40th Dakar Rally - 2018 Preview
Here’s a fun fact, though it might hurt the feelings of those who are geographically and emotionally attached to the SCORE Baja 1000: The Dakar Rally eclipses it on the world stage. Really.
According to a Repucom (acquired by Nielsen Sports in 2016) study, the Dakar Rally is considered the second-largest motorsports event in the world with a 77-percent awareness factor. Formula 1 leads by a healthy margin with 90-percent global awareness; however, none of the other top “events” are stand-alone races—they’re all race series.
That’s the primary reason Honda redirected its off-road racing budget a few years ago, pulling support from its Baja program and instead pouring it (and more, of course) into a new rally effort. (It’s claimed that most casual fans around the world don’t understand long-distance American-style desert racing where teams of riders take turns getting a machine from start to finish whereas in rallies it remains one rider, one bike for a more challenging adventure, romanticized or not.)
So, with less support for Baja-type races, there’s been increased effort to get Americans to join in the rally raid fun. The French, of course, created the Dakar Rally and have always dubbed that type of competition “marathon rally raid” while Americans especially just call it rally. It’s sort of like the motorized version of cycling’s Tour de France in that it’s a multiday stage-type race but with tricky navigation thrown in.
Americans have competed in rallies in the past, of course, with the Chris Blais, Johnny Campbell, Quinn Cody, Scot Harden, Paul Krause, Danny LaPorte, former Dirt Rider Editor Jimmy Lewis, Larry Roeseler, Dan Smith, and the late Chuck Stearns among the earliest big-name US adopters.
For how dominant Americans were in Baja and desert racing in North America, however, rally success eluded them. LaPorte (the 1982 World 250cc Motocross Champion) earned second place behind legendary French rider Stéphane Peterhansel in 1992 at the longest-ever Dakar, taking three weeks to traverse the nearly 8,000 miles from Paris to Capetown, South Africa. Blais (third in 2007) and Lewis (third in 2000) were the only other American podium finishers at Dakar.
Then in the lead-up to the 2013 Dakar, the KTM factory team drafted the late Kurt Caselli for its squad and he won two stages, thereby landing himself a full-time role with the team. In Argentina later that year, he became only the third American to overall a rally and was poised to make a good run at Dakar 2014, but, of course, he died while leading the 2013 Baja 1000.
That brings us to Dakar 2018 where three high-profile Americans will line up in the motorcycle classes on works bikes: Ricky Brabec for the factory-backed Monster Energy Honda team in his third Dakar; Mark Samuels on a works CRF450 Rally but for a satellite Honda team; and Andrew Short on a factory Rockstar Energy Husqvarna FR 450. This will be the first Dakar for both Samuels and Short.
With that in mind, we sat down and chatted with each of them to learn more of their vision of the biggest off-road race in the world and their respective roles in it.
Best known as a Baja racer, Mark Samuels is a recent convert to rally sport, having secured a berth at Dakar 2018 by winning the Dakar Challenge portion of the 2017 Sonora Rally in Mexico.
Even before that, though, he reveals he’d developed a passion for rallies: “Honestly, this has been a huge goal for the last three years that I’ve kind of focused on. [In 2016] I went and did [the] Sonora Rally [in Mexico]. I didn’t know anything about rally; I just knew I wanted to do it!
“I didn’t have any practice doing it. I went and rode with Ricky [Brabec] and kind of saw how it all worked before I went.
“I had a lot of fun doing that so I started riding [rally stuff] a little bit more, and then [in 2017] I went back to Sonora Rally and had a better understanding. So I’ve kind of had my sights set [on Dakar] for three years, and for the last two years I’ve been slowly working on it.”
Samuels finished the 2017 Sonora Rally second overall behind Ricky Brabec, winning the Dakar Challenge and free entry into Dakar 2018. As far as he was concerned, he was committed then.
He followed that by riding the NORRA Mexican 1000, but that was the extent of his rally racing as he then had to focus the rest of the year on the SCORE World Desert Championship where his team ultimately finished second. It wasn’t the end of rally training, however, as he reveals, “Shorty (Andrew Short) and I did a lot of training together with Scotty Bright. [We] pushed each other and we both really want to go to Dakar [in 2018]. Shorty got a really cool deal, and I got a pretty cool opportunity myself.”
