Photos: WESTx1000, Rally Zone, DPPI, FOTOP
A Battle for the Ages
Sonora Rally Channeled It’s Inner Dakar for One of the Racers’ Favorite Stages
Every stage just seems to best itself at the Sonora Rally, and Stage Three was no exception. Many pilots compared the caliber of this special to one at Dakar, offering everything a top-level performer expects from a rally. To start, the roadbook was quite accurate and offered enough active notes to keep navigators on their toes. The terrain itself felt alive, ready to pounce at any moment on an unsuspecting prey. Between the dunes and the arroyos, there was enough sand to fill up children’s playgrounds across Mexico. And none of it was stable. Nothing was meant to support the weight of a hundred purpose-built racing machines all day long. And it was certainly a long one… Earth just gave in to each tire that climbed over her fragile surface. And yet that still wasn’t the end of the obstacles. Aside from the quintessential/run of the mill bad guy on-course (yourself) and the competitors out there trying to find the finish line, the elements were also really against you. Dry heat feels better on the lungs than a humid version, but the reality is that it dehydrates you faster. And the cruelty of wind cools you down temporarily, but it robs you of your sweat – the body’s natural air conditioning.
But when everything falls into place. The timing, the navigation, the terrain, your mindset, the last, and most cruel, of all factors is fate. Those unpredictable moments which lead you to the podium or send you home. Several teams suffered misfortunes in SS3, the most famous of them likely being Sebastien Loeb and Fabian Lurquin’s (#200, Prodrive) who crashed over a blind crest heading into the largest arroyo of the day. Ultimately, Loeb came out unscathed and Lurquin with a fractured shoulder, but that was plenty enough reason to take #200 not only out of the race but out of contention for the W2RC (at least for now). This put Yazeed Al Rajhi and Timo Gottschalk (#202, Overdrive Racing, T1+) at the head of the pack at Sonora and in a great place to become a World Champion. FIM however seemed better off today overall. The difficulties they faced were the same as the autos, but perhaps because it felt so much like a “world championship” special, it was more tranquil regarding acute incidents or catastrophic events. We’d already lost some favorites yesterday, so it was a relief to see most of the pro motos come back in one piece.
“That was a difficult start to the day with the accident that Seb and Fabian had, eventually retiring from the rally while leading the championship. The GCK crew had a solid day with good pace to finish inside the top 5 in difficult conditions, while the X Rally cars once more learnt a great deal in conditions that they’re not used to and are very happy with the progress they’ve made.” – Gus Beteli, Team Principal, Bahrain Raid Xtreme
The National classes, however, did not fare quite as well. Mechanical issues terrorized several riders, with batteries going mysteriously low, fuel injectors failing, electrical gremlins wreaking havoc and a laundry list of problems even Murphy would Find unreasonable/unlawful. In other instances, fuel became a balancing act that many weren’t prepared for in the dunes and on the loose ground. If racers weren’t running out of gas – likely from pushing their vehicles to the limit all day – then they were wobbling down the course with heavy gas tanks filled to the brim with enough petrol to handle Problem A. But which was absolutely a factor to Problem B. Suffice it to say, the modest dunes section became a khaki-colored slip ‘n slide, but without all the fun.
Even so, with a late start to boot, the race was a spectacle to witness firsthand and a bit shocking to hear about. And while these difficulties haunted many riders, it didn’t afflict them all. After the first two bikes took off, there was a delay at the start for half an hour to clear up Loeb’s wreckage which lay very near the course. Then the rest of the Nationals were sent on their way. Brendan Crow (#513), who began SS3 in third position, was hauling it on-course. Like a Police Sheppard, trained to chase down criminals on the run, anxiously tugging on his leash until – finally – the keeper lets go. Crow’s bike flew like Superman after his adversaries, with their temporary 30-minute advantage, as if he was trying to save the world. One of the Diespro riders had passed him early on and was unwittingly added to a list of perpetrators. Matt Sutherland also looked strong at the halfway point of the race, better yet, it seems like his dream of wearing the Finisher Medal may finally be realized, and thensome as he keeps firm grasp on his lead in Malle Moto all the way to the end. Young contender, Ryan Narino (#505) riding Jonah Street’s former 2011 Yamaha WR450F on which the American had raced Dakar Rally and won a stage. Apparently, Narino found this bike by chance in Illinois and jumped on the opportunity to channel Street at rally-raids. Perhaps the Dakar vet has left some of his good luck on the Yamaha because Ryan maintained a respectable rhythm.
