Skyler Howes charges into World Rally Raid championship with Dakar podium momentum
“Keep it simple, stupid” might seem feeble-minded anathema to Skyler Howes, who became the fifth U.S. rider in history to finish on the Dakar Rally podium last month.
Sporting a signature handlebar mustache and a zen-like attitude for scaling 100-foot sand dunes at 100 mph, Howes is one of the more unique and cerebral athletes that you will find in motorcycle racing, much less motorsports in general.
But the St. George, Utah, native says his approach is rooted in a very basic and brute concept.
“There’s a funny saying that racing in the desert, you have to be a certain kind of stupid to go fast,” Howes told NBC Sports with a laugh. “Because any logical person would look at it as this is not a smart or logical decision to go this fast through the desert over terrain you’d never seen before. So there’s that funny aspect, but I look at my mindset and the way I approach everything more in an experience idea rather than a goal
“Of course I want to win and I have my bucket list of things that I want to accomplish, but the experiences I’ve had in life as far as struggles and successes, it has made me appreciate all of this so much more. So I look at every single day as an experience and what can I learn from it rather than expectation. So some other people might expect to get this certain result or expect this to happen. I think of it more as an experience.”
Howes’ career as an emerging global star in rally raid bike riding has been full of experiences. Though he comes from a family of desert racers (the mustache is a tribute to his grandfather), Howes is relatively new to the sport and had to pay his way to Dakar as a privateer rookie in 2019.
Last year, Howes, 30, won back-to-back events in Morocco and Sonora, Mexico, and then finished third overall in the bikes category of the Dakar Rally (which covers 8,500 kilometers in 14 days across Saudi Arabia).
This weekend, he will enter the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge, the second event in the World Rally Raid Championship, ranked third in the standings and ready to tackle adversity.
For Howes, it’s as much a part of the journey as the results.
“It’s kind of my path,” he said. “I’ve had to sell everything to get to this point in the first place because I didn’t want to look back and say, ‘Oh, what if I tried harder.’ That’s the same exact way that I approach the race in general. I don’t want to look back and say I probably could have won if I’d just tried a little harder. That’s always the joke I tell if someone is upset they didn’t win. ‘Well, you should have just gone faster.’
“So I do have that aspect that there is a zen part to it. If you make a mistake, well, it is what it is. It’s what happened today. All you can do is take that experience and put it toward the next day, the next race, and hopefully, you do better. At the end of the day, I want to look back and enjoy every single one of these processes, good or bad, and be able to take that into my daily life for the next race and be able to learn and grow from it.”
NBC Sports caught up with eloquent Howes last week (video above or by clicking here) before he left to return to the Middle East for his second major motorcycle event in two months on the Arabian Peninsula. He will be one of the favorites for Round 2, especially after Dakar winner Kevin Benavides withdrew after being injured in a crash.
Here’s Skyler Howes’ outlook heading into Abu Dhabi (which starts its first stage Feb. 26; click here for prologue highlights):
Q: What’s it been like basking in the afterglow of a podium finish at the Dakar Rally?
Skyler Howes: “It’s been pretty awesome. My girlfriend and a lot of my friends threw this celebration that was really cool. I got to see a lot of people come out and show their love and support, which was awesome. Just the support from everyone in the U.S.A., in Utah and around the world for this podium has been such a cool thing.
“But since we’ve been home, it’s definitely been no time to rest. It took me about a week to finally have the comedown of adrenaline and get back on the sleep schedule, but it was straight back to training because we leave for the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge here pretty soon. It’s straight back to work. A result like this is something really cool and something I want to celebrate, but I think that’s going to have to wait until summertime.”
Q: So after two consecutive weeks of grueling riding through the desert in a foreign country, it takes about a week to detox when you return to the States?
Skyler Howes: “Yeah, it’s tough because you get into this flow state almost. You get into this zone of waking up at 2:30 in the morning. You’re on the bike by 4. You start the special when the sun comes up. You’re eating energy gels and protein bars all day. Pasta and other stuff to keep going.
“By the time you make it to Day 10 or 12, it just feels like normal life, and this is how things are supposed to go. And as soon as you cross the finish line, it’s almost like this huge comedown of adrenaline. The second you get back home and sit on the couch for a second, it’s crazy to think about it. Because when you’re racing, that’s what you have to do. One day right after another. And once you can essentially relax, it’s this huge sleep and everything else definitely want to kick in big time. You get super tired and the jet lag on top of it. It’s a heavy toll.”
Q; After Dakar, you also went to Austria to spend time at Husqvarna headquarters as well?
Skyler Howes: “Yeah, they actually threw a big celebration for all the workers there as well. So we got to actually ride through the factory while the workers took a break. Got to sign autographs and celebrate with them. Which is really nice because at the end of the day, what we are is factory racers, so essentially those people can have a job and build motorcycles. So to ride through and get to meet them face to face and have a more in-person experience was really, really cool. Because they normally just get to build the motorcycles and not necessarily see them race or it’s just on TV. So to be there in person and actually get to shake hands and see everyone was really, really awesome. They threw a really good celebration for us and was a super cool experience.”
Q: Husqvarna also is having a little fun with your mustache?