Indeed he did. While Samuels won’t be on the factory Monster Energy Honda Team squad like Brabec, he’s been granted the opportunity to use the same hand-built works bike.
“I’m not on their team, but they’re helping me out and giving me a bike and helping me do it,” Samuels explains. “It’s pretty cool and quite an honor.
“After I won the Sonora Rally [Dakar Challenge], I went to American Honda—[my contacts Motorcycle Sports Manager] Sam [Mishima] and [Motorcycle Sports Supervisor] Brandon [Wilson] at American Honda—and told them I’d won that, that this was something I’ve really been wanting to do. Sam stepped out for me and talked to HRC, Taichi [Honda who] runs the rally team at HRC in Japan. He was pretty open to help me out with giving me a bike to use and parts. I get to rep all my own sponsors [on the] graphics and they’re going to kind of overlook [any competing ones], and I’ll help them test some stuff while we’re there. It all worked out from American Honda reaching out for me.”
Samuels adds, “I’ll be under the MEC team; they’re from Argentina and that’s who Honda trusts with their bikes, so they have a relationship [already established] and that’s what HRC wanted me to do. So HRC will help me look over the bike every day, but everything’s going through the MEC team.”
As this is written, Samuels has very limited time on the bike, but he notes that it’s much faster than his Baja-spec CRF450X due to the twin-cam, six-speed engine and doesn’t feel obscenely rotund despite carrying 9 gallons of fuel in its four tanks.
By now, of course, just about everyone who follows desert racing knows about the finish of the 2017 Baja 1000 where the Samuels team came from about 30 minutes down early on to pass the Francisco Arredondo team and beat them to the finish, only to be penalized 30 minutes and set back to second due to Samuels’ finishing rider, Ian Young, getting over-exuberant at the finish, crashing, and injuring bystanders. (The Arredondo team would’ve won the championship by finishing second anyway.)
But Samuels says that had no bearing on getting a seat on the HRC CRF450 Rally. “American Honda was really cool about it. We won [unofficially],” he insists. “We worked our butts off to get back into the lead and win that. It was definitely an unfortunate finish and it sucks that happened, but they were very, very cool about it and they understand how racing is. [The 1000 finish] hasn’t jeopardized anything.”
With a comparative veteran like Brabec living not too far away, Samuels has a valuable resource at his disposal and he’s making the most of it. “I look forward to [December], trying to pick his brain and trying to get help from him and Johnny Campbell. As we go [to Dakar], it’s cool to have another American over there on a Honda. I hope over the next couple weeks [testing] with HRC and all them being over here, Ricky and I can put some time in before we head over for the actual Dakar.”
As one of a number of first-timers from many countries, Samuels naturally is somewhat anxious to see what challenges he’ll face in South America.
“I’ve thought about that a bunch!” he admits. “I think dunes are going to be very difficult, but realistically I think just the day-in, day-out—that’s what I’m curious to see how that is and mentally how draining that is. “With navigating that much, obviously I’ve done days like that in a row pre-running for the 1000 in Baja and stuff like that, but with navigating, I think it’s going to be a different ballgame. I don’t really know exactly what to expect and I don’t think really anyone does their first time.”
That stems in part from a lack of awareness in the US of what rally is all about, and Samuels acknowledges that explaining the sport is almost as challenging as the racing. “Them actually, truly understanding what the navigation consists of [is the biggest hurdle],” he begins. “You try to explain [that] you have your [odometer], you have your cap heading (in degrees on a compass), and you have your instructions [on the roadbook]—and you have to read all this [at speed]. For it to actually make sense to them, I feel like a lot of them don’t know until you actually ride it.
“Even for me, I didn’t truly understand it until I did it.”
And what are the goals Samuels has set for his first Dakar?
“My goal going in is, I believe, a top 10,” he shares. “With a strong, solid ride, I believe a top 10 [is realistic]. My goal is just to get through to the rest day halfway through because the first five days from the little studying I’ve done so far is going to be very difficult just getting out of Peru. That’s going to be a huge check off my list during the race.