The section near the Sea of Cortez, however, much like yesterday’s route, was notably mesmerizing. Mountains were a constant figure on the horizon. Racers compared this stage in terms of length, complication, and obstacles to the Dakar. It was a long, grueling day. Lots of ruts, deep, loose sand, and plenty of dust (or “polvo” as they say in Mexico). There were even big stones, sharp rocks… Anything you could throw at the competitors, it seemed. Which made for a demanding Special. One which kept some of the Nationals out in the wild after dark, not arriving at the bivouac until after 9pm. Today might have been hard, but it’ll be worse to find out what’s to come on minimal sleep. Let’s hope the Malle Moto guys made good time, or tonight is going to extend the challenges of the day even longer. By the sunset, we had an inkling of the winners, and our suspicions were confirmed by midnight: Ash Thixton (#525, Freedom Rally Racing, Enduro) at the front with a time of 5:24:43. Then came comrade Francisco Alvarez (#526, Freedom Rally Racing) at 5:36:26 and Brendan Crow (#513), finally, with a time of 5:42:40.
“I would call it a perfect day as far as it goes. I finished stage one with 71 speed penalties. Today, I have Zero. I grew up riding in the sand so today felt like a piece of home. Nothing can make me happier than being here flying the Zimbabwe in the Sonora rally.” – Ash Thixton #525, Freedom Rally Racing, National Enduro
Cars endured their fair share of bad luck as well today for many of the same reasons as bikes, for instance, Daniel Gonzalez in ran out of gas near a small ejido but was offered a gallon of gas (a highly valued resource here in the desert) which gave him just enough extra miles to reach a closed checkpoint and be sent to the bivouac by tarmac. This dropped him down the ladder to Fourth, and out of contention entirely with a 1,350-minute penalty. (We’ll see if he contests.) Other guys were just trying to be helpful, like Luis Perocarpi in #602 of the 4WD class, who stopped to give a hand to another racer and in the process, accidentally timed out. He and his co-driver were also sent in the Drive of Shame back to Puerto Peñasco incurring a 52-hour penalty in the process.
On the other hand, plenty of drivers found themselves in the same or better position than they’d been in before. Sara Price and her co-pilot (#605, Price Racing, UTV Pro) held down the fort in First keeping anyone else from joining her in the Winner’s Circle this week. Father-daughter duo Jim and Sienna Price (#608, Price Racing, UTV Pro) – of no relation to Sara – found themselves in a well-deserved Second Place, which at this rate could send them home with a trophy. And that much closer to winning the Sonora Rally, should fate decide to pick on the former Price. Mexican native, Jorge Cano and Abelardo Ruanova (#606, Nat UTV) have also landed on their feet again with the top spot in their class. It’s the third time on the podium so far, and it seems they may like the taste of victory too much to share.
“Today was an awesome day! We had a fast clean day with zero issues and were so proud of this! We have some good momentum and need to just keep it going. I have an incredible team here, Alsup Racing Development working on my Can-Am x3 and couldn’t be more impressed with how our unit is performing.” – Sara Price #605, Price Racing, UTV Pro
We’re finally past the halfway point of the 2023 Sonora Rally, and the third round of the World Rally-Raid Championship. And it wasn’t an easy one. At some point of the longest stage of the event, everyone traveled a very long, deep arroyo with tall sand cavern walls. At times the walls became very narrow as they led down to the water, something you can glimpse in the distance when cresting or dipping with the rolling terrain until sea level. It’s a completely different landscape from yesterday. Not only because of the mounds of sand, but in the lack of structure and form. There are no cacti at all in the wash, just bushes and brush and small prickly things which stick to you like glue. The ground near the arroyo at about 30km in was completely unstable. As if you’re walking on a deteriorating rooftop covering an intricate network of tunnels built by rodents and snakes. At the beginning of this challenge, there’s a complicated turn which can be the difference between holding the lead and ending your day. The tricky entrance to the arroyo is where Sebastien crashed, and the trajectory of this rally shifted course. There’s no doubt there will be words in the bivouac about what obstacles the racers faced today. While other words will just be hotly expressed in social media.
Stay tuned next week for more updates on the race as well.