American drivers proudly carrying the flag for Red Bull at Dakar Rally, ‘Olympics of off-road’
The Red Bull Off-Road Junior Team USA had Monday “off” at the Dakar Rally -- spreading American gospel at breakneck speed instead of scorching Saudi Arabian sand at 135 mph.
“Rest day is press day,” Mitch Guthrie Jr. told NBC Sports during one of countless interviews Monday with teammates A.J. Jones and Seth Quintero. “There are a lot of cameras and things to do, but overall, we try to catch up on sleep.
“It’s the little things like doing our laundry, eating some good food and trying to rest as much as we can. It’s a long rally, so today is really nice for us.”
So what constitutes good food during a two-weeks odyssey that will cover nearly 8,000 kilometers through gaping canyons, massive dunes and rugged mountains?
“McDonald’s,” Guthrie laughed.
That sounds natural for a Dakar that has had a distinctly American flavor for its 45th running.
The world’s most famous rally raid event has featured another strong showing by the Stars and Stripes in Saudi Arabia. Ricky Brabec and Casey Currie became the first U.S. winners of the prestigious off-road endurance race when Dakar made its Middle East debut three years ago, and the Yanks are threatening another double U.S. crown this year.
CATCHING UP ON THE DAKAR RALLY: Stage 8 recap and results from the first week
In the bikes category, overall leader Skyler Howes and upstart Mason Klein have been delivering championship-level consistency. And partnered with Can-Am in the T3 lightweight prototype class, the Red Bull Off-Road Junior Team USA has pulled its podium weight with multiple threats for the title in Maverick X3s built by South Racing.
Through eight of 14 stages, Jones (the Stage 2 winner) is only 3 minutes and 19 seconds behind overall leader Guillaume De Mevius. Quintero is a little more than hour behind but still within striking distance in third place.
And though mechanical problems knocked Guthrie from running for the overall title, he has a team-leading two stage victories and led the overall standings through Stage 4.
With local enthusiasm growing for the Dakar Rally’s fourth consecutive trip to Saudi Arabia, Jones (who became the latest U.S. champion with a T4 SSV win last year) senses U.S. inroads, too.
“We’ve made more awareness of Dakar and rally raid racing in the United States and hopefully more guys and girls start coming over and trying it out because it’s fun,” Jones, 26, told NBC Sports. “I think our American success really inspires a lot of Americans to come over here. For a long time, it was pretty European-based and kind of dominated by Europeans. I think with the more success the bike guys have, that we have, people will start getting inspired over there in America and think we should come over and try this as well.”
There are more than two dozen Americans entered in the 2023 Dakar Rally, and the hometown hero connections should help build its following.
Jones and Guthrie both grew up in families that embraced off-road racing.
“That’s the kind of cool part about doing this rally stuff now is we have so much support at home,” said Guthrie, who’s from Glendora in Southern California. “We know so many people in the off-road community, and now that we’re here racing it, all of those people that support us are always following it and know so much more about it.
“I just think it’s cool kind of teaching everyone what it’s like here. I think until you actually come experience it for yourself, you don’t really know what it’s like, but it’s cool to slowly teach my parents and family and everyone what it’s all about and how it works.”
It also helps to have success. Last year, the U.S. banner prominently was carried by Jones and Quintero, who set a Dakar record by winning 12 stages (including 10 consecutive). The 20-year-old from San Marcos, California, has seen the Dakar appeal grow.
“I think just with all three of us and Ricky and Skyler and Mason all being here, it’s given Dakar a bigger presence in the United States,” said Quintero, who won Stage 5. “A lot more people are wanting to come out and race, which we can all be very proud of that to help put Dakar to the map in the United States. Before Ricky and Casey and whoever else was racing before our time, you didn’t really hear too much about Dakar. It’s been awesome to see the United States come back and be really present in Dakar, and obviously, we’ve got a lot of the bike guys that are very, very fast. Mason is absolutely killing it for being privateer basically and racing the big boys. So major props to him but also hoping to see more Americans year after year. It’s awesome to see the support.”
Quintero has ambitions of reaching the premier T1-plus category “within the next year, two years max.” If he can race in the high-profile division against Dakar Rally legends such as Carlos Sainz, Stephane Peterhansel and Nasser Al-Attiyah, Quintero believes it would be a next-level breakthrough at an event that draws more than a thousand competitors across 68 nationalities.
“People watch the Olympics and they root for their country, and this is basically the Olympics of off-road,” Quintero said. “It kind of gives America someone to follow during the race to support their country and be excited about it.
“All of us are on the Red Bull Off-Road Junior Team to take the next step into T1-plus and battle against the greats. This is the learning curve to be ready for that, and I’m really, really pushing for it. I think it’s time for one of us to step up and be in the premier class.”
That likely would mean joining a racing powerhouse (such as Team Audi or Toyota Gazoo Racing), but Quintero also won’t rule out making the jump with his team. “Red Bull is a pretty powerful company,” he said. “I’d love to join one of the major manufacturers of course, but Red Bull’s always got some crazy ideas, and we’ll see what’s up their sleeve.”
