What if I told you that within a year you could be racing in a Dakar-style rally raid in North America? And that this rally raid was organized by a two-time Dakar winner and a Dakar veteran? Oh, and what if entry fees were a comparatively low $2,200?
Well, start building your team, race fans, because it’s all true. Last April the first annual Cortez Rally went down in northern Mexico, and organizers are already prepping for 2016.
Darren Skilton and Scott Whitney brought their Dakar experience to racers in North America. The three-day event featured competition through the intoxicating and massive sand dunes of the Sonoran desert in Mexico that rival those in Africa and surpass those found in South America.
The only rally of its kind in North America, racers had to use true, Dakar-style “HP Navigation” (coming from the French phrase “Hors Piste”). This meant that competitors followed existing trails, but once they arrived in the sand dune areas the only way to get through and to the finish was via compass and expert Scott Whitney’s roadbooks.
The race started in Mexicali with two short stages that combined fast roads, fun scenery and beautiful dunes. Day 2 featured a 165-mile loop starting on sandy trails outside of San Luis, Sonora then ran near El Golfo before finished once again in the rally’s specially created bivouac. The third day was spent heading back into Baja, running some of the more famous roads before racers got a well-deserved checkered flag and an awards celebration km outside of Ensenada at Horsepower Ranch.
This first year attracted a total of 18 competitors. Not many compared to the hundreds who tackle the Dakar every year, but still a sizable amount for the Cortez Rally’s first running.
Besides, the desert doesn’t care how many competitors are vying for the win. She’ll take you out if you’re 1 of 18 or 1 of 300.
While most participants were on motorcycles, a brave couple from Oregon decided to tackle it in a Subaru Outback. That’s right….an Outback.
Paul and Laura Fournier are not off-road racers, they are adventurers. Paul teaches at the local community college, Laura is a nursing supervisor. The Outback is their underdog.
Paul has run the NORRA Mexican 1000 in years previous in the Outback, but when the couple heard about the Cortez Rally, they knew they needed to try it, this time as a team.
Both wanted to defy expectations. “You see this Outback entered in the rally, and people expect you to break,” said Paul. “You don’t even have to win. You just have to finish and you’re ahead of the game.”
However, when choosing the vehicle, Paul had some expectations of his own. It had to be cheap, simple, capable, and comfortable. And air conditioning would be nice.
He found his unicorn where else but Craigslist. $700 later and the 1997 Outback with a 5-speed transmission and a knocking motor was his. He found a mechanic to help with the project and they swapped bad motor with another 2.5L, but the two decided on 2.2 heads. Using the smaller heads upped the compression a bit and the team felt the SOHC heads would be more reliable and easier to work on in the field.
A few modifications to the suspension, a roll cage, 15″ wheels wrapped in BF Goodrich KO2 tires and the Outback was ready for the dunes.
No chase vehicles are allowed in the Cortez Rally. The team carried their own spare parts, tires and recovery devices. When asked if he had to use his recovery, Paul retorted, “Oh fuck yeah! Everyday!”
That’s just the kind of guy he is.
The Cortez Rally format was new to the couple. In rally raid, the navigator has the most important job. Laura had to memorize a whole slew of symbols, many of which were abbreviated French terms, and she had to learn how to read the road-book, giving her a mental challenge that just isn’t present in endurance off road racing.
Teams are allowed GPS, but it will merely ping when close to a waypoint. You may think you are close to a waypoint, but if the GPS doesn’t ping, then you’re lost. You can then choose to retrace your tracks and start again from an earlier point, or attempt to find the waypoint by just driving around. The Cortez Rally competitors had an SOS chip in their GPS if they got really lost. Using it would incur a penalty, but it would show teams their location so they could get back on track.
Paul and Laura attempted to use their SOS chip, but found that their GPS had a virus and the SOS chip didn’t work.
Paul said, “So there we are in the middle of the desert saying, ‘Okay, where do we go now?'”
The cavalry came in the form of a two-man sweeper team who also had a sick GPS. Two lost people had now become four.
Fortunately the sweeper team, who were out making sure all teams were accounted for, had a cellphone. A quick call to the organizers gave them a compass heading and both teams were able to make it back to the bivouac, but not before becoming lifelong friends.
“We felt so welcome at this event,” said Laura and Paul. “Everyone cheered when we came in. We’re definitely doing this again next year.”
Team Fournier came in 10th overall and 1st….in a class of four entries.
But a win is a win.
“For us, it’s all about the adventure,” said Paul. “I advise anyone who wants to do this to buy a POS, and just go out there and try to break it.”
To learn more about the Cortez Rally and learn how you can participate, go to www.norra.com. You can find Paul and Laura and their team on Facebook by searching Outta Sight Racing.
Here is another type of off-road running. See the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon Hard Rock tackle a washed out Rocky Mountain trail.