Biggest, baddest motorcycle race out there? Is it the Daytona 200? That’s just 200 miles of pavement. Well, how about the Baja 1000? Better, but still, what’s a mere 1000 miles? A Sunday ride compared to the grueling 5700 miles and two weeks of the Dakar rally. You can argue that it’s been dumbed down over the decades, but it’s still the highest level of off-road competition, with 186 riders from dozens of countries slugging it out in some of the toughest terrain on the planet. Since the race was moved from Africa in 2009, the competition has been fierce, if not as dangerous or difficult as it was when racers could suffer from bandits and death from exposure in the vast wilderness of the Sahara.
The big change this year was a new rule limiting engines to 450cc. This knocked some of the competitors, used to big-bore motors, a little off their game, but not enough to seriously shake up the top ten. Spaniard Marc Coma took his third Dakar trophy, closely edging out three-time winner (and Team Red Bull KTM teammate) Cyril Despres of France. The new bikes are significantly lighter than the 650s and not much slower. “It is very comfortable to ride,” said Despres about his new KTM 450 Rally, “and very reliable and only an idiot never changes his mind.” Those hoping for a new status quo were probably disappointed—KTM dominated the field, with eight of the top ten overall finishers riding orange machinery, and this is the 10th consecutive Dakar event a KTM-mounted rider has won.
KTM’s factory efforts don’t keep American privateers at bay. Washingtonian Jonah Street was back for his fifth Dakar, helped in part when adventure-bike equipper Touratech USA raised $10,000 for his efforts selling T-shirts. Initially, Street did quite well on his Yamaha GYTR WR450, maintaining 7th place overall until the 7th stage and even winning the grueling 9th stage (matching his single stage victory in 2009), but a crash and mechanical problems in later stages set him back to a 13th-place overall standing. “Jonah had some bad luck, and some good luck,” race organizer and three-time Dakar rider Charlie Rauseo told me. “Winning a stage was nice, but the other problems kept him out of contention.”
The other notable USA finisher was California native and three-time Baja winner Quinn Cody. The Honda-CRF450X-mounted rider didn’t have any dramatic finishes, instead consistently finishing in the top twenties and learning the ropes. By the end of the event, his standing was a solid 9th place, good enough to make him Top Rookie. He was pleased with his results, but has his sights higher when he returns next year. “To win the Dakar, just being a good rider isn’t enough.”
“I’ve always thought that a team of well-prepared American riders could dominate the Dakar,” Rauseo went on to tell me. “We have riders who live in the desert, so how can we get beat in desert races by the French? All it will take is a bit more popularity for the sport, which will free up the sponsor money to let our top guys dedicate some time and effort to this. The pieces are all there. It would be nice to see us kick some butt in this race because it is really the toughest motorsports event in the world.”