Skyler Howes: “We’ve got a giveaway that you can win one of my jerseys if you post a video or picture with the best mustache. There are some good ones out there. There’s one I was dying laughing he’s drawn on a mustache that goes down to his ankles. It was the funniest thing I’ve ever seen. So it’s kind of a cool thing to keep the fun in the sport.”
Q: Give us a preview of racing in Abu Dhabi and the World Rally Raid Championship. Do you feel well positioned to win the title despite your lack of experience competing in the full season?
Skyler Howes: “It’s strange to think about because I’ve done a few Dakars now, but it’s only my second world championship attempt, really, and second time at Abu Dhabi. We just essentially raced in the same desert at Dakar, so I’ve gotten a prerun of sorts. It was already 10 days into the race by the time we got there, but we’ll be in the same desert with the same dunes.
“I really enjoyed the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge to begin with because it’s a super crazy area there in the U.A.E. But for the whole championship, coming off Dakar, we had really good results all of last year. Started off rough, picked up toward end of year with the win at Morocco and the podium at Dakar is huge. So the confidence is good. We’ve been working really hard, my trainer and I, as far as fitness goes. Because I’m relatively new at this. It’s only my first couple of years of doing the whole World Rally stuff, which is strange to think because now when you have younger guys, I’m almost looked at as a veteran now. But I’m relatively new. And considering what I had to do to get here, the last two years have been rebuilding years.
“I had to rebuild my finances, I had to rebuild my health and fitness. There was so much stuff that had to take a back seat in order to make it to the races in the first place, so these last couple of years have been rebuilding, and now I’m starting to feel like I can get my head above water and focus fully on myself and the training.”
Q: Will Abu Dhabi be less grueling than Dakar?
Skyler Howes: “Yeah, the (other) world rounds, for one, are a quarter of the distance. We’re only racing for five days rather than 15. So just the sheer length and size of the event is a huge deal. Morocco can get pretty physically demanding and really intense. Abu Dhabi is just a full dunes race, which is really physically demanding. Then Sonora will have its fair share of challenges now being a world round. I’m sure they’re going to throw a lot more stuff at us.
“Every single race has unique challenges, but Dakar specifically, the whole year rides on that one race. Your result and everything about it, the eyes on you, there’s so much more pressure. These world rounds are really important to gain good experience, life experience, race experience. Every time my helmet goes on and I swing my leg over the bike, I want to win. But the mentality is different because I focus more on the fine details of the race to make sure I can fine-tune the craft, so it becomes second nature, and I don’t think about that stuff while racing at Dakar.”
Q: You’re part of a resurgence of American riders with 2020 Dakar winner Ricky Brabec and the emergence this year of Mason Klein, whom you’ve mentored. Why has there been such a growing contingent of U.S. stars?
Skyler Howes: “I think the biggest thing was before Dakar, it was always just something that you saw on TV. Any American that essentially got the opportunity, within the last 20 years, were people on a factory team or sponsored already. I don’t think there was a lot of information and a lot of understanding that this wasn’t just something you saw on TV. This was something you could go do. And I think when Kurt Caselli went (to Dakar in 2013), that was more of, ‘I know this person, and it’s not just something on TV.’ Then when Ricky went as a factory racer. I’ve raced against Ricky for a lot of years. If he can do this, I think I can, too.
“I got the opportunities to go. What I found was (there’s) a certain racing we do in North America. You have motocross, off road and Baja racing. But rally racing is such a unique direction in the sport. It’s such a cool little area. And I just gained this huge love for motorcycles as soon as I started doing it. I think what I wanted to do realistically was I saw how closed and small the circle of rally people were, and I want to open that up because it’s such a cool sport. It’s so cool.
“If you like adventure, put a road book on your handlebars, and you’re going to go places you never would have thought to go if you were just out there following a GPS or just exploring. If you have a road book someone gives you, you might have turned on a trail that you never would have turned on before, and then you might see something cool you never would have seen before. That aspect of motorcycle riding, and being able to piece that roadbook together, which is so cool for me. And what I want out of any of this is to just grow the sport. I’ve fallen in love with this sport. It’s given me such a new outlook. It’s such a fun time on the motorcycle.
“I just want other people to experience it. Whether they get to go to Dakar and race the rally or not, whatever they want to do. If they can do it on their own and get some type of roadbook and get that set up, that’s what I hope to gain. There’s so many people that have access to go to a motocross track because that’s what they know. But if they’re interested in the adventure side of things and want to go in the desert for five or six hours and see stuff they’ve never seen before, I think this is the coolest thing. To grow that aspect.
“There are a lot of other really talented riders in the U.S.A. that I think can do well if they just got the opportunity or the motivation to give it a try. I’d like to think I opened some doors for Mason and put him on a path to where he could have some success. But from this point, I’ve told him and made it clear that the choices I made are what made me who I am. He’s going to have make some choices on his own to make him who he is. So that’s my goal is just to open the door. Get you set on the right direction. I had to learn a lot of lessons the hard way. If I can make it possible that you don’t have to learn those lessons the hard way and maybe get a shot, that’s awesome. That’s where I wanted Mason to go, and from here on out, he can take it for what it is, and if any other person wants to get into rally and give it a go, I’d do the same for them, too. That’s my whole goal behind this. Yeah, I want to have success. But my love and joy for this area of the sport, I just want to make it more attainable for other people.”