Peril and the Prize: The Dakar Rally

While the vast majority of race-hungry viewers across the country watch NASCAR, Indy and the American Le Mans Series, a race of an altogether different kind occurs on another continent — and both death and destruction are almost guaranteed. That race is the Dakar Rally (a.k.a., the Paris-Dakar Rally), where professionals and amateurs alike venture out into the treacherous unknown in all manner of vehicles to see if they can claim the coveted title of one of the most skilled and hard-as-nails drivers the world has ever seen.

If sand between your toes bugs you, then don't.

Since even before the chariot races of the ancient Greek and Roman cultures, man has had an unquenchable thirst for competition, speed and danger. Not much has changed throughout the centuries, at least in the way of man’s drive to compete. What has changed, though, are the vehicles, the technology, the sheer variety of races and, of course, widespread media coverage. And while the rest of us (the race-hungry viewers across the country, that is) watch NASCAR, Indy and the American Le Mans Series, a race of an altogether different kind occurs on another continent — and both death and destruction are almost guaranteed.

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That race is the Dakar Rally (a.k.a. the Paris-Dakar Rally), where professionals and amateurs alike strive for survival and victory by venturing out into the treacherous unknown in all manner of vehicles, battling to rank as one of the most skilled and hard-as-nails drivers in the world. And if standard tracks bore you, then the Dakar provides something different: there’s little in the way of tarmac to plant your tires on in this rally bonkers off-road endurance race that pits man and vehicle against mile upon mile of wheel-swallowing sand, water, dirt and rocks. If you make the mistake of thinking it’s just about driving fast, you might as well stick to your barcalounger and bouts of Gran Turismo 5 in the safety of your parents’ basement.


The craziness that is the Dakar Rally began in the late 1970s, birthed in the mind of French motorcycle racer Thierry Sabine when he became lost in the Tenere Desert in South Central Sahara during the Abidjan-Nice Race. When most men find themselves lost in the middle of a desert, they either panic or die (or usually, both). Sabine did neither. Instead, he realized that the desert would be the perfect location to hold a race, with the idea that racers from just about every experience level could participate in a grueling endurance competition spanning thousands of miles and various terrains. That’s exactly what he did by starting the first Paris-Dakar Rally in 1979. Sabine would spend the greater part of the next year planning and organizing the race, which started in Paris, France and ended in Dakar, Senegal (Africa).

Over the decades, the race has varied in both location and distance, with some iterations going as far as 6,200 miles (10,000 kilometers). The race, naturally, is broken up into stages, with drivers/riders traveling up to 560 miles per day in less than savory environments. Just 560 miles, you say? You’ve done college road trips longer than that. Sure — on pavement. Try traversing massive sand dunes and rocky terrain covering that kind of mileage, and the whole game changes. Search for directions on Google Maps from Paris, France to Dakar, Senegal, and you’ll find that there aren’t any available. And lest you think that in-car GPS provides a clear path through the various stages, GPS technology is limited to a rudimentary system that provides basic location details, which are limited to certain spots through each course — no turn-by-turn maps, whatsoever. Navigation is part in parcel of the challenge and what drives so many to try their hand (and the rest of their bodies) at the rigors of Dakar.


2008 is a prime example of the risks involved, even outside of the race itself. Little more than a week before the start of the race, four French tourists were killed in Mauritania, which lies just north of Senegal in Western Africa. This, along with direct threats by terrorist groups made against race participants and concerns about Al-Qaeda operating in northern Africa, led the then Foreign Minister of France, Bernard Kouchner, to advise against any travel to Mauritania. Avoiding the region essentially made it impossible to race from Europe to Africa altogether. Consequently, the ASO (Amaury Sport Organization) made the decision to cancel the 2008 Dakar Rally completely. The cancellation stunned participants, many of whom had already arrived for technical checks after drivers, teams and organizers said they were willing to take the risks.

It says much for passion about the rally that amid death threats hundreds of participants would dare to press on. But despite pleas to go on with the race, the ASO persisted, and the cancellation was more than a present disappointment — it also threatened the future of the race itself. It was unlikely that the atmosphere in Mauritania would change in the near future, and all the logistics of a race in Africa changed due to Mauritania’s pivotal geographic location.

Dakar Rally Routes Through the Years


Any fear that the Dakar Rally would come to an untimely end was thankfully put to rest in 2009, when the entire race was moved to a new location: South America. For the first time in 30 years, the race was held outside of Europe. That race was held in Chile, and it has remained there to the present day. Man’s quest to conquer in the Dakar would thankfully continue, apart from terrorism, death threats and the seemingly overwhelming logistics of moving a race to another continent.

