Sonora Rally: How Smart People Race Off Road
By Kent Kroeker
After the 1986 Moose Run¹ I was loading my crappy bike² in the back of my crappy truck³ and one of my buddies tossed me a VHS⁴ tape, saying, “you gotta see this.” I threw it on the dash and drove back to my crappy⁵ apartment, not thinking much about it. At that time, my hard-earned construction money went toward college and precious Golden Spectro⁶, so I couldn’t afford a TV, let alone a VHS player, so the tape sat for a long time.
When circumstances enabled me to watch the video, I was awestruck:
- Day after day of continuous racing covering thousands of miles
- Crossing multiple African countries
- Navigating the harshest terrain with only map and compass
- Graveyards of trucks, cars and motorcycles buried in the Sahara
- Riders falling asleep in the saddle and crashing out
- Race cars burning to the ground behind drivers too fatigued to care
- Grizzled competitors, faces covered in dust and oil in Timbuktu
- Hubert Auriol riding a moto with two broken ankles
- Giant trucks doing 125 mph over massive sand dunes
- Princess Caroline of Monaco and dust-covered French Girls on XR350s
- Blood soaked sand marked by open-faced helmets on sticks
- Tank slappers in Algeria on 980cc BMWs
- Airplane and helicopter carnage strewn across the desert
- Belgians, Finns, and Russians driving every kind of exotic vehicle
- Aerial footage that looked like Rommel vs. Patton
Whatever this was, I liked it. This type of racing required courage, intelligence, endurance and determination – all in equal amounts. Soft-spoken European competitors were discussing the punishment they endured with nonchalance and dead competitors with respectful acceptance. These men and women were cool, really cool – like seasoned WWI biplane Ace cool. And the racing was well beyond irrational. I wanted part of that.
¹ Notorious District 37 Hare and Hounds motorcycle race run by the Four Aces M.C.
² 1985 YZ 250, $125/mo for 36 months
³ 1971 International Harvester, $480 cash + six-pack of Olympia
⁴ The way people used to watch randy movies
⁵ $365/mo – furniture: one mattress and a folding metal chair
⁶ Designer drug for old dirt bikes, aroma therapy for old racers
I immediately called⁷ the buddy who gave me the tape:
“What kind of racing is that?” I asked.
“It’s called, Rally raid,” he said.
“That video had me at blood-soaked sand,” I thought. “This is a life goal.”
I was still a young man and this was before the internet,⁸ so there was no easy way to do more research. But I promised myself that one day, along with some other nefarious objectives, I was going to race the Dakar Rally. Since those early days I’ve been to Africa many times – even to Dakar, Senegal, but not to race the epic raid. Due to recent terrorist threats, it has moved to South America, making it more accessible for Americans, but I have yet to participate. I had a few opportunities to race it, but military service and other obligations always seemed to get in the way.
The Sonora Rally: Like Dakar but Closer
The first Sonora Rally took place last year. It was a huge success and 2016 was even better. The race takes place in the Mexican state of Sonora, just south of Arizona. The terrain is desert, but quite different from Baja and more like the African Sahel⁹ in that there are endless dunes covering the same square miles as the country of Italy. Staging for the race is only about an hour south of Yuma, Arizona and an easy drive from Southern California.
⁷ On a rotary phone.
⁸ Primarily used for watching randy movies.
⁹ The part of North Africa through which the Dakar Rally used to run.
Who’s Responsible for the Sonora Rally?
The Sonora Rally is the brainchild of Darren Skilton, a veteran of numerous Dakar Rallies and other international raids. He’s also a champion Baja driver with seven Baja 1000 wins and countless championships. While I was still racing motos in Baja, he already had a couple of Dakar wins under his belt. He’s a reserved, self-deprecating Brit who can humbly switch conversations topics from shock valving to Sartre¹⁰ in the blink of an eye. He and I have raced together many times on the same team and no matter what the results, we’ve always had fun.
Darren’s wife Erin, is the outgoing voice of the Skiltons. She does the logistics for the race. She is a vibrant, animated Flower Child with more enthusiasm than seems possible to fit into her small stature. She’s always laughing, smiling and infecting everyone around her with good cheer while providing All-American hospitality.
Scott Whitney, when not designing computers for spacecraft, spent many hours creating the Sonora Rally race course. He’s also a veteran of Dakar, having raced it on an unlikely vehicle – a Harley Davidson V-rod side hack. The evening before each stage, Scott would give every team at the Sonora Rally a road book consisting of many pages of intricate numbers and symbols. And every morning Scott would reset each competitor’s electronics, ensuring that all systems were functioning before the start. And he was never too busy to provide extra navigation instruction to anyone who needed it.
