The craziest road race of all

Craig Bromberg reports from the finale of the Paris-Dakar Rally, a grueling 17-day road race that weaves through wadis and sand dunes and grenade-wielding Tuareg rebels.

By Craig Bromberg

Published March 31, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Two hours from Dakar, on the shore of Lac Rose, a sandy red lake hard by Africa's Atlantic coast, a few thousand Senegalese and a thousand newly sunburned off-road racing fanatics from Europe are standing at the finish line of the 20th annual Paris-Dakar Rally.

It's only 10 a.m., but the site is already so full the Senegalese army has cordoned off the road from the nearest town. Not that that's stopped a steady stream of fans and T-shirt merchants from trickling through the barricades to the finish line, which is not really a line at all, but a huge ramped podium covered with sponsor logos and strategically placed in the middle of the beach for the TV cameras.

It seems everyone's already here but the racers. When they left from Versailles at dawn on New Year's Day, there were 349 of them -- 173 motorcycles, 115 cars and 61 trucks -- and every last one was determined to make it to all the way to Lac Rose: down the highways of France and Spain, over the Mediterranean by ferry into northern Morocco and Mauritania, east into the deserts of Mali, and then back through the Mauritanian dunes to Senegal. Seventeen days and 6,500 miles later -- the equivalent of driving from New York to Los Angeles and back without roads -- just 29 percent (55 bikes, 39 cars and eight trucks) have actually made it, and they're not rushing now.

And why should they? The winners have already been known for the last 48 hours, and everyone is utterly exhausted. "They say it takes a man on a camel 40 days to do what we do in a few hours," says Anne-Chantal Pauwels, 34, the second-place finisher in the car class, and one of the few women in the race. "My body is shaking so hard from going up and down in the sand, all I want to do is lie down."

Meanwhile, the fans are watching a fashion show of sexy Senegalese models wearing ankle-length boubous and dancing to the latest Youssou N'Dour record in the hot January sun. Suddenly two helicopters appear in the cloudless sky and the theme from "Rocky" blares over the buzz of an approaching bike. Stephen Peterhansel, the No. 1 moto -- this was his sixth Dakar victory in seven years -- speeds up the ramp on his Yamaha to tearfully accept a magnum of champagne; someone hoists his 5-year-old son on his shoulders. The media (including more than 70 TV networks) go nuts for this and rush the podium; the sponsors, fresh-faced publicistes from the Paris offices of Mobil, Euromaster, Total, etc., scramble to get their pictures taken with "their" winners -- or (at least) with Hubert Auriole, the handsome former Dakar victor who now heads the group that runs the race, TSO.

Then, as quickly as it began, it all dies down until the No. 1 car, a Mitsubishi piloted by Jean-Pierre Fontenay, finally a winner after 15 years of Dakar racing, drives up the podium, and the chaos starts again.

Oddly, the few Senegalese who can see from where they are don't seem particularly interested in what's going on; the intense security -- gendarmes on horseback with swords and AK-47s -- feels a little beside the point. Although they might never admit it, you sense that the crowd has a certain ambivalence about the race. Can it, after all, be any coincidence that for 20 years it has been held during Ramadan, the holiest time of the Islamic year, a month-long, dawn-to-dusk fast, in a country that is 85 percent Muslim?

On the other hand, it's not as if they aren't somewhat fascinated. For weeks, Senegalese politicians have speechified about how "Le Dakar" has made their city a world sports capital, the newspapers have dutifully reported on the day's racing news, and kids have lined the roads, chanting "Ral-ly! Ral-ly!" as the racers flashed by.

"People have an image of Africans as being sad, hungry and poor," says TSO's Auriole, "but if you got in my car with me, you wouldn't see people throwing stones. The things that make Africans happy are just different than the things that make Americans happy." Still, even Auriole admits that the real audience is back home in France, watching the race on television, no matter how loudly TSO may boast of increased African participation. (This year there were seven Senegalese motorcyclists and a single Tunisian car.)

Indeed, like all great colonial
enterprises caught in the warp of the postmodern age -- the Gulf War, for example --
the Dakar is a kind of combat that is best
witnessed on television. The military
comparison is less far-fetched than it might at
first seem. The Dakar certainly is planned like
a military operation, a surgical strike of
French vitesse and technologie into the heart
of black Africa. Each day, as the rally
traverses its 370-miles-per-day course, 1,500
people follow the racers in the air and on the
ground: 150 TSO administrators, 40 cooks,
35 doctors and 300 journalists, only 60 of
whom are lucky enough to get seats in TSO's
fleet of 18 planes and four helicopters.

Like a real war, the planning
begins months before the actual race. Each
year, TSO -- named for Thierry Sabine, the
racer who created the Paris-Dakar in 1978 and
then died in a helicopter crash during
the eighth rally in 1986 -- sends a
reconnaissance team into the desert to scout
out the route, which shrinks or expands to
keep pace with regional geopolitics.

