What I am about to do has been denounced by the Vatican as "a vulgar display of power and wealth," drawn the ire and fire of Islamic terrorists, stranded European royalty and thrill-seeking riffraff in the Sahara, cost hundreds of millions in damages, and claimed the lives of more than 30 people. Likened to "blood sport from a science fiction novel," it's been judged the world's most dangerous legally sanctioned sporting event. Seventeen years ago Sports Illustrated decreed that with "any luck, or common sense," it would never happen again; yet it did, and has every year since.

Most commonly it is called the Paris-Dakar Rally, though Paris has been just a flickering presence in recent years. More accurately it's called the Dakar Rally, and it's a bone-crushing, will-killing off-road race from Europe to the African city of Dakar, in which cars, motorcycles, and trucks slog 5,500-plus miles through the deepest orange undulations of the Sahara, with its biblical sandstorms and locust swarms and arid empty vastness, to the beautiful blue sea-spray of the Senegalese coast. Half my fellow competitors, revving their engines in the starting lineup, won't see that blue beauty – for every one that finishes, another will fall prey to injury or exhaustion or mechanical failure, and the race will leave them behind. More darkly, the odds say that at least one of us will not return alive; on average, in the Dakar Rally's 27-year history more than one competitor has died at each running.

This time, however, when it's all finished, at least five people will lie dead, including a legendary Italian racer, a five-year-old Senegalese girl, and a jovial Spanish motorcyclist who shared my team's support truck. A suspected Al Qaeda operative will be arrested and charged with "plotting to kill as many participants as possible." Spain's Green Party will demand that the Spanish government extract itself from the rally, while a French lawmaker will plead with his prime minister to ban the race altogether. The rally's major motorcycle sponsor, KTM, will publicly admit misgivings about the race, wondering, as many have before, if death in the desert outweighs the bright glory of a Dakar victory.

At this moment, however, as my partner and I watch the line official count down the start of our first stage with his fingers, five, then four, three…the truth is, at this moment, I have no fucking clue what I'm about to do.

One day earlier, in an auto shop on the outskirts of Barcelona, I stepped back from the race car after affixing a sticker bearing my name to the left front fender. The sight, for me, was a peculiar one: I'd never raced before – I'm notorious back home, in fact, for my slow, meandering driving style. Just a couple months prior I'd been asked to take the co-driver slot in a Men's Journal-sponsored car. Immediately I said yes, because for anyone with a thirst for adrenaline, the Dakar Rally is the ultimate cocktail, the ne plus ultra of reckless abandon. And for another reason: Like the summit of Everest, or the finishing tape of an ultramarathon, the Dakar is something to measure oneself against, a yardstick of endurance and nerve steel. I wanted to know if I could hack it. As race rules required, I affixed another sticker to the car, just beside my name. On that sticker was my blood type.

I'm thrown back in my seat as the car vaults off the line. As co-driver, or navigator, my job is to tell my partner where to drive via the aid of a roadbook (half in French), a trip computer (basically, a digital odometer), and a GPS unit bolted to the dash. Right now, though, as we begin a quick 3.7-mile qualifying run on a Barcelona beach, I'm just trying to hold on to my roadbook. Being a co-driver, at this point, feels like being a toddler driven around by an angry and potentially suicidal parent: I'm strapped into a bucket seat via a five-point harness, and I really feel like screaming.

We fly too fast over a five-foot-high jump, the car's front end smacking hard and a wash of sand spraying across the windshield. "Fuhhhhhck!" my driver Darren Skilton screams. "Last thing I want to do is bust an axle in Europe." A pause. "By the way, mate," he says, "don't put your hands up when we're landing hard. You could lose them if we roll. Second-last thing I want to do is send you home with no hands."

A broodingly intense 37-year-old with short-cropped khaki-colored hair and round, wide eyes that seem to expand when he's driving, Darren is a second-generation racer with a fierce passion for speed and the desert. His father, Clive Skilton, was a drag racer in England, where Darren was born, before relocating to Southern California in 1976 to compete on the American drag circuit. Off-road racing came next and Darren was there for the ride. The son entered his first race at the age of 23, and since then he's captured four SCORE Desert Series championships, including three victories in the Baja 1000 and a win in the Baja 2000, the longest off-road race ever staged in North America. This will be his third Dakar rally, after a sixth-in-class finish in 2000, followed by a second attempt, in 2001, that ended with a blown engine in Mali.