“I know I’ve got good skill and good speed on the bike for racing,” Samuels concludes, “but navigating is another aspect and that could trump the skill and speed that I have. But I feel pretty strongly that if I’m inside the top 15, then I’ll be happy, but my goal is to be top 10.”
Following his retirement from the professional motocross circuit two years ago, Andrew Short landed a job as “brand ambassador” for Honda. As such, it relieved him of the pressure that accompanies racing and allowed him to do a lot more off-road riding as well as testing and development work for Honda’s MX team.
So it came as a surprise to many when the Europe-based Rockstar Energy Husqvarna Factory Racing rally team scooped him up in 2017, giving him a rare open slot on one of the top teams in the business. Shorty would be on the full works FR 450 Rally for two years alongside experienced teammate Pablo Quintanilla, who would successfully defend his FIM Cross-Country Rallies World Championship title later in the year, and Pela Renet, who spent most of 2017 recovering from injury.
The first question on everybody’s mind seemed to be, “Why?” Followed quickly by, “How?”
Short begins, “For me it was a surprise as well. I was really happy with where I was. It was a good position to transition away from racing motocross and Supercross, and during that time I found a passion for rallies. So for me, [the Husqvarna deal] was the opportunity of a lifetime and a dream come true.
“It didn’t really make sense and a lot of people ask why, but for me, I followed my heart and didn’t want to have any regrets when I get older. For me, it seemed like a massive adventure and challenge that I wanted to try and pursue.
“It probably made more sense from a business standpoint to stay where I was, and there were a lot of great people and a good group to work with there. But for rally, this is the best opportunity and the best team. The KTM group, they’ve won Dakar for the last 16 years in a row, so for me to be around those people and learn from them and be a part of their group was a huge opportunity. For me, it’s going to accelerate my learning for rally racing and Dakar.
“Once I started doing rally, people knew [I wanted to do Dakar one day] and I’d been asking the Honda guys quite often for a while, actually, and got to hang out with [the Honda rally] guys and ride their bike a little bit. For me, once I did the Sonora Rally in March , I was hooked. From that point on, I wanted to do it.
“One of the riders for Husqvarna—Pela—he was injured in Chile and that’s what brought up the opportunity for me. It’s unfortunate—I’ve heard great things about him; he’s a good person. But it doesn’t look like he’s going to [be back racing] soon—for sure for this year’s Dakar he’s out—so that’s what brought the opportunity for me.”
Coming from a successful career in motocross and working as a liaison between riders and engineers as part of his brand ambassador role with Honda, Short comes into rally raid with a somewhat different outlook when it comes to bike setup, even though factory-prepped CRF450Rs are obviously going to be different than his new FR 450 Rally.
“The riding and the racing is natural for me,” he notes. “The speed, I don’t think, is a big issue. I think I have the technical skills and whatnot. Some of the high-speed stuff, for sure there’s some adjustment just with how fast everything’s coming at you.
“But in terms of the technical side [of riding rallies], I feel like I’m there. But navigation and the experience that these [other] guys have, their skills there are second to none and they’re the best in the world for a reason.
“For me, I have to be patient and not ride over my head and make a mistake and get hurt because I won’t ever learn [that way] and I’ll never get to where I want to be. So for me, I have to ride a little below my normal speed, I would say, or I have to back it off a bit just so I don’t make a huge mistake.
“Don’t get me wrong! There’s always risk, but for me, the biggest gains I can make at the moment are working on my navigation skills and the thought processes that you have to go through as you’re reading the roadbook as the race unfolds. For me, I don’t want to get ahead of myself and get injured at first. My main goal is to finish Dakar this year and not worry about the speed so much and then hopefully with the experience and the navigation skills, they hopefully improve the following year. I’d love to be able to push and try to compete at the top level.”
That’s the carrot for Short and he insists that paying dues by being a “water carrier” for Quintanilla (or anyone else) is not in his future. “That’s what’s really cool about the team I’m on: Almost all the people on bikes who are competing in Dakar besides the factory guys, they’re almost all on KTMs or Huskys. The bikes are basically the same, so for our team, until the very end, I think everyone’s kind of for themselves.
“Obviously, the greatest thing about the rally community is I feel like all the guys help each other, especially the Husky and KTM group. Everyone’s an open book. It’s completely different than motocross or Supercross. It’s so refreshing to be around a mindset of the racers who are like that. It’s completely different than what I’m used to.
