Dakar: Robby Gordon Team USA preview

Dakar: The World's Most Grueling Race On New Year's Eve, while most of NASCAR's elite prepare to celebrate the arrival of 2006 in comfort, and for the two weeks following rest, take a cruise, hunt or play golf, one NASCAR driver...

Dakar: The World's Most Grueling Race

On New Year's Eve, while most of NASCAR's elite prepare to celebrate the arrival of 2006 in comfort, and for the two weeks following rest, take a cruise, hunt or play golf, one NASCAR driver will take on a racing challenge perhaps as physically and mentally challenging as the entire 36-race NASCAR season rolled together.

The Dakar Rally, easily the world's most grueling and logistically challenging auto race, will start on Dec. 31 in Lison, Portugal and head approximately 6,500 miles south through Spain across the Strait of Gibraltar and into Morocco. From there, the race turns rugged as the field of more than 500 vehicles makes the incredible journey through Morocco, Mauritania, Mali, Guinea and Senegal.

Robby Gordon, perhaps the world's most versatile driver, will spend his New Year's Eve behind the wheel of a race car for the first of 16 days of competition in the Dakar with hopes of being the first to pull into Dakar, Senegal on Jan. 15.

Gordon, a six-time SCORE Off-Road Champion and a two-time winner of the famed Baja 1000 in addition to countless other off-road races in North America, will drive a specially prepared Hummer H3 on Toyo Tires with sponsorship from Jim Beam in his quest to become the first American to win the famed Dakar Rally in its 28-year history. Last year, driving for the German Volkswagen team, Gordon became the first American to ever win a stage in the race, eventually winning two of the 16 stages en route to an 12th-place overall finish.

While on the surface Dakar is just a race like any other, looking just below its facade immediately reveals that it is also a logistical challenge unrivaled in all of sport, and is also a mental test akin to military boot camp.

Imagine the famed Tour de France bicycle race, itself a grueling event, being contested not only on pavement but also through hundreds of miles of Saharan Desert with sand dunes soft enough to swallow a car; on seemingly endless razor sharp rocks and stones that often render even the most rugged off-road tires useless; and through river and water crossings better suited for small boats than race cars.

Then consider these hostile African challenges must be navigated for as much as 543 miles (874 km) each day with only the assistance of a guide book which was distributed only hours before the start of the day's stage. This is done with the full knowledge that assistance can be hours away for a driver and car if a need arises.

Welcome to the Dakar.

A race that was founded with the goal of making grown men cry, not to mention quit, the Dakar quickly became recognized as the toughest of all off-road racing events in the world, a perfect challenge for Robby Gordon.

"The Dakar is something that I always paid attention to and wanted to try, and fortunately last year I was given my first opportunity," said the 36-year-old driver from Orange, Calif. who will celebrate his 37th birthday driving his H3 in stage 3 on Jan. 2. "Growing up in Southern California, obviously my whole life in off-road racing revolved around the Baja 1000. I still go back to Baja every year and love that race as much as any other, but Dakar takes on a completely different challenge and to me it's so much more than just driver and car.

"The logistics involved are mind numbing. This year we've entered and built a car out of my own race team in the States, and the thought of building cars and support vehicles here to race in Europe and Africa is itself intimidating. But then when you add to it that these support trucks and 16 crew members have to follow the race car down the same race course to work on the car after every stage is beyond intimidating. I like to tell people it's like running 16 Daytona 500s or Indy 500s in a row, but you don't have a garage to work from. You can't go to an auto parts store and buy what you need to fix or replace a broken part, if you don't have it with you, you're in trouble. You have to think of every possible item that can break on a car, and bring four of them with you."

Gordon's participation in the 2005 Dakar brought the race much needed recognition in the United States and Canada, and exposure to North American race fans will grow again in 2006 with OLN's daily coverage of the race and the network's four recap shows that will air after the completion of the race.

However, as its popularity grows in the United States, its mass appeal in Europe and Africa is already beyond compare. In 2005, more than 560 hours of original programming were allocated to the race in 178 countries. In 2006, more than 600 hours of programming is expected in more than 180 countries. The sanctioning body of the race, the ASO -- which also promotes and organizes the famed Tour de France bicycle race -- produces a daily 26-minute television show that is distributed via satellite.

"I didn't really know what to expect last year when we went over for our first Dakar," Gordon said, "but it didn't take long to get a feeling for how big it is. When we went to the starting line on the beach in Barcelona on the first day (site of the race's first stage), I was completely blown away by how many people were there. There must have been 300,000. It reminded me of the Indianapolis 500."

This year, 508 cars, trucks and motorcycles, representing 40 countries, will leave the starting line in Lisbon with their eyes fixed on a finish line 16 days and 6,500 miles away. While many will consider just finishing a victory, Gordon's goals are clearly stated: "I will be disappointed with anything other than a win. Our people have given so much of themselves over the last few months to get us ready to compete, and our sole focus is to become the first American's to win Dakar. We finished the race last year, this year we're going there to win."

-rbm-

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Series DAKAR