sorona rally off road racer medal

The Natural Order of Things Sonora Rally 2020

The sun was just starting to rise on the horizon as I opened the gate for Nick. As he rode through, I leaned my Husky against a post and took off my helmet.

“I don’t think off-road can get any better than this – seems too good to be true!” I yelled as he killed his Yamaha. He smiled, looking at the Sonoran desert like a criminal eyeing his accuser,“Judge, there is no way that she is not 18!” We laughed and made a SAT radio call to Darren Skilton, the man responsible for the Sonora Rally. “All the gates are open and we’re in position. Bad washout at #33. No worries if it’s in the road-book.”

sonora rally off road racer
Skilton prepping for the rally.
Credit: Westx1000 – Justin W. Coffey

Out of all the Sonora Rally staff, Nick and I had the best job. Much of the race took place on private land with fences separating one parcel from another. Every morning our job was to ride the course, open all gates and verify that the trail was safe. It was like skiing fresh powder 5 days in a row; just impossibly good. It probably felt impossible because we were so used to riding in Baja where there is no longer anything fresh. This was Sonora, never once thrashed on by some fat guy in a Trophy Truck with a small GPS and big wallet. The terrain was beautiful, sincere and honest; it was virgin – which is probably why we felt somewhat guilty – like a couple of new guys at a Jeffrey Epstein island party…

sonora rally off road racer
Sonora trails never raced on before
Credit: Boyd Jaynes Photography

As we enjoyed the terrain, we said the word, “epic” over and over again. It’s a word often overused, but not in this case. At the time, the rest of the world was at the height of losing its collective mind over some obscure Chinese flu while we were all raging dirt bikes and UTVs across the Sonoran desert. The average citizen of the “developed world” was transfixed by the usual T.V. “experts” presenting graphs and charts leading him to believe that he was in an epic battle for survival that was statistically 973% less dangerous than the way most of us at the rally gleefully chose to live our lives.

sonora rally off road racer
Skyler Howes
Credit: Westx1000 – Justin W. Coffey

As we passed through little Mexican towns, I noted the fully-stocked shelves of toilet paper in every store, giggling about what I imagined must be the two deepest fears driving Americans to consume stuff:

1. Dirty Bottoms

2. Zombie Apocalypse

In that order.

While Americans frantically bought toilet paper to wipe the excessive candy from their asses, I asked Mexicans why they seemed totally unconcerned about current events. The two recurring themes were:

1. Mexicans stopped trusting Authority centuries ago due to a governmental tradition of cutting out their hearts during any crisis.

2. TV Novellas are more truthful than the evening news. In that order.

list verse off road racing
Credit: ListVerse

Nowadays, Mexicans don’t fall for nonsense; they live free and only trust each other – which probably explains why their government couldn’t destroy their economy while seeking to be relevant.

I chewed a piece of taco I had accidentally dropped on the sidewalk while reflecting on my two greatest fears:

1. High-waisted jeans on women under the age of 84.

2. Prostate exams.

In that order.

levis jeans for women RRtKfA
Credit: Rank & Style

I met Brigitte Lacombe during technical inspection the day before the race. She was sitting on her bike, waiting her turn for the officials to verify that her motorcycle met the required safety standards. I’m not exactly sure how to make a motorcycle “safe,” so I guess they were verifying that the wheels were attached to the motor, ensuring that it was indeed a “motor- cycle.” I noticed she was running the same front tire I preferred for soft terrain. Without telling her that it was my tire of choice, I asked her how she liked it. She smiled confidently, and in a French Canadian accent, said she had never used it before; it came with the rented moto and it seemed fine, but if it wasn’t good, she didn’t care; she would make it work and have fun no matter what. I laughed and remarked to myself how old- school her response was – must have been riding dirt bikes all her life. I told her I had been using that tire for a few years and I thought she would like it in the sand. I wished her luck and looked forward to seeing her in the dunes.

sonora rally off road racer
Canadian Racer, Brigitte Lacombe
Credit: Westx1000 – Steve Green

