The 40th edition of motorsports’ most grueling event, the 3,000-plus mile Dakar Rally, will be part homecoming and part belated 50th birthday party for Robby Gordon.
The American driver, who has historically been one of the biggest stars in the Rally, returns to the competition for the first time since 2016.
And Gordon, who turned 50 on Wednesday, has been close to winning the Rally several times, hopes to give himself a belated birthday present by winning the overall title.
The Rally – which will be featured on daily shows on NBCSN – runs from Jan. 7-17 and will be held solely within the borders of Peru, the host country.
“The Dakar Rally is probably one of the coolest races in the world,” Gordon told Nate Ryan on NASCAR on NBC Podcast. “Obviously, Daytona (the Daytona 500) here in the United States ranks at the top with the Indy 500, but on the world stage, the Dakar Rally is kind of like the Monaco Grand Prix or Daytona 500 or Indy 500, it’s one of the big four.”
Gordon will be competing in his 13th Rally, joined by Team Speed teammates and first-time Rally participants Blade Hildebrand and Cole Potts.
All three will be driving identically prepared UTVs, among the most popular rides in off-road racing.
“They’re based on a UTV and look similar, just quite a bit bigger, like a large Class 1 car or a Formula off-road car,” Gordon told Ryan. “It’s a 110 mph UTV.
“They’re race cars, they’re not production cars that come off the dealer floor and you can go out and get parts for. These are purpose-built production race cars. They resemble the production car, but they’re a Cup car for off-road, or an Indy car for off-road, or for that matter, an F1 car for off-road.
“These little UTVs with the sand dunes will give us an advantage. There’s some places we have an advantage and some places we have a disadvantage, but the biggest thing is being able to run for 3,000 miles.”
Gordon will also be reunited with Kellon Walch, who has served as his navigator in five previous Dakar Rallys.
And Rally officials are welcoming Gordon with open arms.
Gordon concedes Peru’s sand dunes – upon which nearly 90 percent of the Rally will be contested upon – can be wicked.
“The dunes create a new challenge because it’s very hard to read the terrain,” Gordon said. “On gravel roads, you can kind of see a little bit of distance.
“But every time you go over a dune, you never know what’s on the other side. It could be a car in front of you that’s flipped over, it could be what we call a witch eye, something made by the sand and it looks like a witch eye, and if you hit that, the way it’s angled, it basically just sucks you in and it’s a sudden stop and can break suspension.
“At the same time, it can get you stuck and you can spend hours digging yourself out. It can break tie-rods.
“There’s a lot of variables that happen in the dunes. I’d say the dunes are more of a challenge than even the gravel roads. It becomes a navigation-driver challenge to navigate through the dunes without getting stuck or crashing going too fast over the top of one of those things.”
Yet, Gordon is confident he has the right buggy to conquer those dunes.
“It’s optimized for the dunes,” he said. “We probably have an advantage when it comes to the dunes.”
Gordon and his Charlotte-based team has spent the last six months preparing for the Rally. The cars were recently shipped to Peru’s capital of Lima, where the race starts and ends.
Even before he gets to challenge the sand dunes, Gordon has had to challenge the logistical elements of just getting his vehicles to the starting line.
“You have to send all your parts and everything has to be documented,” he said. “You better have the exact parts you have listed when you get there, or else the thing can get impounded and seized for a while.
“For us, it’s a bit of a logistical nightmare, but at the same time, it’s probably one of the coolest races in the world.”
The oversized UTVs that Gordon and his teammates will drive are a bit of a departure from vehicles he has driven in past Rallys. The Hummer was by far the most successful, giving Gordon nearly all of his 17 stage wins in his Rally career.
The Textron XX vehicles that he and his teammates will drive this year are built similar to the truck Gordon drove in the recent Baja 1000.
“When we found out that the 2019 Dakar was going to be 90 percent dunes, we looked through our arsenal of vehicles in the shop and said that’s what we need to build,” Gordon said. “We had a car in our inventory (from Baja) and just produced two more of them so we had a team of three.”
Even after a two-year hiatus, Gordon feels both comfortable and confident in his Dakar Rally return.
“I do believe we can win the overall,” he said. “But we’ve also got a fierce group of competitors. There’s 25 guys that can win this race.
“Look at any form of motorsport and very seldom is there 25 guys in any series that can win a race, and I believe there are 25 guys in the Dakar Rally that can actually win.
But Gordon is still confident he can give himself the best birthday present he has ever had.
“There’s going to be a bunch of challenges we’ll have to figure out,” he said. “Survival is the first one. If you look at the event, it’s obviously dangerous. But it’s a lot less dangerous in a car than on a motorcycle. Most of the life-threatening incidents are motorcycle incidents.
“Heart rate means a lot, being 50. I’ll have to manage my control there. But I’ve always been able to drive a car like a video game.
“What I mean by that is I sit back and go for the ride. I don’t really take a lot of aggression into driving, even though it might look like I drive aggressively, but I’m along for the ride. If we continue to drive with that driving style, we could have a shot at our first Dakar win.”
But once again, Gordon goes back to his ride. He knows it will be tested like it never has been.
“We hope it’s reliable enough to go 3,000 miles,” Gordon said. “When you look at this race and compare it to other races, that’s six Indy 500s or six Daytona 500s – or about the first third of the NASCAR season, all in a 10-day period.
“You can imagine you’re going to drive Daytona the first day, then the next day Bristol, then you’re going to drive over and race Richmond, then Martinsville and then you’re going to go to Charlotte.”
One significant change in this year’s Rally is the format. In past years, it has averaged three weeks or more, spread across several countries.
This year, the Rally is just 10 full days of racing – called “specials” (also referred to as stages) – in just one country. While that means less racing, which could boost Gordon’s chances, it also means even more fierce competition in a shorter period of time.
“We’ve got to figure out how not to just win specials, but how to be reliable every day,” Gordon said. “That’s one of the things that’s a challenge. It’s also something you can’t prepare for some times because you never know what the terrain is going to be like the next day.
“We’ve seen torrential downpours where you had to drive through a river to get there. To be honest, today, we’re not prepared to drive through a river – but we’re going to have to be prepared when that happens. And because we race on terrain that normally doesn’t get weather, when we do, we get major flash flooding. There’s so many variables that you cannot anticipate.”
Another thing unique to this year’s Rally is that because it’s all in one country, there is no advance chance to study routes or plan strategy for upcoming days.
“Not only do you not know where you’re going, you don’t know where you’re going until you finish the day before,” Gordon said. “Basically, when you finish (each day), you’re handed a road book. No one has seen the roads (beforehand).
“What that road book is it tells you where you have to go … because nobody knows where the road is going. We try to put together our best mapping program we can, how we can get from Point A to Point B in the most straight, direct line.
“You’ve got to follow the road book pretty good, or you can find yourself seriously lost in the desert.
“Imagine the Daytona 500, you take the green flag and not knowing where the course is at. That’s basically what we’re doing. That’s a pretty cool challenge. … That’s what the Dakar is, it’s the ultimate challenge.”
NOTES: 334 drivers are entered in the field, including a record 17 women. … Gordon won’t be the oldest competitor in the Rally: 56-year-old Carlos Sainz is the defending overall winner from the 2018 Rally (he also won in 2010). Prior to Sainz’s win last year, Stephane Peterhansel won four of the previous six Rallys in 2017, 2016, 2013 and 2012.