In 1988,
after riots broke out in Algeria and Mali, TSO
won cooperation from Moammar Gadhafi to enter
Africa through Libya. But within a few years,
that too became a problem, so TSO tried out
some ingenious courses -- running the race all
the way down the Atlantic coast to South
Africa one year, in a loop from Dakar to Mali
and back. Until 1993, the race was
run strictly on former French colonial soil,
completely bypassing non-francophone
countries -- even Spain -- by ferrying the racers
from southern France directly to Algeria.

However it isn't mere geopolitical
caprice that induces TSO to change the map.
With the winners racking up consecutive
victories in recent years, criticism has forced
the organization to try to blunt the
advantages of the factory teams (BMW,
Citroen, Yamaha, Toyota, Mitsubishi, etc.)
over entrants lacking deep corporate pockets.
Changing the map is one way to level the field;
banning all but standard Chevy, Dodge and
Ford engines in most of the car and truck
classes is another. (Most of the bikes are
standard 600cc hogs fitted with 12-gallon gas tanks
for the long distances.) This year, TSO went
even further, creating four "marathon stages"
during which there would be "no airborne
mechanics" and "no airborne spare parts for
the motorcycles." In other words, if you
broke down during one of these three
marathons, you were toast.

In fact, you can't race the Dakar
without some form of corporate support, no matter how hot
a desert rat you are. Each racer is pushed
forward by a vast, moving pit crew of highly trained mechanics equipped with any
conceivable spare part that might be needed
along the way. (Euromaster, one of Europe's
largest tire manufacturers, packs in its trucks
enough spares for every tire in the
race.) Riding in huge Tatra trucks, these crews
are almost as important as the drivers
themselves, and in some cases they decide
which of a team's many drivers will be allowed
to win. Jean-Pierre Fontenay, this year's
winner in the car class, has been racing with
the Mitsubishi team for 15 years; this was
the first year he was given enough "factory
support" to lead him to victory. (Last year, he
stepped aside for a Japanese Mitsubishi pilot.)
Likewise, KTM, the Austrian motorcycle
company, supported 30 bikes this year, but
not all the bikes got the same level of support.

Of course the drivers have the toughest job,
alternately thrilling and infuriating. Like wartime
pilots, they're not given information about the next
day's route until they've finished with the
current stage. And although they are equipped
with detailed maps and high-tech GPS devices,
every day someone gets deeply lost -- lost
enough that they can't even find the bivouac
by nightfall. Racing through the wadis and
ergs of Morocco, the giant, cathedral-like
sand dunes of Mauritania, the sprawling magic
of the desert, may sound terribly glamorous --
and the drivers are exceptionally handsome in
a rugged-race-car-driver kind of way -- but the
glamour seems to wear off pretty quickly, even
for them. Each night's bivouac is little more
than a grimy campsite at the end of a small
desert airstrip where the support planes and
trucks lie in wait with food, fuel and water.
There's precious little sleep for the weary, especially
when there's another day of racing ahead.

"As soon as you get into the
bivouac, you've got to feed yourself, and then
as soon as you've eaten you start studying the
next day's route," says Paul Krause, 33, this
year's sole American motorcyclist. (Riding a
KTM, he placed 14th overall.) "Just when you're
ready to go to sleep, the crews are working on
the bikes. You wouldn't believe the racket
those trucks make. And don't get me started
about the joys of truck showers."

For other drivers, however, lousy
campsites are the least of their problems. The
high drop-out rate of this year's race attests to
the toll desert sandstorms inflict on man and
machine, and much worse can lie in store.
This year, a Spanish motorcyclist was
helicoptered to Dakar in a coma after a crash;
a Belgian team was fired on by Tuareg rebels
in Mali (the rebels also kidnapped a Tatra, but later
released its occupants); one vehicle was hit
by rebels with rocket-propelled grenades;
and two racers had to go to a hospital after
colliding with a Mauritanian car -- whose five
occupants died at the scene. Indeed, in all but
four of its 20 years, the Dakar has been
marred by death and accident. To the French,
it's all part of the race. The ghost of Thierry
Sabine still haunts the Dakar years after his
helicopter crash.

But that's not what the drivers mention when asked why they take part in the rally. They talk about the sheer pleasure -- and challenge -- of driving through some of the most
beautiful and desolate terrain on earth. And
when they've finally gotten to Lac Rose and
passed before the silly viewing stand in
Dakar's central Place de L'Independence,
they're just happy it's over. Happy, but
exhausted. By the time the prizes have
been given out that evening at the Hotel N'gor
Diarama at the outskirts of the city -- a
ceremony replete with cheesy Senegalese
army buglers, a squadron of African
drummers and fireworks that might make war
look tame -- they're too pooped to party.
The groupies from Paris may be looking to
score, but the racers have had about as much
action as they can handle. Besides, it's
Ramadan, and most of Dakar is already

Craig Bromberg

Craig Bromberg is a writer who lives in New York.

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