The T4 Terminator
Austin “AJ” Jones Goes Home a Dakar Champion
and That’s No Accident
Words: Kyra Sacdalan
Transcript: Brittney Bennett
Photos By: Rally Zone, Justin W. Coffey and MCH
It’s hard to believe that in 44 (official) years of the Dakar Rally, only two Americans – Ricky Brabec in Motos and Casey Currie in SSVs – have waved the American flag from the top step of the podium… Until now. With a tough race behind him, 2022 marked another great victory for the U.S of A. with good ol’ boy Austin “AJ” Jones taking home that W from behind the wheel of his Can Am Factory South Racing T4. That mouthful, aside, this isn’t quite the unfamiliar territory you’d expect from a pilot with only three years competing in the Cross Country Rally World Cup, let alone driving a UTV – something he hung up his Trophy Truck keys to take on.
In fact, last year, Jones became its champion, while finishing Second seed at Dakar. But his trajectory is only going up, and he and teammate Gustavo Gugelmin’s stellar performance was a direct result of good composure, great planning and at least a little bit of luck (as with any rally of course). AJ might not have been the first of our US comrades to carve his name in the rally raid history books, but at the ripe age of 25, he is the youngest. And he’s only getting started.
Q: How is the food in Saudi Arabia? Is there anything you won’t forget?
A: The food in Saudi Arabia is not too bad honestly, but it’s not the best. One thing I won’t forget, for sure, is [when] we went to the chicken place the other day – similar to the KFC around here, and they asked if we wanted camel fries… We asked what camel fries were, and they said, literally, little shards of camel in your French fries, so that’s definitely one thing I won’t ever forget are the camel fries. Overall, food is not too bad…
Q: What’s your go to power snack during a race?
A: We’ve been making pretty fire peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, so when we have a refuel, the peanut butter and jelly sandwich are pretty good. But usually I’m just like a snickers man, I like a candy bar. In the heat, sometimes that doesn’t work out so well, but usually I’m just a candy bar man and any nuts.
Q: When you started driving UTV’s, did you ever think you would be competing in rally raids, let alone the Dakar Rally?
A: Definitely not, I didn’t even really think that I would be driving UTV’s. I started out in Trophy Trucks, so it was kind of the opposite [vehicle to an SSV]. I just came over…[to Saudi Arabia] and raced my first race in 2018…and realized how big of a world it was over here. [I] realized the potential to drive these [cars] professionally over in Europe and the Middle East. Definitely didn’t ever see myself…competing in Dakar, and even if I did compete in Dakar, maybe just driving around – never actually having the chance to win it, so it’s cool!
Q: Obviously the Dakar has a huge impact on anybody who competes in this genre of motorsports, are there any other rally raids you’ve competed in, which stand out to you for any reason? From the racing, to the location, to the types of snacks?
A: My favorite race is the one in Spain called Andalucía. That one is really fun because the terrain is WRC style, like rally roads and that’s really rad to drive around. One that is super gnarly is Silk Way, ran from Russia through Mongolia into China. That whole trip alone, I’ll never forget it; it’s a wild one. It’s crazy how much this rally raid takes you to different places that you thought you’d never go.
Q: What brought you and your co-driver, Gustavo, together and what makes you such an unstoppable team?
A: Gustavo used to navigate for a guy who was on the Monster Energy Can-Am team back in the day. When I was a privateer running the 2020 Dakar, he was navigating for the guy he always rode with from Brazil, and that guy, who’s a little bit older, decided that he didn’t want to race anymore. So basically, I just nabbed Gustavo, and we’ve got along pretty well just being buddies. Eventually I just asked ‘hey, do you wanna ride with me?’. We tried it a couple times and ever since we got together, it’s been really really successful.
Q: Which one of you two is more level headed?
A: 1,000,000% without a doubt, not even a question, him. I have never seen him, at all, get any type of frustrated or angry or really anything other than just happy and relaxed and just trying to move onto the next thing. I’m not the opposite, but pretty close to the opposite.
Q: Which of you pushes hardest to keep trying and reach the finish line even when all hell breaks loose?
A: I would say, again, him. Usually I’m like: “Ugh, this is hard. This sucks. It’s starting to go downhill.” And he’s always like: “Nah man, we never give up; we have to keep going” and then [snap out of it] and I [realize…] I agree. He’s right! [Gustavo] definitely picks me up when I’m down and helps out a lot with always keeping a positive mindset, so that helps a lot.
Q: You headed into rest day in a solid 2nd place and it seemed this resulted from a well executed strategy. Did you plan to carry that strategy into the 2nd half? If not, can you tell us how you planned to take the win? What was the strategy going forward?
A: Strategy before rest day is to always get to rest day. Our number one goal, always – every Dakar – is to get to rest day. Our second strategy, without giving too many secrets away, was to take Top Five every stage, at least. We obviously want to do as good as we possibly can, but winning a stage wasn’t really one of our goals yet because in rally raid, when you start higher up, it’s harder to open up the road navigation wise. And it’s harder if you don’t have anybody to chase; you don’t have any idea of how good you’re doing because everything is going on behind you.
We wanted to do that. And after rest day, [our strategy] depended on where we were at (in this case, P2). So, I tried coming out guns blazing, put some more pressure on the guy in First, and it worked because [we took the podium in the end]. It was a little bit weird. Things had changed then because we could see where we were at and our lead. Depending [on whether of not the lead] is small, then you try to find that fine line between pushing and going fast and building more of a lead, [while] also not “wadding” yourself. Things can happen so quickly here. You can lose 20 min like that. They can happen [out of nowhere] so, it’s tough to try to find that [balance] between going hard and keeping it together.
