In 1978, nearly 200 vehicles gathered near the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France to embark on a newly-conceived rally thousands of miles into the northern part of the African continent. Of those, only 74 continued on to Cyril Neveu, Senegal, and the event captured the attention of the motoring world. Today, it’s no longer the Paris-Dakar rally; it's simply called “The Dakar” and it moves around the world. For 2021 and 2022, the Dakar has been contained in the confines of the sandy desert of Saudi Arabia, its 12 stages covering more than 5,000 miles.
This was the second year the Dakar has included a Classic segment, which is open to vehicles of the same type that have competed in any pre-2000 Dakar race. It shares same bivouac and has a similar distance as the traditional Dakar, with considerations commensurate with the age of the vehicles.
American Amy Lerner and her navigator Sara Bossaert competed in the event in Lerner’s 1982 Porsche 911 SC last year, and they came back in 2022 for their second race stronger and smarter. Handling a rear-wheel drive sports car is (at the very least) a challenge, and the Dakar tests every team even in a brand-new ride.
“Last year was a really steep learning curve,” Lerner told me via phone from Saudi Arabia. “Going into it, we understood the basic principles of a regularity rally, the broad-brush strokes, but none of the subtleties. Turns out there’s a lot of strategy and we learned a great deal as the rally went on.”
When the Dakar launched the Classic class in 2021, 24 teams signed up with vintage cars like a VW Beetle, a Peugeot 504, and Lerner’s Porsche. For the 2022 race, 142 teams registered; that’s six times the number from 2021, which is incredible growth. Registrations were cut off in June when they usually stretch into October.
“I think it’s pretty cool that the classic car market has gone crazy and the vintage car racing world has rocketed too,” Lerner says. “For me, even in the midst of Covid-19, this is an outlet that is not only viable but has grown exponentially. I’m fascinated by that fact.”
An untold number of famous drivers have tackled the Dakar over the last 40 years. Even F1 Jacky Ickx joined the fray in a Citroen CX in 1981, and while he had to drop out of the rally in the final stage due to mechanical difficulties, he came back and won it in 1983. Ickx is one of Lerner’s heroes, and he stopped to speak with her and check out the 1982 Porsche she prepped as a tribute to him. Knowing that the Dakar is the longest and most grueling off road competition in the world, Ickx was reportedly impressed that Lerner would be driving a Porsche from his era.
Bossaert, who was trained as a competitive navigational sailor and originally hails from Barcelona, shouldered a lift that was as important as the driving. Lerner and Bossaert have built a friendship for several years, and Bossaert jumped at the chance to try out the Dakar with her friend last year even with no experience on land.
“The Dakar was the first rally I’d done in my life or even sat in a rally car,” Bossart remembers. “I didn’t know anything. Zero. It was so crazy it felt like I was in a dream. This year, I knew what I was getting into, so the first-time nervousness was gone. You just want to get better and better.”
As the co-pilot and navigator, Bossaert was tasked with directing the team on terrain that is constantly varying. The co-pilot’s job is to be continually giving directions to the driver and determining the course forward, watching out for rocks or dangerous terrain the driver might not see, and review the course notes. At the same time, she is doing the math to keep them not only on track but on time.
Lerner and Bossart's team placed second in Stage 3, getting a jump right out of the gate. Their rank jumped up and fell each day, and they experienced a significant setback for Stage 8, finishing 92nd. Incredibly, they had a stellar day at Stage 9 and skyrocketed from the basement to the top, winning the stage. While they didn't place in the top 10, the navigator says they went from a place of “what do we need to do” in 2021 to “how can we do this better” in 2022. They're hooked and I wouldn't be surprised if they come back again next year.
In the meantime, Lerner just wrapped her movie documentary One More Win, which is focused on legendary driver Rod Hall. Lerner trained with Hall, also a Dakar alum, before he passed away in 2019. She followed Hall with her camera for two years, capturing the moment in 2017 that he set a record just shy of his 80th birthday. Hall competed in his 50th Baja 1000, one for each year of the rally's existence until that point.
Can you picture driving a 40-year-old vintage rear-wheel-drive Porsche across the Saudi desert? Imagine what this team could do in a Range Rover.
Got a tip? Leave a comment or send a note to [email protected]