Quintero was in good spirits Monday after a rough Stage 8 that “threw a bunch of little curveballs at us.”
With 100 kilometers remaining, his windshield was smashed when a passing T1 got sideways and kicked up some rocks in its wake. That eventually resulted in a flat tire (a virtually daily annoyance for Dakar drivers).
Early in the stage, Quintero was slowed by some brutal impacts.
“We run a halo on the seats that we have according to FIA rules, and a couple of times I ended up hitting my head pretty hard on it and saw some stars for a while,” he said. “Yesterday, one of them was pretty bad to the point that I basically had to stop the car and kind of went a little black and blue for a second, but we’re all good. We’ve got helmets on and all the safety gear on. It was just a little knock to the head. We’re all good and ready for the next couple of days.”
They were the worst of several hard hits through the first week that Quintero chalked up just being part of Dakar – which competitors enter knowing they almost certainly will crash and possibly get injured at some point.
“Exactly; for rally raid, it’s really not an ‘if,’ it’s ‘when,’ ” Quintero said. “All of us can always have a bad day or a bad crash. You kind of expect the worst and hope for the best, but it’s a fun time.”
Guthrie’s 2023 Dakar Rally has reaffirmed the event’s ups and downs. Entering Stage 5 with the overall lead, Guthrie lost a few hours waiting on a repair truck when his steering rack seized up. After replacing the part, a clutch failure in the dunes forced Guthrie to exit the stage – incurring a major penalty that left him 25 hours off the lead.
He finished a fifth, first and third in the next three stages – a rebound reminiscent of Quintero losing 17 hours in the second stage of the 2022 event.
“It’s definitely unfortunate, but we’re stilling having a lot of fun, too,” Guthrie, 26, said. “It’s gone well so far. If we can put Stage 5 behind us and look at everything else, we’re definitely happy.
“I think all of us have been through it at some point. This rally is crazy. So even when you have a good rally, there’s still bad things that happen throughout the whole time. In past years I’ve raced it, I’ve had plenty of issues, so I’ve kind of gotten used to it at this point, unfortunately.
“It’s just racing. You never know what’s going to happen out there. We travel thousands and thousands and thousands of miles through the desert where most cars would never go. So things are bound to happen.”
After missing last year’s Dakar because of a positive COVID-19 test just before departing for Jeddah, Guthrie is just happy to be back for his third Dakar start.
He has shown flashes since his 2020 debut, winning a few stages, but has been unable to reach the finish line of the grueling event.
“I just think we’re really lucky being a part of this team,” Guthrie said. “The first year I showed up and did Dakar, I knew absolutely nothing. And there’s so much to learn.
“You have to have some years with ups and downs of learning and struggling. Just for Red Bull to give us the chance to do that is awesome because if we were just to try to come here by ourselves to figure it out, we probably wouldn’t have enough money, time and support. We’re all comfortable now, but it’s been a big stepping stone, and just thankful for the opportunity from Red Bull.”
Jones entered the Red Bull team this year through his deal with Can-Am. Though the Phoenix, Arizona, native plans to stay with the category in the short-term, he shares Quintero’s T1 ambitions and believes he is turning heads with the move from T4 to T3 (viewed as more prestigious because of its faster race production cars rather than the customer-type vehicles of SSV).
“Though they’re different classes, and there are some technical differences, but I’ve got a lot of time in these Can-Ams, so it wasn’t really that different,” Jones said. “It was a little bit tough the first couple of days to figure out some things, but my navigator Gustavo has figured out everything new on it. So the transition was easy.
“Right now I’m super happy with Can-Am; they’ve been treating me well the last couple of years. So I’ll do whatever they want the next couple of years at least. For sure one day, it would be awesome to get behind the wheel of a T1-plus and fight with (Seth) in a different class and probably (Mitch), too.”
For now, though, the focus is on winning T3 this year. In Stage 8, Jones put the heat on leader Guillaume De Meviers, gaining several minutes after noticing during a refueling that the Belgian driver was down to his last spare (the UTV drivers generally carry two extra tires per stage).
The Red Bull Off-Road Junior Team USA (which also is aligned with Spaniard Cristina Gutierrez Herrero of the Red Bull Can-Am Factory Team) held a team meeting Monday about how to deploy teamwork over the second week of the rally.
“We’ve got a couple of tricks up our sleeve that we’re going to start implementing,” Jones said. “Rally raid is more of a team sport than people think. So having us three in three separate cars starting all over the grid like how we are for the next couple of days, there’s a couple of things that we can do here and there to try to put some pressure on the leader and try to push ourselves a little bit further. I can’t say it, though, it’s top secret.”
Quintero plans “to do everything I can to help A.J., and I’m sure it’ll be vice-versa.
“It’s nice to be halfway through and still be in the hunt for the overall,” Quintero said. “An hour in rally raid is not a lot of time at all. I’m excited to continue to have the rest of this week and hopefully make up a few more positions.”