A lot has changed in the four short years since the Dakar Rally moved from Africa to South America. This was evident this week in the Dakar Village in Mar del Plata, Argentina, where the 2012 rally begins with scrutineering (tech inspection) of the vehicles and teams. In Africa, the “assistance route” for the chase vehicles closed matched the course, as there were rarely paved roads in close proximity to the rally. As a result, giant MAN and Mercedes T5 support trucks were employed to transport tools and spare parts. The rally is a “no chase” race, so either these support trucks were typically entered in the race itself.
Fast forward to the present, and the Dakar Rally moves from town to town through South America. You can even book a motorcycle and follow the rally across the continent, something that wasn’t easily accomplished in northern Africa. Robby Gordon was one of the first to acknowledge this shift two years ago when he brought his huge Freightliner trucks to the race. Long and low, they would have been hopelessly mired in the sand of Mauritania, but they work just fine traveling from bivouac to bivouac in Argentina and Chile. Other teams have adopted similar strategies, albeit on a much smaller level. Ford, Chevy, and Dodge trucks have all been spotted this year, with Dodge diesel trucks being particularly popular. Most are not as elaborate as the chase trucks used in Baja. The McMillin team brought their F350 chase truck and it has received plenty of attention from other teams. We have spotted 3/4-ton pickups with license plates from all around the globe, most notably from Chile.
The license plates are not the other thing from Chile, this year many competitors are as well. When the race was held in Africa, hardly any of the competitors were from South America. That is not surprising, however there were also few competitors from the African continent (save for South Africa). The race has always been dominated by Europeans, from Frenchman Cyril Despres to Spaniard Carlos Sainz. While the race has yet to be won by a South American, they are getting exponentially faster each year. Argentine Orlando Terranova could potentially be on the podium this year (with American Andy Grider navigating) and Francisco “Chaleco” Lopez from Chile is one of the leading threats to the Marc Coma/Cyril Despres dynasty that has dominated the rally for the last six years. Nine South American countries are represented at the Dakar Rally this year, making up 60 of the 172 car teams and 42 of the 186 bike teams.
When will North Americans step up with these sorts of numbers? Robby Gordon is currently carrying the hope of an entire country on his shoulders and we hope that more desert racers step up and participate like Mark McMillin has done this year. Is it cheap? Nope, but if you can afford a Trophy Truck or Class 1 you can get to Dakar, it is easier now that it has ever been. Next year we hope to report back from scrutineering about the record number of Americans participating in the Dakar Rally. Robby Gordon said “Off-road is the best kept secret in racing. And in America, Dakar is the best kept secret in off-road racing. It is more miles than a year of SCORE racing in two weeks.” Check back on RDC for daily updates from the rally with special consideration for Robby and our other fellow countrymen.