At Dakar Rally, American privateer Skyler Howes is leaving mark despite limited money


As hard as racing in the Dakar Rally, the task of getting there is just as arduous for Skyler Howes.

But a shoestring budget hasn’t deterred the American from excelling in the renowned off-road raid.

Howes led the bikes division after Tuesday’s Stage 3 (of 12) despite being a privateer rider up against the big-budget factory teams.

“The main difference is the factory riders are getting paid to be here, and the privateer has to pay to be here,” Howes, 28, told NBC Sports’ Parker Kligerman in a Zoom interview (video above) from Saudi Arabia this week. “So honestly getting to the race is one of the hardest things as a privateer to be able to raise all the funds, and I had a lot of people step up to help me out and get me here.”

HOW TO WATCH ON NBCSNInformation, schedules for the Dakar Rally

Howes hails from St. George, Utah, where he offers off-road riding lessons and also raises funding through merchandise sales and donations (he stenciled the names of all his donors on his BAS Dakar KTM Racing bike)

“I understand the value of money and the amount people stepped up to give means a lot,” he said. “I don’t know I could ever repay everyone who stepped up to help me. All I can do is make everyone proud. Being in the overall lead for a day hopefully everyone back home is stoked.”

At the halfway mark of six stages, Howes ranks ninth overall entering Saturday’s rest day. He finished 20th in the fourth stage Wednesday after taking the lead, dropping four spots, and since has finished seventh Thursday and 19th Friday.

Unlike factory riders, who have managers to help with logistics, planning and tactics, Howes has “a lot more strategy to figure out ourselves,” particularly with a new rule limiting riders to six tires.

He has tried to conserve for the second week, sacrificing some performance by running three days on the same rear tire. “That’s just one of those things that privateers face handling things on our own,” Howes said.

Because riders start in the order of finish in the prior stage, finishing well often has been a disadvantage because the fresh courses have been difficult to traverse.

“It’s a little different this year,” Howes said. “If you’re leading out, the navigation is quite difficult, so there’s this big yo-yo effect if you lead out, you get a poorer result then if you start behind, you get a good result. There’s this big fluctuation with results.”

Even with fewer resources, Howes still managed to finish ninth overall last year, which is as impressive for the state of his health as his finances.

Howes entered the 2020 Dakar Rally with only a week of training after breaking his neck three months earlier. His surgery for the injury included inserting a plate and six crews while fusing three broken vertebrae.

“Someone once told me you have to be a certain kind of stupid to ride a motorcycle fast, and maybe that has something to do with it,” he said. “You kind of shut that part of your brain off, the pain receptors.

“Dirt bike riders are some of the toughest dudes on the planet. Maybe it’s just we’re a certain kind of dumb. At the end of the day, there’s no other feeling like ripping a dirt bike through the desert. That’s why we do it. We live for it. Whenever the pain comes, we push through it because the glory and feeling afterward outweighs it.”

Those feelings have come early for Howes in the 2021 Dakar.

“I always hold myself to a high standard, but coming in after Stage 3 and putting a camera in my face and saying I’m the overall leader of the Dakar Rally, that’s pretty cool,” he said. “Not something, honestly, I really expected. Honestly, I’m just having a lot of fun out there.

“I hope to finish strong. Dakar, so much crazy stuff can happen. I don’t want to put pressure on myself to get a certain result. I just want to cross the finish line and hope everyone back home is proud.”

Justin Grant prevails over Kyle Larson in the Turkey Night Grand Prix

Grant Larson Turkey Night / DB3 Inc.

On the heels of his Hangtown 100 victory, Justin Grant worked his way from 13th in the Turkey Night Grand Prix to beat three-time event winner Kyle Larson by 1.367 seconds. The 81st annual event was run at Ventura (Calif.) Raceway for the sixth time.