Our car is a five-year-old, fire-engine-red Kia Sportage. The frame is stock, as is the six-cylinder, 3.5-liter engine, but the rest is all race-issue. The front end is fiberglass, to save weight, while the rear of the car is mostly engulfed by a 90-gallon fuel tank and three spare tires. The interior is almost comically spartan, a hodgepodge of unmarked switches, dirt-encrusted gauges, an oversize tachometer, loose wires, tubular foam padding, and bare metal. Nothing about it is even remotely comfortable; after my first ride – a short spin around Barcelona – I proclaimed it an "ergonomic enema," which made our two mechanics laugh but not Darren.

The mechanics – Barrie Thompson, a Jeep racer from the high desert country of Apple Valley, California, and Todd Mason, a moonlighting pro snowboarder from Australia – will trail us in an eight-ton 4×4 Mercedes truck, sometimes via the rally course, sometimes on an alternate route. The truck is stocked with enough parts, wheels, tires, and body panels to all but rebuild the race car from the bottom up, which, to my unschooled eye, might already be necessary. And I'm not alone: In the shop near Barcelona, where five or six cars and trucks were being readied for the race, a French driver examined the Kia for a while before asking, "Thees car – Dakar Ralleee?" I nodded. He stared at the car a little longer. "Thees year?" I nodded again. "Holy sheeet," he said, with a caustic Gallic laugh.

The echoes of that laugh would bang about my skull for weeks. On the way to "scrutineering," the pre-race vehicle inspection, the car's headlights kept shorting out, forcing us to drive through Barcelona either in total darkness or by the blinding white aurora of our off-road lights. Darren was restive, frowny, knotted with mechanical worries. The gear shifter stuck constantly. The alternator seemed troubled. Exhaust fumes were seeping into the car, choking us. The windshield wipers didn't function. "The trip computer isn't working," I noted, futilely pushing buttons as we zoomed along an unlit Barcelona highway en route back to the shop. "Nothing is working, mate," Darren said. "It's going to be a total fucking thrash all the way to Africa."

A total thrash, however, would be in very precise keeping with the original spirit of the Dakar. In 1977 a French motorcyclist named Thierry Sabine got lost in the Libyan desert while racing in the now-defunct Abidjan-Nice Rally. By all accounts it was a harrowing, hallucinatory ordeal, but Sabine apparently enjoyed it, in much the way the French enjoy Mickey Rourke movies and the works of Jacques Derrida, and decided to repeat it the next year with as many racers as would join him. "A challenge for those who go," went Sabine's slogan, "a dream for those who stay behind." One hundred and seventy competitors raced in the inaugural Dakar Rally, blasting 6,200 miles through Algeria, Niger, Mali, Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), and Senegal. One of them, of course, died, as did Sabine himself a few years later, during the 1986 Dakar. But the thrash lived on.

"This is the ultimate adventure," an American named Ronn Bailey is saying to me. We're standing beside our cars at the port of Algeciras, Spain, three days into the race, waiting to load them onto a ferry to Tangier – and thus to Africa, where the real shit begins. A 55-year-old data-security magnate from Las Vegas, with a preternatural suntan and printer paper-white teeth, Bailey is here on an expensive whim. "Nine months and two days ago," he tells me, he decided to (a) race in the Dakar Rally, which meant he had to (b) custom-order a race car, and (c) quickly learn to drive it. For years he'd been hearing about the Dakar from fellow travelers he'd encountered on his solo motorcycle trips to Central America and the Arctic Circle, and, well, with about a million bucks burning a hole in his pockets, why not? "Tell me another race in which you can be a total amateur and get to compete against the best in the world," he says. And it's true: The Dakar nurtures its amateur element, opening the rally to anyone with a vehicle, the cash (15 grand to enter, plus anywhere from 20 grand to a million more to cover costs), and the little experience needed to qualify for a racing license. Roughly 20 percent of the car drivers, and a whopping 40 percent of the truck drivers, will be competing for the first time this year.

