Meet the navigation wizard who is teaching Dakar Rally contenders to read the desert

Andrew Short IG
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If Jimmy Lewis is making some of the top motorcycle riders in the Dakar Rally angry, he’s doing his job correctly.

That has involved taping over gauges that provide critical distance data or switching up desert guidebooks at the last minute after hours of research – all in the service of helping hone the navigation skills of elite riders such as defending Dakar Rally winner Ricky Brabec and Andrew Short.

“Sometimes they go, “Jimmy, you’re (messing) with me; you’re a (jerk),” Lewis told NBC Sports. “Well, yeah! I’m like, ‘I wouldn’t do this to you normally, but we need to learn something here.’

“I think with any super high-level athletes, it’s how you take them outside of that box and push them to achieve next-level stuff. That’s where the tricks are.”

DAKAR DETAILS: All the information about the event and how to watch on NBCSN

Lewis has become a sort of map whisperer to the stars in off-road desert rally racing.

Brabec, Short and other Dakar riders have made multiple trips over the past year to Jimmy Lewis Off-Road Training, which is located on a few acres in Pahrump, Nevada.

Though the facility has easy access to vast desert and mountain riding along the California-Nevada border, Lewis starts all of his instruction with rigorous hours in the classroom to learn how to measure distances and read terrain.

A former winner of the Baja 1000 and an international rally veteran, Lewis said he draws from his experience around the world to shore up weaknesses in a sport where it’s easy to make a wrong turn or miss a way station.

Any mistake can incur major time penalties while also possibly resulting in a rider drifting dozens of miles off courses that always aren’t well marked.

“Each one of these guys at their level, they’re so good, but then it’s the guys who excel and are willing to work a little bit harder,” Lewis said. “I can see where somebody might need some improvement, and generally they don’t know it.

“And a lot of times, they’re a little bit resistant to it. So we work on that, and we kind of force them to have those learning experiences. Sometimes it’s not that easy to put these guys in difficult situations where they have to kind of unwind the step.”

Lewis said his sessions with Brabec and Short went “awesome” despite COVID-19 restrictions that made things a little trickier (“luckily we’re in the outdoors, so this sport already is social distancing of just you and your motorcycle for the most part”).

The days are long, usually starting just after dawn and riding until mid- to late afternoon (Brabec posted a video last month during an outing of several hundred kilometers). Another few hours in the evening are spent on plotting out a course for the following day.

“They really like to keep current with the map book reading and stay up on that, and it’s very hard to practice because map books and rally routes don’t grow on trees,” Lewis said.

Navigation was the principal focus with Brabec, whom Lewis said always has possessed world-class speed since they began working together years ago.

Two riders were killed in crashes at last year’s Dakar Rally, which often requires its champion riders to find the limits of their mortality.

“Some of them are win or nothing, and that’s difficult to compete with,” Lewis said. “They only feel comfortable when they’re above the limit. They taught themselves that, which is nuts.”

Lewis finished a career-best third at Dakar in 2000. His career ended in a crash the next year.

“I wasn’t going there to get third place again, I was going to win, and that’s the mentality we all have,” he said. “I always fancied myself a very safe rider that didn’t take risks. I didn’t do anything wrong or different, I just had a big crash.”

Brabec’s victory was the first by an American, completing a breakthrough that took 40 years. Lewis was among a long line of U.S. riders (including Kellon Walch and Chris Blais) who previously had been in the hunt for Dakar victories.

That made it special for Lewis, who has trained other class winners. He also has worked with Quad contender Pablo Copetti this year at his school, which teaches motorcycle riding for all levels and types of bikes.

“I’m just trying to support my bad habit of riding a dirt bike all the time,” Lewis said with a laugh.

Cadillac, Acura battle for top speed as cars back on track for Rolex 24 at Daytona practice

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The new hybrid prototypes of Cadillac and Acura battled atop the speed chart as practice resumed Thursday for the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Chip Ganassi Racing driver Richard Westbrook was fastest Thursday afternoon in the No. 02 Cadillac V-LMDh with a 1-minute, 35.185-second lap around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course at Daytona International Speedway.

That pace topped Ricky Taylor’s 1:35.366 lap that topped the Thursday morning session that marked the first time the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship was back on track since qualifying Sunday afternoon that concluded the four-day Roar Before The Rolex 24 test.

In a final session Thursday night, Matt Campbell was fastest (1:35.802) in the No. 7 Porsche Penske Motorsports Porsche 963 but still was off the times set by Westbrook and Taylor.

Punctuated by Tom Blomqvist’s pole position for defending race winner Meyer Shank Racing, the Acura ARX-06s had been fastest for much of the Roar and led four consecutive practice sessions.

DETAILS FOR THE 61ST ROLEX 24How to watch, entry lists, schedules for the IMSA season opener

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But the times have been extremely tight in the new Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) category that has brought hybrid engines to IMSA’s premier class. Only 0.9 seconds separated the nine LMDh cars in GTP in qualifying, and though the spread slightly widened to 1.378 seconds in Thursday’s practices with teams on varying strategies and preparation, Westbrook still pooh-poohed the importance of speeds.

“It’s always nice to be at the top, but I don’t think it means too much or read too much into it” Westbrook said. “Big fuel tanks in the GTP class this year, so you have no idea what fuel levels people are running. We had a good run, and the car is really enjoyable to drive now. I definitely wasn’t saying that a month ago.

“It really does feel good now. We are working on performance and definitely unlocking some potential, and it just gives us more confidence going into the race. It’s going to be super tight. Everyone’s got the same power, everyone has the same downforce, everyone has the same drag levels and let’s just go race.”

Because teams have put such a premium on reliability, handling mostly has suffered in the GTPs, but Westbrook said the tide had turned Thursday.

“These cars are so competitive, and you were just running it for the sake of running it in the beginning, and there’s so much going on, you don’t really have time to work on performance,” he said. “A lot of emphasis was on durability in the beginning, and rightly so, but now finally we can work on performance, and that’s the same for other manufacturers as well. But we’re worrying about ourselves and improving every run, and I think everybody’s pretty happy with their Cadillac right now.”

Mike Shank, co-owner of Blomqvist’s No. 60 on the pole, said his team still was facing reliability problems despite its speed.

“We address them literally every hour,” Shank said. “We’re addressing some little thing we’re doing better to try to make it last. And also we’re talking about how we race the race, which will be different from years past.

“Just think about every system in the car, I’m not going to say which ones we’re working on, but there are systems in the car that ORECA and HPD are continually trying to improve. By the way, sometimes we put them on the car and take them off before it even goes out on the track because something didn’t work with electronics. There’s so much programming. So many departments have to talk to each other. That bridge gets broken from a code not being totally correct, and the car won’t run. Or the power steering turns off.”

Former Rolex 24 winner Renger van der Zande of Ganassi said it still is a waiting game until the 24-hour race begins Saturday shortly after 1:30 p.m.

“I think the performance of the car is good,” van der Zande said. “No drama. We’re chipping away on setup step by step and the team is in control. It’s crazy out there what people do on the track at the moment. It’s about staying cool and peak at the right moment, and it’s not the right moment yet for that. We’ll keep digging.”


PRACTICE RESULTS:

Click here for Session I (by class)

Click here for Session II (by class)

Click here for Session III (by class)

Combined speeds