13 days following the Dakar Race

Our Crew

Question: Can eleven Type A personalities get along for fifteen days? Answer: Yes, if they’re riding bikes and being taken care of by Pampa Adventures.

The Dakar Chasers

1. Jim Hyde, Rawhyde Adventures.  Jim was the Organizer, Expedition Leader, Protector and Main Cheerleader of our group.  (www.rawhyde-offroad.com ) Saved my ass more than once, but that can be said for most of my fellow Dakar Chasers

2. & 3.  Tom and Ken Petrillo. Tom and Ken hung together like brothers should.  Tom’s my hero, being an auto parts magnate, as he’s owned and sold more great cars than I’ve ever seen. Ken’s my hero as well, not because he owns his insurance agency, but because he ‘s like rated #1 in some AMA motocross series.  Very studly dirt rider.  Also saved my bacon more than once.

4. Kent Clausen, hotel developer from the Big Sky Country (or somewhere out there…)  I think of him as Gentle Kent, being an X Football player.   Didn’t take any knocks on the head as he’s a very, very sharp hotelier.

5. Raphael Bertolus, Jim’s friend and LA high-end builder.   Raphael set the record for being stopped by the police. THREE times.   He claims it was my fault as the police were looking for me.

6. Charlie Walton, Las Vegas surgeon.  Charlie was my roommate for most of the trip and a fine one at that.  Then, he deserted me for someone else.  I’m heartbroken.

7. Chuck Brown, retired BART manager.  What more can I say, Chuck’s fast and a major babe magnet.  Does it get any better than that?

8. Jim McMichael, Reno investment banker.   Jim’s riding strategy was keep your head down and plow straight-ahead, no matter what.   Probably what’s made him a successful financier.

9. Bassel Fares, 747 pilot living out of his flight bag.  Basel joined us a little late but immediately got in the swing of things.  Always rode covered from head to foot in black.  I suspect he’s wanted somewhere…

10. Mark Smead, retired software developer.  Mark was totally prepared, had all the latest gadgets, and was always up for the next ride.  Did I mention he helped pick me up out of sand?

The Pampa Adventures Crew (http://www.pampaadventures.com )

There’s no doubt that the Three Amigos pictured above were the real heroes of this trip.  Jim’s company partnered with the Argentina-based Pampa Adventures who mapped out the entire trip, brought two chase trucks, and cooked some great meals in the remotest areas imaginable.  And, believe it or not, they did it with a smile on their face

Left: Ignacio, “Nacho.”   Good-natured, the Main Man and chief interpreter on the road.  As a bonus, Nacho mapped out my South American motorcycle trip route J

Middle:  Dario. Driver, cook, and all-around great guy.  Always quick to go to the cooler for a cold one.  And he drove his truck fast enough to keep most of us at bay.

Right:  El Jefe, Jorge .   Master of the expedition, a really welcome site at the end of the day standing in front of the hotel.  Picked great hotels and restaurants.  Had almost as many clothes with him as Raphael.

Best hotel. We stayed in four homes in the small city of Fiambala, Argentina since the real Dakar teams had taken up all the hotel rooms. This was perhaps our most memorable stay as we got a tiny glimpse of what an “average” Argentinean’s life might be life.

Which brings me to my final observation:  I’ve now been to four relatively poor countries (Nepal, India, Chile and Argentina) in the past year and guess what – people seem a lot happier there, than here.  What’s up with that?


Real Men are Made in the Atacama

The Atacama Desert stretches 600 miles along the coast of Chile.  It is the driest desert on earth, having no recorded rain for the last 150 years.   Think of Death Valley, and then multiply it by 100X.   There is not ONE plant growing in this place, not a shrub, cactus or weed.

We spent four days riding through its heart, along its western flank on the Pacific Ocean, and criss-crossing its mountain ranges trying to get a glimpse of the racers, rarely successful, except for a few check-points.

