The first Dakar in South America is over. It was quite a difficult race, maybe as an over-response by the organizers to criticism that such a race not held in the Sahara can not really be a “Dakar” race. Well, it sure was. More than half the bikes and cars that started did not get to the finish line, including some of the top drivers and unfortunately also car #423 driven by yours truly and my partner Aviv Kadshay.
The scenery was amazing. To the East and to the South Argentina, with its big prairies, steppes, and deserts including some really tough dunes. To the West and to the North the amazingly beautiful Atacama Desert in Chile, with its pink granite mountains that give birth to some beautiful, very tall and very steep sand dunes. And in between the Andes where we had to cross the mountain range at altitudes of above 4,000 meters (~13,000 feet).
Every day the terrain was significantly different than the previous one. Competitors had to adjust their driving techniques. Some days the specials were just too demanding which led the organizers to shorten and even cancel specials. There were quite a lot of accidents as well. Since this is my first full scale Dakar (in retrospect the one we did in Central Europe was just a warm up) it is hard for me to compare, but to me it sure seemed that every day brought more news of competitors, mostly bikers, who were seriously injured and also some of the top drivers who had to drop from the race due to mechanical failures, sickness, and injuries. Tragically Pascal Terry, a French bike rider my age, somehow got lost and died on the 2nd special. But I am jumping ahead, so let’s start form the beginning:
Day 0, Buenos Aires:
On Friday eve, a day before the official start of the race, the competitors are asked to drive just a few kilometers in the streets and display the cars to the people of Buenos Aires. What was supposed to be a short ride turns into a very long and slow stroll. There are many, many thousands of people in the streets, cheering, shouting, wanting to touch the cars, and asking for autographs… amazing! Apparently motor sports are big in South America. The atmosphere is electrifying, and we feel like rock stars.
Beady who this year runs the assistance takes the rest of the Armony family in his truck and they receive the same love and admiration from the crowds that the competitors get.
Day 1, Buenos Aires to Santa Rosa:
It’s Saturday morning and we drive South West on fast, good roads to get to the start. I am driving and Aviv is co-pilot for the day. The course is on flat, very fast but super dusty dirt roads. We’re in the Pampas, so it still quite green around us, and there are people, a lot and lot of people, cheering and encouraging the competitors for hundreds of kilometers at every corner of the course.
We have a delay at the start so the official gives us a sign to start just seconds behind the car ahead of us, much less than the 30 seconds required. I press on but cannot see much, too much dust from the vehicle just ahead of me. Aviv is starting to get organized and is not yet fully in sync with the road book. Then, the dust clears and, while I am way too fast and a few seconds too late, I notice a 90 degrees turn to the right just ahead of me; in these critical fractions of a second I forget all my training, makes the wrong maneuver, and… we roll over one and a half times to land on our side. How embarrassing, less than 10 minutes in the first stage of the first day!
With the help of the spectators we put the car back on its wheels, fix some of the damage and within 8 minutes and with a smashed windscreen and bruised ego, we go on. There are quite a few cars in the ditches along the way, the fast route combined with the thick dust are more dangerous than many of us realize. Within minutes we notice Paul Green’s Desert Warrior laying smashed some 50 meters or so off the course. A helicopter landed by and we’re told that Paul and his co-pilot Mat are being evacuated to a hospital. Like us, they didn’t see a 90 degree turn ahead of them, but approached at a higher speed. It doesn’t look good at all, and the rumors are that both were hurt quite bad (see the damage Paul Green’s car above).
Still about 200 km to go, very dusty and narrow. Now the trucks start closing on us. You start sensing the vibration of their weight a few seconds before the loud buzzer in the cockpit goes off to signal that a truck is trying to overtake you. When that happens you really need to move, FAST, to the side of the road and let those monsters pass; easier said than done as there are irrigation ditches on both sides and I still cannot really see anything because of the dust. Apparently I didn’t clear the way fast enough for one truck, who doesn’t even slow down when it overtakes us and pushes us aside hard, its tires leave big smelly marks of melted rubber all over the desert warrior’s side.
My own rollover, Paul Green’s accident, and the close encounter with the truck all leave their mark on me and I finish the day quite shaken.
