By Norbert Ockenga
Racing fans are used to seeing Robby Gordon tear around American tracks on weekends, behind the wheel of a highly complicated racing machine, and more recently, as a team owner. But that spectacle pales in comparison to racing across the desert in a Hummer powered by a Corvette engine in the Dakar Rally, with which Gordon has become obsessed.
Since 2009, the Dakar Rally has been held in South America rather than in Africa. But it still carries the name of the Senegalese capital. When terrorist threats in Mauretania forced the promoters to call off the event at the eleventh hour in 2008, the promoters made up their mind to relocate it to South America, which has similar landscape but is more appealing to the car industry. It's a bit like staging the Indy 500 in Tokyo, but the challenge is not lost in the transition.
The rally is a motorsports event like no other. It's no race -- it's an adventure. For 14 days in a row, almost 500 bikes, cars, trucks and quads crisscross the continent. No day passes without drama and accidents aplenty.
Gordon managed to take center stage at this year's Dakar in the Hummer. Or at least, what could be loosely called a Hummer H3. Built as prototype according to the same set of rules as for the Baja Calfornia and other American cross country races, it's a one-of-a-kind construction with a Chevrolet Corvette engine -- and with unlimited suspension travel. Gordon's Hummer can go flat-out on almost every terrain. And flat out means: 125 mph on loose surface, in the desert, or in rocky dried riverbeds. The car is 100 bhp (boiler horsepower units) stronger and nearly 15 kph faster than the Minis of German team X-Raid, who won the Dakar on reliability and perfection. Gordon is going with speed and might as a counter.
This decision is not without controversy. There was a constant quarrel in every bivouac (Dakar's temporary traveling towns) over the balance of power. The Hummer seemed to have been granted too much freedom compared to the FIA rules, said the opposition. The balance of performance between the two systems was not fair. Dutch driver Tim Coronel noted: "The Hummer goes like a desert elephant." This year's winner, Stéphane Peterhansel, quipped: "If we try to take the stones, holes and ditches at the same speed as a Hummer, we would immediately roll over twice."
Gordon's answer? "Minis are for girls." Well then.
The arguments turned nastier when Gordon was accused of cheating a few days from the end of the race. Scrutineers discovered a pipe inside his engine compartment and were suspicious that this might breathe additional air into the engine, to bypass a limit through air restrictors and thus create more power. Gordon was fuming.
"The officials don't seem to understand our inflation system. We had the same system on the car last year, and then, it was accepted as legal," he said.
Now, he was going to be disqualified after the Mini team tipped the officials of what they should look at. Gordon appealed and was allowed to stay in the rally, on probation so to speak, until his appeal is heard later in the year.
From from that point on, though, the American was out to seek revenge.
"I want to beat the Minis like a drum," he said. "I really want to teach them a lesson."
He did so by winning two more stages -- amongst them the most difficult of the event, where he was the only lead driver not to get stuck in a portion of deep sand. After that very victory, he summoned first the TV crews, then the waiting Mini mechanics to the rear of his car. He showed them a pipe into which a massive bolt had been driven. "Fifteen minutes with the pipe blocked," Gordon referred to how many his opponents were trailing him on that stage alone.
"My first feeling after the stage is: The officials can kiss my ass."
His will to show the world resulted in a mighty roll on the penultimate day. After flipping over, spectators turned his Hummer back onto all fours, and Gordon charged off, engine cover gone, and finished the rally fifth.
"I really want to embarrass the Minis. I tried extra hard to destroy them, and today, that strategy bit me. But it was fun." Then, he claimed to come back next year. "2013 is going to be our year. Everybody else better watch out."
And as soon as the Dakar was over, he tweeted: "So who wants a Minis are for girls shirt?"
Gordon has already begun with his mission to conquer the world's toughest rally in a year's time.
The massive Hummer versus the cuddly Minis is one of the stories that will go down into the history book of motorsports. But it's only one of many at the Dakar -- an event that throws up surprises and anecdotes almost by the minute.
It's been like this ever since 1978, when Frenchman Thierry Sabine founded the event. A year before, he was on a private motorbike tour through northerly Africa and got hopelessly lost. Days in the desert almost cost him his life. But he thought: This is great, let's turn it into a race.
Gordon finds himself lost in a cacophony of smaller, more nimble and finely-tuned vehicles. It's not staring death straight in the face as Sabine once did, but Gordon seems determined to fight as if it is. Just another reason the Dakar Rally is one of the greatest races in the world.
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