The Atacama replaces the Sahara’s role in the Dakar race. The Dakar, long famous for its Saharan dunes, focused much of this year’s race on the Atacama Desert. Many competitors thought the Atacama was harder and longer to get through than the Sahara. During just one day’s stage, about 25% of the bikes couldn’t make it and were forced out of the race. This is a shot of competitors racing off into the mountains.

The Atacama as economic engine. Chile is one of the most prosperous countries in South America, partly because of its substantial natural resources, mainly copper, nitrate (salt), iron and coal. The Atacama was – and is – being mined ruthlessly for its resources. We had lunch one day in a modern ghost town, Pedro de Valdivia, a huge nitrate mine that operated from 1931 to 1996. This is the purest company town I’ve ever seen, on a scale that can’t be explained via pictures or words. Thousands of three room worker houses, supermarket, schools, churches, a hospital and of course a huge factory. It’s all located in the middle of the Atacama, cut out of a mountain that was strip-mined for the salt and then abandoned when nothing was left. This is Jim Hyde, on the main street, and on the right, a dozen doors of different, but exactly alike, apartments.

The Atacama Coast of Chile. Bold, beautiful, endless blue skies and clear water. The coast is dotted with hundreds of small mining camps and fishing villages, each looking pretty worn, but with great views. We had lunch one day in a fishing village in one of these coves and became even more fond of the people of Chile.

Crossing the Andes the Hard Way

Our tour was organized by Rawhyde Adventures, BMW’s official off-road riding school which teaches guys like me to be Real Dirt Eating Men.   Typically, I skipped the school.  Also, to “qualify” for going on this adventure tour, one had to fill out a questionnaire asking about one’s dirt riding experience.   I approached answering these questions as any ex-ad man might:  lots of embellishment on the positives, not too much emphasis on the negatives.   Net, I omitted the fact that the last time I’d ridden a motorcycle on dirt was 1993.  This would come back to haunt me when crossing the Andes, which in this case included 250 kilometers of dirt road…

Every Andean crossing starts out with Coca leaves chewed beginning at 6:30AM. Coffee? I don’t need no f…king coffee.

The road up the Argentinean side to the peak was spectacular. Beautiful pavement, fast curves, breathtaking scenery, few vehicles. This was one of the few straight sections. I averaged 90+mph on this road, but it wasn’t enough to beat...

Charles “Chuck” Brown. Chuck is one of the best motorcyclists I’ve ever ridden with. He’s fast on dirt, fast on pavement, fast everywhere. He’s the best student of riding that I’ve ever spoken with. I wonder what he was like at 25 rather than his 65? Perfect example of you are as old as you feel. Chuck hauls ass.

This is what altitude can do to one. Along with the Coca leaves. This is near the top.

Yellow tundra? I don’t know what this bright yellow grass was, but it covered the top of the Andes between 10,000-15000 feet.

The sign says it all. That translates to about 15,000+ feet

This is the beginning of hell, even though it looks like heaven. This was 100+kms (60 miles) of dirt road with trucks, cars and buses traversing the ONE ROAD over the Andes (note to self, remember to ask what kind of dirt road it is in the future as not all dirt roads are created equal). As I weave through soft gravel and dirt, desperately trying not to be knocked off the road, I remember the one piece of advice Jim Hyde – our Expedition Leader – gave me: when in trouble, twist the throttle! I did and somehow survived, but the whole experience scared the hell out of me.

Looks clear ahead. Oh damn, what’s that way back there? This guy was going way over 60 mph and like his fellow truckers, never lifted off the throttle to go around me. This takes place high up in the Andes, which can be accurately described as being in the middle of nowhere. Time required to get an ambulance to scrape one stupid Gringo motorcyclist off the mountainside would be measured in days.

As I was dodging the grasp of the Grim Reaper, my fellow Dakar Chasers were having a pleasant lunch next to an Andean salt lake. “Another piece of cheese, Nacho, please? Has anyone seen Fred lately? I’m sure he’ll be along shortly…” I was too sick to eat. All I could do was sit there and congratulate myself for not dropping the bike the eight times I should have.

