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2020 Dakar Rally: How Ricky Brabec and Honda won the race for America

The Dakar Rally is a brutal and dangerous test of man and machine that no American had previously won, until now.

American rider Ricky Brabec became the first American ever to take an overall victory in the Dakar rally.

Honda Powersports

The Dakar Rally got its start in 1979, and in all its 41 years, it had never been won by an American racer. That all changed in January, 2020 when Ricky Brabec rode out into the desert of Saudi Arabia on a 450cc, single-cylinder Honda and brought home a trophy for the US of A.

For those unfamiliar with the Dakar Rally, it's a long-distance navigation rally that originated in the deserts of Africa, migrated to South America for a few years and now lives in Saudi Arabia. The race itself consists of 12 individual stages, each with a set of specific GPS waypoints that a racer needs to hit. Some are fast and aggressive, others are 10-hour marathons that finish with the rider camping unsupported in the desert, but all of them are a brutal test of both a competitor and their machine.

This year's race began in Jeddah and finished nearly 5,600 miles later in Riyadh. This is a considerable change from the 2019 race in Patagonia, where Ricky Brabec had the lead going into the final stage, only to get knocked out by an engine failure. The shift to a more arid, rocky and sandy desert environment proved to be a boon to Brabec.

"I think from day 1 I felt more at home with the terrain. It's more or less the same elevation as the Mojave Desert, so I think that has something to do with it," Brabec said in an interview at Honda's North American headquarters on Tuesday. "You know, the terrain -- the dirt, the rocks -- was all very similar to Barstow and the Nevada area [where we train], so I just felt really comfortable being out there."

The Dakar race organizers made several other changes that worked to level the playing field for the young American rider. Specifically, in years past, organizers would distribute road books (a kind of rolled-up scroll with the race route on it; more on this later) the night before a stage was to take place. This meant that riders -- or in the case of some bigger teams, specific "map guys" -- would go through and add notes on conditions to make the somewhat vague directions easier to follow. 

This was a huge advantage, because a more detailed road book allowed riders to spend less time thinking about navigating and more time looking for speed. For the 2020 race, the organizers opted to give out road books for some stages just 25 minutes before the stage was set to begin. This only gave the riders a short time to go through the route and add their notes before they had to load the road book in the bike-mounted holder and set off.

Brabec and his teammate, Jose Ignacio Cornejo Florimo, were in a position to take advantage of this, thanks to the vast amounts of time they were forced to spend practicing with road books in the deserts of America -- both by trainer Jimmy Lewis and by Brabec's mentor and former Honda rider, Johnny Campbell. This allowed the riders to work faster and more accurately with less time to prepare, and ultimately saved them from several penalties for missed checkpoints.

The road book is arguably the most essential piece of equipment that a rider can have on their motorcycle for the Dakar, as the course is otherwise unmarked, unlike, say, the Baja 1000. The racers also aren't allowed to use GPS in the traditional sense, with their organizer-supplied navigation units used predominantly to verify that specific checkpoints were hit along the route. The radius around a checkpoint for it to be counted is only 90 meters, or around 270 feet.

When the riders reach a point in their roadbook that tells them a checkpoint is in the vicinity, the GPS unit on their bike activates and uses an arrow to very generally guide them to the checkpoint. A missed checkpoint can result in a time penalty of up to an hour.

On a typical day during the race, Brabec and Florimo would wake up around 4 a.m. to eat, get ready and set off on the day's stage. Each riding day would last approximately 10 hours, and in that time, the support team would have to break camp, pack everything up, drive to the next bivouac point, set up camp and be ready to receive the riders by around 2 p.m. Then, the crew would set about repairing any damage to the motorcycles, feed the riders and do as much prep for the following day as possible.

Honda's CRF450 Rally motorcycle is an incredible machine. It's homologated for racing, but unlike in many other series, the homologation doesn't mean the bike has to be available to the public for purchase. The bike has been in constant evolution since Honda's return to Dakar in 2013. It's powered by a single-cylinder, 449cc, four-stroke engine. It hauls around just shy of 9 gallons of fuel, which is 54 pounds of weight all on its own. The engine puts out somewhere north of 60 horsepower, though Honda keeps the actual number a secret.

The bike's frame is a twin-spar aluminum unit with carbon-fiber subframes. It sports lots of carbon-fiber bodywork to help keep weight down, making the bike more maneuverable and helping it to get better mileage. What's more, this bodywork allows the gorgeous Showa shock and forks to move through more than 12 inches of travel with minimal effort.

When it comes to repairing damage to a motorcycle, the crews are given free rein, except for the bottom end of the engine and the transmission. The top end of the engine, as well as all the suspension, brakes and electronic components, are all fair game.

When asked about his strategy for saving the bike mechanically, Brabec said, "From day 1, you have to be really smart with shifting and, like, be really nice to your machine. You're not going to hold it wide open for 50 miles, just pinging it off the rev limiter, because that's probably not good. It's just experience, you know, over the years learning to manage your equipment."

His strategy worked because Brabec only experienced routine wear and tear. The team changed tires and skidplates, but avoided any serious mechanical repairs. The bike's reliability was exceptionally good for Brabec because working on your motorcycle during the race results in penalties, and the riders only carry minimal spare parts with them -- specifically, an exhaust mount bracket, tire levers, tubes and an air filter.

The result of this incredibly complex effort was a 16-minute, 26-second lead over the rest of the field. In basically any other motorsport, that would be an eternity, but in the Dakar, that's pretty close for a race that spans nearly two weeks and covers the distance from Los Angeles to New York and back. The team is already thinking of training for the 2021 running of the race, where it hopes to be able to repeat its incredible performance.