Why the desert racing of the Dakar Rally appeals to IndyCar star Alexander Rossi


As a two-time Baja 1000 veteran, Alexander Rossi is no stranger to off-road racing, but the Dakar Rally still would be a fresh start for the 2016 Indianapolis 500 winner.

“I’d 100 percent love to do Dakar at one point … but it’s so different from Baja in the sense it’s like the Tour de France,” Rossi told NBC Sports’ Parker Kilgerman (video of the interview above). “You do stages. You have rest days. Baja is a 19-hour sprint, where Dakar is over (two) weeks. It’s a very different type of race. The vehicles are more spec.

“And the other thing is the navigation is a lot harder. You’re having to navigate almost as a sailor would by the stars in some categories. You don’t have GPS systems. You have a map. A whole different challenge, but one that I would love to do one day.”

It’s understandable why the arid terrain of Saudi Arabia (the location of the Dakar Rally for the second consecutive year) would beckon for Rossi, who already has had two extraordinarily eventful forays into desert racing in Mexico.

HOW TO WATCH THE 2021 DAKAR RALLYInformation, daily schedules for NBCSN

In the 2018 Baja 1000, Rossi narrowly averted a head-on collision with a passenger SUV (which had its right-side mirror sheared off in glancing contact). He still soldiered on to a second-place finish in Class 7 (just below the trophy truck division) with a Honda Ridgeline owned by Jeff Proctor.

In the 2019 Baja 1000, Rossi rolled his Ridgeline into a ditch after misjudging a 90-degree left turn over a hill. After continuing for another 100 miles, Rossi and co-driver Proctor had to retire from the race because of damage.

Honda Photo
Alexander Rossi (right) and co-driver Jeff Proctor with the Honda Ridgeline they drove in the 2019 Baja 1000 (Honda).

With his strong ties to Honda possibly providing another opportunity, Rossi seems enamored with a return to Baja, which is “one of a kind and one of the hardest things I’ve ever participated in on four wheels.”

There are three keys to differentiating the open road from the closed-circuit ovals, road and street courses that Rossi has tamed in the NTT IndyCar Series.

The first is “there’s no set course,” Rossi said. “There are checkpoints you have to go through, but it’s up to you to find the best route for yourself and vehicle to get between Checkpoint A and B. So it’s really up to your own research that you do the weeks and months that you’re down there before the event and just your own creativity, which is pretty crazy.

“No. 2, the locals are actually involved in Baja, where they try and bobby-trap the competitors, and they’ll set up fake course markers and try to get you to get in a ditch. But those same locals are also the ones that will help you out of a difficult situation (locals helped recover his truck after the 2019 crash).

“No. 3 is even though you’re racing over unbelievable terrain. Huge boulders, big hills. You’re jumping a truck. It’s flat out the whole way. The machines are built so well, it’s a 10/10ths sprint race, even for 1,000 miles.”

Rossi, who will make his third consecutive start in the Rolex 24 at Daytona this month, is building a reputation for embracing versatility.

Besides IndyCar, sports cars and off road, he also would like to try NASCAR’s premier series — though that goal has been tempered by his 2019 debut in the Virgin Australia Supercars series. Teaming with IndyCar driver James Hinchcliffe, their car finished 18th of 26 in the prestigious Bathurst 1000.

“I was out of my depth,” Rossi said. “Trying to debut in a V8 Supercar at Bathurst was a hell of a task. Didn’t do a very good job. So nothing but accolades for those guys over there and what they do. I don’t think Cup would be any different. That’s a whole different world, and you’ve got to have the right preparation and right time before you’re going to jump in and do anything good.

“Conor Daly and Travis Pastrana did the truck race in Vegas and did a pretty good job, but if I were to ever do it, I want to give it the time and respect it deserves.”

Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Formula One embrace the United States

Verstappen Perez United States
Jared C. Tilton / Getty Images

Last week, Red Bull Racing revealed their new car, the RB19, and a new relationship with US-based Ford Motors in a press event in New York City complete with drivers Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Team Principle Christian Horner. They are the only Formula 1 team to launch in the United States, but even that small move of the needle reflects a major shift in the attitude of both F1’s management and their teams – and the extent to which the American audience has fully embraced the sport.

“It’s something fantastic and unique, for the sport to be able to break it into the U.S,” Perez told NBC Sports. “The market is huge and it’s a huge opportunity for everyone involved, for the drivers, for the team. It’s always a huge market.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Sergio Perez finished fourth in the Unites States Grand Prix, but he was first with the fans.  – Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

In 2023, Formula 1 will race three times in the United States and five times in North America. The Circuit of the Americas will host their 11th consecutive race in October before heading south to Mexico City. Miami returns for a second time in May on a temporary street course around the Hard Rock cafe and the third addition is in downtown Las Vegas in November.

With the Canadian Grand Prix on the schedule for June and the Brazilian Grand Prix in November, American fans are now in the ballpark of Europeans, who have eight events on the continent and one in England.

In 2022, Verstappen won every race in North America. He was kept from sweeping the hemisphere only by George Russell, who won in Brazil. That fact is less remarkable when one considers that Verstappen won 15 times in the season – nearly two-thirds of the races on the schedule.

By the time Formula arrived in Austin for Round 20 of 23, Verstappen had already wrapped up his second consecutive championship.

“Sometimes it can be hard to replicate the season, but I think it’s the same as with the car, right? You always try to improve it,” Verstappen told NBC Sports. “And I always look at the little details that even when you have had a good race, you could have done better. And then of course you also learn from the bad races. So we always try to look for these little improvements and general experience you gain year after year.

“You try to do better, but of course it also depends a lot on the package you have.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Max Verstappen United States Grand Prix win was one of 15 for the drivers and 17 for Red Bull.
(Gongora / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Now Verstappen’s thoughts will inevitably turn to establishing a dynasty – and America will again play a pivotal role.

“I just enjoy what I’m doing,” Verstappen said.  “After the years in Formula One, when you have to be on top of your game and you gain a lot on your experience – in that sense nothing really can get to you anymore. Every year you just try to do the best you can. But a lot depends on the material around you. It’s always a bit of a guess. Start the season as fit as you can be and be well prepared. But if you don’t have the car, you’re not going to win the championship.”

Perez added two wins to Red Bull’s total, at Monaco and the Marina Bay Street course. With two of the US 2023 races on street courses, Perez hopes to close the gap on Verstappen and potentially be his principle rival for the championship.

“The strategy is clear; it is to maximize the potential of the car – and we believe we have a good car, but how good?,” Perez said “We don’t know what the competition is doing. We just give our best in building this car and we hope that it’s good enough to get us to win races.

“I think we have to work together as a team. At the same time. We both want to win the championship. It’s just having good compromise. The competition will be really strong out there, so we really need everything we possibly can get from each other.”

Formula One returns to the United States for Round 6 and the Miami Grand Prix on May 7.