Testing Man & Machine, The Dakar Rally Turns 40

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The famed off-road endurance race featuring a variety of motorcycles, cars and trucks kicked off its 40th annual rally this month in Lima, Peru.

The 14-stage race will take drivers and crews through nearly 10,000 kilometers of punishing terrain across Peru, Bolivia and Argentina before reaching the finish line in the town of Cordoba.

Still branding its old name and the Sahara-themed image of a desert nomad, the Dakar Rally has been contested in South America for the past 10 years due to security concerns in northwest Africa.

Days prior to the start of the 2008 race, four French tourists were killed by terrorists in Mauritania, prompting officials to cancel the chase and eventually relocate it permanently.

Less known in the U.S., the Paris-Dakar Rally as it was then known got going in 1979 and was the brainchild of French motorcycle racer and adventurer, Thierry Sabine.

The inaugural competition drew 182 vehicles, which took off from Paris and roared across France, transferring to Africa, and then rumbling across the forbidding dunes of the Sahara to finish in Dakar, the capital of Senegal.

Today, more than double the number of the original two and four-wheeled vehicles are involved in conquering South America’s inhospitable deserts and mountains. France-based Amaury Sport Organisation (“ASO”) owns the Dakar trademark and organizes the event annually.

ASO is also the entity behind the prestigious Tour de France bicycle race. The company specializes in promoting multi-stage marathon races on land and sea, often capturing the events with stunning aerial footages.

While the sight and sound of fuel-guzzling machines roaring through the desert might resemble a post-apocalyptic “Mad Max” scene, the Dakar Rally evokes a mystique among off-road enthusiasts who will spend at least $75,000 to prep and register for the rally.

Only 20% of the participants are professional riders, while the rest are amateur thrill seekers who sign up to experience the world’s premier sand, dirt and gravel motor race.

Drivers and riders will crash, bog down, get lost and lapse into exhaustion as they blaze through hundreds of kilometers a day in grueling terrain ranging from sand dunes to oxygen-depleted mountain passes.

France’s Stephane Peterhansel is the most successful racer in the history of Dakar, having won 6 events in the motorcycle category and 7 in cars. Russia’s Vladimir Chagin is the all-time champion in the truck category with 7 total victories.

Austria’s motorcycle manufacturer KTM has dominated its category since 2000, while Russia’s truck maker Kamaz has won more races than any other big hauler. In cars, Mitsubishi, Peugeot, Volkswagen and Citroen all registered multiple wins.

But the Dakar Rally is not without its critics. Detractors claim the event generates more dust on its racing circuit than economic benefits to the local communities. Others label it a form of colonialism and a vulgar display of wealth and power in the face of impoverished countries.

Like most high-speed motor sports, the annual 2-week rally also has its share of injuries and fatalities. Since its inception, 28 competitors have died from crashes and 42 others from incidental collisions, such as road-side accidents.

Founder Thierry Sabine himself and four others were killed during the 1986 race when a helicopter they were flying in crashed into a dune during a sand storm.

In a class of its own, Dakar invites racers to dare and dream. No other challenge mixes the romance for adventure with the limits of human endurance and motor mechanics.

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