Nick and I started each day with a quick coffee before sunrise and ended each day sharing a gourmet Mexican meal with rally competitors. I ran into a lot of people I hadn’t seen in years – guys I used to ride with or compete against. Bob Johnson, Johnny Campbell, and Kendall Norman were there with Team Honda, supporting Ricky Brabec. I had never met Ricky before and was stoked to spend time with him. He’s a hero to all of us because he was the first American to win the Dakar rally.

sonora rally off road racer
My buddies Kendall Norman and Bob Johnson
Credit: Westx1000 – Justin W. Coffey

One night during dinner, I was discussing (actually more like preaching – and rather loudly) about America and winning. “Thanks to the United States, the world has light bulbs, airplanes, telephones, computers – and our flag is on the moon. The best and brightest came to America from all over the world, so we could beat everyone at everything, but why did it take so long to win the Dakar Rally.”?

I asked Ricky, a humble guy from Hesperia, CA. how he did it. He told me he trained like an animal – gym every day, rode as much as possible (mostly alone) and spent all his spare time doing road books with Jimmy Lewis. He focused on mastering rally the way Edison figured out how to make the light bulb – hard work. The guy is a great American, and he’s fearless.

sonora rally off road racer
Ricky Brabec with a giant tortilla
Credit: Boyd Jaynes Photography

If you understand the various components of rally, starting with the fundamentals of navigation, and you understand what it takes to haul ass on a dirt bike over terrain to which you’re constantly adapting, to see him compete is mind-bending. Most of the time, he was the leader. The leader has a huge burden to cut fresh trail, using only the road book which consists of two navigational tools – heading and distance. Ricky is such a good rider and has such a keen mind, that he can navigate and maintain a pace most advanced riders could never keep. Watching he and Skyler Howes go at it all out for five days was impressive. At the end of a 5 day battle, only 40 seconds separated them.

sonora rally off road racer
Ricky Brabec showing how to lead over the biggest dunes in the Western Hemisphere
Credit: Westx1000 – Miguel Santana

One afternoon, Skyler showed me the scar on this throat where surgeons had gained access to repair his broken neck. Sonora racers Skyler Howes, Ricky Brabec and Colton Udall have all had huge crashes that badly damaged their bodies. Racing at the limit, navigating while adapting to open desert is a tremendous exercise in risk management. I’ve heard it said that racing MX is seeing the same turn 1000 times, but racing desert is seeing 1000 turns, each only once. Rally over virgin terrain doesn’t even provide turns.

On day four, a truck full of bureaucrats from the Mexican EPA showed up in the desert just before the start of Stage 1. They stood among years of rotting plastic, broken bottles, aluminum cans and decomposing tires while explaining that even though the M-EPA had officially approved the race a month ago, the man who signed the papers was currently on vacation, so the contract was null and void. Racers offered to clean up the years of local garbage that threatened to soil the official’s polished loafers, but they would have none of that talk; in fact, that offended them. They inferred from our proposal that we thought Mexican citizens might benefit from people who respect the environment working to keep it clean. Since logic, efficiency and goodwill tested their authority, the heavily- armed federal soldiers they brought with them moved closer. Unsure of how to respond the the extortion, Darren cancelled Stage One and transitioned the start to Stage Two.

Having a broad range of friends has always been enjoyable for me. In addition to moto people, because I have a variety of interests, my cadre of friends is comprised of people whose backgrounds don’t overlap in any way. They’re military professionals, pilots, mountain climbers, SCUBA divers, SWAT officers, car guys, EMTs, entrepreneurs, internationals and even academics. Every time I got some cell service in Sonora my phone would blow up with exactly two categories of texts:

  1. Creative homage to guy below:
  2. Creative ways my friends were defying government mandates, no matter what country they were in.

