“The function of man is to live, not to exist.”
“We’ve got a long way to go, and a short time to get there.”
Jerry Reed/Smokey and the Bandit
Seventeen-time Baja 1000 champion Johnny Campbell was in the mood discuss the 2021 Dakar Rally in Saudi Arabia when I tracked him down the week before Christmas, when he was about to load Ricky Brabec onto a jet headed to Dakar, where he will try replicate his 2020 Dakar Championship win. The first American to ever win the Dakar Rally, Brabec will climb onto a six-speed Monster Energy Honda Team HRC Honda CRF450 Rally motorcycle – think of it as a quarter million dollar, two-wheel Honda F1 car – and set out to run the 12-stage, 3,000-mile Saharan odyssey come the New Year.
First, however, a quick backstory on HRC Honda and its illustrious history in the high risk/high adventure/high heat crucible that is off-road racing.
“The Baja 100 was started in the 1960s,” said Campbell, who has been heavily influenced and inspired by Honda. “There were no paved roads down there from Tijuana to Ensenada. There were guys doing timed runs to see how many days it took them to get to Ensenada or to Cabo or even La Paz, so Honda did a publicity stunt in 1962 with their CL72 Scrambler, which was like a 350cc motorcycle. They started at the border in Tijuana and clocked into the telegraph office there in Tijuana. That’s how they got their official time, and they rode straight to La Paz and it took them over 39 hours. That was 1962. Fast-forward to the Mexican 100 which became the Baja 1000. So Honda has a really deep and rich history in off-road racing, and the Baja 1000 and all things off-road.”
History lesson absorbed, we motored on over to meet our Monster Energy-fueled soul brother Brabec to get his read on what was to come.
Q: You were born in San Bernardino, CA and grew up in Hesperia – classic Inland Empire Californian desert towns. How did you become a world-class desert racer?
RICKY BRABEC: Yeah, just as you said, born in San Bernardino and moved up to Hesperia at the age of 14. I kind of realized that I didn’t really have to play stick-and-ball sports anymore. I took the moto by the reigns and just started riding as much as I could, and raced here and there, and kind of fell in the love with the desert, and it’s something that I really have a passion for, whether it’s moto, or side-by-sides, camping, truck trips, mountain biking – anything. I feel like it’s part of my home, and where I feel most comfortable.
Q: What’s the navigation aspect of the Dakar Rally all about? How big a role does it play?
RB: The navigation is tough. You’re trying to find your way through the open desert you may have ever been in before. I mean, you are racing, you are on the clock, so you are trying to do your best, but the navigation is really important. We have waypoints out there where you really have to find them because if you miss a waypoint, not only are you lost, but you get a big penalty.
Q: How do you prepare to do 12 stages and 3,000 miles?
RB: You are on the bike eight hours a day, 12, 13 or 15 days at a time. It gets easy the more you do it, but when you go into it for the first time, it’s nerve-racking wondering if you can even make it that far. The consequences are high, so what I do for training is that me, Johnny, Kendell will get together and plot out this big giant plan of how many days we’re going to ride for. Andrew Short of Yamaha also helps us. He drives 30 hours to meet up with us. It’s always good, I believe, to train with another rally racer, so that way you can get some experience gauging speed and time and when you go to the line on day one. Andrew is great. Me and him, we kind of pieced together some books so we can go training. Andrew is, in my opinion, a really good asset. He is smart. He’s full of information, whether it’s supercross, motocross, parts preferences, bike preferences. He’s been around a very long time and he’s not an airhead.
Q: I’ve read a number of stories where you consistently speak to keeping a fierce pace in Dakar, yet trying your absolute hardest not to stress the parts of the motorcycle.
RB: Exactly. You don’t want to blow yourself out right away, and you obviously don’t want to crash. You have to find that fine line of racing and also keeping your body as close to 100 percent for the following days. Sometimes there are days where you really have to turn on the gas and waste energy trying to make up time. You don’t ever want to put yourself in that position in a rally because you don’t want to blow yourself out on Phase 3, when you have 10 more to go, you know?
Q: That 450 off-road bike is basically a two-wheel F1 car, but it looks cumbersome to ride. What’s it like both in short and long stages?
RB: The rally bike is great. You know, it is a 450cc one-off exotic motorcycle that Honda made as a 100-percent factory Honda. It is actually really nice to ride! It’s comfortable. It’s a little bit heavier than a small bike, so you can go down roads that are a little bit beat up and a little bit rocky without the bike wanting to get away from you. We hold nine gallons of fuel, so we’re able to go pretty far on a tank of fuel. I mean you have to race about 180 miles before you even see a fuel station. We carry as much as we can to make it where we need to fill up. We always need it to fuel up.
Q: What are you thinking when you’re out there in the middle of the Sahara?
RB: I zone out! I feel like zoning out is almost the only way to race. You need to be in that zone. You have to zone out your life, you have to zone out every single thing and you have to get the tunnel vision. And you also have to slam a Monster before you even do anything! In the rally, yeah, there are sections where you are just bored and singing to yourself and you’re talking to yourself and you’re wondering what you’re dog is doing at home. But you can’t let that really get to you because as soon as you think it’s easy or as soon start getting bored and losing focus, the rally is going to bite you in the ass.