By Andrew Court

You might not realize it, but the world’s toughest motorsport event is happening right now. The 2022 Dakar Rally, held in Saudi Arabia this year, runs Jan. 1-14.

This year marks the 44th iteration of this ultimate off-road challenge. The rally gets its name from the original route, which ran from Paris France to Dakar Senegal. Since 2001 the event has moved on from its eponymous course because of security concerns in North Africa. In 2008 it moved to South America, but then moved to Saudi Arabia for a multi-year stint beginning in 2020.

There are five primary competitive groups: motorcycles, quads, cars and trucks. In the car category, the company Mini has racked up the most wins recently. But the trucks are the big dogs, rigs that’d look at home idling outside a Montana rest stop hauling a trailer of snow machines. Without question the most hardcore category is the motorcycle. Of the 31 competitors who’ve died since the race started, 23 were on bikes. 

What makes the Dakar Rally so badass? After all, it’s hard to claim you’re the most intense race in the world with the Baja 1000 going strong.

First of all, it’s the length; drivers must navigate 3,400 miles for this year’s route! This is far longer than Baja. Second, there’s the terrain. If you’ve ever seen the film Lawrence of Arabia you know what I’m talking about; a vast expanse of sand dunes as beguilingly beautiful and viciously dangerous as the open ocean. When not crossing the sea of sand, the cars and bikes are tearing through canyons that would make Luke Skywalker feel at home. Occasionally the route gets a refreshing kiss from the Red Sea. 

Finally, Dakar is gnarly because of the steely determination of the men and women who choose to enter. It’s been said by people who’ve done both that it’s far tougher than climbing Mount Everest. 

Prince Albert and Princess Caroline of Monaco have taken up the challenge. F1 Legend Jacky Ickx proved his off-road medal winning the 1983 rally. With only $45,000 in first place prize money this year, it’s fair to say most elite competitors are in it more for glory than financial gain, especially considering the personal risk.

The race’s most famous moment was not one of triumph, but catastrophe averted. Prime Minister Margret Thatcher’s son Mark put Dakar on the map when he went missing for five days during the 1982 race. News traveled around the world, making global front pages, as well as gossip columns. 

The 28-year-old international playboy’s ride ended in Algeria when his rear axle broke. After being found Mark famously said: “All I need is a beer and a sandwich, a bath and a shave”. 

To celebrate his brush with death Thatch racked up a bar tab so big it became a political sore spot for his mum. 

This year’s first stage has already flummoxed many serious competitors. Three-time Dakar champion Carlos Sainz spent two hours lost in the swirling Saudi sands. Many others were similarly bamboozled. The issue was a 42-degree turn forking in the desert towards a hidden waypoint. While speed and bravery are important, skill and attention to detail are the critical X factors for victory. I’m getting car sick just thinking about it. 

Only one American has ever won the race; Southern Californian Ricky Brabec topped the motorcycle class in 2020. Car and truck class victories remain elusive for the U.S. Analysts have never doubted that Americans are fast–Baja‘s proved it–but they do question our ability to go the distance. If there’re any off-road racers out there, 2023 is your chance to prove them wrong. 

For those without the grit to enter, the race can be watched from an easy chair on NBC Sports’ Olympic Channel.

(For more stories from the author, go to Floridaflaneur.com)