Skyler Howes on emotional, spiritual journey to Dakar lead: ‘I can’t believe I get to do this’


Skyler Howes has gotten choked up during the 2023 Dakar Rally, which is understandable considering the overall leader has made an extraordinary comeback from devastating injuries.

But it wasn’t personal accomplishment that moved the American rider while keeping his Husqvarna pinned at the front during the first week of the 8,500-kilometer, 14-day odyssey across the Saudi Arabian desert.

Howes was overcome simply from soaking in the scenery during the grueling rally raid endurance classic better known for its brutality than beauty.

“We’re supposed to be like macho guys out there riding,” Howes told NBC Sports with a laugh. “It’s funny to say, but I actually got emotional on Stage 3. We went through the most insane mountain terrains. It’s green out there with all the grass and all the rain. We went through these crazy rock formations. The navigation was nuts. We had wet dirt to ride, which is always incredible in the desert.

“And it’s just like I legitimately got emotional because I had the best time on my dirt bike ever. I was by myself. I was alone. And it was literally so cool. Coolest thing ever. So cool, it’s funny to say, I laugh now. But I actually got emotional. I was like, ‘I can’t believe I get to do this. This is the coolest thing ever.’ ”

Howes might be regarded as the most philosophical and spiritual contender in this year’s Dakar. He certainly has ranked among the fastest and most consistent of the more than 800 competitors (and 171 riders in the bike category).

Through nine stages, he is first on his Husqvarna Factory Rally 450 by a scant 3 seconds over two-time champion Toby Price. Though he has yet to win a stage this year, Howes has been on the podium five times while leading the overall standings for five consecutive stages.

It’s markedly different from last year when Howes, 30, was eliminated by the fifth stage after emerging as a Dakar Rally title favorite with consecutive overall top 10 finishes in 2020-21.

There’s been steady personal and professional growth for Howes, who is making his fifth consecutive start at Dakar. In his 2019 debut, the St. George, Utah, resident (who originally is from Riverside in Southern California) battled through illness and then crashed out in Stage 6 with a dislocated shoulder.

“If you took my first Dakar and compared it to now, I was a completely different person then,” Howes said. “I have so much expectation on myself and got such not the result I was looking for and also had to abandon the race.

“To even have had the opportunity to have raced this many Dakars is incredible and is more than I ever dreamt for myself, and it’s important to realize if you have goals and dreams, don’t set yourself at those limits. Because I’ve already surpassed so much more than I ever dreamed. But that experience from that one to the next to the next one until now has helped me so much more as a racer but even so as a person, because the challenges you face and the things you have to put your mind and body up against is incredible.”

In addition to spending his first two years at Dakar as a privateer who was scrounging to pay his way through crowdfunding, Howes overcame a broken neck three months before the 2020 Dakar to finish ninth in his second start.

Overcoming that adversity caught the eye of the BAS world KTM Team that hired him for a fifth place in 2021, and it helped reinforce an attitude that works well at Dakar: Take nothing for granted but everything as a teachable moment.

“There’s so many things that can happen just on one day of the Dakar that it teaches you incredible lessons as a racer and as a person,” he said. “Struggles kind of make you who you are as a person. I’ve had success and am very proud of that but also had tough times, and those tough times have now put me in a position to really enjoy what I’m doing, and that’s probably the most important lesson I’ve learned over my last Dakars is to enjoy this moment and literally have the best time possible.

Skyler Howes, shown jumping a dune during Stage 6 of the 2023 Dakar Rally, has finished top 10 in eight of nine stages this year (Franck Fife/AFP via Getty Images).

“Because just being able to compete here at the Dakar is an incredible dream that not many get to accomplish in their life. And for me, to do anything but have the best time in my life, would be a discredit to everyone else who maybe wouldn’t come do this or anyone else that’s here. This literally is a dream of mine. And to be able to be a factory racer and do this for a job is the next level. So I think obviously the training and the roadbook time and the other world rounds and all that experience of course has helped me. But the biggest lesson I think I’ve learned is just enjoy every single moment that you possibly have and go as fast as possible.”