Though little known in the U.S., the Dakar is a sports juggernaut in Europe, where France's state broadcasting company runs more than 25 hours of coverage and the leading drivers and riders are accorded the same status we give to Super Bowl quarterbacks. The American presence in the race has always been small – nonexistent on occasion – and something of a novelty. This year's race, however, is different: A record number of five Americans, including me, are here, most notable among us Robby Gordon, a top-tier NASCAR driver who's claimed six off-road championships and a near win at the 1999 Indianapolis 500. Already, Gordon has made history. His victory on the rally's first day, in Barcelona, marked the first time an American has ever won a Dakar stage. Gordon, like Bailey, is a Dakar virgin. Of the Americans, only my partner Darren has raced the Dakar before.

At this point, 13 days of racing lie ahead for this year's 162 cars, 230 motorcycles, and 69 trucks, our southward passage divided into noncompetitive "liaison" stages and white-knuckled "special" stages (see "Dakar 2005," right) that get longer and more grueling as the race goes on, particularly when they hit the raw depths of the Sahara. Our second day in Africa delivers a first small taste of what those specials will entail – what the French might call an amuse-bouche. We're rollicking along on a 76-mile special in Morocco, south of Rabat, through green meadows where shepherds gather on rock mounds to watch us pass, and across flat nasty fields of craggy brown rocks. Our trip computer still isn't working – some sort of battery problem – so I'm forced to navigate by the landmarks noted in the roadbook.

With the trip computer, navigating is not, in theory, terribly difficult. At km 243.5, say, the roadbook will direct you to veer right off the visible trail when you come to some longer collines avec rochers, and even if, like me, you don't know a colline from a croissant, there's a rudimentary sketch indicating that these collines are round, like rocks, or maybe holes. Without the trip computer, however, all I can do is guess at the mileage, and try to formulate some instructions for Darren. Leave the trail to the right before you hit some, uh, round things. All this at 80 mph.

"Horn!" Darren is shouting. "Hit the horn! Horn!" I sound the horn twice – that's my job, along with operating the wipers, since Darren's hands need to stay glued to the wheel – to signal to a Mitsubishi in front of us that we want to pass. As Darren swerves left and right, searching for an opening, I return to the roadbook, desperate to know where the hell we are. A few moments later I glance up and see two things: the Mitsubishi directly beside us, three feet to our left, and a four-foot-high cairn with stones the size of medicine balls right in front of us. "Holyshitlookout!" I yell, and Darren, who's been focused on the Mitsubishi, makes a split-second choice. We slam into the side of the other car. Fiberglass shreds spew across the windshield. Our left front fender is ripped off.

"Thanks, mate," Darren says calmly. "Good eye." Thirty seconds later we pass the Mitsubishi with its mangled rear fender. Weirdly, its inhabitants do not flip us off.

We end that day's racing with an alternator failure, forced to drive 262 dark liaison miles through Morocco using only our low-voltage off-road lights to conserve the battery. Even powering my map light is too risky; I navigate by the flickering glow of my cigarette lighter.

Years ago, prior to the running of a Dakar, Thierry Sabine was asked at a press conference who he thought would win. "The desert," he replied. It was an honest, accurate answer. Except for a very few elite pro racers up front, the Dakar Rally is not, at heart, a contest among the competitors; the battle, instead, is between mankind – more precisely, Western mankind, with all its fire-breathing machinery and inexorable arrogance – and Africa, which has been proving itself untamable for centuries now. Yet it isn't about "beating" Africa – that, as even the first-place winners will attest, is a ridiculous notion. It's about Africa not beating you. For most of the competitors, winning the Dakar has little to do with the standings on the final day, and everything to do with making it to the final day.

We set out on the fifth day's course, a 149-mile liaison followed by a 237-mile special through Morocco, with a fresh new alternator and trip computer installed. And for 80 miles we're rolling well: passing cars, hitting the correct turns, eluding all the traps – the holes, the ditches, the subtle tricks the course-makers plant in our GPS codes to steer us off the route. But then, as we're running fast along a bumpy, rock-strewn trail, the front right wheel falls off – falls right off the race car – and sends us into a deadening thunk of a stop.

