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RICKY BRABEC: DAKAR QUICKSAND SIX SPEEDS AND THE TRUTH

Dec 212020

Seventeen-time Baja 1000 champion Johnny Campbell of San Clemente, California was ready, willing and able to discuss the 2021 Dakar Rally in Saudi Arabia when I tracked him down the week before Christmas. About to load one Ricky Brabec of Hesperia, California onto a jumbo jet headed on over to Dakar where he will try to replicate his 2020 Dakar Championship run on the frighteningly fast silica and sand dunes and gravel and camel grass of the Saudi Desert. The first American to ever win the Dakar Rally, Brabec will climb onto a six-speed Monster Energy Honda Team HRC Honda CRF450 Rally motorcycle – think of it as a quarter million dollar two-wheel Honda F1 car - and set out to run the 12-stage, 4,500-mile Saudi Arabian odyssey come the New Year.

First, however, a quick backstory on HRC Honda and their illustrious history in the high risk/high adventure/high heat crucible that is Off-Road racing.

“The Baja 100 was started in the 1960s,” pointed out Campbell, who has been, for all these years, heavily influenced and inspired by full-on motor mastermind Soichiro Honda. “There were no paved roads down there from Tijuana to Ensenada. There were guys doing timed runs to see how many days it took them to get to Ensenada or to Cabo or even La Paz, so Honda did a publicity stunt in 1962 with their CL72 Scrambler, which was like a 305cc motorcycle. They started at the border in Tijuana and clocked into the telegraph office there in Tijuana. That’s how they got their official time and they rode straight to La Paz and it took them over 39 hours. That was 1962. Fast forward to the Mexican 100 which became the Baja 1000. So Honda has a really deep and rich history in off-road racing and the Baja 1000 and all things off-road.”

Got all that? Okay, then we motored on over to meet our Monster Energy-fueled soul brother, and star of new Dakar documentary, Ricky Brabec to get his read on just what was about to come at him like a brakeless 60-car, 4,440 ton freight train (thanks Wikipedia).

[Ricky Brabec as told to Eric Johnson]

Okay, my man. Just when do you and Team HRC pack it all up, climb on a jumbo jet and make that fun-filled 8,240-mile jaunt over to Saudi Arabia for the looming 2021 Dakar Rally?

Ricky Brabec: “Christmas day.”

 

Wow.

Ricky Brabec: “Exactly. I’m ready to go.”

 

You were born in San Bernardino and grew up in Hesperia. Certainly full-on Inland Empire California desert towns. Just how did you become such a world class desert racer?

Ricky Brabec: “Yeah, just as you said, born in San Bernardino and moved up to Hesperia at the age of 14. I kind of realized that I didn’t really have to play stick-and-ball sports anymore. That being said, I just kind of took the moto by the reigns and just started riding as much as I could and raced here and there and I felt kind of fell in the love with the desert and it’s something that I really have a passion for, whether it’s moto, or side-by-sides, camping, truck trips, mountain biking – anything. I feel like it’s part of my home and where I feel most comfortable.”

I grew up between Cleveland and Detroit and was just a motocross fanatic as a young guy. I knew the desert racing stuff was out there and I’d read about the big races in Cycle News, but I never really thought about it much at all. Then, in the 1990s, my buddy Davey Coombs and I were running Racer X and I met up with Johnny Campbell to do a story on him and the Baja 1000 and other desert races. Upon doing that and getting my head wrapped around the fact that the race was terrifically important to Mr. Honda and Honda and the future trajectory of the “Honda Way,” I was mightily impressed. When I was asked to do this interview with you, I was VERY stoked. I absolutely admire what you guys do.

Ricky Brabec: “Yeah, thanks. I grew up doing motocross, as well, a little bit here and there, but being young and looking back, that’s where the two wheels started for me. But yeah, I feel like a lot of motocross people only know motocross.”

 

That’s so true. It really is.

Ricky Brabec: “Yeah, and you know what? There’s nothing wrong with that. We all have our own passions. I just feel like as off-road racers, we don’t get as much credibility as we should. I feel like we are the most underrated form of motorsports, but as I said, motocross, all those guys have their own passion for it, you know? It’s kind of like people who go to the gym 24/7, that’s cool to see because people have a passion for everything. Motocross racers don’t really understand the desert and it’s really nice. Andrew Short has been through motocross, supercross and has now transitioned into off-road and he has really big respect for everyone for this stuff.”

 

Man, I watched Andrew win the Motocross of Nations at Thunder Valley in Colorado in 2010. He rode the Open class on a Honda 450 that afternoon and he just impressed the hell out of all 20,000 hometown fans present that sunny day.

Ricky Brabec: “Yeah, exactly. I wish more motocross people would just give off-road a shot, you know? Even trail riding. Just exploring the desert and exploring somewhere where they haven’t been before. I feel like the respect would go a lot further.”

I arrived in Los Angeles in 1986 as an absolute motocross fanatic. I started meeting guys along the way like Johnny O’Mara and he told me about Johnny Campbell and I ended up doing a couple Racer X stories with him. From that point on, and once I got tooled-up on what it was all about, I was all-in with what you guys were doing. Man, even Mr. Honda kept an eye on that program!

Ricky Brabec: “Yes, Honda has been off-road for a very long time. Johnny Campbell and Bruce Ogilvy kind of took over the Honda program that made Honda what it is as far as the off-road program. I feel like with them doing so, it spilled over into the Dakar program that I’m currently racing with right now and that being said, Johnny is a great guy and I’ve heard a lot about Bruce and Kendall Norman (HRC teammate) tells me a lot about him. I feel like they took over and they kind of started the Honda off-road program. Without them, I don’t think the off-road program for Honda probably wouldn’t even be as big right now.”

