knowing what we know now, we wouldn’t go back without more prep time, more training, and more testing. If you look at every American team over there, we all had the same issues because when we go testing, we want to test in a wonderful 70 degrees when everything is all fine and dandy. We need to be doing it in the middle of July at Glamis when it is 120 degrees out to imitate what we will be seeing at Dakar. It has to be done a lot sooner, and we need a lot more time to prepare for it properly,” shared Jonathan.
Another harsh lesson was the lack of an assistance vehicle. In sharp contrast to American desert racing, there are no pits along the course and chase vehicles going onto the course to rescue broken or stranded racers is prohibited. Only other vehicles, such as the huge Tatra and Hino 6x6s in the truck class, entered in the race can provide assistance. “The number one thing we missed was having on-course support,” shares Jordan. “We didn’t realize how crucial that was and frankly didn’t have the budget for it. If we had on-course support, we would have gotten through who knows how many days, but considerably more. It would have been a huge help.”
Budget was also another major factor. “I would never go back to Dakar without the right amount of money. That is definitely what it boils down to,” says Jonathan. So how much does a smaller Dakar effort cost? The answer was truly staggering. “For leasing an assistance vehicle with a crew and all your tools and parts on it, the cost is $100,000. You can split that between other teams, but the truck won’t be completely dedicated to you then. If you had to pay to build a secondary chase truck to haul your crew and more parts, that is about another $100,000. A racecar like ours would start at $200,000 and run up to $300,000 for a very nicely equipped one. We had around $70,000 in ASO fees and that was with a small crew. Our shipping costs were $30,000.” Obviously, Dakar is not for the faint of wallet, but there are teams that do it for cheaper with the hope of just finishing and in a much lower-performance car.
Beyond the machine and the money are the all-important driver and navigator. “Even if you are an experienced desert racer here in the States, you really need to have a lot of training before you go down there,” commented Jordan. “The co-driver is just as important, if not more so, than the driver. His navigation skills are vital, and he really needs to know a lot of the intricacies of the many rules of the rally. Ideally, he is someone who has already done the rally.”
The Challenge Continues
Will an American ever win Dakar? As more Americans become interested in it, the opportunities for bigger sponsorship will rise. That in turn, will allow more American teams to enter the race and gain valuable experience like that learned by Brenthel Racing. All of it will help to move closer to the goal of an American eventually coming out top at Dakar.
To help keep interest rising among American races, the ASO will continue its Dakar Challenge for 2014. This year, the winners will be determined solely by the SCORE Baja 500 in Class 10, Class 1, and Trophy-Truck along with motorcycles. Whoever wins it will gain a free entry to the Dakar—the toughest race on the planet. They better be ready with extreme dedication and plenty of resources if they want to even finish it, much less win.