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

Photos courtesy Robby Gordon

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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Jett Lawrence wins Pro Motocross opener, remains perfect at Fox Raceway; Hunter wins in 250s

How they finished in the 450 Overall at Fox Raceway
Align Media

PALA, California – In his 450 bike debut, Jett Lawrence scored a perfect round at Fox Raceway in Pala, California to win Pro Motocross Round 1. He posted the fastest time in both qualification sessions, won the holeshot in both motos, and scored a pair of wins to take the overall victory and the early points’ lead.

Chase Sexton stalked Jett Lawrence throughout Moto 2, but could not find his way past. – Align Media

No one seriously questioned Lawrence’s opportunity to make noise in the 450 class. Few would have been surprised to see him podium in his Pro Motocross National, but Lawrence outperformed all expectations by dominating Moto 1. He entered the weekend with zero points and his eye on 20th in the standings so he would receive an automatic invitation to the inaugural SuperMotocross World Championship (SMX).

He well surpassed expectations.

“It’s awesome,” Lawrence told NBC Sports’ Jason Thomas. “I can finally smile. I’ve been trying to stay serious and not get too excited with emotions coming up – and now I can finally let loose. The second one was a little harder, I couldn’t hear him but I’d look back and I’d still see the red bike. It was like a chess match.”

By the end of the race, Lawrence made up 30 percent of the points he needed to claim 20th and served notice that he will be one of the favorites to win the championship. He closed the gap even further in Moto 2, but the two races had entirely different storylines.

While Lawrence was able to run away from the field in the first race and win with a 10-second advantage, Honda teammate and defending Monster Energy Supercross champion Chase Sexton pressured him for the entire 30 minutes plus two laps that made up Moto 2.

Lawrence is the 16th rider to win in his first Pro Motocross race, the 10th to do so in an opener and second youngest, (behind Rick Johnson, 17 when he won at Hangtown in 1982).

Sexton was within two seconds of Lawrence for the entire moto. He rode a patient race with the realistic expectation that the 450 rookie Lawrence might make a mistake. Lawrence bounced from rut to rut in this race, but would not be forced into losing his focus.

“Toward the finish line area I had some decent lines, I thought maybe, if I could get close enough, I could make a move,” Sexton said. “I tried my hardest; I got close. I made a bit of an attempt with maybe 10 minutes to go and messed up. Jett was obviously riding really good. We were pushing the pace and it was a fun moto. It felt a little like last year.”

With his 1-1 finish and the overall victory, Lawrence remains perfect at Fox Raceway after sweeping Victory Lane in five rounds his 250 career.

Dylan Ferrandis returned to the track after suffering a concussion in the Supercross season in Round 4 in Houston. He attempted to return for the Daytona Supercross race, but another hard crash on Media Day set him on the sideline.

“Earlier this week I was pretty far from a podium position, so got together with the team and we made it happen,” Ferrandis said. “It was very hard. [Aaron Plessinger] was pushing me and I had to dig very deep.”

RESULTS: How they finished in the 450 Overall at Fox Raceway

In a pre-race news conference, he indicated that the best course of action was to get up to speed before he fully sent his bike into the turns. But adrenalin is a wonderful factor and once he got into the pace of the race, he held off charges from Cooper Webb in Moto 1 and Plessinger in Moto 2. Ferrandis’ 3-3 finishes in the two races earned 40 points and puts him back in the conversation to be among the top 20 in the combined SuperMotocross standings.

Plessinger and Webb each ended the day with 34 points. Plessinger won the tiebreaker for fifth overall in the standings. But it was an adventurous afternoon for Plessinger who had to overcome a pair of falls in the first Moto to finish fifth.

Round 1 of the Pro Motocross season marked the return of Webb after he suffered a Supercross series ending concussion in a heat race at Nashville.

“This was a last minute decision,” Webb said. “I sat out last summer and I didn’t want to do that again. Once I got cleared from the doctor, it was game on.”

The battle between Lawrence and Sexton gave Honda a 1-2 finish in this race for the second straight year, but perhaps most importantly, it provided a glimpse of what can be expected during the opening rounds.

I think there is more to come from Chase,” Lawrence said. “He had that crash in practice so it rung his head a bit, but I know it’s going to be a war in the outdoor season. I know there’s going to be times when I’m behind Chase and can’t get around him. It’s going to be an awesome season and I can’t wait to race my teammate.”

