Dakar Is The Biggest Off-Road Race In The World, So Why Do Most Americans Have No Idea It Exists?

Dakar Is The Biggest Off-Road Race In The World, So Why Do Most Americans Have No Idea It Exists?

I find myself sitting in Saudi Arabia at the biggest off-road rally race in the world, Dakar. But, when I tell my friends and family back home where I am, they all repeat the word as if they’re hearing it for the first time. And that’s because, for many of them, they are.

For 44 years, Dakar has been synonymous with adventure. Intriguing and attracting the most extreme off-road explorers and motor enthusiasts from countries far and wide around the globe, the race has aptly earned the title as the most demanding and most iconic rally for a reason. It’s no small feat to win a race like Dakar, a race that typically spans 10 – 14 days, taking competitors over some 8,000 kilometers of some of the most extreme terrains in the world, but when you do? Well, that makes you an instant legend.

Each year, hundreds of competitors test their skills – and luck – at the race. A race known to break even the most experienced drivers, pushing everyone who enters to their limits. At its inception, the rally started in Paris and ended in Dakar. Today, however, the rally finds itself in Saudi Arabia after a brief stint in South America after moving away from Africa due to safety concerns.

No matter where the rally finds itself, the motto is still the same. “A challenge for those who go. A dream for those who stay behind.” This year’s course totaled 8,404 kilometers, or 5,222 miles, over 13 days and 12 stages of competition. It was a race, and a course, that would have made founder, French motorcyclist Thierry Sabine proud.

In total, 409 race vehicles participated in the rally across five vehicle categories – bikes, quads, cars, SSVs, and trucks – this year. France was the most predominant country represented with 170 participants, ahead of Spain (74), and the Netherlands (64). It was also a race that saw more American competitors than ever before, with seven competitors in four categories.

Americans Take on Dakar

It wasn’t until 2005, 27 years after the race’s inception, that Americans started to take notice.

Thanks to NASCAR icon Robby Gordon, Dakar started to gain some notoriety stateside. But, only reaching the podium once after placing 3rd in 2009, that notoriety was short-lived. Gordon may have solidified his reputation as a top competitor at the rally, becoming the first American to win a stage in the car class, but the Dakar name didn’t stick.

Around the same time as Gordon, Mark Miller was the only other American to make a name for himself in a car, with four top-five finishes between 2006 and 2010 and a 6th place finish in 2011.

However, fast forward to recent years, and you’ll find that Americans have been redeeming themselves in the bike and SSV categories – finally claiming the top spot in both in 2020. Ricky Brabec earning a first-place finish on a bike, and Casey Currie a first-place finish in the SSV category. With two Americans bringing home gold, attention returned to the world’s toughest race.

Brabec competed again this year, finishing 7th in the bike category overall with Johnny Campbell as his coach and mentor. Campbell, a 17-time Baja 1000 winner – a race more widely recognized in America than Dakar – is no stranger to what it takes to compete in a rally such as Dakar. He first raced the Paris-Dakar route himself in 2001, placing 8th that year, eventually switching categories to be co-driver for Gordon in 2012 and 2015 when they were the only American team at the rally.

After missing a top-place finish in 2021, Americans returned to the podium in the SSV category this year, thanks to Austin Jones. Jones snagged the top spot overall in the SSV T4 category, making him the youngest of the three champions to do so. Jones turns 26 this week.

Beyond the podium, another big win for the American contenders during the 2022 Dakar Rally came in the form of 19-year old Seth Quintero, who shattered the record for most stage wins in a Dakar with a record-breaking 11 stage wins. Despite the streak, Quintero’s stage two broken differential issues put him out of the running for the podium in the SSV T3 category, putting him 16 hours behind on his overall time.

Rising Popularity of the SSV Category

With two big wins in the SSV category in 2022 from Jones and Quintero, plus Currie’s 2020 victory (both Currie and Jones won as part of the Can-Am Factory Team), you can’t help but notice the rise in popularity in this vehicle class. A class that was only introduced in 2018.

Less demanding than being on a bike and less expensive than building a custom rally-ready car or truck, the SSV category is the fastest growing thanks to its comparative affordability and lower barrier to entry. (The growth of the category also coincides with the SSV market growth within the U.S.)

When it comes to racing in a rally like Dakar, to put things into perspective, to hire team assistance from someone like South Racing, who had the most significant presence in the bivouac this year with 19 SSVs, expect a starting price tag of €235,000. A cost not far off from what it takes to race a rally like Dakar by the time you adapt a Can-Am Maverick X3 or similar SSV for this type of racing, hire dedicated mechanics, transport spare parts and tires, have a race assistance team ready, and plan for accommodations over the entirety of the two-week rally.

So, while Americans may not be in the know about Dakar yet, the time will come thanks to more Americans than ever making a name for themselves in the world’s toughest off-road rally race.