 

What’s the navigation aspect of the Dakar Rally all about? I mean, I know what it is, but how big a role does it play? How important and crucial is it?

Ricky Brabec: “The navigation is tough. I mean, you’re trying to find your way through the open desert you may have ever been in before. I mean you ARE racing, you ARE on the clock, so you are trying to do your best, but the navigation is really important. We have waypoints out there where you really have to find them because if you miss a waypoint, not only are you lost, but you get a big penalty, so we try are best I can explain – (at this point Ricky has to put the phone down as his dog Toby was trying to tear the house down and then got in a fight with the next door neighbor’s dog) – Sorry dude, I had to break that up. They were wrestling…”

That’s good. Sounded like it was getting pretty rough!

Ricky Brabec: “Imagine riding down the 91 Freeway in Corona at 100 miles an hour.across a desert that you’ve never been in and through terrain that you’ve never seen before in your life.”

 

It’s all blind, isn’t it?

Ricky Brabec: “Yeah, it’s blind racing and lid direction. You’re just hoping you’re going the right way until you make it to the next zone!”

 

Just how do you prepare to do 12 Stages and 4,500 miles?

Ricky Brabec: “You are on the bike eight hours a day, 12, 13 or 15 days at a time. It gets easy the more you do it, but when you go into it for the first time, it’s nerve-racking wondering if you can even make it that far. The consequences are high, so what I do for training is that me, Johnny, Kendell will get together and plot out this big giant plan of how many days we’re going to ride for. Andrew Short of Yamaha also helps us. He drives 30 hours to meet up with us. It’s always good, I believe, to train with another Rally racer, so that way you can get some experience gauging speed and time and when you go to the line on Day One. Andrew is great. Me and him, we kind of pieced together some books so we can go training. Andrew is, in my opinion, a really good asset. He is smart. He’s full of information, whether it’s supercross, motocross, parts preferences, bike preferences. He’s been around a very long time and he’s not an airhead.”

 

That he is not! In researching this here interview we’re bashing out as we speak, I read and collected a number feature stories you’ve been featured in around the world where you consistently speak to keeping a fierce pace in Dakar, yet trying your absolute hardest not to stress the parts of the motorcycle, or as my dad used to say, “You gotta keep that thing alive and running!!!!”

Ricky Brabec: “Exactly. You don’t want to blow yourself out right away and you obviously don’t want to crash. You have to find that fine line, as you said, of racing and also keeping your body as close to 100-percent for the following days. Sometimes, yeah, there are days where you really have to turn on the gas and waste energy trying to make up time. You don’t ever want to put yourself in that position in a Rally because you don’t want to blow yourself out on Stage 3, when you have 10 more to go, you know?”

I can’t let you get up and out of here without telling all the Monster Energy-powered motorcycle fanatics out there about that MotoGP-of-an-Off-Road bike of yours! And wait! I have a question, as well: I look at that 450 of yours and, and I mean, no disrespect here as I don’t really know what I’m talking about, but that bike, and I KNOW that bike is basically a two-wheel F1 car, looks a bit cumbersome to ride to me! Your buddy and supporter, as well as my longtime buddy and Monster Energy coworker Joe Parsons and I really want to know what that thing is like to ride, both in short, as well, as long stages?!

Ricky Brabec: “The Rally bike is great. You know it is a 450cc Rally Bike one-off exotic motorcycle that Honda made as a 100-percent factory Honda. It is actually really nice to ride! It’s comfortable, it’s a little bit heavier than a small bike, so you can go down roads that are a little bit beat up and a little bit rocky without the bike wanting to get away from you. We hold nine gallons of fuel, so we’re able to go pretty far on a tank of fuel. I mean you have to race about 180 miles before you even see a fuel station. We carry as much as we can to make it where we need to fill-up. We always need it to fuel up.”

 

Hey, once upon a time when I was in my 20s, and while I was working at an advertising agency named Chiat/Day in Venice, California, the me to the 12 Hours of Sebring in the swamps of Florida. And I mean it WAS a swamp as I came across crocodiles, snakes, thunderstorms that looked like the world was coming to an end! I did my thing and went back to the agency to download to all the guys on what played out (we won) and what we were going to communicate in the ad that had to be done rapidly for Road & Track and Autoweek back in Detroit. One of the guys, a guy named Eric, looked at me and said, “Wait, you meant he raced that car for 12 hours without a radio?” We all laughed hard and that line actually became the headline of the ad that went out the door to the printer that night! I thought what he did was SO clever! Where I’m going with is just what are you thinking out there in the middle of the Saudi Desert?!

Ricky Brabec: “I zone out! I feel like zoning out is almost the only way to race. You need to be in that zone. You have to zone out your life, you have to zone out every single thing and you have to get the tunnel vision. And you also have to slam a Monster before you even do anything! In the Rally, yeah, there are sections where you are just bored and singing to yourself and you’re talking to yourself and you’re wondering what your dog is doing at home. Man, I already told you about that! But you can’t let that really get to you because as soon as you think it’s easy or as soon start getting bored and losing focus, the Rally is going to bite you in the ass!”

 

 

Got all that? Still want to know more about the first ever US rider to win the Dakar rally? Then hit play below on Monster Energy’s brand new and exclusive documentary: “Ricky Brabec: Conquering The Impossible”

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