My Fifteen Days of Being a Rock Star (Impersonator)

I stopped feeling guilty after the first day of seeing hundreds of people on the side of the road cheering our little band of Dakar Chasers.   I started to sign my name, “Fred USA” with more gusto after the first dozen autograph requests.  At first, pictures with girls, their boyfriends/husbands, their children, and grandparents were done passively – OK, if you insist!

“We aren’t the real racers!” I wanted to shout. “You’re cheering for the wrong dudes! “

But then I finally got it, it wasn’t about us, it was about them.  For most of these folks, seeing any part of the Dakar   — even groupies like us – was a BIG EVENT. People came out to cheer, clap, yell, wave flags, hold their babies up and blow kisses our way at any time of the day or night we came by.

The Dakar is simply the biggest thing to come to these towns ever.

So, it didn’t take us long to get into the spirit of things.  Soon, all of us Dakar Chasers started to get into our new found fame:  we stood up in the saddle, beeped our horns in greeting, blew kisses back to the babes and babies, and encouraged pictures with us and our bikes.  Gas stops were 10% about getting gas and 90% about giving autographs, taking pictures, and thanking our fans.

How good is that!!?   Sign me up anytime for being a Dakar Groupie

Hey, there’s a racer! Crowds in the small village of Fiambala. Pretty good knock-off of the official Dakar sign from kids in the Atacama desert.

Babe Magnet: I finally stooped to kissing babies. The real babe magnet, at the right, was Chuck. Here two “representatives” from the local health club climb on his bike.

Typical gas station stop in which filling the tank is the least important activity.

Part 2: A Taste of the Race

Question: Why do people stand so close to the action? Answer: You'd have to be there to understand

It’s difficult to capture the pure adrenalin rush that standing a few feet away from these monsters gives you.  For just a taste, go here for a clip of Robby Gordon hauling ass in his Hummer, followed very closely by the leading truck and ever-present helicopters. Robby was probably going close to 100mph in this clip.

This section of the race comes down South America’s largest sand dune, near the city of Iquique.  This took place on a Thursday and there were thousands of people lined up at this race watch spot not including the thousands lining the streets of Iquique to watch the competitors drive to the Bivouac.

How difficult is this race?  To give you a personal perspective, I crashed no less that five times trying to make it through the dunes to the viewing area, a half-mile stretch.   These were rather shallow soft dunes, they weren’t even mini-dunes, but micro-dunes compared to what these guys go through.  My teeth were clinched as I barrowed into them at….maybe 10 mph – not the 50, 60 ,70, 80 mph these guys do.

After today, I’m not sure I deserve a seat at the Adult’s Table.

Different terrain, same excitement. Each daily stage has a few viewing areas set aside in which fans can come out and watch the action -- for free. This is the leading BMW Diesel car careening through the bog in the early dasys of the race. Notice the crowds.

Just like a NASCAR race. If there's a race, then there's a tailgating party, even in South America. One cannot overstate the amount of partying and excitement the race causes in every town it passes. These Argentines offer us a beer and some BBQ beef as we look pretty tired just getting to ths site. And this is just mid-way through our first day of riding.

These are real Iron Men. This is the motorcycle start of a stage in Chile (see video of start here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XfAPLErhWQg . At this point, more than half of the motorcycle competitors are out because they couldn’t make it to the daily finish in time allowed. There is no way to explain how tough this is; these folks ride in terrain that only the very, very best off-road racers dare to go. They do it for fifteen days straight. If they have any problems “out there,” they have to take care of them by themselves. When they get to camp each night, they have to prep for the next day’s ride. Our tour group was tired after each day’s riding along just a portion of the pavement part of the race. This is tough. Real tough.