“Obviously, at first, you want to help your teammate and you want to be there, but I think it’s different than the Honda team where I feel like they’re all working for one person and I think they have limited opportunity—that’s kind of the perception.
“I’ve learned where the KTM team, everyone’s doing their best until the end [then guys who aren’t going for the win might work for a teammate going for a good result]. Hopefully, they don’t need that [kind of assistance], but I think everybody needs it at some point.
“Naturally, as the race unfolds you’ll know your position and where you’re at and you’ve got to help your teammates, no matter what.”
With only the Sonora and Morocco rallies under his belt, Short acknowledges his lack of experience, but feels he’s learning quickly.
“A sense of navigation, you can go learn in the desert as long as you have the right equipment, but the hardest thing for me to learn is the etiquette and the event computer as well. Even from lining up, it’s not like you line up at a starting gate and go. I’m so used to racing in a one-dimensional way where now there’s a whole process on when you enter the starting area, what time you go, all these things—speed zones, waypoints, all that stuff with the event computer is really difficult to learn. For me, I’m most thankful to have the experience from Morocco to learn at a World rally how all that works.
“Sonora is what got me hooked. It has a similar device but not on that same level. But it was so much fun and the atmosphere was cool where Morocco was a little more serious on how they do all that stuff.
“It’s a little different [than the Mexican desert at Sonora] when you’re riding through a town [in Morocco] and you’re ‘racing’ and there are speed zones and whatnot, penalties, and learning all that. If I learned all that at Dakar, I think I’d be at a severe disadvantage, so for me to have that opportunity and go [to a World rally first] and learn was awesome.”
Naturally, the rest of the Rockstar Energy Husky crew tries to help him whenever possible. The key thing? “Just take it one step at a time, is what I get from the big group,” he answers.
“It’s awesome because Pablo, my Husqvarna teammate, he won the championship for the World rally series. Just to be even in his room watching how he does his roadbook and how he prepares, simple things like packing his stuff in his jacket to different lenses, sleeves, and what to wear—all these little tricks of the trade. To see that is cool.
“Toby [Price] and Matthias [Walkner] and Antoine [Meo] and all those guys have been awesome and Laia [Sanz]. They also have some other riders who are mechanics as well—they’re really fast—and they also have a Junior-[class] rider, Luciano Benavides. It’s a big family so there’s a lot of people to learn from and a lot of people to push from. It’s cool just to watch and visually learn. Instead of asking questions, it’s almost better to see how they approach it, from how they do the roadbook to how they load it to how much fuel they put in their bike—simple things like that you never think of until you get out there and experience it.”
Given his newness to the sport, how would Short explain rally to someone who’s a dirt rider but hasn’t been exposed to it? He begins, “Nobody hardly knows about it in North America and it’s amazing how big it is [everywhere else].
For me to describe it to moto friends or people who don’t know about it, it’s kind of like the Tour de France on a dirt bike with navigation. It’s more of an endurance race and an adventure, and you’re by yourself and it’s day after day. “It’s cool because as a moto guy, you see the same thing day after day, lap after lap. As a professional it’s pretty monotonous, but obviously it’s really enjoyable and fun, especially the racing aspect and the venues and the stadiums. It’s a blast!
“Rallies, you’re in remote areas. You have to really concentrate on where you’re at and what you’re doing, but it’s cool because you’re in the zone or the moment for hours on end.
“For me, it was addicting; I love riding so it was the ultimate adventure and style for what I love to do. I feel if more people knew about it—especially Americans—they would fall in love with it. Kind of like when Lance [Armstrong] started doing well at the Tour de France, it seemed like [cycling] kind of took over in this country and people bought bicycles and it just kind of exploded.”
Pressed to think what advice he as a newbie might give to another newbie like Mark Samuels, Shorts laughs, “I should be the last person to be listening to! For me, I’m in the same position as him. I’m super thankful and excited to go, but I’m also very green and I think that’s an advantage and a disadvantage. I think when you don’t know what to expect, you can just keep moving forward and riding; you’re just kind of going for it.
