Saturday, December 30, 2006

Dakar is upon us

I'll be the first one to admit that writing about motorsport is definitely more difficult during the winter, with subject matter limited to silly-season newsbites, year-end reviews and previews of the next year's racing. But buried deep within the winter-racing news-sphere is the shining light of the Dakar Rally, arguably the toughest racing event in the world.

What started as a bunch of crazy Frenchman spending the first two weeks of the year racing through the Sahara has now turned into a massive event, with global media exposure and entry lists heaving with racing's glitterati. This year's iteration includes former World Rally champions Carlos Sainz, Miki Biasion and Ari Vatanen, NASCAR regular and Baja 1000 winner Robby Gordon, ex-Formula 1 driver Ukyo Katayama, Yvan Muller (one of the world's fastest touring car drivers), 1980s Group C sportscar pilot Jean-Louis Schlesser and a host of WRC drivers from past and present such as Markku Alen, Freddy Loix and Simon Jean-Joseph. The entry list even includes the son of legendary French actor Jean-Paul Belmondo, Paul, who has an extensive racing resume in his own right.

The course usually follows a similar format: two easy days in southern Europe, a ferry crossing to Morocco, some rocky stages in the Atlas mountains, then the meat of the race in the sand-dunes of Mauritania and Mali. The final few days are through more verdant parts of sub-Saharan Africa before the weary competitors view the mirage-like image of Dakar's Lac Rose (Pink Lake), which is the site of the finish.

Life on the Dakar is best described as like being part of a huge military exercise, where adverse conditions, lack of sleep, poor food and constant threat of injury or death are the norm. As the race moves into the toughest desert stages, entrants find it ever more difficult to stay on schedule - one minor mechanical failure can easily necessitate a night in the dunes waiting for an assistance vehicle to arrive. This will put the racer in the agonizing position of having to leave the next "bivouac" (Dakar's military-style name for rest-stop) almost as soon as they have arrived in order to get back on track.

To be honest, the daily TV coverage doesn't really do justice to the huge challenge of the event. Charley Boorman, whose circumnavigation of the globe on motorcyles with fellow actor Ewan MacGregor was chronicled in the TV show "Long Way Round", entered the 2006 event and brought along the LWR crew to record the experience. There doesn't exist a better chronicle of what the Dakar is really like. The resulting TV series, "The Race to Dakar", remains one of the most compelling docu-dramas I've ever seen, and I can only hope it ends up being broadcast in the USA.

Which brings us to the status of Dakar in the United States... After two years of daily coverage on the Speed Channel, the race moved to the Outdoor Life Network in 2005. OLN dipped their toes in the water with five one-hour documentary-style shows, as a precurser to more in-depth coverage in the future. Pleased with the reception to the sport they switched to daily recaps in 2006 - by utilizing much of the same crew and production values as their Tour de France coverage, they were guaranteed a reasonable level of quality. At the same time, it definitely appeared as though they were unclear on the true nature of the race. We had a daily giggle as presenter Kirsten Gum's beautifully-trimmed hair became ever flatter and nastier before finally retreating under a Dakar baseball cap, never to be seen again (at least until the Tour de France in July).

There's hope that OLN (now renamed "Versus") will be able to spread the word of the Dakar to more mainstream sports fans in the USA. The presence of a NASCAR driver helps, as does a significant number of Americans in the motorcycle class, some of which are part of KTM's big-budget Red Bull effort. It also helps that off-road racing and rallying have never been more in the public consciousness than they are now, thanks to the defection of top X-Games star Travis Pastrana to the sport. Pastrana's high-profile helped rallying nab a place in the X-Games in 2006 and his nail-biting win over 1995 World Rally champion Colin McRae sealed the deal. Rallying is beginning to be hot property in the US, and its most extreme form, the desert racing of the Dakar, is surely not far behind.

The Dakar Rally starts on Versus TV on January 6th at 12:30pm Pacific.

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