The Atacama Desert – On The Dakar Trail

The T-5 Chevy 2500 T-5 support vehicle isn’t doing so well. Raff is taking it well, but the frustration is evident in his demeanor and facial expressions, especially when the transmission won’t go into reverse, or when a simple downshift turns into a shutter and clunk. New parking strategies must be considered as the fickle and finicky transmission just isn’t reliable.

The rally in Copiapó is the longest stage yet, running a total of 598km (about 360 miles) including 444km of actual racing on the special stage. For the drivers, this means about 15 or 16 hours of racing. The only relieve the teams will have is a rest day here in Copiapó, before another long stage on Monday to Antofagasta.

Perhaps the most exciting contest in the Dakar 2012 Rally is the neck and neck competition between Marc Coma from Spain and Cyril Despres from Spain. Both riding KTM motorcycles and both racking of 3 Dakar titles each, Coma squeaked by a stage victory and is slowly making nearly 3 minutes on the current leader Despres and tightening the gap to just 7’48″.

But the exciting news here today is Nassar Al-Attiyah, who made a surprise announcement just a week or two prior to Dakar by joining the Robby Gordon Speeed Team. Al-Attiyah is the reigning king of Dakar having won the 2011 edition in a Volkswagon Toureg. Now driving a two wheel drive Hummer (really nothing like the Hummer you might know), the lighter car is quite different than anything Nassar has raced previously. Today’s performance, including passing 5 cars in the last 200km of the special and gaining nearly 8 minutes on the French leader, Stephane Peterhansel. Gordon also piloted his neon orange Hummer to stellar finnish and now sits in 3rd place behind Peterhansel and Krzysztof Holowczyc from Poland.

Fellow American and once co-driver for Robby Gordon, Darren Skilton continues to have problcial built buggy, but refuses to let go and is still in the race. For Copiapó we set up camp in the Bivouac just across form the Gordon/Al-Attiyah team and it was a treat to watch the techs, drivers and co-drivers work together to solve problems, share in the excitement and plan for further Dakar domination down the road. No American team or driver has ever won The Dakar, Gordon is hoping this will be the year.

Now traveling with us is a former WRC scrutineer, David, who we connected with last March while racing the WRC Mexico event. Now riding his motorcycle to Patagonia, he offered to help the team by returning our lovely RV, which has been nicknamed the Magic Mushroom, due to its loose resemblance of a hippy bus and the rag tag nomads piloting it all around South America. Perhaps not so rag tag, but it makes for good fodder and chatter over our VHF radios as our three vehicle convoy makes its way to Lima, Peru. There David will drive the RV back to Argentina and return it to the rental company.

The extra person certainly adds more complexity to our travels, because simply organizing the team and getting everybody up, packed and fed at a decent hour before traveling hundreds of hot and hard miles north is like herding cats.

Taking advantage of the rest day and the somewhat decent resources in Copiapó, the team was treated to its first meal outside the Bivouac since we left Mar del Plata over a week ago.

We made our way to the next stop on the Dakar 2012 trail to Antofagasta, a modest town on the coast with good access to fuel, food and more. Along the way we were able to catch some of the action of the racers. Tara is still impressed and smitten by the big trucks, but not enough to shadow the reality of her new life of sleeping in tents, using port-potties and eating in a dining hall that she not so fondly refers to something like a “mens prison.” But she’s a trooper and nearly at the half-way point, I think she’s starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

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