“At the same time that experience can definitely be helpful. I think it’s going to be really tough for both of us, and for both of us to just enjoy it for what it is and to get [to the finish] is a huge accomplishment and to make the most of it. Anything can happen at that race and if you can make it to the end, that’s a big accomplishment. So that’s what I’m shooting for. I’m sure he’s the same.”
With two Dakars and rallies in Africa and South America under his belt, Ricky Brabec is the most experienced of the three highest-profile Americans to line up at the start in Peru. That, of course, means more pressure to do well.
He remembers Dakar 2017 well: “I’d gone into it kind of knowing what to expect. Eventually, that led to a stage win, which was awesome and gave me a confidence boost. Then, unfortunately, I dropped the bike in some rocks and sticks, and I punctured the radiator, which took me out of the rest of the rally with only two days left.
“The rest of 2017, I did the Ruta 40, Sonora Rally, and the [OiLibya] Morocco Rally, along with Vegas to Reno as a test on the bike. I learned a lot. It’s always good going to Argentina to do the Ruta 40 because the Dakar goes through Argentina, so it’s a really good experience to go out there and do that race.
“In Morocco I did well. It was my first-ever [FIM Cross-Country Rallies] World Championship podium so that’s a good confidence-booster, and I think that’s good going into Dakar. I hope to carry the speed into 2018.” Asked to explain his stage win at Dakar 2017, Brabec admits, “The [stage] win for me was definitely not expected. From the [rest of the] team, I’m not sure [if they expected it]—probably not. I’m new compared to those guys; they’ve been doing it for a while.
“It wasn’t really [due to] a different strategy. There was one area where I could see where it was confusing. I was following the cap. I went more to the right where people were going more to the left, and I think going to the left was the wrong way to go because… I’m not really sure what happened! I just went to the right and I had a smooth run the whole way, so I think that’s where I gained all the time. I think more to the left was [where] the camel grass was; it looked like the right direction, but I think once you went up [the trail] a little bit further, the road just ended and there was camel grass. I think that slowed everyone down.”
Interestingly, Brabec’s first year aboard the CRF450 Rally saw him fairly constrained when it came to setting the bike up to his preferences: “I tend to set my rally bike up [now] like how I would set up a Baja bike just because the rally is really fast roads—sometimes really fast and choppy—so I want my bike to work like a Baja or hare & hound-style bike because that’s what I’m comfortable with riding. So when I hit something big or it gets a little bit choppy, I know how the bike’s going to handle.
“I don’t even know what [the other guys] do to [set up] their bikes! All I know is, for me, it’s not safe to ride one of those bikes because they have all rebound in the back and super-stiff forks. I don’t know what they’re thinking. I tried to ride the bike and every time I rode it in 2016, I was crashing all over the place because the bike was pitching me off. It was like trying to ride a bull.”
That changed in 2017 and the team agreed to let Brabec do more than just personalize ergonomics, giving him the freedom to also personalize suspension, something that’s ongoing to suit conditions: “…stiffer compression for when the bike’s full [of fuel] and also the first six stages this year are sand dunes so it’s the same style Baja specs [I would run] but a little bit stiffer just for the sand dunes to stay up in the stroke because the sand makes [suspension] softer, really.”
He continues to further reveal minor improvements the 2018 Dakar bike has over the 2017 version: “The only thing we really put on our bikes is a speed-control button for the 30-kilometer and 50-kilometer (per hour) sections; that’s really the only change.
“For myself, I’m going back to normal handgrips like an A’ME grip [that I use on my regular bikes] basically is what I’m going to be running instead of the [fatter, softer] foam ones. I think it’s a little bit easier to hold onto [regular-size grips] than the foam [ones] because the foam is squishy so you don’t know how tight you’re really holding on. Then, if you get a little handlebar shake, the foam isn’t really grippy so it just moves around in your hand.”
With five riders on the Monster Energy Honda Team, one might think the newer guys like Brabec would be relegated to the role of “water carrier” as was common in the African Dakars. That apparently is no longer the case, at least in Brabec’s opinion. He flatly declares, “My role on the team is, I’m a racer! There’re times when you need to be a water boy, but I’m there to freaking race—I’m not there to babysit someone.”
