That’s Dakar!” I hear this so many times each day that it seems to be the answer to anything. It’s also the question. Much like in the middle east, the locals use “enshallah” as an expression to address most questions.
But here in South America where 465 teams are taking man (and woman) and machine to their limits every day. Historically more than half of those teams that start the race, ever finish. Why? “That’s Dakar.”
With a solid first stage and great 75th place ranking, Robb and Ben and Darkcyd Racing were amped for the second official stage of the rally. From the outskirts of Bahia Blanca the first vehicles set off from the bivouac sometime around 6AM. Motorcycles and quads, followed by the “cars”, which include buggies, pickups, SUVs and other vehicles four and two wheeled cars, followed by the trucks which Tara tenderly refers to as ‘garbage trucks” all are gone by sometime after 10am. The bivouac is packed up and heads to the next stage.
Robb and Ben started out sometime after 8am for a nearly 500 mile journey to San Rafael, a mid-sized city in the heart of the Argentine pampas. There would be about 200 miles of official race course competition and about 300 miles of transit, from Bahia Blanca and then later to San Rafael.
It was sometime around 3pm when I received a text message from Robb — he’d traveled about 150 miles of the days race course. “We kicked ass,” Robb texted, “but we’ve lost our brakes.”
The race course for the second stage of the Dakar 2012 Edition would wind through the pampas on rough gravel roads, dry river beds, and eventually mid-sized sand dunes and then finishing through gentle rolling hills on loose gravel until finishing the transit on paved roads through the center of San Rafael and to the bivouac where the temporary city of some 2,500 people bristles with the energy of whirring power tools, thumping air compressors and generators and the revving of engines from single cylinder motorcycles to massive diesel powered trucks that look like oversized Tonka toys.
Tara and I set out around 9am just as the first of the trucks entered the initial transit stage. Our ride was through endless miles of scrubby pampas, where the road never turned. Two lines of tarmac slapped down through the middle of desolate nowhere. As we passed through nondescript towns, we were amazed at the fans passion and commitment to catching a glimpse of Dakar.
When we arrived at the Bivouac we set up camp while fighting with whipping winds and contemplating the threatening sky. Large drops of rain fell teasingly on our forearms, heads and gently landing with a muted thud on the hood of our Ford Ranger pseudo RV. Gusts of wind ripped our tents out of the ground and tossed them into a chain link fence some 30 feet from our campsite. The winds turned our portable easy to set-up canopy shelter into a pretzel, perhaps rendering it useless for the rest of our time in South America. “Vamos a ver.”
It was sometime around 3pm when I received a text message from Robb — he’d traveled about 150 miles of the days race course. “We kicked ass,” Robb texted, “but we’ve lost our breaks.” Robb sat out in the middle of the course looking down on a mountain range and nearly 40 km of sand dunes. “I don’t want to risk it,” he reasoned. In the middle of nowhere communication is challenging. Even with significant cell signal strength, the 2,500 people in the Bivouac tax the capacity of the cell network. And the satellite phones weren’t much helpful. The Iridium network of low earth orbiting satellites make for a great tool to communicate basic information, but fall short for any meaningful conversation.
The Rally Raid UK T-5 assistance vehicle was still on the course behind Robb. Driving a “MAN” “garbage truck” fitted with tools and spare parts that would make most auto shops jealous here in South America, Paul Round and Robb were trying to coordinate a support plan while Raff and the Rally Raid UK group at the Bivouac tried to serve as a relay center between the group.
The message we heard at the Bivouac was clear. Robb must complete the stage if he wants to continue to race the remaining stages. Failure to do so might make him a statistic as one of the the starters that don’t make it to the finish. If the T-5 support vehicle passes Robb, it would not be able to turn around to provide support. And the T-5 assistance vehicle manned by Raff and Bill would be unable to help Robb, unless he was willing to face disqualification by the Dakar organization.
While Robb and Ben waited and Paul and Robb experienced communication problems, Mark McMillin, one of only three other American teams racing cars in the 2012 Dakar limped to where Robb was waiting. Mark had nearly blow his engine on opening day. The second day he finished it off. So the two grouped together and with Robb on the front of a tow strap provided power and forward motion, while Mark and his Jeep Cherokee on the read provided braking.
They abandoned the course and found an access road where Mark’s team would bring a trailer and take the Jeep back to the Bivouac. By now Robb had left the race course. Because every move each race vehicle makes is tracked and recorded by the Dakar organization, Robb would have to answer for this deviation. In the spirit of Dakar, Robb helped a fellow “teammate”. But to finish the race he’d have to return to the position he left the course and continue to each check point through to the control time check point at the end of the stage.
By now the sun had set. A medical vehicle from the Dakar organization told Robb that riding the dunes at night would be very dangerous. Why? Because there were several vehicles stuck in the dunes and many racers were camping until morning. So Robb asked what would be the outcome if he returned to the Bivouac and missed the last check points?
Could he just take a huge penalty and continue? Or would he be disqualified? Paul and another Desert Warrior racer, David communicated with the Darkcyd Team at the Bivouac: Robb would have to continue without breaks. Because there was a lot of sand coming up, the risk of no brakes would be minimal. But there were still dunes. High dunes. If Robb were to roll the Desert Warrior, who could pull him out? And when?
After much deliberating and evaluating of various options, including heading back to the stage, camping at the foot of the dunes and finishing the stage in the morning. Dakar rules state as long as a racer completes the stage and arrives back at the Bivouac before the first vehicle departs the following day, the racer can begin the stage the next morning but will be assessed a penalty — usually around three hours.
Raff, Bill, Tara and I headed out to the road where Robb and Ben had towed Mark McMillin. By the time we arrived some local Argentinean guys had helped Robb and Ben get enough tire pressure so they had some brakes. Continued conversation with the medical support truck and the Dakar organization on the phone, Robb decided it would be best to head back to the Bivouac and risk disqualification and try to explain to the officials the situation:
Medical support told him it would be too dangerous to ride the dunes at night.
Robb missed checkpoints and left the race course to support a fellow competitor
The team would accept the penalty
The Dakar official on the phone suggested whatever Robb does, he should come to the officials office and please his case. But it was after 3AM when we arrived at the Bivouac the Officials office was closed.
Raff and Bill worked through the night to fix the brakes. For those interested in the technical details, just a week before the race, Robb fitted the race car with a new power braking system. When installing the new system, Raff kept the original system infrastructure in place, but just changed those components necessary for the new system. It was the new system that failed on the course. So Raff and Bill worked through the night to change the brakes back to the original system.
In the morning the car was ready to go, great working breaks and the best news: Robb’s name was still on this list of staring cars for Stage 3.
Except when he pulled up to the starting line, the starter pulled him aside. He could not race anymore. Darkcyd Racing car #441 missed multiple check points and was disqualified. The starter had spoke to Robb that evening and then to Ben. He was under the impression that someone from the team told him that #441 would finish the stages. As of that morning, car #441 had not finished the stages. Therefore car #441 could not continue. No pleading, no reasoning and no appeal policy.
Tears flowed, anger and disappointed permeated the team. This was only day #2. Everyone thought there’d be more racing. But for the 2012 Edition, Robb, Ben and Darkcyd Racing were out of the race.
And that’s Dakar.