When the famed Paris-Dakar rally was canceled in 2008 as a result of terrorist threats-not to mention the murders of French tourists and Mauritanian military personnel along the rally route-it seemed that perhaps an era had come to an end. For the first time in three decades, there would be no testing of man and machine against the rigors of the grueling Sahara Desert. But for 2009, rally organizers regrouped and looked west. Far west. The 2009 Dakar rally’s new venue was a 9578-kilometer (5952-mile) run through the belly of South America. From Buenos Aires, Argentina, the route headed south to the shores of the Atlantic; west across the Andes to Chile and the Pacific Ocean; and north to the Atacama, the world’s highest and driest desert; before swinging east across the snow-capped Andean spine to follow a southerly track that ended back in Buenos Aires. The reimagined rally drew some 500 entries from around the globe, and 271 of them finished: 113 motorcyclists, 91 car teams, 54 truck teams, and 13 quad riders.
Volkswagen made motorsports history as the first manufacturer to win with diesel power when its Race Touareg 2 TDI, driven by South African Giniel de Villiers and German Dirk von Zitzewitz, crossed the finish line. Americans Mark Miller, who garnered second in a Touareg 2, and NASCAR racer Robby Gordon, who took third-place honors in a Hummer H3, placed higher than any previous American competitors. Other winners included Marc Coma in the motorcycle category, Josef Machacek in quad, and Firdaus Kabirov in truck.
This year’s event proved to be just as memorable as the Paris-Dakar thanks to the exceptional enthusiasm of fans in Argentina and Chile, temperatures that were hotter and altitudes that were higher than those in Africa, and some of the planet’s best off-road tracks and dunes. The venue may be different, but the spirit of the Paris-Dakar rally is alive and well.