After last year’s Baja 1000, Darren suggested we race his rally. He agreed that my Class 8/Trophy Truck wouldn’t be appropriate, but he said that the SCORE Stock Full class truck owned by John Scripps, KORE’s¹¹ lead chase driver would be perfect. John and I explained that neither of us had any idea how to do a Rally raid, but Darren said he would organize a rally class for us and we would be fine. After some cocktails and loud talking about totally unrelated stuff like Berlusconi and the Boer Wars, John said, “OK – let’s do this!” I had always wanted to learn how to navigate a raid, so I told him I was in for sure.
¹⁰ French philosopher whose ideas are barely possible to understand.
¹¹A race team that masquerades as a suspension company or vice versa…
That Stock Full truck is one great ride – 4×4 and 140 inches of wheelbase powered by a Gen III 6.2 Hemi that won a bunch of races in SCORE and BITD. Still in its OG General Tire, American Flag motif, we thought it might cause a bit of a ruckus in Mexico due to the current political climate. It kind of screams, “Team America” and the last thing we wanted was for people to think we had come to build a, “big beautiful wall.” But we love our flag, so we left it alone and hoped for the best.¹²
¹² Not really the best strategy.
A Rally is not a Raid
The difference between rally and Rally raid is that a standard rally is usually conducted in very short, high intensity stages on improved roads. These are quick point-to-point races that seem to be dominated by slim Finnish guys with unbelievable car control skills. Picture small cars like Skodas, Lancias and SEATs on gravel roads in four-wheel drifts, navigators furiously reading out turns and drivers keeping the turbos at full boost by shifting up and down like the stock market in an election year.
What’s a Rally Raid then?
First and foremost, a raid must be a point to point race over mostly unimproved, if not virgin terrain. There can be some roads, but generally they should be pretty bad. Secondly, it must be grueling – up to 500 miles a day for 3-14 continuous days. Thirdly, a raid must include some random obstacles and unplanned events based on the whim of the race director – a mass, land rush start, for instance.
A raid is more about managing the risks of an adventure¹³ than competing against other drivers. You have to navigate with the assistance of only three things: road book, compass heading and mileage. You don’t need a blindingly fast car because you’re probably not going to be able to navigate faster than a reliable car. A fast desert race car like a Trophy Truck probably would not get you to the finish faster than a reliable 4×4 like a Stock Full class truck. I know this sounds strange, but until you actually do a rally raid, it won’t make any sense.
Basically desert racing in SCORE and BITD has become more of an engineering build off/money spending exercise than an actual sport. I’ve seen plenty of relatively low-functioning drivers¹⁴ win desert races because their daddy spent more money than the other guy’s daddy. Desert racing has less to do with skill and intelligence and more to do with luck and who paid for the shiniest boat in the Desert Regatta.¹⁵
Because of the way the terrain and rules are in Rally raid, meticulous driving beats risky driving, calculating people beat impulse-driven people, organized teams beat disorganized teams, fit people beat sloppy people. So it’s a sport that’s filled with strategy, nuance and subtle competition instead of man-with-more-money vs. man-with-less-money. That’s why intelligent, athletic European racers humiliate American desert racers at Dakar every year. Robby Gordon, supposedly one of the better American off-road racers, performs so poorly that the Europeans think he only shows up at Dakar to provide a bungling clown show for them to laugh at.¹⁶
¹³ Adventure is any endeavor where the outcome is totally uncertain.
¹⁴ I will not name names…
¹⁵ Random people (including myself) roosting about in Trophy Trucks.
¹⁶ One French racer remarked that “Le Gordon” would be better off spending his money on tinfoil armor and attending medieval battle reenactments along with other useless nerds qui aiment les choses comme ça.”
Rally raid versus Desert Racing Comparison Matrix:
|Style of:||Rally Raid||Desert Racing|
|Beverage||Cabernet and local craft beer||Bud Light|
|Food||Four course regional||Tacos and PB&J sandwiches|
|Facial Expression||Stiff upper lip||Mouth breathing|
|Education||University plus||GED max|
|Headwear||Floppy Expedition Hat||Flat billed hat, ears tucked|
|Clothing||Embroidered team coverall||Dickies with plumber’s butt|
|Grammar||You’re (contraction)||Your (thinks it means “you are”)|
|Bivouac/Pit Music||Mozart and Molotov||Campañero¹⁷|
|Night Noise||None||Fireworks, motors, drunks|
|Driver’s Meeting||15 minutes of critical info.||Attend if you like the Navy Band|
|Women||Stoic female racers||Lots of sugar in a small spandex bag|
|Chase||Unimog, Pinzgauer, and MAN||Rangers, Superduties, Tacomas|
|Endurance||2-3 weeks, no problem||A single day if blitzed on energy drinks|
¹⁷ If camping in Baja, this is the accordion music played through blown speakers at full volume by the ten drunk Mexicans who will park next to you at 2am even if there are no other humans within 50 square miles.
