Ricky Brabec: The Spirituality Of The Dakar Experience

The first American to win the Dakar Rally describes what it took to become number one.

Endless Saudi Arabian desert. The fine red sand of the “Empty Quarter.” Wind that takes your breath away. Hell’s own dust, blinding sun, nights in which the mercury slips below zero. It’s the craziest, longest, toughest, and perhaps cruellest motorsport challenge in the world: 7,000 kilometers crisscrossing one of the most remote regions of the world, the third chapter of a race that spent 30 years in Africa (1978–2008) and 11 more in South America (2009–’19). Priority number one is survival. Winning—or even attempting to win—is a luxury reserved for elite professionals who dedicate their lives to prepare for what can only be described as the ultimate contest of personal determination. Welcome to the Dakar Rally.

All 553 competitors who started this year’s event on January 5 have a story to tell. Ricky Brabec as well; he is the first American to win what was long known as the Paris–Dakar Rally. On December 26, 1978, a gaggle of adventure seekers gathered at the Trocadéro in Paris to follow the dream of visionary founder Thierry Sabine: to discover Africa by car, motorcycle, or truck. That the event would be a life-changing experience was clear to all who signed up.

The opening page of the Regulations of the Paris-Dakar 1978–1979 was a manifesto for what this legendary event would become: “The longing for the ‘the end of the world track’… the one that allows you to return to the most secret parts of yourself. To bring to your imagination and your senses a big breath of oxygen, and to your reason a new form of reactions based on the discovery of free space and the impressive and marvellous desert, and of the multifaceted, surprising and engaging of its populations. We need this. You are longing to it. This is Africa. It’s an event whose sporting aspect will be matched only by the beauty of the landscapes it crosses. Paris–Dakar will be the most complete African race of its kind; the classification will be based not only on the tracks in the desert but on two equal important strands: the Sahara till Niamey and the ‘the Black Africa’ of the big rivers for the loops in Niger and Senegal, till Dakar. The competitors will first be dazzled by the vastness of the Sahara and their emotions will be overwhelmed—at the end of 12 days of race—by the green shores of the Niger river, by the red monkeys and the parrots by the river, the crocodiles Marigots and the giraffes of the Savannah, the paddle boats of Mopti and the boats of the high sea of Dakar. And along the parallel tracks, the shepherds of Toucoul, the Sonomo boatmen, the Bozo fishermen, the Songhay mountaineers, and the nomads of Peul… Let’s go there together! T.S.”

Then, as now, no one returns from Dakar unchanged. “I left that I was a boy; I returned that I was a man,” Hubert Auriol told me at the bivouac in Ha’il. “It was November 1978. At that time, I was 25 years old and bored of my job. I heard of this crazy adventure in Africa, and I decided to join it without asking too many questions. I bought a bike and quit my job because my boss didn’t want to give me three weeks of holidays. I loved traveling, and I was hungry to discover the world. In Africa, I learned what friendship and trust are. It was the life I wanted to live.” Auriol won the rally on a BMW in 1981 and repeated in ’83. He was forced to withdraw while leading on a Cagiva in ’95 after breaking both ankles on the final stage. Auriol also won on four wheels in ’92 with Mitsubishi and served as the director of the rally for nearly a decade, from 1995 to 2003.

“Once you are fully immersed in the race you don’t realize it, but back home you see things differently,” confesses Brabec, who built his 2020 Dakar Rally victory one kilometer at a time. “No one returns the same from a Dakar. You have to be tough and have the character to survive, because Dakar tests the human spirit to the fullest.”

From Dust To Stars

In order to shine, sometimes you first must fail. Brabec suffered great disappointment in 2019. He was the revelation of the rally, winning a stage and leading the overall classification when the engine powering his factory Honda CRF450 Rally quit on stage 8—race over. “My dream of becoming the first American to win the Dakar was shattered,” he said. “I wanted to cry, to scream in my helmet, but I was alone in the desert, so I remained calm.”