Howes has done that in 10 years of riding professionally that include several dozen wins such as the 2020 Silver State 300, 2019 Morocco Desert Challenge and 2018 Baja Rally.

Last October, he won the Rallye du Maroc in Morocco (beating virtually all of the top Dakar bike contenders) and then hustled to Mexico the next week to win all five stages and the overall of the Sonora Rally in Mexico.

Skyler Howes celebrates after winning the Rallye du Maroc in Morocco (Fadel Senna/AFP via Getty Images).

It was a sweet redemption for a season that started off with disappointment at the 2022 Dakar Rally, where he limped away after finishing Stage 5 and was forced to withdraw after being checked at a Riyadh hospital for serious injuries.

“I think last year I tried to really stay focused on more of doing things according to plan,” Howes said. “And as we know in desert racing and Dakar, there’s so much stuff that can happen and to say, ‘According to plan,’ is incredibly difficult.

“I operate off being happy, enjoying my time, positivity, and I think having a plan that is not going the way you expect it can just bring a little bit of extra stress. Last year, I felt comfortable, I felt confident, and I was ready to do my best and get a good result. That’s the Dakar. Every single day has its challenges, and last year I got bit. But I think not much as changed as far as anything else. I’ve been training hard and working hard for this moment. I feel I’ve always been capable. And now I’m just putting a little bit more of the pieces of the puzzle together.”

He also has been helping advise and guide the next American hopeful. With 2020 champion Ricky Brabec sidelined by a Stage 3 crash, the U.S. flag has been carried by Howes and Mason Klein, who has been a revelation in only his second start.

Klein, 21, has been a stage winner this year while riding for BAS world KTM in a ride that Howes helped broker.

“Skyler Howes since the beginning has been there for me along with my parents of course,” Klein told NBC Sports. “He’s been a total mentor (with) him and his advice going to BAS world.

“It’s because of Skyler I’m here. And still gives me tons of advice. I’m always making mistakes and just talking after every stage and going over things. ‘I had this problem here what would you do different.’ He helps me a lot for sure. It’s all the mental side that I struggle with and having conversations with someone like him that you trust and know is on your side. It’s great.”

For Howes, the wisdom runs in the family.

Skyler Howes (NBC Sports/Dakar Rally)

His grandfather was an early winner of the Baja 500, and his father got his first motorcycle from Steve McQueen on the way to racing dirt bikes in the desert.

Both his father and grandfather raced with notable mustaches, which is why Howes has sported a finely coiffed handlebar at this year’s Dakar Rally as a tribute.

“Racing has kind of been in my blood and my heritage,” Howes said. “My grandpa has this super cool photo with his racing goggles with his big mustache sticking out. One of my favorite photos ever. My dad also has this super awesome mustache he’s always had.

“I break out the mustache every once in a while, and I thought I’d keep it this year and make it a tribute to my dad and grandpa because they’re essentially the reason why we get to do what we do here.”

IndyCar Preseason, Day 2: Helio Castroneves addresses racing future, says 2023 is ‘huge’

Helio Castroneves IndyCar futur

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. – Entering what could be the final season of his NTT IndyCar Series career, there is one race that Helio Castroneves of course has circled as key to the future.

And it surely could cinch his plans with another record-breaking win.

“It’s obviously the big one – it’s Indianapolis 500,” the four-time Indy 500 winner said during preseason media interviews last week. “That’s the one that we feel that we have the same car. We have all our bets onto that. However, I’m not going to give up on the other ones, either. I feel that we have as much of a chance as anybody in some places that I feel comfortable. Finishing in the top 12 (in points) would be a great goal.

“However, we want to be able to have a podium. We want to be able to show what we can get, and we can.”

Castroneves signed a one-year deal to return to Meyer Shank Racing’s No. 06 Dallara-Honda after finishing 18th in the 2022 standings, a career worst for the Brazilian over a full year in IndyCar. Castroneves managed a season-best seventh in the Indy 500 and only two other top 10s in 17 starts. It marked the first time since Castroneves entered the CART ChampCar Series in 1998 that he failed to finishi on the podium during a full-time season (he competed part time in 2018-20 while running full time in IMSA).

