Sand still played a big role in Special Stage Three, but it was less an ocean and more a lake, in most places. Smooth, calm, inviting. It gave racers an opportunity to switch the scene, pin the throttle or push the pedal and test new skills. Sonora’s Caborca district opened its arms, and country gates, to the event so participants could witness, firsthand, the diversity of the landscapes. But it wasn’t all fun and games. A particularly ferocious sun beamed down by early morning. A blinding khaki sheet of dust and silt divided the competitors everywhere but the dunes. And those dunes left them wishing for the good old days in the first and second specials. You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone, as they say. A phrase which probably meant more to a lot of the riders on Wednesday than those of us choosing to do something a bit tamer with their week. When you’ve been muscling through big rolling dunes – some longing for the end – it’s reasonable to find relief in hearing there will be a change of scenery. Winding sandy two track, tight twisty tunnels of desert flora, a dry lakebed and a bottomless, loose, quarter mile sandbox. Let’s do it! For so much of the stage, the feeling was joy, but all that evaporated as the competitors struggled the keep their bikes cool in the disfigured dunes section which steadily grew more strenuous the higher the sun ascending into the sky. This wasn’t any ol’ sand pit. In fact, it was nothing like the teams had experienced so far. As if some god-like figure hacked chunks into the earth, the peaks and valleys of this section were volatile, exhausting at best, and treacherous. A solid adversary for a group of overheating competitors three tough race days deep.
The fight for the top steps has been bloody among the side-by-sides with old teammates becoming new rivalries. Kristen [#54] and Wayne [#55] Matlock, with Terry Madden and Sam Hayes as their co-drivers, have been neck and neck with Max Eddy Jr. [#57] every day of the race. His solo effort in a single-seat RZR is a brazen effort to earn Polaris’ respect as a driver, and maybe even their support. Having finished in the top two spots the first couple of stages, and, due to a few mistakes out the gate, taking 4th today, he’s still primed to pull victory from the Baja-racing-duo-turned-rally-raiders. Casey Currie and navigator Sean Berriman [#51] have kept everyone on their toes all week, but a number of mechanical issues knocked his Monster Energy Polaris team out of the running on Day 3 – a shame, really, since I started dead last today and technically finished with the best time under his belt. But it was Sonora Rally veteran, Dave Sykes and his partner Tony Albano, who climbed back into contention, securing 4th in SS3. Another Polaris RZR athlete, Sara Price [#52], hasn’t had as much luck. It seems daily, she and her co-pilot have suffered electrical gremlins, rendering even a proficient navigator like Kellon Walch almost useless. Like colleague Currie, Price is now just playing the game to sharpen her skills and test her machines. If she’s going to make it to Saudi Arabia next January, they and their crew will need to refine their program while simultaneously building up velocity at the tires and competence with the equipment. Not that they’re running short on either, but when you want even a sliver of a chance to win the world’s greatest off-road race (and everything in-between), you’ll need to be on-point.
“It was a great day. Fast roads. Some nasty, hard, difficult sand dunes. But all in all, we won the stage with 9 minutes against four vehicles. So overall, fantastic, tough, difficult, but we loved it; we’re in Mexico!” – Casey Currie #51, MONSTER POLARIS RZR
Ricky Brabec rode through the racecourse in a blaze of glory, however, for the first half of the heat, Skyler Howes was hot on his trail. They battled it out on their bikes but somehow Howes pulled into the lead without turning back. Who knows how the takeover commenced, but what we do know is Skyler put about six minutes on his long-time race buddy. A move which meant the brand-new Rockstar Energy Husqvarna rider took the stage. The factory stars, though, are predictable. We know they’re in contention for the podium, but the hometown heroes, rookies and grassroot privateers provide so much of the excitement in a rally. (There’s a Forrest Gump reference in there somewhere.) But you really “never know what you’re gonna get.” HRC and JCR have partnered to bring to the event wild card of their own – supporting a man you’d find at Dakar multiple years in a row, but not quite where you’d expect him, like on a saddle. Instead, he’d have a wrench, a chain, or new mousses in-hand at the bivouac.
“It was a really good day. The navigation was tricky, but the terrain – the trails and everything – was what I like to race on. Twisty through the cactus and super fun. I won the stage, which is really nice. I became lucky with some navigation, but that just means I have to lead out in the dunes the next day. For the most part, just having fun with it and becoming used to the new bike.” – Skyler Howes #2, ROCKSTAR ENERGY HUSQVARNA
Kendall’s is a true underdog story. From a SCORE series champion who moved into a more sustainable career as a mechanic – joining Ricky Brabec in the pits of the Dakar Rally, Kendall Norman [#12] turned his sights, if only for now, on captaining his own vessel into the rally raid sea. His main objective seems to be winning the coveted free entry offered to victors (and first-time attendants) of the Road to Dakar subsequent, which he currently leads. Viewers on-course said Norman was pushing harder than anyone else who passed them, throwing roost and hitting jumps with the fervor and determination of a man on a mission. An act evident by his Second-Place finish, and subsequent Third slot in the General Standings. He may have been the hardest working rider out there on Wednesday, but so many pilots – like Rally Comp’s Mike Johnson [#10], Scott Bright [#9], of course, Justin Morgan [#10], Wes VanNieuwenhuise [#5] and Mason Klein [#6] are extending themselves to the edge, beyond what they likely know they’re capable of. While other notable contestants know full-well what they’re worth but have still not found their rhythm in Sonora. Welcomed guest, Jose Ignacio “Nacho” Cornejo [#4] joined his Monster Energy Honda teammate Ricky Brabec #1 for his first race in Mexico. And although he’s consistently finishing strong, all things considered, he just hasn’t felt it “click.” But does rally really ever just work? Arguably, without pain there is no pursuit; without regret, there is no true victory. And who would want it any other way? We sure wouldn’t.
“The stage went well. At first, the road was a bit rough; it just hadn’t been ridden recently, so there were a lot of bumps. But I fell into a rhythm until I didn’t feel uncomfortable, and just took my time with things. As I started heading further into the stage, things became a little trickier, and I ended up seeing Nacho [Cornejo] and Andrew [Short] together then found the way – eventually edging Nacho out. Then, the rest of the stage went well. I kept ‘chugging’ along with Ricky [Brabec] and Skyler’s [Howes] tracks to follow and had a good ride with Nacho until the end.” – Kendall Norman #12, JCR HONDA
For up-to-date results, follow Yokohama Sonora Rally’s social media channels or visit: https://rally.center/my/results/2021-Yokohama-Sonora-Rally-overall-raid.htm
Source and photo credits: westx1000.com Steve Stage | Justin Coffey