Small Dunes Make for Big Adventures at SS3
Race Report brought to you by WESTx1000.
Today was the longest stage of the race. With an exhaustive route transitioning into a big stretch of pavement all the way to El Golfo de Santa Clara. Luckily, this is where the loop will take place, giving teams and staff a tiny bit of relief from the constant traversing from bivouac to bivouac. But SS3 of the Sonora Rally, presented by Method Race Wheels, wasn’t over yet. And for a few unlucky participants, this was the most punishing special of them all. You could see the ridgeline of sand in the distance. Like a herd of camels walking in a procession across the horizon. Venturing closer, it only became more ominous. Like watching your executioner sharpening the axe as you walk to the gallows. Or knowing your oppressor and still handing yourself over on a platter. There are some who are at peace and prepared, others who are petrified and praying, and those who don’t know what they’re getting into altogether. The first day of dunes, albeit small and relatively short in km’s, was the boss battle of this level in the game, and if you wanted to move onto the next phase, you’d have to pass this test, however brutal.
The pied Piper of Sonora, Skyler Howes #1 continues at the head of the lineup with an extremely clean and consistent domination of the race so far. But who would be surprised? You don’t become a Husqvarna Factory rider without craving these sorts of challenges – his attitude and demeanor always positive, if not radiant, when reviewing the details of the ride. This is his favorite rally raid after all… But it’s Howes’ outlook on the sandy two track, narrow cacti lined passageways, blind crests and the waves of untouched khaki granules he has the pleasure of sailing. He’s enthusiastic because he knows this place, but most of all, he knows what he’s capable of, which is why he leads the pack, somewhat unwittingly, through parts of the course offering trickier notes to follow in the roadbook. An efficient strategy for less confident navigators that can have costly consequences in the choppy, inconsistent, super soft dunes. Where Skyler draws a path in the sand is hardly the line most should be taking, they do, because admittedly, it’s much easier to risk encountering a tougher hurdle and keep your head up than constantly pick new paths and turning your attention from the journey to the rally tower (while keeping the throttle open) trying to determine your next move.
Properly dubbed the Pied Piper of Sonora, Howes is at the head of the group, unconsciously guiding a convoy into the special to meet their fate. Whisps of dust flew into the air and floated down more gently behind them until there was enough of a gap between bikes to let it settle. Riders like Kevin DeJongh #21, Brendan Crow #35, Matt Sutherland #2 and Jordan Huibregtse #18 all know their own limits and general mastery of the motorbike. Whatever path they choose doesn’t matter because they too see the various textures of terrain as enjoyable, if not attainable, making the roadbook the real “boss” to contend with. Resulting in a street brawl for the podium, even when it seems sure at this point that the factory is going to win it. Trailing behind Skyler by 32 minutes, the formidable DeJongh is holding onto the Overall second step with a Kung-Fu grip, still dancing around Second and Third in the stage standings with Sutherland in Third (1st in the Malle Moto class), Huibregtse in Fourth (2nd in Malle) and Brendan Crow rounding out the Top Five positions in the General Classification. The latter of them nursing an old, exacerbated injury keeping him out of contention for the day. Back in the bivy, Crow iced his shoulder with a package of bacon under a palapa in hopes that the next day he’ll be able to race at possibly 80%.
“Stage Three of the Sonora Rally was another fun one. In fact, it feels like the stages are getting better and better, more and more fun. Today, we were in more twisty tracks through the cactus, more sand and a little bit more difficult navigation. After about kilometer 70, things became a bit more technical, which was nice. It made the brain think a little bit more. Overall, a super fun stage. Had to do a couple of circles out there as well, because I didn’t get my notes totally correct. But otherwise, a good stage, and made it through clean once again. Happy about that and looking forward to getting into more sand and dunes tomorrow.” – Skyler Howes #1, Husqvarna Factory Racing
As expected, there was a small pause between the front and the middle, and a bigger one at the back. But once the gates were opened, the vehicles flowed up-course steadily, if not a bit gingerly outside of the faster gang. And who can blame them? The dunes are already intimidating but considering in its sharp, choppy shape, it can become a Goliath task, drawing out every ounce it energy by the end. Making all other obstacles that much harder to surmount. One such rider had already been dealt a losing hand the prior stage. But Sebastian “Stan” Olarte #28 persevered past a (machine) impalement which led him to push his bike to the finish of SS2. Today, although he seemed strong and ready for new challenges, Olarte kicked off the big sand section with a substantial off-bike moment from – just as several had – miscalculating the abruptness of a berm. Trapped under his EXC for a moment before assistance could jog over. But he nonetheless carried on with his unbreakable spirit. Only until a new section of course made for a tad precarious to navigate.
