DAKAR RALLY: THE INSIDE STORY

Why it's the toughest long-distance off-road race

— By Tim “Lumpy” Tolleson —

I’ve written a few times about finishing third overall at the Barstow to Vegas Desert Classic in 1986 on the original Yamaha Banshee. I was in my racing prime when I did the 165-mile (264-kilometer) Hare & Hound on a cool November day. I was sore for three days afterward.

Imagine racing 34 consecutive B2Vs in 14 stages with only one rest day in two weeks. Worse yet, imagine racing 3.4 B2Vs in one day in temperatures well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s what the UTV, ATV and dirt bike racers did in the 40th annual Dakar Rally.

In 1979 the Dakar Rally was born. The original course started in Paris, France, crossed the Mediterranean Sea to Morocco, then snaked south through the Sahara Desert’s huge dunes to Senegal, Dakar. Terrorists forced the famous race to relocate to South America for the 31st Dakar in 2009, and 13 quads and 113 bikes entered that rally.

South America has hosted Dakar since then, and the 2018 version was held in Peru, Bolivia and Argentina, with seven 100-percent dune stages in Peru and Argentina. For the 40th Dakar, UTVs would break away from the car classes for the first time, and 13 UTV teams competed alongside 49 ATVs, 139 bikes, 103 cars and pickups, and 44 heavy trucks. Not only were the first six stages in huge dunes with 273- to 760-kilometer stages, Bolivia’s stages took racers to elevations above 16,000 feet and pounded them with cold rain and winds, forcing cancellation of Stage 9.

Although the timed Special Test for Stage 9 was canceled, the 36 remaining quads and nine remaining UTVs still had to ride 513 kilometers from Tupiza to Salta, Bolivia, for the start of the 797-kilometer Stage 10. They had to ride in the rain and mud to the next town and be ready for the sunrise start. This was after a two-day marathon, where competitors had to camp and work on their own machines, as any outside assistance was banned on the 1,312km (820-mile!) two-day marathon.

After Stage 10, ATVs, dirt bikes and UTVs had the best finisher rates. Attrition by Stage 10 took out 13 quads for a 26.5-percent average, while bikes had 41 DNFs for 29.5 percent and UTVs had 4 of 13 retire for a 30.8-percent average. Heavy trucks lost 14 entries for 31.8 percent, while rally cars, buggies, and light trucks had 41 DNFs for 39.8-percent attrition. Obviously, UTVs are moving up in the racing world, and they made a great showing in their first stand-alone effort.

Hopefully, NBC Sports Network will catch on, as coverage didn’t change a bit from previous Dakars. Each stage gets a 30-minute show, with the 22 minutes of content covering mostly bikes and cars with highlights of quads and trucks. UTVs only made brief appearances in GoPro/selfie footage, with most episodes adding car and bike filler from previous stages. Boo, hiss, NBCSN!

Polaris won the first stage, the 33-kilometer Prologue, with Peru’s Anibal Aliaga at the RZR XP wheel. Can-Am Maverick X3s won the next two and five of the next seven stages to take the top three UTV standings overall after eight rounds. Then the Xtreme Plus Polaris Factory Team Turbo of Patrice Garroute (Fra) won Stages 10 and 11, bringing the Xtreme Plus total up to four stages and moving up the overall standings to second, some 45 minutes behind the lead X3 of Brazil’s Reinaldo Varela.

Of the seven UTVs still in the running with three stages to go, there were three Can-Am Mavericks, three Polaris RZRs and one Yamaha YXZ1000R with longtime quad racer Camelia Liporati (Ita) at the paddle shifters. She got the most NBCSN airtime with her antics and pink C.A.T. Racing Yamaha.

By Stage 12, the first day of another (1,630-kilometer!) two-day marathon, UTVs were down to six of 13 still running—three Xtreme Plus Factory Polaris Team RZRs (running second through fourth), two South Racing Can-Am Mavericks (first and sixth), and Liporati’s C.A.T. Racing Yamaha (fifth). An Xtreme Plus Polaris won Stage 13, and South Racing won the final stage, with no changes in the overall positions.

While Yamaha didn’t win a UTV stage, Yamaha cleaned up in quads, with Raptor 700s winning every stage and Chile’s Ignacio Casale taking five stages and the overall victory with a time of 53:47:04. Since ATVs and bikes had two stages canceled and different routes than UTVs on many days, overall times can’t be compared.

Congratulations Can-Am, Polaris and Yamaha on your 40th Dakar successes! 

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