"Fuhhhhhhhck!" Darren screams, ripping off his helmet. Already that aggrieved curse is becoming a refrain. After wrenching all night on the car with the mechanics, he'd neglected to manually tighten the lug nuts. To boot, I'd neglected a major item on my daily pre-race to-do list: check the lug nuts. Bump by bump, they had worked themselves off.

Still, I think, this shouldn't be a major problem. I fetch the runaway wheel from a ditch on the opposite side of the trail, skittering across the sand to avoid a Russian racing truck careening by. The wheel is trashed, sure, but we've got two spares in the back.

It is a major problem, though – the lugs are stripped. In fact, they look melted. We try to steal a lug off each of the other wheels, figuring we can secure a new wheel with just three wheel studs, but they're not all uniform, and won't fit. By this time we've fallen so far behind that the support trucks – the big racing-shops-on-wheels that trail behind the factory-sponsored cars – are starting to chug by. We flag one down. The spare lugs they've got on board don't fit either. We're stranded, and out of decent options.

"All we can do," Darren finally concludes, with a wrecked sigh, "is file."

File: meaning, file new threads onto the melted lugs. One at a time, by hand. We take seats on opposite sides of the trashed wheel and tire, back to back, and hunch over the lugs, scraping at the silvery globs that once had been screw threads, eyeing them, scraping some more, trying to twist a nut onto them, cursing, scraping, trying, cursing, scraping. Small funnels of reddish sand come whipping at us, stinging our eyes. We don sand goggles and keep at it. An hour passes, then two, the sandy-edged wind increasing as the sun drips westward, the Moroccan desert eerily silent after the last-place stragglers have all passed us by.

"What's the maximum time allowed on this special?" Darren asks.

"Eleven hours, I think." The prospect of not finishing within the time limit hasn't occurred to me until now. "What happens if we don't make it?"

"We take a penalty," he says. "It's not a huge thing. The key is making it to the start of each stage. If you miss a start, you're out of the race. It's over."

"So we've got all night, technically," I say, not particularly comforted by the idea.

At twilight, with the desert washed in purple, its hills like the folds of a king's velvet robes, I'm finally able to screw a lug nut onto a third stud. We replace the wheel, load into the race car, strap on our helmets, fasten our harnesses, and pull back onto the course.

"That pretty much sucked," I say.

"It's not over yet," says Darren.

Just 30 miles later the left front hub assembly explodes – another wheel falls apart – and once again we're trailside. Darren rests his head against the steering wheel for a minute or more; he's beyond cursing, driven to something like prayer or seething or both. Then he slowly and silently gets out of the car, pulls out the tools, and goes to work.

"We may not make it, mate," he says after a while, lying beside the wheel and a jagged metal mess of parts and wrenches, trying to jury-rig a precarious fix while I aim a flashlight at the wheel and shiver in the unexpected chill of the Moroccan night. "Once you get to Africa" – turning a wrench, muttering – "the first thing the organizers do is try to break your car. (Hand me the 5/8th wrench.) That gets the weaker cars out of the race. (No, sorry, the 11/16th. Thanks.) Next, they try to break you, to get the weaker drivers out of it. If we can get this car through Morocco, I think we'll be okay."

We load back into the car sometime after midnight. "It's peg-legged," Darren says, before slipping on his helmet, "but it might make it."

Which it does, but not without another crisis.

The fumes seeping into the car since Barcelona have worsened, and are loading the interior with pungent exhaust; we slide open the postcard-size window vents in an attempt to clear out the exhaust, but all we get is colder. The fumes are affecting Darren worse than me – whether because the leak might be on the driver's side or because 18 years of smoking Camels has inured my lungs to all other pollutants, I can't say. But sometime past 2 am, as we're cruising at 90 mph on the flat moonscape of a dry lake bed, Darren starts slowing down.

"What is it?" I ask. By now we're at school-zone speeds. "Problem?"

Full stop, an engine stall, then silence.

"Darren?"

He's wearing a full-face helmet, so I can't see his eyes, but his head is immobile and tilted toward his chest. I repeat his name four or five more times before punching him, which rouses him only slightly; he makes drunk bear noises. He's blacked out from the carbon monoxide, his body weakened that much further from lack of sleep. We trade places.

