Travelogue- Dakar

13Jan09
The belgians-the team I joined for Dakar

The belgians-the team I joined for Dakar

I was going to try and do this Travelogue in sequential order- which means this chapter *should* be  Buenos Aires- but screw it, i’m skipping to Mendoza because i’m still high off the incredible time I had there- and I still can’t believe what happened. Coming into town on an overnight bus from Buenos Aires, I had no idea what would be in store for me- and I had no idea that I would be in store- and DEFINITELY didn’t think that in just a few days, I’d be getting drinks with some of the Dakar Race’s top racers and pit teams.

For those of you who don’t know, the Dakar race happens yearly and typically starts in Paris and does a crazy offroad cannonball run all the way to Dakar Ethiopia. Its one of the most challenging sporting events every conceived with cars, trucks and bikes travelling thousands of miles over everything from tranquil roads to mudfilled swamps to sand dunes- all while avoiding everything from flat tires to gun-toting thieves and land mines. All the while, each team has a support staff of trucks keeping up with each racer, ensuring that they stay in the game.  Every year its taken place until last year, when Al Queda officially threatened the race and it was cancelled- only to have the race moved to South America, where it is actually much more difficult. Raiders aren’t an issue, but an entirely new course and several new microclimates (like mountain tundra) make this course even more difficult than the African one. According to Wikipedia, the dakar race is officially the deadliest professional sport played- with roughly 5-10 deaths and countless other injuries happening each year. After seeing the course video and seeing how these machines end up i the pits, I can totally see why.

One of the American Support Trucks

One of the American Support Trucks

In order for a vehicle to be able to handle this- it has to be customized to handle the rugged conditions- which usually involves taking a normal chassis of a SUV or motorcycle and replacing every part with a hand made piece that can handle the stresses and harsh conditions of the race.

I extended my stay in Mendoza to see the contestants come into the city and hopefully get a closer look at the racers. I had no idea what would happen.

A friend I met at my hostel- a hilarious Belgian named Rudy- and I went to check out the location where all the racers were converging to end the Mendoza leg of the race. All the support teams and cars were fenced off and protected by the Argentian army- and they were’nt letting anyone in. The best pictures we could get were just through the holes in the fence- which was still cool.

As you can see in these pictures, the support trucks are huge! Each with enough parts to build several cars. All of these trucks take typical roads to leapfrog the teams they support- so they’ll be ready to fix and repair the damaged cars once they make the checkpoint.

On the outside looking into the event

On the outside looking into the event

As Rudy and i were walking up to the entrance, he sees the Belgian team coming to a stop nearby. He waits for the support team to get out of their large support truck and he starts yelling at them in Flemish. They hear and come on over and chat with us for the enxt few minutes- then invite us into the pit area of the entire race! With a brief checkout by the argentinian army and we were let into the highest security area I’ve been in since I worked at Nasa.

The Belgian were incredibly friendly- and hooked us up with red bulls and drinks, and let us check out everything- their cars, the suport truck- and even gave us free team shirts and hats.

What looked like a stock toyota SUV on the outside was an insane custom made- mad max style race on the inside. rollcages, fixed seats and more were inside. Check the pictures out in the gallery for more.

I learned that they were one of two cars on the other team- their other car was lost somewhere in the desert and at the time I left, they still hadn’t been found. The day before, a member of a French team died of complications from a crash, and several other motorcylcists were critically injured in accidents. The frequency that these guys were talking about people getting maimed/broken/killed was insane. Its like these guys just shrugged it off.

After chatting with the team a bit more, Rudy and I wandered around and met some of the other teams- each with very different levels of technical support and funding.  Clearly, the Dakar race is expensive- straight up. Just to enter costs a racer 12000 dollars- not including the support team, the truck (which also needs to be custome-made- at roughly the cost of 750k), then the support team on top of that, and all the purchase of spare parts. Most of the teams I saw were funded at roughly 6million dollars each.

The redbull trucks getting serviced

The redbull trucks getting serviced

After a racer would pull in, his support team would immediately begin working on the car. WIth checklists in hand, they’d begin to take the car apart and first blow out all the dust with high power water and air gunes. Then they would disassemble parts of the engine and begin working on replacing any damaged pieces. After talking to a few pit crews, they apparently get only 2-3 hours of sleep a night- and frequently go several days without sleeping. Fortunately, Red Bull sponsors free redbulls for everyone, so there is something to keep you going.

The motorcycles were crazy- each with larger than average wheels and huge radiators (Which all seemed to collect more dust than the entirety of ocean beach). These bikers are also the most likely to die, getin accidents, or just drop out. Out of 200 motoryclists each year, roughly only 50 make it to the finish line.

Me and Jonas Street-US team

Me and Jonas Street-US team

One of the interesting things that no one seems to mention is the amount of women racers in the event. So much press is given to Danica Patrick here in the states when there are 50 women racing in dakar- some of them olympians. There was a swedish racer I met who was competing on a motorcycle who was unfortunately disqualified. She crashed and broke her ribs and was out 12 hours-disqualifying her from the race. She got a brace and was still following the other teams as they continued- insane!

I found the American team and got the lowdown on some more support details. The Americans are sponsored by Chevrolet and are running highly modified hummers. They have every piece of equipment on the cars sensored- and have a truck full of servers and other gear to detemine how the racers can improve their performance, and how they can tweek the cars to get that extra edge out as well. Most of the pit crew has worked other off road/motocross events before, and bring that experience to play.

A redbull support truck

A redbull support truck

After just a few minutes, i’d met most of the team- and even the racers parents too. crazy. I got a chance to also meet Jonas Street- who had won the past two sections. Kicking around for the next few hours I got a chance to glimpse more and meet so many characters around the race it made my head spin.

Coming from a background where i’m not a huge nascar/formula/streetracing fan- I was beyond pysched to see this race first hand. Everything from the racers themselves to the incredibly technical support teams was incredibly impressive. And the fact that everything was totally mobile, and seeing what they had literally gone through to be where they were was incredible. All in all, one of the best days i’ve had on the trip-and there’s still so much more to come!

I can’t wait to see what tomorrow brings 🙂 Until then, stay tuned!

This is the only map the contestants get

This is the only map the contestants get

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