After two-year hiatus, Robby Gordon ready to tackle Dakar Rally again

Photos courtesy Robby Gordon
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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.

Here’s the vehicle Gordon will tackle this year’s Dakar Rally in. (Photo courtesy Robby Gordon)

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.

Robby Gordon during the 2015 Dakar Rally. (Photo: Getty Images)

“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.

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Jimmie Johnson won’t race full time in 2023; leaves open possibility of returning at Ganassi

Jimmie Johnson race 2023
Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images
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Though he remains uncertain of his plans for next year, Jimmie Johnson won’t race full time in 2023, scaling back his schedule after running a full 17-race NTT IndyCar Series season.

“This was a difficult choice for me, but in my heart, I know it’s the right one,” Johnson said in a statement Monday morning. “I’m not exactly sure what the next chapter holds, but if an opportunity comes along that makes sense, I will consider it. I still have a bucket list of racing events I would like to take part in. Competing at this level in IndyCar has been such a great experience.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better team to race for than Chip Ganassi and Chip Ganassi Racing. Everyone worked extremely hard for the last two seasons, pushing to get the best performances out of me every single week. The support from my crew and teammates Dario (Franchitti), Scott (Dixon), Tony (Kanaan), Marcus (Ericsson) and Alex (Palou) went above and beyond anything I could have ever asked for.”

WHAT’S NEXT FOR JIMMIE JOHNSON: An analysis of his racing options for the 2023 season

Driving the No. 48 Dallara-Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing, Johnson ranked 21st in the 2022 points standings with a career-best fifth place July 24 at Iowa Speedway.

After running only road and street courses for Ganassi in 2021, the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion added ovals this year. In his Indy 500 debut, he qualified 12th and finished 28th after a late crash.

“I do have a desire to go back (to IndyCar), it’s just at this point, I know what’s required to do a full schedule, and I don’t have that in me,” Johnson told AP. “I don’t have that passion that I need for myself to commit myself to a full season.”

That leaves open the concept of Johnson returning part time with Ganassi, perhaps exclusively on ovals.

“We are fully supportive of Jimmie,” team owner Chip Ganassi said in a statement. “He has been a valued member of our team and if we can find a way to continue working together, we would like to do so.”

During IndyCar’s season finale race weekend, Johnson told reporters Sept. 9 that he planned to explore his options with wife Chandra and daughters Evie and Lydia. Johnson told the Associated Press that his family is considering living abroad for a year or two, and he has toyed with the idea of running in the World Endurance Championship sports car series because of its international locales.

Johnson hasn’t ruled out IndyCar, IMSA sports cars or even a cameo in NASCAR next year. Since retiring from full-time NASCAR after the 2020 season, he has entered the endurance races of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship in the No. 48 Ally Cadillac (including Saturday’s Petit Le Mans season finale). Johnson also wants to race in the 24 Hours of Le Mans and is a prime candidate for the Garage 56 entry (a joint project of NASCAR and Hendrick Motorsports).

Johnson told the AP he is interested in becoming the latest driver to try “The Double” and run both the Coca-Cola 600 and Indy 500 on the same day (the most recent was Kurt Busch in 2014).

“You know me and endurance sports, and ‘The Double’ sounds awesome,” Johnson, a four-time Coke 600 winner, told AP. “I’ve always had this respect for the guys who have done ‘The Double.’ I would say it is more of a respect thing than a bucket-list item, and I’d love to put some energy into that idea and see if I can pull it off.”

It is less likely that he would return to IMSA’s endurance events because its top prototype series is being overhauled, limiting the amount of inventory available for the new LMDh cars in the rebranded GTP division.

Johnson has confirmed that he would retain primary sponsor Carvana, which has backed him in IndyCar the past two years. He revealed his decision Monday during the last episode of “Reinventing the Wheel,” Carvana Racing’s eight-part docuseries about his 2023 season.

“I’m thankful for the partnership with a company like Carvana for allowing me to take this journey in IndyCar, for seeing the value in our partnership and being open to future opportunities together,” Johnson said. “They have truly showed me that there are no finish lines in life. Along with Carvana, The American Legion, Ally, cbdMD and Frank August were there every step of the way, and I couldn’t have done it without all of them. Most importantly — and the true rockstars in all of this –my family, Chani, Evie and Lydia. They have always allowed me to chase my dreams, and we are all just really excited about what the future holds for all of us. I have enjoyed every minute of these last two years.”

Said Carvana co-founder Ryan Keeton: “During the past two years, Jimmie Johnson has been so amazing to collaborate with. Our team admires his passion, hard work and commitment to continuous improvement while also having fun, and we look forward to continuing to support him next year in this new chapter.”