A huge part of the draw to Dakar is its permission of amateur participation. In fact, approximately 80 percent of entrants fall into this category. But make no mistake, we’re not talking about 24 Hours of LeMons skill and cost levels. Both monetary requirements and rally driving experience are huge factors in qualifying. You’d need some decent coin to even get equipped for the race; aside from the ~$18,000 entry fee for the Dakar Rally, there’s also the cost of travel, vehicles, fuel, support, food, lodging, the array of replacement parts you’ll most likely need and the cost of getting everything to and from the race site. All that dough, just for an opportunity to kill yourself in the desert. You’ll also need some kind of actual rallying experience, since it’s an altogether different animal from driving on the track. You can’t just attend a few autocross sessions and consider yourself rally-ready. So for those who desire to experience Dakar from behind the wheel, the commitment is a big one.

Even with copious amounts of experience and advanced vehicle and communications technology, both amateurs and professionals alike lose their lives in the Dakar Rally. To date, twenty-six competitors have died in the race, from causes such as motoring accidents, mechanical failures, falls, rebel attacks and even land mines. Plus, throughout the race’s history forty-one non-competitors have been killed, making up a long list that includes bystanders, pedestrians, spectators, and journalists. Many of the accidents don’t even involve the race directly — for example, in 2012 two spectators in a light airplane crashed while watching the rally. Regardless of the very real risk of death, the passion for and size of the event has continued to rise. Perhaps the ultimate risk is part of the draw.

The race factors standing in opposition to the will to win are myriad. Driver skill, judgement and experience, support team skills, weather and terrain conditions and, of course, pure chance: any of these gone bad can end you, or at least stop you dead in the sand, or whatever other uneven terrain upends your steed. Perhaps the most obvious factor in race success is the your vehicle’s reliability and toughness. You can’t just slap some off-road tires on your all-wheel-drive cross-over, no sir. The cars are built specifically for serious off-road racing. In partnership with a high-output and reliable engine and transmission, there must also be an off-road race chassis and suspension with ample travel, rollover protection and even weight distribution front-to-rear.


Nearly as varied as the terrain on the rally are the vehicle classes. Unlike most other car races, the Dakar Rally permits three completely unique vehicle classes, each with subclasses. This kind of vehicle diversity lends to drivers from different fields, and it also presents multi-year challenges, such as attempting victories in both cars and motorcycles, something that’s only been done by two men, Hubert Auriol in 1992 and Stéphane Peterhansel in 2004, both from France.

As if the simple fact of racing in the Dakar isn’t enough, some wrenches get thrown into the cogs. Marathon stages are incorporated, which means a single stage lasts two consecutive days. And to level the playing field a bit, only drivers are permitted to work on their vehicles during the entire stage; this means professionals with big support teams don’t necessarily have the advantage over lesser equipped amateurs. And then there’s the Super Marathon stage, which involves something called “Parc-Fermes”, during which race vehicles are held at the end of the stage when they arrive at the moving Rally village, known as the bivouac. The intention is to level things even more by not letting drivers and mechanics to access their vehicles for a time to perform repairs and maintenance.

But it’s not all bloodthirsty competition going on, since drivers are allowed to help one another throughout the marathon stages — and it happens more often than you think. But at the end of the day, it’s the drive to win that pushes everyone on through thousands of miles in conditions that most men prefer to avoid.

To date, no American driver/rider has ever won the Dakar Rally, for shame. But the drive to win will continue on, as will the rally itself, thankfully. The 2014 Dakar Rally’s route will take competitors from Argentina and Bolivia and then to Chile for the finish. And if 2013 is any indication of the race’s popularity (745 competitors from 53 countries; 4.6 million spectators; 1,200 hours of broadcast coverage), then 2014 should prove to be more fodder for the wheeled adventure seekers all over the globe. It’s proof in the pudding that if you give a man a passion for racing, a thirst for competition and a serious imagination, you can come up with just about anything that will test his mettle. The Dakar Rally exists as a result, and the automotive world is a better place for it.

Dakar Rally Classes


Car Class: T1, T2 and Open Class
Vehicles under 3,500 kg (7,716 lbs). T1 Group: Improved Cross Country Vehicles. T2 Group: Cross Country Series Production Vehicles. Open Class: other vehicles under 3,500 kg. Prominent Car Class vehicles: Land Rover Defender, Mercedes-Benz G-Class, Volkswagen Touareg, and Mitsubishi Pajero/Montero — the winningest car in the rally (12 victories). The most recent winner in the Car Class is brand new, the Mini All 4 Racing.


Truck Class: T4 and T5
Vehicles over 3,500 kg. T4 Group: trucks for race competitors. Subclasses: T4.1, production vehicles; T4.2, modified trucks. T5 Group: trucks for team support. T4 trucks must be homologated (production cars made to justify racing). Some T4 Group manufacturers: DAF, Tatra, Scania, Kamaz (12 wins) and, Mercedes-Benz.


Motorcycles: Moto Class
Group 1: Marathon Group, or slightly modified production motorcycles. Group 2: Super-Production group, or substantially modified from stock. From 2012 on, Groups 1 and 2 are limited to less than 450ccs. Group 3: Quad bikes (ATVs). Prominent Moto Class bikes: KTM (12 consecutive wins), BMW, Yamaha, Cagiva and Honda.

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