The United States Finally Owns Dakar
By Scot Harden
Whether you’ve followed the sport from a distance or have been deeply involved as I have for more than 40 years, Ricky Brabec’s win at Dakar will go down in the record books as one of the greatest accomplishments of any American motorcycle racer ever. Dakar remained the last unclimbed mountain for America racers—the last unchartered territory that America had failed to claim victory over as a motorcycling nation—and now it is ours. Last years’ ever so promising run at the top of the leader board and the subsequent frustration and disappointment that ensued when Ricky suffered mechanical problems near the end are now all but a distant memory. Today is our day to shine as a country, and we have an unassuming, polite, hard-working, and respectful young man from Hesperia, Calif., who grew up through the ranks of AMA District 37 desert racing to thank for it.
I have a unique perspective on what it takes to win a rally race and Dakar in particular. I was the first American to win a North African Raid Rally and led the U.S. KTM Red Bull Dakar effort for three years. I know a little about the sacrifices and risks. I have multiple overall wins at the Baja 1000, ridden numerous other rallies, and have competed in three different ISDEs. So when I say Ricky’s accomplishment ranks at the top of all American off-road racing accomplishments, I have some valid points of comparison. I’ve written about America’s history in Rallye racing and why we haven’t won the big one. Now that we have, you have to ask yourself why now and why Ricky Brabec?
First, like any racing achievement, it came down to the supporting team around Ricky. The deeper you dig, the more you realize Ricky’s victory was an American “team” effort as much as a Honda Factory Rally Team victory. Sure, Honda has been gunning for a Dakar victory for over six years now and has certainly paid its dues. Much like KTM in its early attempts to win Dakar, it had to go through the school of hard knocks. After 18 straight years of Dakar domination, no one quite remembers all the years KTM suffered through heartbreak after heartbreak, to lead late in the event only to succumb to technical issues or rider error. The year 2020 would be the year that Honda finally sorted out the niggling mechanical problems that always seemed to raise their ugly head at some point in the event and put together a flawless effort. They had the patience and commitment to stick to their program, learn from their mistakes, and come back stronger each succeeding year. Most important of all, they had confidence and faith in Ricky.
And what about Ricky? Second, like Honda, Ricky paid his dues as well. Rallye racing is as much an art as science, and the only way to victory is learning the game and developing sufficient confidence in your ability to read your roadbook to be able to lead. Ricky plied his trade with real-world rally experience over four years of actual competition supplemented by a rigorous training program during the off-season. This is where American Dakar Rallye veterans Jimmy Lewis and Johnny Campbell came in. Jimmy is the pied piper of U.S. Rallye racing, and his Rallye and navigation training programs are rigorous and proven. Ricky remained committed to the process of becoming better with the roadbook, and Jimmy certainly put him through the paces. It also doesn’t hurt to have the winningest Baja 1000 rider of all time, successful race team manager and a Dakar veteran in your camp as well. Johnny Campbell provided moral and strategic support to keep Ricky on track. His experience and coolness under pressure no doubt helped Ricky stay cool, calm and collected.
Last but not least multi-time AMA National Hare and Hound champion Kendall Norman served as Ricky’s mechanic. Rallye racing and Dakar, in particular, can be a very lonely place for American riders with only a small handful competing any given year. Having a friendly face and, more important, a trusted team member in the bivouac, someone you know has your back, can be all the difference between staying focused and never giving up.
All Americans should have a deep sense of pride in what Ricky accomplished. He followed in the footsteps of U.S. Dakar pioneers Chuck Stearns, Danny LaPorte, Paul Krause, Larry Roeseler, Kellon Walch, Chris Blais, Jonah Street, Jimmy Lewis, Johnny Campbell and yours truly to name just a few. Ricky, along with Andrew Short, represents a new era in Dakar and Rallye racing with two highly competitive Americans flying our colors.
The Dakar Rallye is the largest motorsports event in the world and easily one of the most recognized and followed by millions of fans in Europe, Australia, South America and Asia. Ricky Brabec’s win goes down in the record books as a great day for America and U.S. off-road racing. Dakar is an offshoot of the Baja 1000, a race that is better known in the United States than perhaps Dakar. Americans invented desert racing and Baja racing as well, so it only makes sense that we should be the best at Dakar. Many of us knew this day would come.
Thank you, Ricky Brabec, for making all of us proud. Even you would never have thought that bouncing around on the back of the bike in the local Southern California desert near your home in Hesperia would lead to the pinnacle of motorsports. It just goes to show that dreams can come true. All you have to do is dream big enough!
About Scot Harden
AMA Motorcycle Hall of Famer Scot Harden has enjoyed a nearly 40-year career as one of the world’s top off-road racers and compiled a set of records that few can match. From 1971 until his final professional race in 2007—at the age of 51—Harden mastered a wide range of off-road disciplines, including multiple overall wins in Baja, ISDE, Dakar, and Rallye competitions.
He also has compiled an impressive resume of motorcycle industry jobs as a corporate executive, brand builder, team manager, sales professional, and product planner with such companies as Husqvarna, KTM, BMW, and Zero Motorcycles.
Harden also is the owner of Harden Offroad, a business consulting practice.
He was inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2008 and Trailblazer’s Hall of Fame in 2020.