Dakar. It’s a dream event on the bucket list for many off-road racers. Despite its move from Africa to South America in 2009, it has maintained its stature as the ultimate off-road racing challenge.
Sadly the cost of competing in the Dakar has precluded too many Americans from entering. But there’s now a fledgling rally in North America that offers much of the same terrain and toughness as Dakar.
The Sonora Rally is the brainchild of Darren Skilton who has competed in many Dakar rallies, and it’s been his dream to create a similar event.
The vastness of the Sonora desert makes Jergensen’s Trophy Truck look more like a Tonka Toy.
What sets Dakar and the Sonora apart from races in Baja and the United States is tough navigation and sand dunes—lots of them. The Sonora Desert in Mexico has the highest sand dunes in North America; they may not be as extensive as those in South America or the Sahara but are pretty impressive as this year’s competitors discovered.
More than half of the entrants were bikes, and the favorite to win was Honda factory rider Ricky Brabec who competed in the 2017 Dakar. Brabec was fastest among the bikes in every stage and easily took the overall win. Another Honda Rider, Mark Samuels, finished Second, winning the Dakar Challenge, giving him a free entry in Dakar.
Nine UTVs were entered including Bryce Menzies, but knee surgery precluded him from driving. Since he plans to compete in Dakar, the team still entered so his regular navigator Pete Mortensen could gain more navigational experience. Larry Ragland and his son, Chad, were a couple of other familiar names in UTVs. Attrition meant only three UTVs started on the fourth and final day and by the end of a tough 100-mile stage none finished in the allotted time.
Todd Jergensen set the pace in the car category on the first day, even besting the leading bike on this two-hour-long stage.
Only half a dozen cars and trucks entered. It quickly became an epic battle between Todd Jergensen in an over 800hp Trophy Truck and Eric Pucelik in an over 170hp Predator buggy. The two of them suffered delays due to navigational issues or, in the case of Jergensen, a couple of dramatic rollovers down big dunes. In the end the diminutive Ecotec-powered Predator took the podium, since it was better able to tackle the dunes comfortably following the same tracks as bikers.
While Dakar remains an unobtainable dream for many, the Sonora Rally offers an affordable alternative with big dunes and equally tough navigation, all masterfully created by navigation wizards Scott Whitney and Darren Skilton.
Bryce Menzies was unable to compete in his Polaris UTV due to surgery. So Jake Povey, one of his fabricators, took the driver seat so Pete Mortensen, Menzie’s regular navigator, could gain valuable navigational experience readying himself for the 2018 Dakar.
Ricky Brabec, a Honda Racing pro rider was the clear overall winner setting fastest time overall on all but one stage, garnering only a single penalty in four days of desert racing.
Jason Walmsley was lying in Sixth position after three days but suffered mechanical problems on the final day.
Road books and a digital compass are the only means of navigation for bikers and cars on the Sonora Rally.
Eric Pucelik/Mike Shirley in a Predator take the start line on the second day’s stage after losing a ton of time due to navigation errors on the first stage on day one.
Just three cars showed up for the Safari class, where drivers can take an easier route and don’t even have to wear a crash helmet. Luis Perocarpi even took his kids along for the ride-of-a-lifetime in his Mini Countryman.
Terry Koch and his wife, Karen, are regular Safari competitors, and they finished despite (or perhaps because) only driving a handful of miles off-road each day.
Eric Whitney, brother of Scott Whitney who created the tough navigation, gives Pete Mortensen road book information for the next day’s stages—not given out until the teams reach the bivouac at the finish of that day’s stages.
Joe Bolton/Dave Peckham suffered ongoing mechanical problems and were eventually non-finishers in their Polaris UTV.
Kevin Heath crests the top of one of the medium size dunes in his KTM bike. Despite being one of the older riders, he managed a credible Seventh Place in the bike category.
Eric Pucelik in his Ecotec-powered Predator buggy was the only car able to crest this particular dune, where the photographer had to leap out of the way to get the shot, abandoning his backpack!
Jake Povey takes it easy as he crests a dune in the Menzies Motorsports Polaris UTV. Mechanical problems on the final day lead to a DNF after running as high as second on the first day.
Perry Coan/Skyler Gambrell DNF’d due to a broken front axle on the second day.
Chad Ragland was running in third position until the final day when his Polaris succumbed to mechanical problems. His father Larry Ragland fared even worse with unsolvable mechanical gremlins that bugged him from the very first day.
The length of the dune stages meant that bikes need refueling at least once on each of the stages. Here Mark Samuels on a Honda gets topped up on the final day. He finished second overall and won a free entry in the 2018 Dakar as the Sonora Rally is part of the Dakar Challenge series.
Jergensen was the favorite to win the car category, as he entered the big dunes on the final day.
Pucelik charged hard on the final day hoping that Jergensen would run into trouble.
Dave Sykes/Scott Steinberger were the winners of the UTV class even though they ran out of time on the final stage after getting badly stuck in the dunes. The final day proved to be the sting in the tail as no UTVs and only two cars finished within the allotted time.
Russell Sandquist and Leighton Title in a stock Ford Raptor were winners of the Safari class; they hit the most waypoints on the 850 miles of special stages.
James Opel/William McBride in a replica of Jacky Ickx’s factory Mercedes-Benz Dakar G-Wagon were winners of the 4WD class.
Todd Jergensen’s Trophy Truck managed to reach the podium despite a dramatic roll down the side of a mammoth sand dune that cost them an hour, leaving them just 10 minutes shy of first place.
Eric Pucelik and Mike Shirley were as surprised as anyone when they reached the podium to discover they were the winners of the car category.