Skyler Howes is the newest addition to the HRC Rally team, and he sits down for an interview with us here at Monster Energy.
Imagine for a second the life of a standard pro off-road motorcycle racer. You get up in the morning and… go to work like the rest of us. Then, when/if your bike’s running, you ride. If not, you’re wrenching on your bike. Training? Given the hours in a day, that pretty much comes when you’re practicing or racing.
Such used to be the life of Utah’s Skyler Howes, the latest great racer added to the powerhouse factory Monster Energy/Honda HRC Rally program.
With stints on KTMs & Huskys, where he was able to focus solely on training and riding, Howes arrives at Monster Energy/Honda with some solid off-road credentials. And with Monster Energy/Honda, the intent is to surpass his previous efforts, with one main goal at hand: Success at the great Dakar Rally, along with the accompanying FIM Rally/Raid Series stops.
Howes is no stranger to Dakar, though the 31-year-old didn’t start racing the legendary off-road adventure race until far later in his career – 2019 to be exact, following a victory in the 2018 Dakar Challenge (Sonora Rally). Well-known in the U.S. with championships in AMA Hare & Hound, USRA Desert Pro, SCORE-International and Best in the Desert, Howes’ Silver medal in the Slovakian International Six Days Enduro (ISDE) in 2015 had been his only major overseas off-road success.
Over the last several seasons with five Dakar Rallies under his belt, including the 2020 Dakar where he competed with a broken neck, Howes scored his first Dakar overall podium with a 3rd place run this past January.
We got the opportunity to catch up with Howes and are pleased to introduce the latest member of the 2023-’24 Monster Energy Honda HRC Rally program.
Monster Energy: Skyler, congrats on your appointment to the Monster Energy/Honda HRC Rally team. This is Big news. Let’s get started by introducing you to the Monster Army. Tell us a bit about how you got started out on motorcycles, the course you (and your dad) charted for you as a boy and how that progressed into making the world’s premier off-road motorcycle racing team.
Skyler Howes: Thank you! This is super exciting for me to join the family. I got my start when I was 2 1/2 years old. As soon as I could ride a pedal bike with no training wheels my dad decided it was time to slap me on a dirt bike. He put me on a 1974 XR 75 and I couldn’t even touch the pegs, reach the brakes or work the clutch – only steer and twist the throttle. From that moment on, any free weekend or afternoon was spent in the desert. Not very much racing, just a lot of trail riding and good times with friends and family. Not until I was around 13 years old did we actually try to go do some racing. Just me and him in a Mazda pickup truck, a tent and a camp stove cruising to all of the races in Utah. After that year my dad got cancer and the racing was up to me. Once I turned 16 I got a job after high school to start trying to pay for my bikes, parts and racing. And once I graduated school, I got a second job, working 14 hour days to fund the dream of racing. From then it never really changed. The reason why I worked, went to the gym or did anything in life was so I could go racing.
ME: That’s excellent. Now a lot of MonsterEnergy.com readers associate off-road motorcycles with dirt bikes and motocross – rather than Dakar. I take it your didn’t race much motocross in your youth? Talk about how trail riding cleared the path for your competition off-road career.
SH: So I never really raced motocross growing up, which I understand is not the norm. Obviously, we were well off enough to afford dirt bikes, but not well off enough to pay to go to the motocross track. So all of my time was spent in the desert. I grew up racing select races in the local USRA desert series in Utah. More of a Hare and Hound style of racing. And then once I graduated high school, I tried to race more and bigger caliber of racing, and got started into the western states’ National Hare and Hound series in the desert. That led me into the long distance Best In the Desert races and down to Baja. Once I got down into the SCORE races in Mexico, I got more connected with others that were racing rally and eventually got my shot to ride the Sonora Rally, which I won. And that fast tracked me to the Dakar.
ME: Born in California and bred to rip & shred in your current stomping grounds – the great state of Utaaaaahhh. You’ve got the most badass stuff right out your front door. Mountains, snow, tons of off-road opportunities – on both mountain bikes and dirt bikes – and some of the best rivers to fish. Pull some career Utah highlights out for us with snowboarding, rock climbing and mountain biking.
SH: The great state of ‘YEEWWTAHH’ has been my home all of my life. We moved to St. George when I was 1. My life has been spent outside, cruising around town and finding new spots to build dirt jumps for bicycles with my friends. St. George is so centrally located, about 1 hour from snow, a few minutes from lakes to ride jet skis, out the back door to the desert. It’s got it all. But it’d be hard to pick out some specific highlights because we did some gnarly stuff (diabolical laughter). Rallying my 1969 Baja bug out in the desert, building massive bike jumps, shredding dirt bikes. So many good times.
ME: Back to racing, how was the off-road scene in Utah when you were growing up? Where were some of the best places to ride, who’d you ride with and how did being from such an outdoors & motorsports-friendly state help you with your young career.
