Behind the scenes of the Dakar Rally, one of the most gruelling races on Earth
Earlier this month, 460 off-road motorcycles, quad ATVs, four-wheel-drive cars and large trucks driven by professionals and skilled amateurs alike, departed Rosario, Argentina, as part of the 35th racing of the Dakar Rally. A total of 9,400 km will be travelled, 5,500 of which are timed across unmarked dirt and gravel track, grasslands, mountain valleys and vast, shifting desert. Chances are, only about half of the competitors will make it to the finish line. And tragedy is not uncommon—over two days during the 2014 race, two journalists and one rider lost their lives in separate incidents. It’s the most gruelling auto race on the planet, and we asked David Mills, who’s been through the Dakar before as both an observer and an embedded member of a Chilean team in 2012, to fill us in on how crazy it gets.
“I should not have been surprised to encounter a landslide”
It’s five o’clock in the morning on Jan. 1 in Mar del Plata, Argentina. The temperature is already 30 degrees and climbing fast. Strong winds off the Atlantic are whipping up massive clouds of polvo, the choking dust that permeates everything you wear, eat and breathe. Normal people, if they’re awake this early, are most likely still celebrating the arrival of the New Year, or perhaps suffering the ill effects of revelries the night before. But here I am, sober and alert, waiting at the start line of the 2012 Dakar.
A few days later, while driving through a continent known for frequent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, I should not have been surprised to encounter a landslide blocking our way. We had been following a film crew, trying to find the finish of a very tricky section of the race, but a massive rock slide made progress on a narrow, twisting mountain dirt road impossible, and we had to turn back. This minor setback, however, was nothing compared to what competitors face every day.
In its history, more than 50 people have died during the race. On my first day, a young Argentinian motorcycle rider was killed in a crash just a few kilometres shy of the stage’s finish line. Three stages later, another moto hit a cow at 150 km/h, putting the rider into a coma for four days. Many riders succumb to heat exhaustion and dehydration after long days of 40-degree temperatures, while others are forced to retire with broken limbs, concussions and other major injuries.
It’s also dangerous for the spectators—two were killed on my second day, crashing their ultralight airplane as they tried to get close to the action. Later, I watched a group of tourists on big rented motorcycles riding clumsily down the course to get ahead of the competitors. One older woman crashed after cresting a hill and lay unconscious, directly on the track, pieces of her bike all around her. I had to drag her out of harm’s way and pull her bike off of the course. If one of the racers had flown over that hill, it could have added to the death toll.
“Too many were falling off cliffs or driving into mountains”
Breakfast begins well before dawn and moto competitors depart around 5 a.m. First, they drive a Liaison—a route along normal highways—then they enter that day’s Special, the timed section of the race. Specials can be as long as 650 km, across oceans of sand and anything else. It makes for a very long day.
The previous night will have been spent studying the “road book,” a chart describing the next day’s route utilizing 125 symbols that indicate every possible hazard riders might encounter. Earlier rallies allowed competitors to use standard GPS, but too many were falling off cliffs or driving into mountains trying to race between checkpoints. Now, a prescribed route is followed, and time cards must be stamped in order.
I have ridden motorcycles since I was 16, but nothing prepared me for what Dakar moto competitors endure. Their road book is a paper scroll fitted into a box mounted on the bike’s handlebar. Buttons are used to advance the scroll and, at times, directions for only a 10th of a kilometre can be viewed. The most experienced riders have an innate ability to know where they’re going. Less experienced riders careen all over the course.
Many get hopelessly lost. At one checkpoint, I could hear engines starting and stopping everywhere around me. It was a particularly difficult section, and clearly no one knew where they were. But once the proprietary Dakar directional systems on each vehicle signalled their location (they kick in within 800 metres of a checkpoint), racers were coming at us from all directions, spectators scattering as police hastily tried to move people out of harm’s way. It was chaos.
If you get too far off course, though, it’s game over. I got to know three Turkish privateers, determined and perhaps reckless individuals who had risked their money and well-being just to see if they could simply finish the Dakar. They had gone astray on one very challenging Special and were told it might take two or three days before anyone could rescue them, if at all. I saw more than one competitor stagger out of the desert having abandoned their vehicles, exhausted and dirty and trying to find help.
“He whittled two small sticks into points, and jammed them into the leaking hoses”
Breakdowns are a major issue, and competitors must know their vehicles inside out. One member of our team tore half his coolant system off his bike in a collision with a boulder. He whittled two small sticks into points, jammed them into the leaking hoses to preserve what remained of his coolant, fixed everything in place with duct tape and cable ties, and limped into the bivouac with enough time to make repairs and head out the next morning—because if you are not out of the bivouac by the prescribed time, you’re done.
While competitors try to sleep, 2,500 other people in the bivouac are active and noisy. The all-night growl of diesel generators and high whining drills is punctuated by the rattle of pneumatic wrenches, the scream of air compressors, the deep pounding of hammers and the roar of powerful, high-performance engines uninhibited by mufflers (mufflers drain horsepower). I slept fitfully in my hot, claustrophobic tent, and I didn’t have to negotiate the dangers of the course every day.
“Of the 465 who started the race, only 246 finished”
While the vast majority of competitors enter the Dakar simply to see if they can finish, pro racers supported by teams and sponsored by corporations vie for the glory of winning. Many will do anything to succeed. During one Special, I witnessed a number of elite riders become stuck in the mud of a dried-out riverbed. You could see the frustration as they struggled to pull their bikes out of the quagmire. In the spirit of cooperation, one competitor helped another yank his bike out. But as he returned to his ride, fully expecting to receive the same favour, the other, ahead of him in the rankings, sped off.
In my Dakar, of the 465 who started, only 246 finished—and simply arriving at the finishing podium in Lima was a victory. Almost a quarter of a million people greeted us as we entered the city, escorted by two police motorcycles guiding us along an eight-lane highway, closed to everyone but Dakar participants. After three weeks of danger, dirt, sleep deprivation and a very sore ass from endless hours in a truck, it was a special moment to have thousands of fans waving, flying flags and cheering as we drove, all alone, down this wide empty highway.
This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.