Wow! And to think, I'm getting paid for this...
The great sand dunes of the arid Atacama deserts in Northern Chile provided way more challenge than the Dakar's ASO (organizing body) barganed for. The massive scale of the course that was selected for day 13 of the rally far exceeded the abilities of most vehicles in the race. As a result of this dificulty and worries of incoming "costal fog" (yea, right), a portion of the course for stage 10 was officially cut for all but the fastest of vehicles. It's believed that aproximently 70 Kilometers of the toughest section of the sand dunes was removed to keep the flow of the rally going. It's a good thing too, because I was out there in the sand dunes until around 1:00 AM last night helping rescue a Russian 2WD buggy that had become hopelessly stuck in the sand.
Had any of the larger rigs been allowed to enter this last section of the Stage 10, the ASO would have had a very big mess on their hands. The region is known locally as a virtual sea of sand, kind of a no-mans-land, where only the most experienced individuals from the local 4x4 club ever venture into. Some dunes have faces over 1 KM in length and others form deep bowls that could easily swallow an aircraft carrier vertically. This is why I came to Chile for the Dakar Rally. Even professional racers with gobs of sand experience, like Robby Gordon are humbled by the Atacama. Stage 10 was to be the longest and most difficult of the event. Instead, the sand dunes claimed victory over Dakar.
Yesterday I woke up anticipating an absolute disaster, but the quick-thinking ASO staff made the call around 3:00 in the afternoon that slower vehicles were to take a bypass route around the tough stuff. When we got word of this we charged out into the abyss of sand to get whatever footage and photography we could of whoever was still out there. I got some awesome footage of the last VW Touareg as it attempted to climb one of the more majestic of faces, I also witnessed Robby Gordon's Hummer try 5 separate lines before cresting the top. I'm now convinced that Chile has the toughest sand dunes in the world.
Russian debacle: No Sand in Russia.
When my host and leader of the local 4x4 club, Patricio Rios asked me "What do you want to do, go to the finish, or look for the stuck?" I said "Forget the finish line." It was almost dark and we knew if someone was still out there we were going to be their only hope. At about 8:45 PM we found a 2WD buggy hopelessly mired up to it's chassis in sand. The driver and co-driver were at odds about how to cope with the situation. They had until 2:00 Pm to finish the stage, and with only 33x10.50 tires and 2WD their options were thin. When Patricio approached them the two were arguing about something (in Russian). They appeared tired and frustrated. Once we determined that the two knew some English my fun began. I live for such scenerios, so instantly I put away my camera and started digging. The car was equipped with two hydraulic cylinders designed to lift the rear of the vehicle for tire changes and for instances such as the one they were in. The setup is just like the type found under Baja Trophy Trucks. Unfortunately the metallic feet or pads were missing, therefore rendering the system useless. The hydraulic ram would simply bore into the sand and the car would just sit there mocking them. Luckily, we had a 2x8 block of wood with us. We used it in place of the metal feet. The hard part was communicating what needed to be done with the driver. Naturally he was amped up on adrenalin and worried that he would let down his sponsors, so his ability to follow instruction was impaired. Not to mention the fact that the car's transmission had a racing gear box that didn't allow quick shifting between first gear and reverse. As we struggled to free the rig it became clear to me that the driver had never seen a sand dune in his life let alone drove on them. At one point I said "Patricio, you need to drive the race car". Patricio asked the driver and much to my surprise, he accepted. Now let me explain something about Patricio. He's a repair man at a little electronics shop in the small city of Copiapo, Chile. He's also an avid 4x4 enthusiast and leads the local 4x4 club. He's a very good driver in sand because, naturally that's his terrain. But never before in his life has he seen a car of this type, let aloud drove one. This was the opportunity of a lifetime. Once the gear box was understood Patricio was off. The driver got in with me and I drove Patricio's Suzuki Sidekick. Patricio's crew followed as we picked our was through the dunes. I drove as fast as the little Sidekick could go in an attempt to keep pace with the race car. The driver got really quiet as I surfed the short wheelbase around bumps and up over razor backs. I told him that I had raced in the Baja 1000 before and that I felt right at home in the sand. He was very quiet. You could tell he was scared but also thankful at the same time because he could always see his race car ahead of us at the hands of a complete stranger. When we found pavement about 15 KM away, the driver told me "You race driver" I responded "Naa, just editor of Four Wheeler magazine in USA." He gave me a smile of agreement and got out to thank Patricio. The co-driver asked for instruction to get to the final check point and they were off. We followed them to the bivouac location where all the other teams had their support crews and repair stations. Once there the co-driver asked us if he could re-pay us for our efforts, we told him we wanted to get inside the bivouac to take photos (the bivouac is off-limits to the general public). He said "no problem, come with me". I grabbed my tripod and camera for my opportunity of a life time. Inside the Bivouac I shot a whole bunch of night photography of an area rarely seen by most people. Below are a small sampling. Enjoy.
Also check out our Multimedia area to see video footage I shot of the race.