Driving a race car isn't too far a cry from driving any other sports car, but driving one through Africa in the middle of the night offers a wide scree of new sensations. As I drive I keep seeing trees that aren't there – low, thick-trunked ones, like live oaks – and have to wag my head to expel the images. I always thought of mirages as heat-induced, daytime phenomena. Perhaps it's the sheer nothingness of the desert here. The brain can't accept the emptiness the eyes are seeing – it wants plants, boulders, animals, anything.

According to the roadbook, balanced against the wheel, I'm currently driving through a military zone. Here in southern Morocco, where a dispute over the Western Sahara has been simmering for decades, that often means land mines, so I tightly follow the visible tire tracks, overmindful of something Darren jokingly told me in Spain: "The trick with land mines," he'd said, "is to go fast enough over them so that they blow up behind you." "Helluva trick to practice," I'd said. I step on the gas hard, envisioning what it must be like to outdrive a land mine – like dancing a jig when someone's shooting at your feet. "Slow it down, mate," Darren moans every now and then, drifting in and out of consciousness.

By the time I reach the checkered flag at the end of the course, at 4 am, the finish-line post is deserted. A few miles away, at the rally bivouac in Smara, I'm barely halfway into my tent before crumpling to the ground. I wake the next morning with my legs hanging out the tent flap.
Whether Darren ever made it out of the car to sleep that dark morning – or even made it out of his helmet – I cannot say. Shortly after daybreak, when I pull myself up after two and a half hours of sleep, he's already under the car, wrenching its guts out.

On each of the 13 days that the Dakar Rally runs through Africa, a new, halogen-lit city rises from the sands, and then, 24 hours later, disappears altogether. In this phantom city you can get a bottle of wine and a plate of duck confit; an examination by a doctor; a shower, occasionally, but at least a bucket of clean water; and as many cans of Red Bull as you can carry. Its citizenry includes hundreds of administrators, cooks, physicians, and journalists, and then, as the motorcycles and cars and trucks trickle in from the course, hundreds more racers and support-crew mechanics. This is the Dakar bivouac, a military-issue compound that's assembled and disassembled daily, then flown on to the next location, in pieces, via jumbo jets and a slew of big-muscled trucks. All through the night it hums and rattles with the sounds of vehicles being torn apart, rebuilt, repaired, revved. Motors squeal, generators rumble, mechanics shout for tools in 20 languages. No one is still save the sleepers, tucked into one-man tents or crowded tight as puzzle pieces on the ground beneath canopies, earplugs insulating them from the mechanized din.

Today, however, is different. It's the morning of Friday, January 7, in Tichit, Mauritania, a desolate stone village that's changed little since the 12th century, except to crumble. The bivouac is like a ghost town, just a cluster of tents on a sand-whipped plain with a few people milling about. Partly this is owing to the fact that support trucks are banned from the bivouac for the current "marathon" stages. But more important, it's because most of the competitors are still out in the desert, stranded, or struggling yet to finish.

We pulled in at 5 am. The special – a grueling 410-mile slog through sand dunes first, and then more than a hundred miles of camel grass (clumps of dry grass rooted in hard sand mounds as tall as three feet) – was so murderous that race officials have cancelled the next stage, ostensibly because of a sandstorm that's grounded the helicopters, but also because it would mean abandoning perhaps 75 percent of the competitors in the Sahara. Though we'd started 142nd among the cars, and took 16 hours and 49 minutes to finish, we were the 37th car in.

Distress signals have been pouring in all night from the racers we spied out there in the dark: motorcyclists huddled together under silver emergency blankets, drivers standing beside their dead cars holding makeshift signs reading oil gas please, or need petrol. All the talk at the bivouac is about the missing or defeated: Two-time Dakar winner Jean-Louis Schlesser is out of the race, his self-designed buggy broken in the sand. Four-time winner Ari Vatanen is out of gas somewhere. Robby Gordon, who rolled his car the day before, limped in with less than a liter of fuel. Ronn Bailey is nowhere to be seen.

Our car is alive, but only barely. Early in the stage we busted the transfer case, which meant we lost our four-wheel drive – an odious development in an off-road race. To cross sand dunes in two-wheel drive, you have only one tactic available: Barrel up them as fast as you can, so that your momentum will carry you over the impossibly soft sand at the crest. The only problem with that, of course, is that you have no clue what's on the other side of that crest – sometimes a sheer drop, sometimes a car stuck at the bottom, sometimes both.