In that order

classic web meme
Credit: The Entire Internet

I like to think of rally as primarily a moto race. But my worldview is skewed; I believe all off-road racing should revolve around motorcycles, since moto guys and gals are the real heroes, no matter how you slice it. There is no argument that the consequences for error on motorcycles are immeasurably higher. Since 1979, the Dakar rally alone has claimed 22 moto competitors and only 6 car drivers. The physical stamina and mental acuity necessary to pilot a moto in a rally day after day is not required tosit and drive a race car. It’s almost a different competition since, if you’re racing a motorcycle, your roll cage is inside your body – and it’s not quite as strong as 4130 steel. Consequently, motorcycle racers develop an ability to read terrain that someone who has only raced cars will never possess. Moto racers are by far, stronger, smarter, more skilled and have approximately zero candy on their asses.

sonora rally off road racer
Sonora Dunes
Credit: Westx1000 – Justin W. Coffey

This was my third Sonora Rally. The first time I raced it, a wide variety of four wheeled vehicles competed. There were buggies, jeeps, trucks, two and four wheel drives – and just a few UTVs. This time all the four wheeled vehicles were UTVs. I was not surprised that the best UTV drivers were also great motorcycle racers. Sara Price had teamed up with my buddy Kellon Walch, both of whom are tremendous riders. They dominated for much of the rally, then ran into some mechanical problems later in the race. At the start of day 4 they replaced a rear differential in record time – assisted by their competitors. Because that’s the spirit of rally.

sonora rally off road racer
Sara Price before the start
Credit: Boyd Jaynes Photography

I saw Brigitte again one morning as Nick and I were leaving to open the course. She wasn’t wearing her riding gear, so I was concerned.

I yelled, “what’s wrong?” in French.

She responded, “Tabarnac!” while adding some hand gestures and body language I understood to mean that her race was in flux. At dinner after that stage, she explained that she had problems with her bike but she was able to solve them. She got going late, but still finished. I don’t speak Canadian French, so I asked her what,“tabarnac” meant. She explained that it was absolutely the worst word one can say, but the most appropriate way to explain a lot of the stuff that happens at a rally.

Day five was another day of riding pristine dunes of massive proportion. A rare day of rain the day before had made the traction perfect and the riding unimaginably enjoyable. Some of the UTVs had crashed while navigating around the dunes. Going from dry, low-traction sand to wet, high-traction sand under high lean angles and heavy throttle had whipped some cars over. Nobody got hurt and everyone made it back to camp, for the most part, unscathed.

sonora rally off road racer
Credit: Boyd Jaynes Photography

The day ended with another gourmet dinner accompanied by local craft beer and cocktails. Since nobody had to repair their machines or prep their road books for the next day, the atmosphere was relaxed and fun. All the competitors were enjoying each other, telling stories and having a great time. I ran across Brigitte and drank some Mezcal with her. She told me she was 53 years old and started riding at 47!

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

I had been riding since I was a little boy and couldn’t imagine doing 5 days of open Mexican desert without a lifetime of experience. She laughed and said she saw some TV shows depicting rally and told herself she had to do it – it looked like such a cool adventure. She took some riding lessons, then bought her first motorcycle that somehow caught on fire and burned to the ground.

“Burned to the ground?” I asked

Yes, and she happened to be wearing a GoPro that documented the whole thing. The bike spontaneously caught on fire and she used the camera footage to prove that it wasn’t her fault. Insurance covered it, so she immediately bought a larger, more powerful bike. Before Sonora, she had competed in other rallies around the world. She also competes in Canadian enduros with her 11 year old son. I asked her if, in addition to being a professional badass, she had a regular day job?

“Veterinary Doctor,” she said

I laughed and laughed. Here’s an educated, medical professional who recently took up racing dirt bikes in demanding international rallies.


This is the kind of person I like being around. And this is why I’m going to participate in every rally I can – as soon as the virus hysteria dies down and we can have rallies again.

Or maybe there will be a revolt, and humanity will just divide like an amoeba into two archetypes:

1. Those who rally.

2. Those who cling to their T.V.s, toilet paper and trauma.

In that order.

sorona rally off road racer medal
Credit: Westx1000 – Justin W. Coffey