Ski Utah CEO to ride in Dakar Rally
December 27, 2018
Nathan Rafferty is a little nervous.
Which, for the Ski Utah CEO, is out of character.
With less than two weeks until he rides a motorbike down the coast of Peru in the Dakar Rally – the world's largest, longest and most prestigious offroad race – he doesn't want to slip up now.
"I can't get any more ready," he said. "I can only slip off a curb and break my ankle."
“There are no arrows, no flags, no nothing but sand dunes and camels,” Rafferty said of the Eco Race. “It’s a blast. It’s kind of a race to see who gets lost the least.”
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The 47-year-old Parkite will ride a KTM 450 rally replica (produced specifically for the race) in the 10-stage, 3,000-mile trek that loops around southern Peru, starting and ending in Lima.
He won't be alone. Rafferty estimates he will be one of 150 bikers among 500 competitors in a globally televised spectacle. Racing with BAS Trucks, a multinational used truck dealer, he will compete against some of the best in the business fielded by factory teams like KTM, Honda and Husqvarna, which produce bikes specifically designed for the race.
For rally enthusiasts, including Rafferty, Dakar is the ultimate race.
He started riding dirt bikes 15 years ago, and has competed in multi-day rally races since 2012.
Last year, he raced in the Africa Eco Race, a 12-day, 4,000 mile rally raid race that runs from northern Morocco to Senegal over part of what once was the original Dakar Rally route.
Though originally known for its punishing route from Paris to its namesake, Dakar, Senegal, the Dakar Rally moved across the Atlantic to South America in 2008 after five French tourists were shot in Mauritania two weeks before the rally was scheduled to start. In the Eco Race, which was created in 2009 to continue a racing tradition in West Africa, Rafferty placed sixth overall out of 33 racers. He was also the first American to complete the rally.
However, the Dakar Rally remains the sport's marquee event, the jewel in any rally racer's crown.
"I was really excited and proud of that achievement," Rafferty said of his sixth-place finish. "I don't have that same expectation going to Peru. The level of competition is much greater."
Rafferty said he considers simply crossing the finish line a win, but he hopes to place in the top 50.
Above that, his chances narrow. He described the top-30 as "full-time, professional, millionaire motorcycle racers."
"While I am technically in the same race, I can't say I'm really racing them," he said. "I am toward the faster of the slow guys; I have a day job."
Racing motor bikes through the dunes requires both driving and navigational skills.
Before the start of each leg, drivers are given a navigation scroll which lists mile markers and directions, as well as important landmarks and obstacles.
"There are no arrows, no flags, no nothing but sand dunes and camels," Rafferty said of his experience in the Eco Race. "It's a blast. It's kind of a race to see who gets lost the least."
There will be one 15-minute break each day when Rafferty and other racers reach a checkpoint where the competitors can refuel and refill their water bottles. The rest of the checkpoints are digital, marked only as data in a mandatory onboard computer that ensures no one cheats.
A typical day on the dunes will run from morning to evening, including a drive back to the ever-shifting race headquarters, called the bivouac, where pit crews work on vehicles, the media and race staff live, and drivers sleep and prepare for the next day's leg.
Over a typical 500-km. day, Rafferty said perhaps 300 km. is racing, while getting to the race start and the night's bivouac can account for another 200 km.
When the race clock is ticking, Rafferty and other competitors will reach top speeds of just shy of 100 mph. But most of the time, Rafferty said, they will stay closer to the 50-70 mph range.
"There were days in Africa when I was in sixth gear all day for five hours," he said. "Those are the days that actually kind of scare me."
The directions, called a road book, offer warnings about terrain, but it's always possible that the landscape has changed between when the book was written and the race began, and the landscape could have variables such as wandering livestock or wildlife.
But the hardest part about long rally races, Rafferty said, is staying focused. He doesn't listen to music, he just tries to pay attention to the landscape and the road book.
As for motivation, he said while the top racers have sponsorships and factory teams that pay for their performances, Rafferty is just doing it to see if he can.
He paid for his own place in the race, and is so unconcerned about winning that he doesn't know what the prizes are.
"For me, it's just one of those things – whether you're riding the Point 2 Point on the mountain bike or running a marathon, or doing whatever, it's just to see what your body is capable of," he said.
He's also using his competition to raise money for the High Fives Foundation – a nonprofit that provides medical assistance to people who have been injured in extreme sports accidents. Rafferty said the organization helped a friend after a bad ski accident, and said he felt he should give back (his campaign is online at go.rallyup.com/Dakar). He has already raised $16,000 toward his goal of $20,000.
Rafferty said he is confident he will hit his fundraising goal, and though he's nervous about injuring himself before starting the Dakar Rally, he said he won't shy away from his other passions.
"I think you only get hurt when you change your normal pace of play," he said. "I would be lying if I said it wasn't in the back of my mind a little bit, but I've been out skiing a bunch and it's too fun to throttle back."
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