SH: I met all of my oldest friends from riding dirt bikes. And almost all of them are pro level riders. Right out of our back door is the best playground with every type of terrain you can think of. A few friends went the motocross route, some hard enduro, some trials, and so on. Every time we go ride it’s like a race, trying to block pass and take each other out, who can make the high mark on a hill climb, or who can make it up some super gnarly hard enduro trail. Growing up here around all of these rad people was a constant test of skill, mental and physical capabilities. That obviously helped me out a ton for rally now because it’s all the same tests while I’m racing.
ME: That’s sofa king rad. Another thing that was key to your continued improvement in off-road was your relationship with the late American off-road great Kurt Caselli. Share one of your favorite memories of Kurt and tell us how he was instrumental in your racing career.
SH: I didn’t know Kurt personally for very long, but in the time that I did, he influenced me in a huge way. He had no reason to go out of his way to share some of his advice or knowledge, but after he and I had some battles, he gave me a little look into what the mentality needed to be to be a professional racer. There’s two memories that stand out. Right after I broke my back trying to battle with him and Toby Price, I came to the next race just to help out. And when I got out of the truck in my turtle shell back brace, Kurt looked at me and said, ‘Did you learn your lesson, superstar?’ Then sat me down and explained to me what taking risks really meant. Also, I got to spend a couple weeks with him down in Baja. He taught me the art of pre running and how to find the good lines. I learned the proper way to prep bikes and how a factory team operates from his mechanic Anthony DiBasillio. I learned things that transferred into my daily life as well as racing. It’s crazy how much a person can influence your life in such a short period.
ME: That right there’s awesome. So you got things rolling in 2008 with the USRA Desert 125cc title. Then, after a number of Reno Rally victories, you captured your first AMA title – the National Hare & Hound 250 class championship. Talk about how your off-road career got rolling at that point.
SH: 2008 was the first time I tried to chase a race series on my own. I was 16 years old at the time and hitching rides with friends and neighbors to all of the races. Then racing National Hare and Hounds on a 250 2 stroke I was able to snag a 250 national championship. After that I got hooked up with Chris Blais, who at the time was the last American to finish on the podium of the Dakar. He definitely got the ball rolling for me, gave me the tools and knowledge to really start getting my act together. I won the Rhino Rally race five times in a row, which is the prestigious Utah desert race. I won the local Utah overall championship and scored a couple National Hare and Hound podiums. Then I decided to try my hand in the real long distance races – the Vegas to Reno and Baja 1000. Racing those long ones was a huge learning curve for me. A lot of failure and hard lessons to learn there. I parted with Chris and tried to do that all ‘On my own,’ trying to run my own race program and handling all logistics, bike prep, sponsorships – all while working full time. It was a heavy load
ME: Probably one of the coolest things to people familiar with off-road motorcycles is that, in 2015, you captured a Silver medal in the International Six Days Enduro (ISDE). Outside the Dakar Rally, this is probably the most prestigious, not to mention historically significant, off-road motorcycle event – period. Talk about your ISDE medal and what that means to you.
SH: Oh, yeah. ISDE was a tough event for me! I’m a desert rat, but I spend a lot of time in the saddle. So I thought that the ISDE would suit me well. The longer the race went on the better I did, but I definitely got my butt kicked with the high intensity style in the special tests. In Slovakia, with the woods and mud and off camber special tests, I was a fish out of water. I struggled to live up to my own expectations and was barely staying on Gold medal pace. I had some crashes and nagging injuries that was making my whole experience pretty brutal. On the final day, on the start of the motocross race, I got taken out and crashed on the first corner and got ran over by two other riders. I felt some serious pain, gathered myself and got up and ended up finishing. But laying there in the first turn I lost enough time to fall off of Gold pace and put me to a Silver medal. After the moto I was peeing blood and ended up spending the next 30 hours in a Slovakian hospital for a lacerated kidney. And let me tell you, that is an experience that is burned in my brain forever. But all of that adversity made that Silver medal really meaningful.
ME: We’ll have to do an entire other interview just on the Slovakian hospital experience! (Laughter). So This brings us to Dakar. You’ve had five trips to South America and northern Africa for the famed Dakar Rally. And all three times you’ve finished in the top ten, including a 3rd place overall podium finish at the ’22 Dakar. You’ve suffered a few epic crashes early on at Dakar, raced with a broken neck and, as the race moved to Africa, have figured out how to ride sand dunes as well as any American ever. Talk about Dakar and what the event means to you, even if it meant, at one point, selling off a lot of your prize possessions in order to afford the entry fee to the race.
