Ricky Brabec Conquers Everest of Off-Road Racing

The United States Finally Owns Dakar

Whether you’ve followed the sport from a distance or have been deeply involved as I have for more than 40 years, Ricky Brabec’s win at Dakar will go down in the record books as one of the greatest-ever accomplishments of any American motorcycle racer.

Dakar remained the last unclimbed mountain for American racers—the last unchartered territory that America had failed to claim victory over as a motorcycling nation—and now it is ours. Last years’ ever so promising run at the top of the leader board and the subsequent frustration and disappointment that ensued when Brabec suffered mechanical problems near the end are now all but a distant memory.

Today is our day to shine as a country and we have an unassuming, polite, hard-working and respectful young man from Hesperia, Calif., who grew through the ranks of AMA District 37 desert racing to thank for it.

I have a unique perspective on what it takes to win a rally race, and Dakar in particular. I was the first American to win a North African Raid Rally and led the U.S. KTM Red Bull Dakar effort for three years. I know a little about the sacrifices and risks. I have multiple overall wins at the Baja 1000, have ridden numerous other rallies and have competed in three different ISDEs.

So when I say Brabec’s accomplishment ranks at the top of all American off-road racing accomplishments, I have some valid points of comparison.  I’ve written about America’s history in rally racing and why we haven’t won the big one. Now that we have, you have to ask yourself why now and why Ricky Brabec?

First, like any racing achievement, it came down to the supporting team around Brabec. The deeper you dig, the more you realize Brabec’s victory was an American “team” effort as much as a Monster Energy Honda Team victory.

Sure, Honda has been gunning for a Dakar victory for more than six years now and has certainly paid its dues. Much like KTM in its early attempts to win Dakar, Honda had to go through the school of hard knocks.

After 18 consecutive years of Dakar domination, no one quite remembers all the years KTM suffered through heartbreak after heartbreak, to lead late in the event only to succumb to technical issues or rider error.

The year 2020 would be the year that Honda finally sorted out the niggling mechanical problems that always seemed to raise their ugly head at some point in the event and put together a flawless effort. They had the patience and commitment to stick to their program, learn from their mistakes and come back stronger each succeeding year. Most important of all, they had confidence and faith in their rider.

And what about Brabec?

Like Honda, he paid his dues as well. Rally racing is as much an art as science, and the only way to victory is learning the game and developing sufficient confidence in your ability to read your roadbook and lead.

Brabec plied his trade with real-world rally experience over four years of actual competition supplemented by a rigorous training program during the off-season.

This is where American Dakar Rally veterans Jimmy Lewis and Johnny Campbell came in. Lewis is the pied piper of American rallye racing, and his rallye and navigation training programs are rigorous and proven. Brabec remained committed to the process of becoming better with the roadbook, and Lewis certainly put him through the paces.

It also doesn’t hurt to have Campbell–the winningest Baja 1000 rider of all time, a successful race team manager and a Dakar veteran—in your camp as well. Campbell provided moral and strategic support to keep Brabec on track. His experience and coolness under pressure no doubt helped Brabec stay cool, calm and collected.

Last, but not, least multi-time AMA National Hare and Hound champion Kendall Norman served as Brabec’s mechanic.

Rally racing and Dakar, in particular, can be a very lonely place for American riders, with only a small handful competing any given year. Having a friendly face and, more important, a trusted team member in the bivouac, someone you know has your back, can make all the difference in staying focused and never giving up.

All Americans should have a deep sense of pride in what Brabec accomplished. He followed in the footsteps of American Dakar pioneers Chuck Stearns, Danny LaPorte, Paul Krause, Larry Roeseler, Kellon Walch, Chris Blais, Jonah Street, Lewis, Campbell and yours truly, to name just a few. Ricky, along with Andrew Short, represents a new era in Dakar and Rallye racing with two highly competitive Americans flying our colors.

The Dakar Rally is the longest motorsports event in the world and easily one of the most recognized and followed by millions of fans in Europe, Australia, South America and Asia.

Brabec’s win goes down in the record books as a great day for the nation and for American off-road racing.

Dakar is an offshoot of the Baja 1000, a race that is better known in the United States than perhaps Dakar. Americans invented desert racing and Baja racing, as well, so it only makes sense that we should be the best at Dakar. Many of us knew this day would come.

Thank you, Ricky Brabec, for making all of us proud. Even you would never have thought that bouncing around on the back of the bike in the local Southern California desert near your home in Hesperia would lead to the pinnacle of motorsports.

It just goes to show that dreams can come true. All you have to do is dream big enough!

AMA Motorcycle Hall of Famer Scot Harden has had a nearly 40-year career as one of the world’s top off-road racers and has held executive positions with many leading motorsports companies.