Q: How does the terrain in Saudi Arabia differ from the terrain you’ve raced in North America?
A: Honestly, it is pretty similar. I think that’s one of our strong points here. It’s why Ricky, Casey and I do pretty well [in Saudi Arabia] – other than we’re all good at what we do. But I think the terrain is pretty similar to Nevada and the Mojave Desert in California. The dunes are super gnarly, and they have the Middle Eastern drop to them, which is insane and the scariest thing ever, but overall the terrain itself is pretty similar to [what we have at] home, so that helps a lot.
Q: Do you have a routine to psych yourself up for a stage? Maybe after several days of racing without breaks, in rough conditions with tricky navigation, how do you psych yourself up?
A: It’s hard to become super pumped about going out there the next day. It’s tough out here. As physically exhausting as it is, it is just mentally draining. You’re focused all day, everyday for so long. It’s freezing cold so, that just bums you out. (I hate the cold. I live in Arizona for a reason, and here it is cold.) It’s really just a big challenge for you, character wise, so you have to get to the end, and you always want to do as good as you can because we’re competitors. And that’s what we do; we’re racers. I would say that’s really it – just trying to impress yourself and see what you can do.
Q: All things considered, you haven’t been racing UTVs for very long, yet you’ve already made a historic win at Dakar and won the T4 World Cup last year. What do you think helped you achieve so much, so fast?
A: We trained a lot. I drive quite a bit. We’re out there running roadbooks and stuff like that out in California, Northern Mexico, Arizona and Nevada. I’ll do a five-day training camp every once in a while and just go run miles and miles. I think that UTVs are just so much fun to drive, which doesn’t suck. It’s not like: “ah man, we have to go train…we have to go drive around for 500 miles today, bummer.” It’s like: “alright, hell yeah!” This is what we do for fun anyways – people go to the dunes. We train a lot, and I have a good team around me with Gustavo and South Racing. All the support helps a lot.
Q: Who was your biggest rival in the rally this year?
A: Up until rest day there was a Brazilian, Lupi, who was killing it. I was a little stressed out about him because he was just hauling everyday, and I wasn’t sure what I was going to do about that. After rest day, it was probably one of the Polish guys. Those [racers] are pretty quick. They’re crazy as hell, but they’re fast and they’re good drivers. Overall, [my biggest rival] is for sure my[self], but Gustavo helps me with that.
Q: Do any of your friends or family back home even grasp what an all-star athlete you are?
A: My mom thinks I’m pretty cool, but other than that, no, not so much. I don’t like to play it like that. I’m just AJ, just doing what AJ does. My buddies will be like: ‘Oh where’s AJ?” “Oh, he’s out driving his Can-Am in Saudi Arabia for the next 15 days. He’ll be back a couple weeks from now.” But my mom thinks I’m cool, so that’s pretty rad.
Q: If you could do it all over again, is there anything you would change?
A: No, probably not. We’ve had a lot of really highs and a lot of really, really lows. I can count on two hands how many times I’ve said after a race, “I’m never racing again. I hate this.” But for some reason I keep coming back. I think that all of that has shaped what we have today. I’m grateful for everything, even the bad stuff…even the gnarly crashes.
Q: You went from accidental SSV star to historic Dakar Rally champion in what seems like overnight… How does that feel – first thought that comes to mind?
A: It really feels awesome to start racing Rally only a few years ago and, now, to be at the top of the game in my class is a great feeling. Proud of myself and where we’re at currently.
Q: The concept of winning an event this huge – and coming off the World Championship in the Number One seat in 2021 – must be a surreal experience, how does this change your immediate future: goals, schedule, opportunities…?
A: Definitely feels like I [already] accomplished the goals I set for myself. Wanted to win the World Cup and Dakar in the same season, and that’s exactly what happened! Same goals for next year and this year: World Cup. Hopefully it opens up more new opportunities.
Q: How did your parents react when they found out?
A: My dad was there [with me], and he was happy and relieved. He’s been there with me through training and traveling and racing and has seen how much work I put in, so I think he was proud for sure. Called my mom on the liaison back, and she was so stoked. [But she also] wanted me to come home.
Q: Does the team have any time to celebrate or is it time to put your head down again and focus on taking the Championship for a second year?
A: [I don’t have] too much time off to celebrate. Taking a few days to reset and get back on schedule now, but it’s really right back to work. In this sport, there isn’t much of an off-season, so I have to always be ready to go.
Q: We heard a rumor you are, at 25, the youngest Dakar winner in history. Is it a strange feeling to break records and represent the US – as you have – on an international level?
A: Yes it’s a strange feeling but really cool. I like that I’m one of the only Americans there in First Place, and a younger guy, so to break records and represent the USA in a positive winning way feels really good.
Q: What’s your biggest goal now that you’ve won Dakar?
A: Goal now is to win the World Championship again and really just improve on everything. Always can be better and faster in all areas, so really just striving to improve in all areas always.
Q: Trophy Trucks or UTVs? Desert Racing or Rally Raid? Peanut butter or jelly?
A: They’re so different it’s hard to pick [haha]! Both have cool qualities and are a blast to drive. They are so different to drive, it’s hard to compare them. [As for Desert versus Rally, I] love Baja and always will. But I really enjoy the stage racing format. Jelly but only strawberry, never grape. [Wink.]