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2009 Dakar Coverage Tuesday - Chapter 4

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By Thom Cannell
Detroit Bureau
The Auto Channel

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Tuesday January 6, 2009; Yesterday in the desert, waiting for cars and then suffering repeated dust showers, was grand. It was the big payoff for all of us. Piercing sunlight kept us warm despite cooler temperatures and fierce winds. Though there were no trees, an abundance of vegetation decorated with protective thorns kept some of the dirt anchored. The landscape, cut by low hills, could be mistaken for the boarder area of Morocco and Mauritania, if not for the brush.

Each passing vehicle spit sand and dust high, carried by the wind into our cars, eyes, cameras, ears, and hearts. If you love racing, this was perfection. In complete stillness between motorcycles or cars, insects roared. Tiny flying noisemakers no bigger than a thumbnail produced astonishing drumming calling to potential mates.

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In racing the greatest danger is overtaking a difficulty emphasized by the desert. Blinded by dirt, battered by exhaust, motorcycle riders are in greatest danger. A device called a Sentinel warns of another car with a piercing squawk. We saw this in action as, through the gate where we waited, two cyclists dueled for position, oblivious to an overtaking car. Over the combined din of three engines the shrill note of the sentinel was easy to hear for all and the cyclists moved aside. The Sentinel’s signal is manually operated by the overtaking driver, or co-driver and has a range of approximately 50 meters. It is a lifesaver.

Later we arrived in Gan Gan, which is in Patagonia. The road is four lanes wide gravel and dusty. And we see petro company trucks: there must be oil or gas somewhere local.

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As we cruise, every 5-10 km the road narrows for cattle gates. Some are flat, others give us the thrill of a good airborne jump, and it is much smoother to cruise at 110 than 60 as the suspension soaks up the undulations.

Here’s a personal note, we are always drinking and, forgive me, pissing or wishing we could. The mantra is hydrate and piss or don’t hydrate and die. In this laser-bright sunlight I’m thinking that if we drink enough and stop frequently enough, I should begin applying sun block in some very unfamiliar portions of my body. At 80-100 kmh the car dances and skates on the loose surface like a wakeboard or inner tube behind a ski boat. Let the car do its job and all is well. But, never brake when in a corner or if you slide off. That insures a bad outcome; then it’s like being on one end of a teeter-totter when a second kid jumps on. You go flying.

If you like loose surface driving, this is fantastic. A ride in one of the racecars would be both thrilling, yet terrifying. Sue, my co-driver, has just announced “I am having way too much fun!” However it is hard to catch a nap as sliding forward is prevented by the five-point harness and wide crotch strap.

As we change elevation the eco system adjusts in precise and interesting ways. Vegetation alters slightly in a precise pattern of adaptation.

We left Jacobacci for Neuquen, a shorter drive of 338 km very early. In Jacobacci we slept in the train station, an elderly concrete platform. Tightly packed vehicles surrounded us, a pickle jar of motorcycles, quads, and cars. On our platform were quads and motorcycles with constantly running engines. Have you tried to sleep with a motorcycle engine revving? Very interesting. The showers don’t have cold water, they have _very_ cold water. I am fortunate and take a one-minute shower in lukewarm water at the VW team shower.

When we depart, we quickly climb onto a tall mesa where the temperature is, two hours after sunrise, 9.5°C and scum ice mingles with salt deposits atop thin ponds. Road surfaces for crew and racers alike change from stony to sandy, with huge beds of silt that suck the car right, left, or abruptly slowing it. And again in bright sunlight we drive blindly into clouds of dust. Braking to a near stop is the best action, with the consideration that the following vehicle may not slow at all. A stressful situation.

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After 265 km of driving, Sue tells me the tulip (stick drawing of the road ahead) shows a sharp left, downhill, and it is expected to be very dangerous. As we round into the corner, ahead a vehicle is stopped and the waving driver slows us, saying “one of your cars is off.” In blinding dust, and perhaps a bit too much speed one of the cars has oversteered of into the ditch on the left. A passing support truck offers to pull; Sue and I deploy our snatch-strap. Sue shows her knowledge of vehicle recovery and stops the recovery to insure the strap is flat; twists encourage violent breakage and a whipping strap can easily decapitate an onlooker. She shouts “peligra” or danger as the huge truck easily dislodges our Touareg. And we are on our way, no worse for the experience.

Again we are navigating sand soft as pancake makeup. This is the kind of driving excitement that brings journalist and race back, and we are all somewhere within our skill levels. Racing, at whatever speed, across the high plateaus with only a road, sky, and cloud of dust ahead is for us immensely gratifying.

Gas station parties

Another sidebar. At most fuel stops out of the cities there are restaurants attached. Families are out for a meal, and crowds at the gas pumps surround us. It is the gas station party, and we are the guests of honor. We are constantly astounded by the pride Argentineans have in their country, flags waving, asking us how we like the country, now this rally is different from Africa. So the gas pump parties are information exchanges, cultural hand offs at the local level.

Into Neuquen

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As we approach Neuquen we pass another large crowd at the end of the stage. We pass and follow the game plan to be first into the bivouac ahead of our team cars.
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And it is unbelievable. We count and there are 12.43 km of cheering bystanders cheering our entry into their city. True, there are singles, then clumps, then three-deep flocks and it becomes even more densely packed. Just thousands and thousands of people to cheer us and touch the car. No wonder stars become affected, it is not possible to be untouched by such adulation. Our arms got tired of waving and our faces ached from smiling. I think my teeth got suntanned, or at least bleached one shade whiter.

The bivouac was at a fair ground, and only regular water application keep the dust from billowing, turning the surface into a thin layer of Jello. Our VW team mechanics had arrived earlier, some departing the previous night, some earlier that day. Our area was set with four tents and tarps, one for each racecar. All was ready for arrival and the pace leisurely.

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Each racer has his own team of mechanics and technicians and engineers, sharing common support trucks that carry tents, duffel and personal tents, and tire changing machinery. First to arrive is Carlos Sainz, who has again won the stage. He confers with engineers and is promptly surrounded by TV crews and press. Other Team drivers, Mark Miller, Dieter Depping, Giniel de Villiers arrive. I get a quiet moment with Mark Miller.

“The tracks are fantastic and very much like Baja. Today Carlos went at a fantastic rate, faster than I’m comfortable with… The people are truly amazing, I talked to the organizers and even they are surprised by the happy, cheering crowds. It is the nicest Dakar I’ve seen.”

I asked him what is different about this Dakar from others. “Typically on this day we are in Morocco where it is very rough and stony, and the other guys know the tracks in Morocco very well from experience. Here we are all equal. Tomorrow we go into the dunes and they will be very difficult, (I think) the organizers want us to get stuck. We’ll see—it’s obvious they want us to become mired in the dirt.”

We exit the bivouac driving off to yet another good hotel, one with WiFi we hope, so we can work and transmit our photos and stories, then arise at 0500 to drive north. Again we experience the Rock Star emotional thrill of coping with 10 km of crazy cheering crowds as we depart Neuquen. I’ll remember to use my point-and-shoot camera so make some video to show friends and family or risk being called a liar.

Kilometer after kilometer there are enormous crowds pointing cameras—at me. The idea that my photo will be in the albums of hundreds of Argentineans is unbelievable. Sue is driving and the crowds, particularly young women, are astounded; on the radio Pink is singing “I’m as proud as a woman can be,” and she is. After about five kilometers of touching and banging our cars and offering the occasional morning beer, excuse me, cerveza, the crowd thins. And it happens again, and again at each intersection or town. As we head East on Route 7, then north on 151 to Catriel and Colonia El Sazual, Sue and I are convinced that we will meet and wave to every living Argentinean at least once!