After blowing past a gate, Olarte flipped around to find the path and make up lost time. But today was, again, quite hot. The loose earth behind him had kicked up a significant cloud, and he hadn’t realized he was being tailed. And poor Sara Price #51, was blind in his dust and couldn’t see him coming. Price, with her Navigator Sean Berriman, were horrified at the impact of their Polaris RZR with Olarte and his KTM. Terrified of what they might see, a man or a body, the pair exited the side-by-side to try and offer help. And what a relief when he stood up and quickly communicated his condition so as not to worry the Factory pros. Ultimately, Stan sustained a broken finger, but no other bodily harm. His moto, however, was severed in two and the RZR sustained damage to the cooling system. It’s these moments we truly remember that to race takes risks. And while it’s not often that a price is paid for the privilege of seeking glory, when it does occur, everyone – not just those involved – find, instead, new perspective. And hopefully, a greater appreciation for life and love.
“Today was…really wild, to say the least. We ended up having a head-on with a bike, which is super unfortunate. That’s one of the scariest things that’s ever happened to me racing. I’ve always dreaded that possibly happening, and it did today. I’m just so grateful that [Olarte] is okay, and it wasn’t worse than I had originally expected. Because it was…wild. To be honest, I’m just pumped he walked away from it. We stayed with him until he was preparing to leave. Then he hopped in the truck, and we helped with his bike and continued on. Actually, from him hitting us so hard, the car ended up taking pretty good damage to our cooling system. So we ended up overheated, the rest of the time, until we reached a spot where we could change the front radiator out, and we could continue on from there. But that definitely took a lot of time, but we made it happen ” – Sara Price #51, Polaris Factory RZR
Price and Berriman managed to bring their car to a meeting point where their team could work on the radiator. It was a quick enough fix, but nothing could make up for their time lost during the incident. Their goal now was just to reach the ASS. And they did, dropping down from the primary spot to Third in class and Second overall – making way for the Sonoran natives, Daniel Gonzalez and Jorge Hernandez in SSV #55 to take the reins. But, hey, maybe the torch would have been passed anyhow. Gonzalez and Hernandez have been very consistent in this competition, and they had a pretty solid effort in the special, finding their way through various slippery circumstances with confidence. Pilots Brock Harper and Steve Geist #52 also managed the trials respectably, but coming all the way from Pennsylvania, the two had almost zero experience in sand. So, that accomplishment was formidable already, if not a bit slower. It probably doesn’t help much for them to be switching off driving responsibilities midway through the course, but it does touch at the heart of the Sonora Rally. An intimate space built for grassroots teams to truly experience a rally raid firsthand at this level of international design. The people are the core of this event, and folks like Harper and Geist are not only the reason the Sonora Rally became what it is, but why it’ll continue its astronomical trajectory for years to come. And landing up in the rankings is just the cherry on top. Due to Price’s mishap, #55 sits at the top step, while #52 can enjoy a Second-Place finish in the stage. With quite a head start, though, #51 still maintains Second in the general classification.
“It was a great day. Had no mechanicals, no scary accidents, but definitely challenging navigation in a couple of spots. But we feel really good about it. Looking forward to the (bigger) dunes tomorrow.” – Steve Geist #52, Privateer in UTVs
Sounds in the dunes play tricks on you. The echo bouncing off the peaks and swirling around the valleys, throwing noises every which way. One bike becomes two. Engine breaking over the next mound becomes a ten-minute wait for its arrival. You hear them coming for miles but never know where from or how long it might take them to appear. It’s like Mother Nature’s fun house, constructed for max discombobulation and mayhem. A challenge in and of itself, these mountains of sand and stone and brush are for music lovers who appreciate a gas-powered symphony. But these tunes only confuse the matter more. Never knowing how close your rivals are or if they’re about to flank you from both sides. Take these sensory experiences and add hidden traps in the sand – soft and welcoming and sneaky. They caught the unsuspecting wheel more often than not today, not causing as much a danger than a nuisance. So if the tires are turning too slow, the ground will grab hold, sink the nose and twist a rider to their side. Once is doable. Twice is a pain. More than three times makes for an arduous day. And with such a large showing in the Malle Moto category, this only adds salt to the wound.
The apex has been hit, and racers are starting to exit the curve. Cornering at the 2022 Sonora Rallyhas already been fast, fluid and just the right kind of dangerous. And at the pace it’s been going, the road will flatten out soon enough. With only two days left in the competition, teams will need to firm up their strategies to ensure their stars will shine on the podium on Saturday. Several categories will crown a king, but at the finish line, those who made it, will leave feeling like royalty.
Stay tuned to the 2022 Sonora Rally presented by Method Race Wheels all week long, from October 17th – 22nd, to watch all the excitement south of the border. To learn more, visit: https://sonorarally.com/ Or, follow the fun on Instagram @sonorarally & @aventura.eventos.