The Dakar Rally: World’s Toughest Off Road Race

Dakar Rally Car in Desert

When: January 3-18, 2009

Where: Starts and ends in Buenos Aires, Argentina

Every January since 1979 the world’s best off-road drivers have gathered in France for the start of the most grueling off road endurance race known to man.

Driving vehicles straight out of a Speed Racer cartoon, the cast of international adventurers set off on an epic journey covering nearly 6,000 miles of the most grueling, gut pounding, neck wrenching, character testing terrain on Earth.

volkswagen Toureg conversion driving in the Dakar Rally

Dakar is often referred to as The World’s Toughest Off-Road Race – and for good reason. Over the period of 16 days competitors will run 15 stages – speeding thru rugged desert landscapes where temperatures routinely reach 130 degrees, both man and machine take an incredible beating; only half the participants can expect to finish the race due to equipment failure, injury or death.

A total of 48 deaths among competitors have been recorded since the rally began in 1979, that’s nearly 2 per race. Spectators have also been injured or killed either by competitors or their support vehicles. Critics of the race say that it has degenerated into a kind of real life Death Race 2000.

History and Route

Route map of the 2006 Dakar Rally
2006 Dakar Route Map

The race originated in 1978 when racer Thierry Sabine got lost in the desert and decided that the brutal terrain would make the perfect backdrop for a world class Rally. The first rally ran from Paris to Dakar, which was the event’s most common route for nearly two decades.

Historically, the course has followed a similar format: two easy days in southern Europe, a ferry crossing to Morocco, some rocky stages in the Atlas mountains, then the meat of the race in the sand-dunes of Mauritania and Mali.

Recent rallies have passed through Morocco, Western Sahara and the grasslands and deserts of Mauritania. The segments running through Atar and the sand dunes and canyons of Mauritania’s Adrar Region may be the most challenging in all off-road racing.

Politics and logistics have forced relocations in the rally’s origin and intermediate cities over the years, but Dakar has almost always been the event’s destination. It was intended to be the 2008 destination (starting from Lisbon) but terrorist threats pressured Dakar 2008’s cancellation.

The 2009 Rally almost suffered the same fate but luckily the Rally got some help from their friends to the South.

portrait shot of Stephan Peterhansel taken at the 2006 Dakar Rally

Dakar Heading South for 2009

In January Dakar accepted Argentina’s and Chile’s offer to host the event, so the 2009 Race will be run in a loop starting and ending in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

The drivers will cover nearly 9,000 kilometers of the vast Argentinean and Chilean territories; first heading south towards the spectacular landscapes of Patagonia, contestants will have to cross the Andes Mountains before enjoying a single day or rest at Valparaiso on the shores of the Pacific Ocean. The return trip will then take them to the Atacama Desert and through the Argentinean provinces of Catamarca, Rioja and Cordoba.

map of the 2009 Dakar off road rally from Argintina to Chile

The Vehicles

mitsubishi pajero speeding by a group of spectators in the Dakar Rally

The Dakar Rally is open to three categories of vehicles: the Moto (motorcycle), Car class, and T4 Truck class. Vehicle manufacturers use the tough terrain to prove the power and durability of their products, but winning vehicles are nearly always substantially modified.

The Mitsubishi Pajero Evolution has racked up a record 12 Dakar wins since 1985 including the past 6 Races.

3 KTM motorcycles jumping a dune in the 2006 Dakar Rally

Over the years the cars class has been dominated by brands like Citroen, Mitsubishi and the impressive Schlesser buggies – custom built by Jean Louis Schlesser for the Dakar, the motorcycle class seeing the triumph of KTM and Yamaha while the trucks class celebrated Tatra, Kamaz, MAN, DAF and Mercedes as winners.

How to Enter the Dakar Rally

Kamaz truck flying over a sand dune in the 2006 Dakar Rally

If you think you have what it takes – the guts, the skill, the right vehicle – you’re in good company. About 80 percent of Dakar’s participants are amateurs. All you need is cash… Lots of cash!

Fees are extremely hard to determine accurately, but it appears as though the fees for the A.S.O. rider and mechanic registration are somewhere between US $10,000 and $15,000, not to mention a bevy of other costs like shipping, visas, vehicle tariffs, mechanic, etc. Count on it costing somewhere in the mid to upper five figures to run the Dakar.

For more information, visit the official Dakar website.

Low Cost Alternatives

For those who don’t have $50,000 – $100,000 laying around to participate in the Dakar Rally, but still crave the adventure, consider these low-cost alternatives:

About the Author

CM Burns
CM Burns
CM Burns has been a music video director, a cameraman for Nat Geo, has recorded ancient Tibetan chants in India and swum with whales in Baja, California. Currently living in the Philippines you will find him anywhere Adventure happens.
CM Burns
CM Burns
CM Burns has been a music video director, a cameraman for Nat Geo, has recorded ancient Tibetan chants in India and swum with whales in Baja, California. Currently living in the Philippines you will find him anywhere Adventure happens.
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