“My dad used to take me to Irwindale Speedway, and we’d watch Turkey Night there every year,” Grant said in a series press release. “This is one of the races I fell in love with. I didn’t think I’d ever get a chance to run in it, never thought I’d make a show and certainly never thought I’d be able to win one.”

With its genesis in 1934 at Gilmore Stadium, a quarter-mile dirt track in Los Angeles, the race is steeped in history with winners that include AJ Foyt, Parnelli Jones, Gary Bettenhausen and Johnnie Parsons. Tony Stewart won it in 2000. Kyle Larson won his first of three Turkey Night Grands Prix in 2012. Christopher Bell earned his first of three in 2014, so Grant’s enthusiasm was well deserved.

So was the skepticism that he would win. He failed to crack the top five in three previous attempts, although he came close last year with a sixth-place result. When he lined up for the feature 13th in the crowded 28-car field, winning seemed like a longshot.

Grant watched as serious challengers fell by the wayside. Mitchel Moles flipped on Lap 10 of the feature. Michael “Buddy” Kofoid took a tumble on Lap 68 and World of Outlaws Sprint car driver Carson Macedo flipped on Lap 79. Grant saw the carnage ahead of him and held a steady wheel as he passed Tanner Thorson for the lead with 15 laps remaining and stayed out of trouble for the remainder of the event.

“It’s a dream come true to win the Turkey Night Grand Prix,” Grant said.

Kyle Larson follows Justin Grant to the front on Turkey Night

The 2012, 2016 and 2019 winner, Larson was not scheduled to run the event. His wife Katelyn is expecting their third child shortly, but after a couple of glasses of wine with Thanksgiving dinner and while watching some replays of the event, Larson texted car owner Chad Boat to see if he had a spare car lying around. He did.

“We weren’t great but just hung around and it seemed like anybody who got to the lead crashed and collected some people,” Larson said. “We made some passes throughout; in the mid-portion, we weren’t very good but then we got better at the end.

“I just ran really, really hard there, and knew I was running out of time, so I had to go. I made some pretty crazy and dumb moves, but I got to second and was hoping we could get a caution to get racing with Justin there. He was sliding himself at both ends and thought that maybe we could get a run and just out-angle him into [Turn] 1 and get clear off [Turn] 2 if we got a caution, but it just didn’t work out.”

Larson padded one of the most impressive stats in the history of this race, however. In 10 starts, he’s won three times, finished second four times, was third once and fourth twice.

Bryant Wiedeman took the final spot on the podium.

As Grant and Larson began to pick their way through the field, Kofoid took the lead early from the outside of the front row and led the first 44 laps of the race before handing it over to Cannon McIntosh, who bicycled on Lap 71 before landing on all fours. While Macedo and Thorson tussled for the lead with McIntosh, Grant closed in.

Thorson finished 19th with McIntosh 20th. Macedo recovered from his incident to finish ninth. Kofoid’s hard tumble relegated him to 23rd.

Jake Andreotti in fourth and Kevin Thomas, Jr. rounded out the top five.

1. Justin Grant (started 13)
2. Kyle Larson (22)
3. Bryant Wiedeman (4)
4. Jake Andreotti (9)
5. Kevin Thomas Jr. (1)
6. Logan Seavey (8)
7. Alex Bright (27)
8. Emerson Axsom (24)
9. Carson Macedo (7)
10. Jason McDougal (18)
11. Jake Swanson (16)
12. Chase Johnson (6)
13. Jacob Denney (26)
14. Ryan Timms (23)
15. Chance Crum (28)
16. Brenham Crouch (17)
17. Jonathan Beason (19)
18. Cade Lewis (14)
19. Tanner Thorson (11)
20. Cannon McIntosh (3)
21. Thomas Meseraull (15)
22. Tyler Courtney (21)
23. Buddy Kofoid (2)
24. Brody Fuson (5)
25. Mitchel Moles (20)
26. Daniel Whitley (10)
27. Kaylee Bryson (12)
28. Spencer Bayston (25)