Day 2, Santa Rosa to Puerto Madryn:
The next day Aviv takes the steering wheel. Again it is very dusty and you cannot really see much, but today the track is also powdery in nature, what is called Fesh Fesh in Africa; it is very hard to get any traction on this stuff, you can get bogged down really quickly, and it also creeps into all systems: turbo chargers, clutches, breaks, etc., rendering them useless. As soon as we leave the starting point we see many cars stuck in the Fesh Fesh in all kinds of different angles, blocking the way; Aviv is undeterred, he leaves the main track and drives through the bush, cuts left and right, keeps the car moving at all times; this tactic works and we break away from the pack and off we go.
It is amazing to watch Aviv drive. He is a very experienced and talented off-road driver and it shows. Like yesterday we are constantly in a cloud of dust, but that doesn’t prevent him from driving very fast, attacking every turn, pushing the car to its limits, and also from overtaking a lot of other competitors who are visibly irritated by our aggressive driving this day.
All this driving makes a huge difference, and we are astounded to realize that we finished the day at the 30th place, up from 150th the day before. This is a huge achievement for an amateur team and for a car like ours, provided that the top 20 drivers or so are professional, seeded drivers who do those things for a living. We finish the day with a 500+ km drive on asphalt to Puerto Madryn, in the deep Argentinean south right on the Atlantic coast.
Getting in while there is still light, being the first in and thus allowing the mechanics to all swarm your car and give it their best, not to mention having the time to go to dinner and maybe even have a shower, is a huge advantage that I am starting to appreciate more and more. That was a great day!
Day 3, Puerto Madryn to Jacobacci:
Monday is the third day of the race. We start quite early due to yesterday’s performance. We find ourselves waiting our turn mostly among the top trucks. In the race there are trucks that are there to win, and other trucks that are listed as competitors but their real goal is to help the cars or bikes they are with. The true truck competitors are very, very fast. They may be slightly slower than the top car drivers, but certainly faster than all amateur car drivers like us. Due to their larger wheels they do not have to slow down for most obstacles, they just power through.
Today we enter Patagonia and the course is made up of very different terrains. We start on a very fast, firm dirt road, where we push the car to its limit of about 145 km/hr. After 100 km or so the terrain turns into nasty Fash Fash which slows us down and causes the engine to heat to dangerously high temperatures. Then very fast dirt roads again, then we get into the mountains where it is rocky, lots of water damage on the tracks, some dry river crossings; it is very challenging but lots of fun. Aviv drives today and he is doing great, despite actually losing our brakes for the last 200 km and not having a 5th gear as well.
Again we get early into camp, which gives the mechanics plenty of time to work on the car. There is a lot of work tonight, as they need to replace the whole gear box (see Beady to the left,Henky with the gear box to the right, and Turbo with the brake at the bottom). This extra time in camp gives me a whole new perspective on how difficult is to be a mechanic in a race like this. They start working when the first car gets in, typically late afternoon, and don’t stop until early in the morning, maybe 4 or 6AM. Then there is no time to sleep, they have to get into their own vehicles and make the hundreds of kilometers to the next camp. Imagine having this schedule for days and days, and still being asked to practically perform miracles for the competitors who completely rack their cars during the day. Many of the jobs done here in a couple of hours often after midnight, such as replacing gears, clutches, parts of the power train, etc., are jobs that in a normal garage will take days or weeks and will cost you thousands of dollars.
Day 4, Jacobacci to Neuquen:
The sun raises, it is the 4th day of the race (therefore it must be Tuesday, right? We lose count of the dates), and we are ready to start pulling north. We’re still in northern Patagonia, and we will have the snow capped peaks of the Andes to our left/west for most of the day. We’re still going fast amid sections of Fesh Fesh, wet prairies, dried up steppes, and some sections of real sand and small dunes.
A couple of punctures slow us down, and then to our amazement we notice our rear-left wheel gets loose and flies through the air to land a hundred meters or so ahead of us. Aviv manages to stop safely, a couple of local spectators help us find the wheel, and with wheel nuts we unscrew from the remaining three wheels we proceed. We drive less than 10 kilometers, and the same wheel gets loose again, and again flies forward and forces us to make an emergency landing. Again locals provide much appreciated help, and again we have to take wheel nuts from the other wheels to put it back in its place. Now each wheel only has three wheel nuts (vs. the five it’s supposed to have), so we need to drive quite carefully to the finish. With mechanical problems accumulating over the last two days we’re down to place 50 or so, still very respectable for an amateur team and we are quite pleased.