Brabec admitted it was difficult to recover from such disappointment. “I decided not to join the team for the first half of the 2019 season. I needed to regroup. It was a tough time, and I went through mixed feelings.” Steadily, thanks to the support he received from American racing legends Johnny Campbell and Jimmy Lewis, Brabec returned stronger than ever. “The hunger to win the Dakar was still there,” he said. “It was my fuel to wake up every morning and jump on the bike no matter what conditions were outside.”

True champions turn disappointments into lessons, Campbell explained. “Once the emotional side was settled, the navigation training increased in difficulty, and now you can see Ricky is more focused and consistent. He’s on a different level.”

Mental Training

“You really don’t train your mental side,” Brabec said. “It’s a process you go through naturally. You have to be strong inside and out. Jimmy Lewis is a tough guy. He is hard, rough with us training, so we learn from him. From experience, you become mentally stronger. You need to take all the good and bad from every situation. Some people deal with it better.

“I grew up in a family in which my parents were never easy on me. You learn to take care of priorities before you have fun. Racing motorcycles is fun, but there are hard days, long days, cold days, hot days. It’s really easy for someone to say: ‘I don’t want to go through all that’ and give up. We are doing it because we love it. Even though are bodies are struggling, our minds tell us keep pushing.”

Great Teamwork

“To succeed, you need to have a team that believes in you and you trust,” Brabec said. “Johnny is amazing. He has huge experience, and he keeps me calm and focused. Kendall Norman, my mechanic, is a talented professional rider; he is as passionate as I am and so determined. I grew watching him racing, and I learned a lot from him. We speak the same language. The teamwork this year has been great. It takes a team to win, and this year I felt the team was behind me.”

Hard Price To Pay

“There is a price to pay to chase a dream,” Brabec admitted. “We know our sport is dangerous, and the risks are high. Every morning, when we put our gear on, we know that riding a motorcycle in the middle of nowhere is dangerous. We try not to think about that while racing, but deep down you know it. Stage 7 of the 2020 Dakar Rally will remain a stage to never forget. We lost one of our favourite guys in the bivouac, Paulo Gonçalves.

“This is my second encounter with losing a very close friend during a competition. The first was Kurt Caselli. After the passing of Kurt, it was really hard to ride for a while, but I decided to continue racing and doing it for Kurt. This time, after losing Paulo, the bivouac was in shock. It was difficult not to think of him, but we have to accept the fact that our friend is gone doing what he loved most. We have to do what he wanted us to do, to keep fighting and racing. This victory is dedicated to Paulo.

“Toby Price was the first to reach Paulo, as I did with Kurt in 2013. As riders, we feel helpless. With Paulo, the doctors were there in less than 8 minutes. In Kurt’s case, it was worse because the standards of safety in Baja are very different. The bike doesn’t have a button to call for medical intervention; you are alone.”

Ricky Brabec: The Spirituality Of The Dakar Experience

“To win a stage is huge. To win the Dakar is surreal. I didn’t cry, but my first words in my helmet were: ‘I made it! We did it!’ The win is not about one person; it takes a team to do it. It took me five years to make my dream come true. After I was knocked out last year, my approach changed. When I was leading in Peru, there was a moment when I saw my hands already on the trophy; the win was already in my head. Then, when my engine stopped, all my hopes went up in dust. It hurts a lot, but I learned the lesson: You can’t win in your head before you win in real life. You need to be humble. This year, I tried not to focus on winning but to be competitive and solid every single stage. ‘One day at a time’ was my mantra. I embraced the rally as a whole and enjoyed every minute, from riding at high speeds on the rocky tracks to sharing the camper with my teammate, Nacho.”

Looking Ahead

“Being the first American to win the Dakar Rally is special,” Brabec concluded, “and I had the satisfaction to give Honda a win after 18 consecutive years of success for KTM. Winning the Dakar is a dream come true, and next year we will be at the start trying to repeat it, even if we know that it will be difficult. But now that I accomplished this huge challenge, I want to do other things. It’s too early to say what will come next. I will take my time to figure it out, but I know that I have more dreams on my bucket list.”