Gourmet food was served to competitors morning and evening every day.
So What Happened in Sonora?
We arrived in San Luis Río Colorado the afternoon before the race, just in time for the rally class that explained how to use the road book. It only took about an hour to understand the concept. The next class was about how to use the Rally Comp. This device monitors your ground track and provides directions to waypoints. It has a lot of great features you can use to help you navigate during the rally, as well as a passing feature that alerts a vehicle in front of you, so you don’t have to nerf them. Rally Comp can also can be used to alert other vehicles if you’re stuck and impeding traffic. This would have been very useful during the Baja 1000 last year, possibly preventing a fatality. I paid particular attention to the, “Open Waypoint” feature that permits lost racers to see a WPM and navigate directly to it instead of aimlessly trying to retrace their botched navigation.
We planned to use the Rally Comp to provide compass heading and total distance. We used another device called a, “Terra Trip” to track kilometers as we passed turns and terrain features indicated on the road book. I had no idea how to use any of this stuff in an integrated way until the night before the race. A Canadian Navigator named, Jack explained it to me in a Polish accent. He had raced Rally raid before and helped me make sense of our new cockpit. Even though you’re competing against other people, a raid creates a common ethos of camaraderie and helpfulness among all the competitors. Basically, if you’re racing a Rally raid, everyone there is on your team.
Started with a gourmet breakfast, then a 45 minute liaison stage from the hotel to the bivouac site on public roads. This gave me an opportunity to figure out how all the navigation equipment worked in a permissive environment, so to speak. We arrived at the bivouac site, refueled and restaged for the start of the race. After 45 minutes of messing with the equipment I was confident that I was in control. I was totally switched on and in charge of our destiny.
I was going to be the greatest navigator of all time!¹⁸
When we got the green light, we raged off the start and promptly missed the first several turns.
Thanks to me.
¹⁸ Read out loud in Pee Wee Herman voice.
We’re Both Driving
OK – so that was humiliating. The fact of the matter is that the guy in the right seat is driving the vehicle as much as the guy in the left seat. Both guys must be totally switched on. This is why navigating a Rally raid is an extremely fulfilling job. Over time we standardized the way we communicated, calling turns and features at a set distance. It’s not always easy to match what’s on the road book with the outside terrain, but Scott had assured that the road book was designed to help us, not to trick us.
Eventually we worked into a rhythm, the truck speed keeping a nice pace with the speed of my navigation. The first section of course was relatively JV, comprised mostly of 45 and 90 degree grid turns like Vegas to Reno. This allowed me to sync my brain to the time-distance information that the navigation equipment was providing me. By KM 90, we had leisurely passed some bikes and everyone in front of us except one four-wheel competitor. We were dominating on our very first day! Then we hit the dunes.
I had never driven over dunes before. Glamis was never my thing. Beer culture, sand cars with chrome A-Arms and paddle tires don’t interest me. I find snow and ski¹⁹ in winter. So we’re in the deep sand and we stop to air down²⁰ to 12 psi. The CAP²¹ heading is telling me to go straight over a 500 foot dune topped by a razor-edged cornice as sharp as a Samurai sword.
So I look off into the distance and pick a terrain feature on the same heading. We carefully navigate around the side of the dune, picking strategic lines that seem relatively oblate. Then we angle back to the course line, carefully driving over virgin sand, gently using momentum and thinking ahead. Sure enough, I get a beep and an arrow on the Rally Comp, telling me that we’re close to a hidden waypoint. Stoked! We drive to where the arrow is pointing and, voilà, two beeps, we collect the waypoint!
Now this is getting addicting – it’s an exercise in extreme dimensional problem solving involving time, space and distance. I found myself enjoying it like that rat in the 1960’s experiment who chose cocaine instead of food until he got too high and keeled over. Beep! Arrow! Beep Beep! Waypoint! Again and again until we were only about 30 km from the finish and..
¹⁹ What people did before snowboards.
²⁰ For floatation on sand, you have to air the tires up and down with tanks or an onboard compressor. We just mounted an inexpensive little 12 volt compressor in the bed of the race truck.
²¹ Compass headings expressed digitally in three numbers.
Rats!²² Just when we were having fun and also leading the race! At first we thought we had run out of fuel – an inexcusable error. As I was preparing to commit seppuku with a long pry bar²³, I heard something strange coming from the fuel cell. Sure enough, I could hear the fuel boiling inside which caused our pumps to cavitate.
