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

Andrew Short IG

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.”

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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.