A MAN IN FULL: Helio Castroneves as the businessman and budding team owner

Though he dodged questions about how critical results would be to keeping his seat beyond 2023, Castroneves concedes it’s a “huge” season for him. MSR has reshuffled the lineup with new “data people” and a new engineer for Castroneves, who will turn 48 in May. Though MSR already was facing challenges last season in adding a second full-time car along with Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud, the expectations are high for a swift turnaround.

“Everyone understands when you’re going through, even if it’s one year, people think it’s a long time, but hey, we’re talking about teams that’s been together for a long, long time, years of experience and communication and everybody is in sync,” said Castroneves, who made six starts (including his fourth Indy 500 win) for MSR in 2021. “Even though for us we did 2021, all those people were part-timers, and we have to start all over again. That was the first time that we had two cars in the team. There was a lot of dynamics changing. Now we are continuing to move forward. It’s important for us to be part of this process, be patient. Yeah, I can’t wait when things start to connect so we can show at the racetrack.”

Beyond coming off a dismal year and racing into his late 40s against drivers who are more than 20 years his junior, the stakes also are high for Castroneves because there’s a high-profile and obvious candidate to supplant him in 2024.

Tom Blomqvist, who teamed with Castroneves to win the Rolex 24 at Daytona for the second consecutive season, has drawn high praise for his championship-level performance in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s premier prototype category. He also has a keen interest in racing IndyCar and tested for MSR last October.

It’s led to some speculation that MSR could broker a trade between its IndyCar and IMSA teams that could swap Blomqvist for Castroneves next year.

“First of all, it’s too early to say,” Castroneves said. “Second, I don’t want anything more than great things for this team. This team is incredible. They already stamped that they’re not just a small team. They stamped that they’re an incredible team. That things amazing (are) about to happen in the future.

“Tom, come on, the kid is a superstar. He’s really quick. He’s doing an amazing job. Last year he did a great job; this year continued doing it. Let’s see. Everything happens and falls natural. But as of right now, it’s too early in the season to predict and think what’s going to happen. Our goal is to have a phenomenal result with MSR so that we can show what this team is capable.”

Castroneves already has resurrected his IndyCar career once (it seemed he was done as a full-time driver after 2017 until his Brickyard triumph), and the “Dancing With The Stars” winner seems ageless, so it’s hard to bet against him or his will to keep driving – especially after three consecutive Rolex 24 victories.

“Do you think I’m thinking retiring right now?” Castroneves said while cracking a smile. “There is no … there isn’t a thought of that. It has to feel natural. I can’t force myself. I can’t put a number or date that I can say this is it. As of right now, I am enjoying very much what I’m doing. I’m about to start a great season with IndyCar, and my mind is only thinking about that. I’m just going to continue working and get that result that I really want, that I know I’m capable and I know what the team is capable. Whatever happens in the future remains to be seen.”

In the short-term, he is taking a positive outlook that he and Pagenaud can improve on MSR’s struggles with tire wear last season. Though his speeds were average in preseason testing at The Thermal Club (Castroneves was 18th fastest on the second day), Castroneves believes the alliance with Andretti Autosport will bear more results in 2023.

“You’re always looking for improvement,” he said. “The good news is we finished 18th last year in the championship. That’s not a place that we want to be. However, we feel there was some areas that we felt we could have better results, but racing is unpredictable, as always. But we’re only looking forward, and we feel we’re going to have a much better season. The expectation is obviously always to do well, but also we understand the possibility of things not going according to the plan.

“But I feel the plan is that. It takes some time to collect some of the informations that we want, our alliances with Andretti Autosport also is still very strong. They also know that they need to improve. It’s not only in our organization. We still keep pushing each other so that we can have a better result like we had or that Andretti had in the past. They have their own engineers, their own resources, they translate it to us, and we’re looking forward to having a much better season, and let’s hope for the best.”