So we waited about 45 minutes until the fuel cooled – while watching everyone pass us. Evidently this is a common problem in Rally raid. High temps, altitude changes and pump gas often cause fuel delivery problems. We charged on and had to stop numerous times to let the fuel cool, but thanks to John’s solid driving we never got stuck and still finished mid pack.
²² Pun intended.
²³ It didn’t look sharp enough, so I was considering a long Philips head screw driver instead.
To solve the fuel cooling issue, Crew Chief Josh Nelson headed to town and purchased a VW oil cooler that we plumbed into the fuel return line. We zip tied that up in the back of the cab between the transmission coolers. Fuel cooling problem solved, and staying solved. Maybe routing boiling fuel right between the driver and navigator wasn’t the safest idea, but I suppose there could be some worse way to go than a hot, flaming death by Pemex. I just can’t think of it right now. Maybe piranhas?
Once again we enthusiastically raged off the start, missing the first several turns. I apologized profusely to John for being a crappy navigator, but once we were in our groove, we collected waypoints at the rapid rate. The day went by quickly. We led much of the race, making trail for everyone else – many of whom were stuck or lost. Countless waypoints and 250 km clicked off effortlessly, bringing us over the line first in class and second overall, behind a Class 1 buggy by only a couple of minutes. The team was stoked!
Josh Nelson took over as Navigator for John. They were doing great for 22km until the transmission, like the undercooked goat I once ate in Ghana,²⁴ decided to let go all at once. Race control authorized us to locate the truck and swap the trans on course. Usually we can do this in about an hour, but not this time. When we arrived at the Team America race truck, Josh had already pulled the entire drivetrain. There it was, all hot and useless, half buried in the sand like a drunk college girl on South Padre Island.²⁵
We tugged the assembly out of the way and began thrashing. Soon we were ready to fire it and get back into the fight. No forward motion. Something was wrong inside the trans! We pulled apart the broken unit and inspected the valve body, looking for clues. Sure enough, we found the issue – improper assembly of the shift unit. OK – we pulled the, “good” trans apart and fixed the issue. Two hours later and it shifted perfectly but still no forward motion. The transmission builder²⁶ had done something wrong! It was dark and everyone was getting dehydrated. Time to call the race.
²⁴ It happened while I was asleep on the plane from Accra to Frankfurt. Full, autonomous evacuation… into my shoes. I had checked my bags, so I made improvised underwear from Lufthansa pillow cases.
²⁵ Spring Break beaches that are so ugly, nobody notices if you’re a 400 lb. Wisconsin girl in a leopard pattern thong…
²⁶ I will not name names…
We didn’t race that day, but we heard it was epic. Instead, we went back to San Luis, hydrated by drinking Micheladas and sang sad Karaoke songs in a gloomy Mexican bar.
To schralp²⁷ a huge, powerful, top-heavy bike across all different kinds of terrain while intelligently managing a road book, compass and handlebar contraptions is beyond gnarly. The bottom line is that if you’re racing a moto in a Rally raid you’re a Super Human with limbs of steel wrapped in Corinthian²⁸ Leather. Wherever you go, beautiful, exotic women should be following you around, begging you to sire their children.
²⁷ Ride a dirt bike effortlessly above 90% throttle at all times with no thought involved.
²⁸ The best leather comes from Corinth.
Three things you need to be competitive in Rally raid:
1. Reliable Star Wars Bar Vehicle. 10 – 12 inches of travel is enough, 2 or 4 wheel drive is fine.
2. Good tires like the General Grabber that can be run all day at 10-15 psi.
3. Bivouac hair, a dirty face and good attitude are keys to success.
Well, I’m addicted to Rally raid. I became the rat in the experiment. While racing, all I could think about was the next waypoint. Now all I can think about is the next event.
I won’t color the truth: bombing across the desert in a 900 horsepower unlimited truck, following a GPS course line in a Baja race is a brutal, unparalleled experience – there’s a certain visceral rage to it that can’t be duplicated any other way. I’ve done that in one form or another for 30 years. But over time, it gets a little, uh… tedious and routine. The same themes, the same people, the same terrain, year after year. “Tech and contingency,” throngs of cliché people, waiting in line, signing forms, mind numbing driver’s meetings and morons with mullets drinking beer through tubes from apparatus worn on their heads. Where does it end?
There’s a richer experience out there. Something more involved. There is no racing on earth like Rally raid. Four days of fellowship with other racers who became more like colleagues than competitors and communion with the desert that required working with it instead of against it has reinvigorated my interest in off road racing.
I’m still committed to racing the Dakar one day, but for now, thanks to the tremendous effort of the Skiltons and Scott Whitney, we have an accessible race for the Thinking Man: The Sonora Rally.
Race-Dezert Photography by Ernesto Araiza