Well not everyone is an Iron MAN. This competitor had to be helped at the line. They were just 5’ tall and way too short to stand on a Dakar bike with both feet on the ground. Solution? Crewman put a rock under their foot to balance at the start. Same competitor without their helmet reveals this is an Iron WOMAN. I felt like a true wimp having just taken my life into my hands riding the mile through mild sand to get to the viewing station.

A city that is built, lived in, torn down, and moved EVERY day (usually in the middle of nowhere). The “Bivouac” is the daily camp where all the competitors, support teams, media and officials rebuild what broke today and prepare for tomorrows. The Bivouac houses thousands of people and hundreds of vehicles and is built from scratch every single day. So, while the racers are off racing, the support crews break camp, drive to the next camp, re-build the campsite and await the arrival of their team members. This caravan moves across country causing as much excitement as the racers themselves.

Extremes. On the left is one of four VW prototypes being worked on shortly after it arrives from the day’s stage. VW is dominating the car race occupying the top 3 positions. They are spending big money with hundreds of people. The motorcyclist on the right couldn’t even make it inside the Bivouac, having to camp with his one support member outside the fence.

To the winner go the spoils. Winning the Dakar is equivalent to winning the Indianapolis 500 and gets similar attention in worldwide media (except the US of course). Carlos Sainz, the VW driver who won the race, gets out of his car and faces this onslaught of attention every day. Just a few feet away, his VW teammate, American Mark Miller --all the way down in third -- can’t get arrested.

The Russians are coming and they’re big and fast. No race report would be complete without covering the race’s most popular vehicle type— big, really big, really fast trucks. These monsters are the size of Semis’, but half the length. They’re so fast that they lead many oft the top car drivers and are easily in the top ten overall. Three top trucks are crewed by Russians and they’re big, fast, and angry.

To see one of these big guys up close in action, go here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0LBPVUtKkJs

Thirteen days in South America following the toughest off-road race on Earth

Many of you have never heard of the Dakar Rally though it’s acknowledged by motor-heads as the greatest off-road race in the world.  The Dakar takes its name from the original event in 1979, which ran from Paris to Dakar, Africa.  Paris was dropped from the name some time ago and then the race came to South America last year because it became too dangerous to race in Africa.

Changing venues because of danger is ironic given the Dakar’s reputation as the most dangerous race in the world.  It’s not uncommon to have at least one competitor killed each year. It’s also dangerous for spectators as they like to stand right next to the course watching racers speed by.  This year, five spectators have been killed and one motorcyclist is in critical condition.

For those who follow motorsports, the Dakar is recognized as the toughest as well as the most dangerous motor race in the world because it takes place over fifteen days and covers almost 6000 miles of the toughest terrain known to man, woman or child.   Notice I didn’t say “road” as most of the competition take place off road in horrid sand dunes, mountain passes and just plain bad territory.   One measure of its toughness is that more than half of the 500-750 entrants each year don’t even make it to the finish line.

The race part of the event is only one of its challenges as the logistics of moving a caravan of competitors, support personnel, mechanics, and media from one daily finish line to the next would challenge the Army Corps of Engineers.    This caravan criss-crosses Argentina and Chile, causing a ripple of excitement and activity through every little (and large) town it passes through.  Competitors start each day early in the morning (motorcycles first, then ATVs, cars, small trucks and then the BIG trucks), race hundreds of miles through mountains and desert only to have to drive another couple hundred miles on main roads to the nightly camp site. There, they set-up camp, repair the vehicle, catch a shower and a meal, and fall asleep in a tent (everyone sleeps in tents — no RVs!).  This happens every day for fifteen days with only one day of rest.

Why am I telling you all of this?  Well. I joined a tour of ten other motorcyclists and spent two weeks following the Dakar circus from town to town in Argentina and Chile.  My pitch to Karen was this would be a good scouting trip for our Big Trip.  She saw through that immediately and called a spade a spade — I wanted to go ride a motorcycle in South America and the Dakar race was a good excuse.  The old saying, “be careful what you wish for,” has new meaning to me now.

Here’s the report of my two weeks chasing The Dakar.