by Kyra Sacdalan
It was around this time last year not just one but two good ol’ boys made history in Saudi Arabia. Monster Energy Honda racer Ricky Brabec and Casey Currie with Can-Am’s Factory team both took the ultimate prize at a most infamous Dakar Rally: 1st place on the podium. The only athletes from the USA ever to do so, though many have tried. Even legends like Johnny Campbell, Jimmy Lewis, Robby Gordon, Chris Blais and Jonah Street, among others, have fought for the trophy to no avail. However, the cherry on top of this pre-pandemic spectacle was Honda breaking KTM’s astonishing 18-year winning streak in the motorbike class, which might point to a profound evolution coming from the horizon.
Americans have been grossly underrepresented at Dakar over the years, but with solid competitors like Brabec, Monster Energy Yamaha rider Andrew Short and BAS Dakar KTM contender Skyler Howes – not to mention the premier rally raid effort by Polaris RZR – breaking records and grabbing the attention of broader audiences, it seems the tides might finally be turning. Even if looking at the entry list, one might argue that the presence of “blue bloods” has dwindled this go around. And with COVID an added and unforeseen hurdle to this iteration of the competition, there’s no way to know if, despite a triumph for Old Glory, US citizens still don’t value the most renown of off-road races, as the rest of mankind does. Or if travel restrictions, global fear and uncertainty are the sole causes of this modest turnout.
There are only three – count them three – American entries at Dakar for bikes: the 2020 Champ Ricky Brabec, principal Factory rider Short and the only US privateer Howes, who finished last year in the 9th place amongst the elite branded pros. A few countrymen like Austin Jones, Kristen Matlock and Wayne Matlock will rock the stars and stripes behind the wheel of a UTV, the latter couple accompanied by co-pilots Max Eddy Jr. and Sam Hayes. And although Polaris RZR has been pretty hush-hush about entering a MAN vehicle in the truck class, this is pretty much the sum of folks representing the whole of North America, save for Mitchell Guthrie (USA) and Seth Quintero (USA) in the Light Prototype class and Juan Pablo Guillén Rivera (MEX) on a bike. But if we can’t have quantity, we’ll just have to settle for quality. And the lineup this year is our proof.
With a fresh new bike and blue vinyls under him, Andrew Short has a chance to show what an asset he is to the Yamaha race program. His cool temperament, thoughtful study of the roadbook and consistent, even pace is exactly what keeps him fixed at the head of table amongst guys who might technically be faster, more brazen dirt bike jockeys but can lose time as they rush from waypoint to waypoint. Others are just less proficient navigators than Short, but he doesn’t let that notion carry him through a special. “This race is something you have to respect,” as he says in his Dakar profile. Andrew is flanked by plenty of adversaries who are as clever at the scroll as they are heavy on the pipe. There won’t be much room for error, nor time to rest or put down his guard. But why would he have it any other way? Andrew is a soldier prepared to confront many enemies ahead, not joyride through desert to the finish line. It’s not supposed to be easy. Because a conquest without battle has no glory.
Skyler Howes is another eagle keen on a podium finish – even if he won’t admit he already has the skills and mental strength to take him there. Yeah, he can top ten with far less backing than many of his colleagues, and he’ll tell you he’s ready to do better this time. Not to beat the crowd, but to outdo himself in each stage. Which might be the exact mindset to reach the Mt. Everest sized summit. To find yourself in the winner’s circle is one thing. To do it without OEM endorsement is what all grassroots racers secretly desire. The true American Dream: an underdog victory. He has it in him. But will cruel fate and the Saudi Arabian landscapes allow it?
Of course, Brabec is back as well to defend his title, and he’s been spending the entirety of lockdown composing himself for a brawl. With so many formattable opponents geared up to demonstrate his win was a fluke, Ricky, Honda and America are feeling the pressure to perform. And all have support reaching far beyond US soil to see a reprised lead role at Dakar 2021. This isn’t just an expectation, but with a lot of recurring relics perched on the highest step at this event, it’s refreshing to witness such monumental, transformative outcomes. So, it was a bit of a surprise to learn that Currie won’t be at the starting line Jan 3rd. Or was it? The 2020 victor gave some insight into his team’s decision on Instagram:
“In January, we accomplished the goal of winning Dakar. Since then, the World has changed, and goals had to be shifted. With the new goals we have decided to sit this year’s Dakar out.”
Maybe this is a blessing in disguise. Although the rally is down an American driver, it will be paid back times four with Polaris RZR’s selection of expert drivers. Currie’s absence could further widen the path for the next generation of US rally raid all-stars. By the ASO’s [Amaury Sports Organisation] own account, Can-Am has been dominating the side-by-side (SSV) class in attendance and at the podium for some time since finding prestige in the International circuits. But this year, the United States is giving Can-Am, and its foreign rivals, a run for their money. Kristen Matlock – Baja 1000 and 2x Baja 500 Champion – will debut alongside another decorated racer as navigator, Max Eddy Jr. (5x Baja 500 and 4x Baja 1000). While in the second RZR vessel, Wayne Matlock, who has won himself innumerable accolades from the 1000 to 500 to Best in the Desert, plans to finish strong with the help of long-time co-driver Sam Hayes who has been the “better half” in several of Matlock’s accomplishments, clinching his own BITD title in the Ironman Expert class on a bike. It’s a strong force to be reconned with, and Austin Jones in his Can-Am has a tall order to fill if he wants to beat out his brethren for the highest rung on the ladder.
If nothing else, 2020 showed us not all change is gradual, or comfortable… Or warranted. Like the capricious ocean, chance can become turbulent from glassy and back again without so much as a warning sign just because it can. As one set of waves smooth out the sand and brings calm and coolness to the shore, the next could swell from a distant storm causing devastation, even death, in its presence. Life is fickle. January, Ricky Brabec and Casey Currie brought a sort of pride and distinction back home which the US had never yet seen. Come March, the planet is under attack by microorganisms that not only alter our fate but makes butt-wipe more valuable than gold. Fast-forward to December and participants are staggering into Jeddah after long (long) transits, multiple PCR tests, cancelled flights, charters and one failed jet engines. And the race hasn’t even begun! But as they collectively settle into these new protocols, trapped in a proverbial bubble with their colleagues, a few hundred attendees have 48 hours of quarantine to reflect. On the travels behind them, the rally in front and the world around. If nothing else, when the local medics abrasively scrape out a few braincells (or something like that), they’ll be reminded they didn’t have to deal with the discomfort of flying amidst COVID. Instead, they could be sitting on their couches, pain free, watching someone else struggle to even pull up to the Start. And when the swab finally exits the nostril, the sense of relief and gratitude which will surely wash over them, has greater meaning. That being here at Dakar – as uncomfortable, unglamourous and undoubtedly difficult it is and will be – is a choice. One which many of them would make over and over again.
Seth Quintero and Mitch Guthrie Red Bull video: