Some of the most incredible competition in motorsports has played out in the forbidding deserts of North Africa. Called the Paris-Dakar rally, since 1978 this challenging – and at times deadly – race crosses 6000 miles of some of the harshest terrain in the world. Searing heat, deep sands and even bandits ensure that few who start actually finish. But a victory in the rally brings fame for riders and success for manufacturers; both BMW and KTM have profited from their reputations as builders of Dakar-winning machines.
If the above obstacles didn’t deter men and machines from competing, a new one did in 2008: terrorism. After four French citizens and three Mauritanian soldiers were murdered in Marutainia shortly before the start of the 2008 rally, Dakar organizers decided to cancel the event. A terrorist attack in Mauritania’s capital Nouakchott a few weeks after the scheduled start of the rally vindicated the decision.
So where to re-create the tough conditions of the original rally? For 2009, the Dakar will wind its way through 3400 miles of wilderness in Argentina and Chile. The countries’ rugged terrain and unpopulated, undeveloped nature should provide the same challenges and adventure, less the AK47-toting bandits and terrorists that pose a serious threat to competitors in Africa. Safety and environmental issues weigh heavily in this new Dakar rally; the competitors are actually penalized for going too fast through certain areas.
Despite the baby sitting, Dakar is still very dangerous, and there’s plenty of interest in the event. Participation is healthy, with 530 teams from 49 countries entering 230 motorcycles and 300 other vehicles. Sixty thousand spectators turned out to watch the start near Buenos Aires. And it’s now fully underway, with KTM-mounted American Jonah Street winning today’s Stage 5 (of 15 total stages).
Unfortunately, despite the emphasis on safety, French motorcyclist Pascal Terry has died, apparently during Sunday’s Stage 2 (he was missing for several days).