Day 5: Neuquen to San Rafael:
After driving a couple of hundreds of kilometers on asphalt we are about to start day 5 of the race when we notice oil leaking from the rear left wheel, the same wheel we had a brake problems with and also the same one we lost twice the previous day and had some work done on it the prior night. Aviv’s mechanical knowledge comes handy and he notices that the O-Ring that was supposed to seal the bearing is missing. We have 15 minutes until the start, so we frantically start working. We have to dismantle the wheel and the brake to get to the bearing; then, MacGyver style, Aviv improvises with some glues and a piece of plastic he finds somewhere to create his best imitation of an O-Ring. It ain’t pretty but it will have to do, no time, just put everything together again and rush to the start, which we make just in time and off we go.
Fesh Fesh and rocks off the start; many cars stuck including some top drivers; we cut left and right, run over bushes and small trees, just keep the momentum going. Very tough driving, tough terrain; the Fesh Fesh is bad by itself, but what really kills you are the rocks buried in the Fesh Fesh that will give you a puncture in no time at best, or will twist an axle or a radius arm at worse.
Ahead of us we see what appears to be a particularly thick flume of dust; as we get nearer we realize it is actually some thick smoke, a car must be on fire! Apparently a buggy stopped on the track in a cloud of dust, and a truck who didn’t have a chance to see it hit it hard right at the back where the engine and the gasoline fuel tank are; fire broke instantly and with the two vehicles entangled the crew had no choice but to jump out and watch the two vehicles burn to the ground. Luckily no one was hurt.
We push on. Very difficult day with multiple punctures but we’re doing very well so we are optimistic. Sometimes in the afternoon, after doing about 400 km and while in a fast, wide right-hand turn, Aviv loses control and the car smashes into a wall. We’re unhurt, and realize that again we lost a wheel while driving, this time it was the front left wheel. Local spectators help us look for it among the tall vegetation and the water (the track is along a stream). Because of earlier punctures we have no spare wheels so we have to find it. Finally a local guy finds the wheel, almost 200 meters ahead… we put it back in place, assess the damage and off we go. Because of the crash we lose the whole left-hand front of the body including the left lights, something that right now seems minor but will prove crucial as the day progresses.
After driving some 500 km and with only 50 km to go, we get into the dunes late, practically at dusk; to make things worse there are dark clouds above us which further limits the visibility, we have no lights, and it starts raining. The dunes are surprisingly difficult. We drop the air pressure to below one Bar and push on. The Desert Warrior is supposed to be a superior vehicle for this type of terrain. But if we are having such a tough time, what will happen to the rest of the cars? I have a bad feeling about this one.
Now it is pitch dark, we successfully complete the first leg of the dunes and turn north-west to complete the second and last leg. Unlike on tracks where navigation is very precise and typically I now where we are within a 10 meters tolerance, navigating in the dunes is not a precise science. There are no tracks, and you often have to turn around and make wide circles to avoid the more difficult dunes. This is doable in day light where you can see the distant landmarks that appear in the road book. It doesn’t really work at night, and we slowly drift away from the main course. It is a very dark night, and we pay a price for having lost half our lights in the earlier accident.
After an hour or so we realize that we are about 1 km east of the main course, so we decide to cut across the bush in hopes to join the main track. At one point Aviv hit the brakes hard as he senses we are about to fall into a canyon, and quickly turns very hard to the right. However, to our right there is a steep ravine, and we slide right into it head first. This is bad, real bad. Time to stop the engine, get out and assess the situation.
We realize that in the dark as we were trying to cut across, we actually started to climb a mountain. There are many narrow ravines and canyons that run from the pick to the plateau below, and we fell into one of them. The ground is very soft, more sand than dirt. The ravine is so narrow we won’t be able to just drive out, even if we somehow get the car to its bottom. The GPS tells us we are just 5 km (after driving 545 km!) from the end, what a disaster!
It is 9 PM. What comes next are 7 hours of digging with shovels to somehow make room for the car at the bottom of the ravine; long hours of back and forth with the car, in which we manage to get stuck in the sand and get it unstuck countless times; in the process we manage to bend our hydraulic jack and to break our spare mechanical one; we are covered in sand, diesel and hydraulic oil, we are thirsty and exhausted; it is 4 AM, and in 7 hours of work we moved the car only 4 meters… it is not looking good at all and the thought begins to dawn on us that we might be out of the race. It is now freezing cold. We decide to pitch a tent, find cover under our emergency blankets and collapse for a couple of hours of sleep.
