They had just crossed the border from Morocco to Mauritania when the dune buggy hit a ditch. Barreling over a dry lake bed at more than 100 miles an hour, loaded with 400 pounds of survival gear and spare parts, the custom-built buggy rolled six times. Software exec Ronn Bailey and his navigator, Kevin Heath, struggled against centrifugal forces to keep their arms in the cockpit.
Amazingly, they emerged from their seat harnesses with just a few bruises. Bailey and Heath staggered around for an hour, gathering debris strewn the length of two football fields, as they waited for their support crew. "Our first idea was to strip the car of anything valuable and give it a Viking funeral," Bailey recalls. "But then I said: 'This isn't some race in the States. This is Dakar.'"
It has been called the world's most dangerous race--a 5,000-mile speeding caravan across six countries. It began this year on Jan. 8 in Lisbon and ended, as it always does, two weeks later in Dakar, Senegal. Over its 29-year history, the Dakar Rally has claimed some 50 lives, half of them competitors. This year was no exception. South African motorcyclist Elmer Symons, 29, was killed in a crash and France's Eric Aubijoux, 42, died of a heart attack.
Symons' Jan. 9 death prompted the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano to condemn the Dakar as "the bloody race of irresponsibility." French motorcycle racer Thierry Sabine, who founded the event, was more poetic years earlier when he called it "a challenge for those who go, a dream for those who stay behind." Sabine died in a helicopter crash while overseeing the race in 1986.
Like most automotive events, the Dakar is a place for manufacturers to show off their hardware. Cars from Mitsubishi Motors and Volkswagen (VLKAY ) and motorcycles from Yamaha (YAMCY ) and Austrian manufacturer KTM Group have dominated the race. This year 515 vehicles entered and 300 finished, about the average. Drivers compete in one of three categories: cars, trucks, and motorcycles. NASCAR star Robby Gordon, who drove a Hummer H3, finished eighth in the car category.
For those of you still thinking of donning a helmet and firesuit, Bailey's experiences might discourage you. The 58-year-old founder and CEO of Vanguard Integrity Professionals, a Las Vegas software- security firm, learned about the Dakar from a German tourist he met motorcycling across South America 15 years ago. Bailey first entered in 2005 and was eliminated after he was caught for three days in a blinding sandstorm at the halfway mark. Last year he was disqualified after missing a checkpoint at roughly the same spot.
Bailey says this year's race was his toughest yet. Five weeks before leaving for Europe he trashed his buggy after careening down a 70-foot sand dune near his Nevada home. The car burst into flames, destroying almost half the vehicle. "It was just like the movies," Bailey recalls. "It was literally toast."
Bailey and his crew repaired the car, but trouble struck again when, in the second day of the race, he swerved to avoid a nonracing motorist who pulled out in front of him on a Portuguese highway. Bailey's vehicle hit the center divider and rolled five times, seriously damaging the exterior. With the buggy held together by duct tape, Bailey and Heath convinced local authorities to give them a police escort, and they caught the last ferry to Morocco with five minutes to spare.
After his Jan. 11 wipeout in a Mauritanian lake bed, Bailey and his crew spent three hours checking or repairing every part of the buggy. Then it was on to the next checkpoint, which they reached just a half-hour before the start of the next leg. Alas, the two serious spills were too much. Bailey failed to make a checkpoint on Jan. 14 in Atar, during the eighth leg, after burning through his second transmission.
Navigating the Sahara presents more challenges than the occasional sandstorm and 20-story dune. Participants can easily become dehydrated in temperatures that swing from 100 degrees during the day to freezing at night. Land mines are an issue, and bandits have been known to rob racers. Heath, a 48-year-old South African businessman, was nearly held up during a race. Only the lucky appearance of race security forces saved him.
The Dakar Rally is broken down into 15 stages. Drivers must reach each endpoint by a certain hour or face disqualification. Participants are given a "road book" with directions, but those tend to be vague. "It could say turn left at a tire, see ruts in the road, and travel 183 degrees for 22 kilometers," Bailey says.
Fielding a team is not cheap. Bailey spent $1.4 million this year, half on his dune buggy, which has a 380-horsepower Chevy LS7 engine. He and his six-man, full-time team built it largely by hand. Bailey puts his expenses during the race at $30,000 per man for a 12-person support crew, not including salaries.
He justifies the cost as good exposure for his business. Although not nearly as popular in the U.S., the Dakar is widely followed in the rest of the world. This year organizers estimate there were 580 hours of TV coverage in 178 countries. The race's Web site, www.dakar.com, gets 38 million page views in January.
Bailey says the Dakar experience has made him a better businessman. One lesson: the importance of testing. "Before we take a new part to a race, we run it for 20 miles to make sure it's race-ready," he says. "You don't assume the manufacturer sent you a good part."
The race also has made him tougher, Bailey believes. He has learned to take 15-minute catnaps to stay rested. For his first race, he hired a private security firm that trains Special Forces personnel to teach him off-road driving skills. He's already planning for next year. Bailey wants to return to Africa a few times this year to train on the dunes. "I'm just an adrenaline person," he says. "I love this stuff."
By Christopher Palmeri