A roundup of other nuggets from the second day of IndyCar’s preseason media availabilities Feb. 1 at the Palm Springs Convention Center:

With Team Penske having announced a sponsor extension with Verizon, the future seems secure for defending series champion Will Power (who had signed a long-term extension in 2021) after a tumultuous offseason for the No. 12 Dallara-Chevrolet driver. Power fractured ribs in a go-karting crash (but was able to heal quickly) and also had to withdraw from his Rolex 24 debut last month after his wife, Liz, was hospitalized.

Will Power confirmed she was back home and “much better than (mid-January), but I think we’ll know for sure in five weeks whether her blood stays sterile. She’s improved significantly from (being) in pretty bad shape.”

The elimination of double points for the Indy 500 could change the calculus of this season’s championship race, but Josef Newgarden already had designs on a major alteration. The two-time series champion, who has finished runner-up in three consecutive seasons, said his 2023 goal is to end IndyCar’s 17-year streak of determining the champion in the season finale.

“It gnaws at me for sure,” the Team Penske star, who had a series-high five wins to Power’s one in 2022, said of his recent misses to add a third title. “It’s annoying, there’s no doubt. How could you not be frustrated by it? I try and take the frustration and just put it into motivation. How are we going to build a bigger (points) gap where that’s not even possible? I don’t even want to be messing with it at the end of the year. In an ideal world, if we get to the end of a season where we don’t have to mess with the gap, if we can just get that out of the way, that would be ideal. That’s where my mindset is at, how do we get to that place where it’s not even on the table. It’s just done.

“I’m not arrogant enough to believe that that’s easy. It seems near impossible these days to do that. I think that’s valid. It’s very difficult to do that. I understand that. But I still want to find a way where we can get to a place where we don’t have to mess with it. I do not think that will be easy whatsoever, but we need to figure out how to do that. I am so positive, when we get a year where we get good timing paired with great speed and decisions, it will be a great year. It will be really great. Much better than what we had last year.”

The announcement of Conor Daly attempting to make his Daytona 500 debut (along with other Cup races for TMT) had been foreshadowed last week by the Ed Carpenter Racing driver. Unlike Castroneves, who had mulled racing Daytona with the same team, Daly said he can’t be selective about his opportunities. “I chatted with a young man by the name of Helio Castroneves earlier, and I think for him an opportunity like that could probably come about really anytime,” Daly said. “But for me, I don’t know if an opportunity like that would come again. I have done a lot in my life by (saying) ‘You know what, if there is a chance to do it, might as well do it.’ So who knows what might happen. But if there is a chance, I feel like I can’t not do it, or not try to do it at least.”

Daly finished 34th at the Roval in his Cup debut last year with the team and also has starts in the Xfinity and truck series. “The Cup car isn’t as physical to drive, but it’s still hot and still gets the heart going,” he said. “So, yeah, it was a great experience to be able to do. Not the smoothest experience, I will say, but really cool to get to do that and be a part of the NASCAR Cup Series and hopefully obviously shine some light on the IndyCar Series as well. I think we deserve more attention than we have got in the past. I hope we continue to get more in the future. Obviously people still want to do these races in this series that we’re a part of. Kyle Larson is coming to do the Indy 500. Everyone wants to see that.”

Though Jimmie Johnson has admitted he “never found the knife’s edge” during his two-year stint in IndyCar, Scott Dixon said he’ll be missed as a teammate. “I think anybody that knows Jimmie well, he’s a great person,” Dixon said. “He’s a fun guy to hang out with. I think what he brought to the team, whether it was on the sponsor side to his competitiveness and competition side and info, not just information but kind of his history of being so successful I think really helped with the team.

“For me it was probably more so on just the friendship side of hanging out with him. I think that was in Nashville where he was kind of talking about maybe not coming back, but I was like, ‘Come on, man, you’ve got to make sure you can get the deal together and come back.’ Obviously we can see that he’s moved on to different pastures, and a lot of exciting stuff for him that’s coming up.”

Dixon still believes Johnson could return for the Indy 500 but probably not until next year with NASCAR and Le Mans on his plate for 2023. “Maybe he’s already punted until next year, I don’t know,” Dixon said. “But he wants to do (the Indy 500 again). It’s just timing. It’s very difficult, and especially with the Garage 56 entry and all that kind of stuff, there’s a lot going on, especially around that period of time.”