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Jett wasn’t the only Lawrence to win Fox Raceway Motocross. Hunter’s win in the 250 class marked the first time in history that brothers won a Motocross National on the same day.

The reigning 250 East Supercross champion scored the overall victory with a third in Moto 1 and a victory in Moto 2. A poor start in the first race forced Lawrence to mount a charge from behind. Riding with discomfort, Lawrence was out of his rhythm early. A spirited battle with Jo Shimoda and Justin Cooper for third through fifth forced him to push through the pain of an injury suffered at the start of the week.

“The start was crucial,” Lawrence said. “I had a massive crash Monday and could barely ride press day for three laps, I was in so much pain. This one goes out to Dr. [Rey Gubernick]. He has magic hands.”

Lawrence’s strong start to Moto 2 put him in a better zone and he pulled an eight-second advantage over the second-place rider.

Haiden Deegan got a taste of the Motocross series last year, but that was all it was: a nibble.

Deegan failed to crack the top 10 in either of two starts and had some questions for himself before the race began. Deegan did not believe there were high expectations placed on him for this race, which is precisely how he described his first Supercross attempt. In that inaugural SX race, he finished fourth and was as surprised as anyone in the field.

Again: The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Deegan surprised himself again by finishing second in only his third Motocross National. He finished sixth in Moto 1 and second in Moto 2, giving him a second-place finish overall.

“I’m actually a little surprised,” Deegan said. “A lot of people said I wouldn’t even be close to this. I guess we’re proving people wrong and that’s what we’ve got to do Second place in my first full season. I’m hyped.”

Deegan is closing in on his first 250 win.

Click here for 250 overall results

RJ Hampshire had to overcome a pair of falls in Moto 2 to score the final podium position in the overall standings. – Align Media

RJ Hampshire made a statement in Moto 1. An entirely new discipline allowed Hampshire to grab an early advantage. But then a poor start to Moto 2 provided an entirely different challenge. Two falls on Lap 1 dropped Hampshire to 39th in the running order.

“I didn’t have a great start and got mayhem in that second corner and went down,” Hampshire said. “Picked [myself] up in last and made some really good passes and then going uphill on the [backstretch], someone got out of whack – took me out and I was dead last again. I didn’t really know if I had a shot at the podium, but I was digging really deep.”

It took half of the race to get back into the points in 20th, but Hampshire kept digging. Passing riders one at a time, he climbed to 11th in Moto 2 and salvaged enough points to give him the third position overall.

Maximus Vohland made a statement of his own by holding off a determined Lawrence on the last two laps. Lawrence was able to pressure Vohland when they were slowed by a lapped rider who fell in front of the battle.

Tom Vialle was in a position to take the final overall podium spot with a solid third-place finish in the second moto. He did everything he could, but Hampshire’s determined charge from the back of the pack was capped off with a two-position advance on the final lap to slide onto the final step of the box.

2023 Supercross Race Recaps

Salt Lake City: Chase Sexton ends the season with win
Denver: Chase Sexton wins, takes points’ lead with Eli Tomac injury
Nashville: Chase Sexton keeps hope alive; Cooper Webb out
New Jersey: Justin Barcia wins muddy race; first in two years
Atlanta: Chase Sexton is back in the championship picture
Glendale: Eli Tomac wins 51st, breaks tie with James Stewart
Seattle: Eli Tomac wins and ties Webb for first
Detroit: Chase Sexton inherits win after Aaron Plessinger falls
Indianapolis: Ken Roczen gets first win in more than a year
Daytona: Eli Tomac extends Daytona record with seventh win
Arlington: Cooper Webb wins for second time, closes to two of Tomac
Oakland: Eli Tomac ties Ricky Carmichael with 48 wins
Tampa: Cooper Webb gets first 2023 win
Houston: Eli Tomac bounces back from A2 crash to win third race of 2023
Anaheim 2: Triple Crown produces new winners Chase Sexton, Levi Kitchen
San Diego: Eli Tomac, Jett Lawrence double down
Anaheim 1: Eli Tomac wins opener for the first time

More SuperMotocross coverage

Record Supercross attendance reported in 2023
450 Champion Chase Sexton takes back what he gave away
250 West Supercross champion Jett Lawrence ends dream career
250 East Supercross champion Hunter Lawrence overcomes doubt and injury
Cooper Webb returns to action at Pala
Caden Braswell joins Troy Lee Design
SuperMotocross Power Rankings after Supercross finale