After two Dakars, Brabec is fairly familiar with life in the nightly bivouacs, which are basically large pit areas/small cities—another aspect unique to rallies. Unlike the “old days” when everyone stayed in tents in the bivouacs, most of the better-funded teams are able to follow the race in small motorhomes or—occasionally when close enough to civilization—rent rooms at a nearby hotel. There are also what are termed “marathon” stages where only the riders stay—always in tents—and they alone can perform any maintenance or repairs. No mechanics or team allowed for recommendations.
“It’s camp for the night; it changes every single day,” Brabec describes. “It’s definitely out in the open. It’s like going [to camp out at local riding areas] Lucerne [California] or Dumont [California] or Pahrump [Nevada]. It’s a moving city for the 15 days. It’s pretty rough sometimes. Sometimes it’s freaking super hot and the bivouac could be on asphalt, which makes it way worse. Or it could be on a grassy field and we could get six inches of rain. Every day’s different.
“[In 2017] we had two ‘marathon’ stages which is basically you race all day and you sleep out in the middle of the desert with the other racers. There’re no mechanics, no support. There’re no extra parts. There’re no tools (except what the rider carries). It’s just whatever you can get in your jacket or on your bike for the two days, basically.
“[The officials] give you a little duffel bag [at the end of the marathon stage’s first day, the halfway point] that has a towel, sweats, a jacket, a pair of socks. Then you get a little hygiene pack, like when you go on the airplane for long flights.
“They have all the food ready to go so it’s not like they’re leaving you out there high and dry. It’s just that you don’t get to see your pit crew or you don’t get a nice motorhome to sleep in, nice new parts on your bike—you have to make your bike (including the tires) last for two days. They have showers; it’s nothing super special, but it’s enough to rinse you off and make you feel better.
“You can work on the bike yourself. If you need parts or if your teammate needs parts, you’ve got to discuss what position you’re in and hopefully you or the other person is willing to help you out with parts and give you parts off their bike. But you can’t have the organization [or anyone else] bring parts [into the marathon bivouac] for you. Whatever’s on your bike is all you have.”
Asked to identify the most difficult thing about trying to explain rallies to the average dirt rider, like the others Brabec points to the navigation aspect.
“It’s hard to explain because there’re GPSs, there’s your roadbook, there’re three freaking types of waypoints! Explaining a waypoint that has an arrow pop up [on your instrumentation] is real easy to explain because, obviously, you get close enough to it, an arrow comes up, and you’ve got to follow the arrow. Once you hit the waypoint, the arrow goes away so now you’ve got to change your direction and hopefully you’re on the right mileage.
“But then there’re waypoints with no arrow [that comes on] and you have to get within 90 meters [before the tracker gives confirmation beeps]. So there are waypoints with [an] arrow that make it a little bit easier, then there are waypoints without arrows that makes it really super difficult to [find].
“I guess explaining the GPS and how it works while you’re racing [is the hardest thing to describe] because if you tell people you have a GPS on your bike, they’ll go, ‘Oh, why don’t you just follow the line?’”
Finally, as the most experienced of this trio of Americans, if asked, what advice would he offer to Dakar first-timers?
“The only thing I can say is, I hope you’re ready to ride 15 days in a row—with no sleep!” Brabec answers only half-jokingly. “A lot of people don’t realize also…people who have normal jobs, go, ‘Oh man, I would ride dirt bikes every day if I could!’
“But in reality, there’s me and [a small number of others in the world] who do ride dirt bikes for our living, and it’s not as easy as people think. It’s a job. We get up and we go to the gym, we train, we work our asses off, we ride, we do motos—but it’s not a cakewalk by any means. It’s really tough and it gets to you. It’s hard on the body and mind, for sure.
“Then the Dakar, you get 15 days of racing and you’re waking up at 3:00 a.m. to do it, so it’s tough. The Euros, they don’t like to go to bed ’til really late, but here at home I go to bed at 9:00. [At Dakar], I try to go to bed by 9:30 and hopefully asleep by 10:00, but sometimes there’re nights where you’re not getting in bed until 11 o’clock because of roadbook issues; the organization has meetings because they’re changing roadbooks. It’s not just going to sleep, waking up, and racing. You’ve got to work on your roadbook; you’ve got to make sure it’s spot-on because if it’s not good, then obviously you’re going to have trouble the next day.”