Before starting an improbable charge in light prototype — putting him on course to break a Dakar Rally win record — Seth Quintero entertained the idea of withdrawing completely.
Having lost nearly 17 hours on track, waiting in the bone-chilling cold of the Saudi Arabian desert for a middle-of-the-night rescue and facing the reality another 10 days of racing with no hope for an overall title, it’s understandable that quitting seemed a decent option.
“I want to be honest, for sure it crossed my mind getting towed back when it’s freezing cold and 2 or 3 in the morning,” Quintero told NBC Sports. “I definitely wanted to give up, but I’ve learned that giving up is not in my vocabulary. It’s not in my mental state. Unfortunately, we had a similar issue last year. I learned giving up is not an option. And I’m never going to.”
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Persistence has paid off since for the San Marcos, California, native, who returned to the Dakar bivouac at 4 a.m. from the Stage 2 mechanical disaster. After an hour or two of sleep, the 19-year-old was on the Stage 3 starting line by 8 a.m. in his OT3-02.
A little under 3 hours later, the Red Bull Off Road Junior Team driver had another checkered flag in Stage 3 and a new objective for this year’s Dakar.
“It was definitely an awesome feeling and woke me up getting that win after those difficulties,” Quintero said. “Hopefully we can keep getting more wins and keep the mental game strong.
“The whole never give up thing is obviously something I live by … for some reason, something mentally in me, I can’t say no and can’t give up. It’s not in my blood. It’s not what my parents taught me. Obviously, these stage wins are definitely helping me get back going again.”
Quintero has been unbeatable since the broken differential in Stage 2. He has won five consecutive stages while overcoming even more mechanical problems to raise his stage victory total to seven despite being ranked 24th and still nearly 16 hours off the lead.
Stage 7 – ⚙️ LW Prototype
🥇 Seth Quintero
🥈 Cristina Gutierrez
🥉 Chaleco Lopez
— DAKAR RALLY (@dakar) January 9, 2022
Though he entered the 2022 Dakar Rally with a dream of becoming the youngest class winner at Dakar, Quintero now has a shot at making history in the prestigious endurance race another way.
If he can win at least four of the remaining five stages, he will break the mark for stages won during a Dakar Rally.
“It hadn’t even crossed my mind what the (Dakar stage win) record was, and then I got a message on Instagram saying I was on my way,” Quintero said. “Which woke me up again. It was definitely hard to mentally gather myself to race every day knowing that there’s really no full purpose of going out (because) we couldn’t race for the overall. So yeah, just trying to keep on finding motivation and every little bit helps.”
Even more motivating is that he will have only 13 shots (12 stages plus the prologue) to set the mark. The record of 10 victories was set by Pierre Lartigue during the 17-stage Dakar Rally in 1994 — four more chances than Quintero will have.
“I really just want to win the rest of the stages, regardless of the record,” said Quintero, who also won the prologue and Stage 1. “Hopefully we can win those last (five) and basically have a flawless Dakar apart from those 30 (kilometers) of Stage 2.
“It definitely feels realistic. We’ve put in the time for the past couple of years. Nonstop preparation, spending months outside the country. I definitely feel like it’s realistic. It’s not going to be easy for sure. These last stages are getting really, really rough. Really rocky. It’s going to be who can be the smartest driver to the finish line.”
Quintero has been sharpening his skills through countless 4 p.m.-midnight test sessions with co-driver Dennis Zenz, mostly in Morocco and Dubai (but also some racing in Italy and Spain). Because it’s the prototype class, there are many bugs to work out with the untested technology.
“It’s definitely been a pretty crazy three months,” Quintero said. “From the beginning of September until now, I’ve been home for about three weeks.”
The hard work paid off during a hard-fought Stage 6 victory in which he lost the brakes for the final 180 kilometers.
In order to slow down while racing across the desert at a maximum speed of 90 mph, Quintero swung the OT3 side to side on the sand and used engine braking through the gearbox.
Compounding the braking problem, Quintero then lost four-wheel drive, which left him “like driving in the mud” trying to scale the dunes in an underpowered car.
Yet he still finished more than 11 minutes ahead of his teammate Cristina Gutierrez Herrero for another victory that impressed his rivals.
“I’ve definitely gotten props from a couple of different competitors, which is nice to hear,” Quintero said. “I’m on a different mindset than they are trying to compete for 12 stages. I’m really just competing day by day. So I think that also comes into play with our success. I’m ready to go for it every single day, all day long. I’ve got nothing to lose. I really only have anything to gain.”
There’s been much respect to amass, though, in a bivouac that includes some of the greatest names in off-road and rally history.
Though being a generation or two younger than those legends, Quintero has aspirations of eventually reaching the T1 car class (“maybe another year or so”) to compete against the likes of Carlos Sainz, Sebastien Loeb, Stefan Peterhansel and Nasser Al-Attiyah.
“I’m definitely quite a bit younger than a lot of the guys I’m racing against,” Quintero said. “I’ve been fortunate enough to become very good friends with Sainz, Loeb, Peterhansel, Nasser. They’ve all been really amazing, humble guys. All people I’ve looked up to for a very long time.
“It’s been nice to come back to the bivouac and talk to them and just really learn. I’m just trying to soak in all the information that I can. Because they’re not going to be around driving the car forever, so hopefully that next step I can take, and they can help me into it.”
The best lessons he has learned so far?
“One that’s really stuck with me this race is ‘Go very slow in the slow and very fast in the fast,’ ” Quintero said. “From Carlos, I’ve definitely learned to take every opportunity I can possibly get.
“And also my parents, they’ve just taught me to just never say no. That’s a very good trait to have – and a very bad trait to have. Because I’m willing to put in the work. You can’t really break me, but you can overwork me every once in a while.”
Switching from dirt bikes to UTVs about a decade ago, Quintero quickly rose through the ranks and caught the eye of sponsor Red Bull (which has been tracking his progress on its Dakar Daily TV) by winning the youth class of a 2014 world championship.
He became the youngest driver to win several desert races in the UTV Pro NA Class, and he scored six impressive wins in 2019, including the overall championship of the Best in the Desert Pro Class, the MINT 400, the Parker 250 and the Silver State 300.
All while maintaining a 4.2 grade-point average in high school, which he described as “one of my bigger achievements.
“School is everything for me and for my parents as well,” said Quintero, whose mother and father both work in construction. “They were paying for my race program for a very long time, obviously. And they told me if I didn’t get good grades, I wasn’t racing. I’m very proud of that to be able to be full time at Mission Hills High School and then be also a full-time driver, mechanic, team manager and all that stuff. It’s been a wild ride but one of my biggest accomplishments.
“We were just a blue-collar family that the only thing we know how to do is work and somehow came out lucky, and here we are traveling the world and having some fun racing.”
And making history. After becoming the youngest stage winner in Dakar history last year, Quintero still has another record to chase beyond the stage victories mark.
“It’s been our goal to be the youngest person ever to win Dakar ever since we started this journey,” he said. “Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to get it done the last two years, but we still have a lot of time. I’m only 19 years old, and I plan on staying here for as long as I can. We’ll keep on trying and keep on charging.”