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

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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.”