Prepping properly during a pandemic for the Dakar Rally? The options seem roughly as arduous as navigating the 12-day, 3,000-mile motor racing test of endurance and the elements.
You could untangle the red tape and logistics of the heavily restricted COVID-19 world, traveling to Saudi Arabia for warmup laps in a foreign land.
You could bring in endless truckloads of soil to replicate the arid dunes of the kingdom.
Or, if you’re the defending champion of the prestigious bike class, you can climb aboard your Honda CRF450 and hang a right out of your garage.
‘EVEREST OF DIRT BIKES’: Former Supercross star Andrew Short loving switch to rally
Living in Southern California’s High Desert isn’t quite a home-field advantage for Ricky Brabec, but it’s close. That was evident from the moment he hit the sand last year in Saudi Arabia, which is in its second consecutive year of playing host to Dakar (NBCSN’s daily coverage will begin Sunday at 7:30 p.m. ET).
“This looks like home,” he has recalled of his first impression.
Brabec was roughly 8,000 miles from home, but the Arabian Desert felt as if he never left Hesperia, where his backyard is “literally the open desert” that stretches toward the Mojave.
AMERICAN HISTORY AT @DAKAR! 🇺🇸
Before today, no American had won the Dakar Rally. Now, it's happened twice! Congrats to Ricky Brabec and @CaseyCurrie!
— Motorsports on NBC (@MotorsportsNBC) January 17, 2020
“The terrain for me makes me feel comfortable,” Brabec, 29, said about the Saudi course Thursday during a prerace news conference. “Where I live, my hometown looks more or less similar to almost everything we covered last year. So for me to just put gear on and come ride in a country that I’m not familiar with and actually see it in person the first time while racing, it makes me feel comfortable.
“I can go as fast as we need to go and not really think about what’s ahead of me because it comes natural from the training at home.”
Brabec became the first American rider to win Dakar in the event’s 40-year history, and he wasn’t alone in carrying the Stars and Stripes as Skyler Howes (ninth) and Andrew Short (10th) ensured U.S. riders comprised nearly a third of the top 10.
All three will return this year with optimism that they can repeat their success at the first Dakar Rally to be held in the Middle East after a decadelong run in South America followed 30 years through Europe and Africa.
“I think it leveled the playing field honestly,” Short told NBC Sports. “The deserts in South America were amazing, but these people who had experience with Dakar year after year, they knew almost how to get the route in a sense because from the safety aspect, the hospitals, the police had to have the general route.
“I think there was a lot of insider knowledge the closer you got to the race where the Americans didn’t have access to this, and by switching to Saudi, you don’t have to worry about the route getting out. It’s not like people go to Saudi very often to ride in the desert. So I think this really helped make the race more fair and also the desert in Saudi was better than expected. The country in general was really nice to visit and the way they organized the race was amazing and seeing the landscapes there surprised me.
“It was a really cool race and better than I expected and leaves me excited to race there again this year.”
And then there was the terrain advantage. Short trains with Brabec at Jimmy Lewis Off-Road Training in Nevada, getting a firsthand look at the sort of obstacles they will face over 12 stages and 3,000 miles from Jan. 3-15 (and also a Jan. 2 prologue to set the starting order).
“I knew Ricky would be good last year, he’s always good at Dakar, but I didn’t expect him to win,” Short said. “I think him growing up and living in the desert, and that desert being so similar to where he lives, he won it because he had speed. His navigation was pretty good, but he just went faster than everyone else in the first week and didn’t care about strategy, and he put himself in that position, which really surprised me.
“It was really cool to see somebody from the U.S. like Ricky win and surprise everyone. It definitely helped the sport in America also grow, which was really cool to see.”
Lewis, a Dakar veteran who worked with Brabec for years, said the 2020 winner always had speed. Brabec was on the verge of winning the 2019 Dakar Rally when doomed by an engine failure with two days remaining.
Last year, he seized control by winning Stage 3 by nearly 6 minutes (a day after being angered about getting lost and incurring a time penalty). The large cushion allowed Brabec to manage the race while relying on his improved navigation skills in his fifth Dakar start.
“We’ve always known that Americans are probably the fastest desert racers because that’s what we do,” Lewis told NBC Sports. “We’re good at this. We race Baja. We race at super high speeds, but we don’t navigate very well. Speed has never been our issue. It’s making sure you’re going fast in the right direction.
“That’s where we spend a lot of time training. And I convince these guys, ‘Look, you’re as fast as those guys if not faster. Now let’s do the stuff that’s going to make you beat them.’ ”
American riders gained another advantage with a change in the distribution of roadbooks, which riders use to navigate each stage. After a limited run with the new policy last year, race organizers will distribute the maps 20 minutes before each daily start in 2021 (instead of the previous night).
That will eliminate many teams’ use of a “map man” who would rely on Google Earth and GPS technology to optimize route planning. For Lewis, whose 1996 Dakar debut came when riders still relied on compasses prior to GPS units being widespread, it’s a throwback to making “the navigation more difficult, which is the true essence of rally.”
“This is another aspect that’s really helped me and Ricky,” Short said of the roadbook change. “This really aids people that have good navigation skills and can adapt quickly, so this is another reason Ricky did so well.”
Lewis said Brabec will enters the 2021 race “as much of a favorite as you can be in Dakar. It’s 12 long days, and that’s a lot of miles. I sure hope he can back it up. There are so many good guys now.”
Brabec and two-time champion Toby Price both said Thursday there as many as 10 legitimate contenders among 100-plus entrants in the bike class.
Ratcheting up the competitiveness is a new rule limiting riders to only six rear tires, which Brabec has criticized.
“I’m not sure that’s a good way to go about it,” he said. “I know the first top 20 riders, it’s not going to slow us down. We’re still going to push. That’s just our culture. We’re going to push until we can’t anymore, and then we’re still going to try to push.
— DAKAR RALLY (@dakar) December 30, 2020
“Strategy is definitely going to come into play. We’ll see how it goes when we get to our sixth tire.”
Brabec said he feels “very confident” about his title defense but “upped the training program a little more than last year. Hopefully it pays off.”
Of course, it helps when he has been able to log more desert miles than perhaps anyone else in the field.
“The year’s been wild, and all of us have been struggling with the same thing,” Brabec said. “I’m very fortunate for where I live. So nothing has really slowed down for me. I’ve just been riding as much as normally. It’s been great. But all the racing has been shut down. All the businesses have been shut down, so it’s been a quiet year for everyone.
“I’m just very fortunate to have riding right outside my garage door.”