Day 6, San Rafael to Mendoza:
Today the race moves on from San Rafael to Mendoza. As much as we are exhausted and beaten, we are delighted to find out that the start point of day 6th is the same finish point of day 5th, meaning we are only 5 km away from the start. Also, we realize that our fate was not unique: of about 40 cars or so that went into the dunes last night, about 30-35 got stuck. When the organizers realized that, they diverted the majority of the cars and trucks around the dunes, straight to the finish. Which means that officially we did finish day 5, and, if we can somehow get the car out of that ravine and make it to the start, we might be back in business!
1st attempt: In the morning Aviv climbs to the top of the mountain just above us and surprise, surprise, he comes right back with 3 enthusiastic bikers who came to watch the race. With their help and renewed energy we make some progress, but not a lot. We also manage to get a tire of the rim, which is not a good thing provided we have no spares We also notice we have a front shaft broken which means we only had rear wheel drive. We need to go get a vehicle to pull us out of that mess, so I hitchhike with the bikers to the nearest village, where the start is, to see if I can find something.
2nd attempt: near the start I meet Paul and the rest of the Rally Raid UK crew; very happy to see them; we realize today’s course will go very near where we got stuck last night, so it makes sense for our T4 truck to try and help us. We are excited, this should work and we might actually be able to make to the start! But hours pass by and the T4 fails to get to where we are. Back to the village, the truck leaves us there, frustrated. It is already 4 PM and our hope to be back in the race is quickly fading away.
3rd attempt: within minutes from being dropped at the village center we find a very nice local guy and his Jeep. He helps us find a Gomeria: a garage to fix the flat tire and to get some diesel. We start towards the dunes at round 6:00 PM in his old Jeep. At dusk we get there, find our car, and we feel real good, we’re almost there! All is set, but then when the car changes position with its nose up, we run out of diesel… it seems that the odds are stacked against us, no lucky breaks at all! By 10:00 PM we give up and start driving back towards to village. But now we lose our way and spend the next six hours driving in circle in the dunes… we fill terrible about Wilson who just volunteered to help for a couple of hours, and ended up having to spend the whole night out in the freezing desert with his two young kids and us… morale is now really low, we realize we definitely missed our chance to join the race in day 6, as day 7 arrives…
Day 7, Mendoza to Valparaiso:
Today the race continues from Mendoza in Argentina to Valparaiso, Chile, but we are still stuck in the sands some 800 km to the South. We spent the last day and a half trying to get the car out of the ravine, no food at all and not much water, and so far no luck.
4th attempt: back at the village with dawn; I find a bunch of young and enthusiastic guys who came all the way from Rosario (a 1,000 km away) to play with their motorcycles in the dunes. It doesn’t take much to convince them to come help us out with their Landrover; we get more diesel from the gas station, and an extra 20 litters from Hans Stacey, the famous truck driver who won the last Dakar and the last Transorientale, and is now stuck in the sand. We get back to our car; get back to work with renewed energy, and with some digging and some pulling, finally after 36 hours, success!!!! With a roar the Landrover pulls our car out of the ravine and we’re in business!
The folks Rosario: Diego, Matias, Gonzalo, and Joaquin who got us out of the ravine.
We drive 800 km over the Andes and into Chile, to catch up with the Rally Raid team in Valparaiso on the coast of the Pacific Ocean.
Day 8: Rest day in Valparaiso;
After a week of competition we all got a day of rest; which is used to rebuild some of the cars and wash our dirty overalls. As always the mechanics get no rest, they have even more work then usual, at least they do not need to drive today.
Our hopes are still high as we now realize how many competitors got stuck on days 5 & 6 just like we did. The organizers promise to look into the situation. After about 9 hours of deliberations and with our hopes that go up and down like a roller-coaster, the verdict is out: they came up with a new rule that allows competitors who missed either day 6 or day 7 go back into the race. So of the 35 cars in question, 14 can go back in the race, 21 cannot. Unfortunately we didn’t make the cut. This race is over for us.
Day 9 and beyond:
We are very frustrated to be out of the race after all the work we put into getting ourselves out of that ravine, and with a car that is actually in good racing condition.
The race goes on and we manage to get a press pass, which allows us to go anywhere we want to go, including the actual race track. We take full advantage of this, because unlike most journalists our car can actually go into the most difficult terrain. When the race leaves the Atacama desert and heads back to Argentina I catch a flight back to Boston via Santiago de Chile and Buenos Aires, back to the snow and ice of New England. Aviv stays with the race all the way back to Buenos Aires to fulfill his journalistic duties. Here are some great pictures Aviv took along the last few days:
Pics of Bikers in the Atacama Desert:
Mark Coma, the 2009 Dakar winner, makes a tight turn on day 13th: