Last weekend, the Dakar rally wrapped up with two Americans in the top 10. Monster Energy Honda factory rider Ricky Brabec was second overall and privateer Skyler Howes was fifth. Now that they are back in the U.S. , I got a chance to interview both of them.
RICKY BRABEC ON DAKAR
Dirt Bike: Did people treat you differently this year as a defending champ?
Ricky Brabec: The locals didn’t treat me differently. I would never want to be treated differently just because of success. At the end of the day I am just a normal person with a passion for motorcycles. However, the locals were more aware of the event being held there and a lot more connected with it this time. That was super cool to see
Two in a row and 10 stages this year for Honda. What made the difference?
Yeah, this year was a good year for team Honda. You know it’s very difficult to lead out on almost every stage and end up on the podium. I believe all Honda riders worked really hard this year and the speed, navigation, and confidence shows.
In the first half, was opening the course the kiss of death? Did navigation get easier?
The first half of the race, I wasn’t in the right spot mentally, it was very difficult and as soon as I ignored all distractions things clicked a bit easier. I had made dumb mistakes and the times show. Opening is never really the key unless you know you can and navigate to a top 5-8 finish. This year they had tricky days and tricky books with a new style of navigation which yeah, made it difficult to open without losing time. As the rally went on, the Honda boys figured out how to navigate the new style road book and we became comfortable opening.
You said you laid back on stage four. Did that cost you the win?
On stage four I decided to ride slowly. Being a racer do you know how difficult that is to go slowly and not lose focus? It’s extremely hard, but yes I decided to try to get the group closer together by doing so and at the end of the day it really hurt me the next day. I started so far back that there were a lot of mistakes ahead of me and made me doubt myself on navigation and I played games with myself. If there was nothing ahead of me and nobody doing circles I feel like could have concentrated harder and not made a 27 min mistake.
When you stopped for Toby Price, how did that go? Afterward, is it hard to focus on racing? Is navigation easier?
When I had stopped, it was strange. I was thinking he got mad and threw his bike down then sat there because it didn’t look like a crash, he was clearly not 100%, so I assisted him until the heli arrived. It was difficult, as you can imagine, when you see your friend there injured and knocked out, but we know every morning gearing up what we do is dangerous and tomorrow is never guaranteed. We’re glad he is safe and getting help because we are out there alone you know, just you and the motorcycle. It’s tough to attend to a down rider and after thatI tried my best to just ride and finish the day.
Did you have any mechanical issues?
I had no mechanical issues and my bike never touched the ground. That’s how you want to finish the Dakar. We didn’t get beat up and now this is two years in a row the bike has finished in perfect condition
How much time do you have to study the road book? Do you like the current rules or would you like more time?
We don’t really have time to study the road book. They give us 20 minutes to mark it and load it. This is about the limit of time because by the time you mark it and load it, you have about 5 minutes before you’re racing so it’s fair for everybody. I like this style because we get more rest in the bivouac and nothing sneaky is going on. I think next year it will be digital so they will load it to the device as you start.
On social media, you mentioned some “drama” from the KTM team on day 11. What was that about?
On stage 11, my teammate Joan Barreda had a brain fade moment and totally blitzed a refueling zone. He later ran out of gas at KM270 out of a 500 kilometer special stage day. The KTM boys at the final refueling before the dunes came up to Kevin Benavides and me yelling that we sent Joan, who was battling for podium spot, ahead to open a line for us so we could go faster in the dunes and not navigate as much … which is totally immature by those guys. We had been accused of cheating and having an illegal GPS on our bikes the first week, and then this was in the final stages where I drew the line. Honda navigated better than the rest and we worked harder than them and it showed. They were screaming at us in front of everyone at refueling on camera. Kevin and I were confused as we all passed Joan out of fuel at km270, so who was paying attention and who wasn’t? I believe what goes around comes around, we are all on motorcycles riding out there and we should be there for each other, at the end of the day be careful who you’re yelling at. From a team like that? I will never be part of a team like that! For someone to say that and yell at us after Honda has won 98% of the stages and opened all the stages, it’s completely crazy.
Do you like Saudi Arabia or South American terrain better?
I really like Saudi a lot better. South America, I don’t really like because it’s a lot of road style racing and I just feel more comfortable in the open desert. For me it’s easier to read the desert then roads
What day was the most fun?
To be honest, I couldn’t tell you what day was most fun. No day was easy as we rode our ass off everyday fighting the road book just trying to get the group together. I would have to say riding with my teammates every other day was fun and the dunes are always fun, but as I said we were riding our hearts out and not a single day stands out. Stage 10 was fun opening most the day and winning We were nervous, but the adrenaline was worth the fun
What was the strangest thing you saw?
Strangest thing I saw? A bunch of camels tied down in the bed of a small truck with their lips flapping in the wind down the freeway. I could have rode by and petted them if I was on the right side of the truck! Camels in the open desert is always a great sight.
How did your arrangement with the Bas Team come about?
Bas Dakar is more or less a rental service available to anyone who qualifies. This time the team had a guy who was at the back of the pack, another in the middle of the pack and me up in fifth. They give everyone the same treatment. It benefits the team to have someone up front, and the last guy they had like that was Ross Branch, who went to Yamaha Factory. They told me there wasn’t much they could do as far as financial help, but they said they would do the best job of support possible. They run a really good program. So I put the numbers together and started fund raising.
Did you have the same sponsors as last year?
Garrett Poucher helped me last year, but he had a crash and took a huge step away from racing. So, heading into 2021 my support came from fundraising. Bas Trucks is a company out of Holland that stepped up, too. Just the team expenses are 66,000 Euros. Entry is €15,700 Euros, the mechanic expenses are €26,500, the bike is €11,500, all of the tires come out to roughly €5000. Then you have to buy the service card for €1200. Spares, safety , hotels, nutrition, therapist, another €7000. The plane flights were €3700, so I think I spent around €90,000,
How good was your bike?
It’s super close to a factory bike, the biggest differences were some switches and suspension. They have 52mm forks–you can’t buy those. They have a better rear link, the factory bike has a little more fuel and the motor and mapping is different on the factory bikes, but the 2021 model wasn’t at a huge disadvantage like last year. This year it was manageable, and they got me set up with properly tuned suspension. I was so much more confident. Last year I was always nervous about hitting something. As far as a rental bike goes, I would say it’s not bad.
Were you involved in any of the drama between KTM and Honda?
No, but I was right there on stage 11. Joan Barreda caught up to Ricky who was leading out the stage and he missed a refueling stop. There were about five things he missed; flags, a speed zone, a giant tanker and a big sign that said “refueling.” There was a big EZ-up and a time limit on your GPS. He ignored all of those, rode right past it and just left. It didn’t make any sense because it has no benefit to anyone. Mattias Walkner on the KTM figured that it could be an advantage because Joan could be sacrificed and lead out the rest of the stage, which was difficult navigation. That would allow Kevin Benavides and Ricky to pin it and not lose any time. So we get to the next top and Mattias is yelling and screaming, saying the Honda guys are cheating. He went to the organizers. Daniel Sanders and I just looked at each other because we had ridden past Joan, who was sitting there out of gas. He only made it, like, 30 kilometers. Mattias didn’t see him on the side of the trail. It would have made no sense to sacrifice Joan for 30 kilometers. I didn’t see how they could think that was a legitimate tactic that Honda would use. What none of us could answer was how Joan missed the fuel zone in the first place.
Are you considered one of the better navigators?
It was a little more difficult this year because there were a lot headings that were noted “cap moins,” which means “more or less.” You could come to an intersection where it says turn left to cap heading 34, but there might be four left turns, and they might all have similar compass headings, so it’s easy to take the wrong one. That’s what happened to me a few specific times on stage nine. Over the course of the rally, I felt like I was navigating better than most, but that day I was feeling over-confident and made so many mistakes. After I made the first mistake, I should have chilled out, but instead, I pinned it and tried to make up time. I just made more and more mistakes–I got “behind” the road book. When you ‘re pushing, you aren’t navigating. Still there were a couple of days where Ricky and Nacho (Jose Ignacio Cornejo) led out, and they put on a full clinic. We had their tracks to follow and we were pushing, and they still beat us. Starting in eighth to 15th off the line is actually the perfect spot, then you have plenty of tracks to follow. That’s what put me in the overall lead, I had been around 11th everyday and suddenly I was in the lead overall.
Are you treated like a bigshot now by the organizers?
Not especially. Registration went differently. They were a lot easier on me than last year. I had a yellow number and they didn’t give me a hard time the size of my numbers or stuff like that. A yellow number means you’re an elite rider, either you have won a stage or finished in the top 10 overall. I got to know a handful of people who were friendly to me. But as far as racing goes, there’s no special treatment. I was hoping for some when I got that speeding penalty, but no luck there.
How difficult was it dealing with Covid restrictions?
Covid didn’t make it as difficult as I thought. I know Toby and the riders from Australia had nightmares, not just getting there but getting home. My only problem was that I booked through Turkey and they banned all travel, so I had to change some plans. I had to have a negative test before I got on the plane, then I had to quarantine for two days, then have a second negative test. They were very serious about wearing a mask, You didn’t want to get caught doing an interview without one.
Are you comfortable being in Saudi Arabia?
Saudi is not a bad place! It’s beautiful, clean and friendly. When people heard you were from the ‘States, they would say ‘USA! Welcome!’ That’s one thing I have learned from all this, Everywhere I’ve been, there have been nice people.
Was the riding fun?
I had fun. I think that’s why I got decent results. I remember hearing an interview with Travis Pastrana once that stuck with me. He said when he was having fun, he got his best results. When he got all serious about racing, that’s when he didn’t do as well. The riding was just like home in places and even where it wasn’t, it was beautiful. It doesn’t rain much in Saudi Arabia all year, but it did while we were there, so we got three days of good, wet sand.
Any scary moments?
I crashed a few times, but it was mostly slow-speed stuff in the dunes. I wasn’t a fan of the six-tire rule. When you ride on a bald tire, you can’t slow down. But in general, I had a good clean ride.
Will it be easier to come back?
I think that I inspired people by my commitment. I basically sold everything to get there. So even if there’s no factory ride for next year, I think there are people who will step up to support me again. But I hope some kind of support comes. I don’t have anything left to sell.
See you next week!