SH: My first Dakar was 2019 in Peru, and let me tell you again about being a fish out of water. I was so under prepared for that and it showed. On Day 3 on the liaison, a kid on a scooter pulled out in front of me and, to avoid smashing him, I laid the bike down, crashed and dislocated my shoulder. I thought my race was over. But the following days were my best results! (Laughter) Eventually on Day 6 my shoulder dislocated again and couldn’t reset, so I had to abandon that race. Fortunately, I got the chance to go back again to Saudi Arabia and there is where I racked up my best rides. A 9th place, just four months after I broke my neck and had 3 vertebrae fused. I broke the bike in half at that race, but I finished 1st place as an amateur (called Rally2). And the year after in 2021, a 5th overall finish as a privateer. I actually had the overall lead for one day which was awesome. That, actually, was one of the smoothest races I’ve had! Which was a really nice feeling considering the challenge and sacrifice it took to get there, including selling all my worldly possessions. The next year, my first as a factory racer, I had a big crash – hitting a hidden compression in the dunes, and got a concussion and had to abandon that race as well. And then this year, landing on the podium with a 3rd place after leading 6 stages. Dakar is an amazing race. It’s everything that I want racing to be. Long days on the bike over places we’ve never seen before trying to navigate off of a piece of paper and a compass. It’s such a raw racing experience. It completely lit the fire of racing in me and I knew that this is what I wanted to do.
ME: Great stories! And now, with Monster Energy/Honda HRC Rally, you’re set up with an amazing program on, arguably, the best off-road motorcycles on the planet. Talk a bit about the Monster/Honda program, what it means to be part of this team.
SH: It’s such a huge accomplishment to land a spot on the Monster Energy Honda Rally program. I was riding a Honda when I began my rally venture, and this is the spot I was shooting for when I got started. They run a tight program, the bikes are incredible, the entire effort is hard to put into words. The amount of material that this program needs is unreal. Only then do you start looking at the quality. Everything is the best of the best. The team understands the importance of quality in this sport. Essentially we are trying to destroy ourselves and equipment for 15 days straight, so it shows that this team understands that the rider, the machine, the team, logistics and accommodations – all things Monster Energy/Honda takes extremely seriously. It feels nice to be on this team knowing they are as dedicated as I am to winning.
ME: Have you had a chance to get out and run around on the Honda CRF 450 Rally yet?
SH: So far I have spent little time on the bike in rally conditions, but a fair amount of time on the bike for testing. We have spent some really long days and weeks out in the desert really hammering down on bike set up and so on. I have always felt at home on a Honda so it was a quick fitment for me. Within the first couple of hours I was ready to race. Then we continued to test and I only got more and more comfortable. The suspension is amazingly plush, comfortable and can hold up to the huge hits. The Honda CRF 450 Rally checks all the boxes. The bikes handling is also unreal. Rally bikes are supposed to be big, heavy and hard to handle but this thing feels light, easy to ride through the technical areas, yet stable enough for the high speed stuff. The power of the bike is also insane. To be able to pull a big dude like me, 32 liters of fuel and a big bike – uphill in sandy terrain – and reach top speed is impressive. And this bike does it easily. It’s got the complete recipe for a winning machine.
ME: So the FIM FIA World Rally-Raid Championship, which boasts the 2023-’24 Dakar Rally as its opening round, offers up a wide range of events with vast differences in terrain. From the sands of Dakar to the silt – “Fesh Fesh” of South America – to the rocky and mountainous areas in Northern Mexico, the WRRC is pretty much the ultimate test of one’s off-road riding ability. Discuss the upcoming series and your feelings on running it with the Monster/Honda program.
SH: One thing I like most about the W2RC Championship is it has its staple races, but also switches things up a bit. We’ve raced in Kazakhstan, Russia, Mongolia and Spain in the past. This year we get to check out a multiple country rally between Portugal and Spain. I’m excited for the Dakar, Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge, Ruta 40 Argentina and Morocco on top of the new location. It’s a new challenge to take on a full championship with the team so I’m stoked to see what new things I can learn this year.
ME: Off-the-bike training for what you do is crucial. In the past you’ve worked with renown triathlete Nick Chase. Is he still part of your training program as you begin with Monster Energy/Honda HRC Rally?
SH: I’m sticking with Nick. He is an absolute animal of an athlete himself and that’s a big reason why I trust his program. He is living it rather than just telling me what to do. And to see his results, and how much of a machine he is, is a good motivator for me. He also doubles as a training partner. We cycle, swim, run and work out together if our schedules align, so it’s the best of both worlds. He understands what it takes to live a normal life and athlete life simultaneously so we work really well together.
ME: Excellent. Lastly, congrats from everyone at Monster Energy here in the States. We’re pumped to see another American – along with Ricky Brabec – on the internationally diverse Monster/Honda team, bringing the popularity of Dakar-style off-road closer to the U.S. Any parting words on the upcoming season?
SH: Thank you so much! That’s essentially my goal; to gain more exposure for rally racing in the USA. It’s a sport that I fell in love with and I think there are so many others here in the States that would enjoy it just as much as I have. Compete, just for sport, or just watching on the tv. I’m excited to have Monster Energy in my corner. Its already proved to be such a game changer in my program and I’m so excited to see what the future holds.