Near the end of the course we took a wrong turn and, instead of the mountain pass marked in the roadbook, found ourselves at the edge of an 80-foot, 80-or-so-degree sand cliff above the plains of the Tagant desert. We got out and walked to the edge, our headlamps doing little to illuminate the ground far below. Sans four-wheel drive, there seemed no turning around. It smelled like doom.

"Why don't I run up and flag a truck?" I said. "Maybe someone will pull us out."

"They couldn't get close enough without getting stuck down here themselves," Darren said. He was staring down the cliff.

"Maybe we could swing it back up that way. It's just a short climb before it levels out some."

Darren glanced up, then shook his head. "The car can't go anywhere but forward," he said.

"Forward isn't really an option."

He got into the race car and started the engine. "Let me try something," he said.

Figuring he'd reconsidered my proposed tack, I backed away, crossing my fingers that he'd be able to turn the car back around and, with luck, get it back toward the course.

Instead, he revved the engine twice, threw it into gear, and went over the cliff.

In the Dakar, the dangers are obvious and everywhere. You're riding or driving as fast as you can through unfamiliar terrain, much of it roadless desert, often with little or no sleep and little or no food. Take a dune too fast and you can end up planted in the sand like onions. Miss one of the hazards marked in the roadbook – all the holes, ditches, bumps, and dry washes cratering the desert – and you can flip, roll, or just plain crash. Animals are a constant danger: Camels, monkeys, and livestock roam the trails. (One story that made the bivouac rounds concerned a donkey that walked in front of a Mexican motorcyclist. The rider jumped off the bike, but the bike kept going, hitting the donkey, and, rumor has it, cutting it in half.) And man-made hazards loom just as large, or larger. In 1996, near the Mauritania-Morocco border, a Mercedes truck hit a land mine, incinerating one of the passengers. That same year a sniper fired at a Mitsubishi support truck, narrowly missing its driver. In 2002 the threat of terrorist attacks convinced organizers to reroute the rally at the last minute.

The cliff, for us, was just the start of it. While I ran-slash-tumbled down the cliffside after the car, fully expecting to watch it roll below me and smash headlong into a rock face at the bottom, Darren crab-walked it down the sand – a twisted feat of technical driving. He was waiting for me, calmly, at the bottom. "You're fucking insane," I said.

"Welcome to the Dakar, mate," came his dry reply. "Get in."

In northern Mauritania we got another welcome. As Darren and I were slowly climbing a boulder-strewn path, about 15 tribesmen appeared out of nowhere and descended upon the car, opening the doors, yanking everything out that they could. They rifled through my backpack, even tore out the Kia's hood pins. When Darren slammed the car into reverse, then forward again, rocking through the boulders to unsettle the men's grip on our stuff, a grapefruit-size rock hit the Plexiglas driver's side window with a loud thwack. The window remained bowed for the rest of the race.

In Mali we hit a low-hanging tree limb, which shattered the front windshield; for days afterward we raced al fresco, gathering leaves, twigs, and a thick coat of desert dust inside the car. In Senegal we hit a hole too fast and the car went airborne, flying nose-down over the trailside foliage.

Our mechanics, driving slower and steadier, fared even worse. In the dunes of Mauritania the truck flipped onto its side. Barrie cracked his head hard enough to lose some blood, and the duo had to spend the night in the Sahara until they could wrangle help to get the bruised truck back upright.

Even the few calm, collected moments of racing were shadowed by threats: In Mauritania a rumor spread through the bivouac that the U.S. embassy had contacted the race organization, having intercepted a terrorist plot to ambush an American team.

When I lay down to sleep that night, I couldn't help but wonder what the hell I was doing here. Risking life and limb for pleasure is at least defensible. But risking it all for misery is another matter altogether – a demented subset of masochism. The adrenaline that had been sustaining me for more than a week was going rancid, like milk left in the hot sun. I wanted to quit. It wasn't simply that I was bloodshot-eyed, sand-encrusted, physically spent, that my hips were bruised from the violent up-and-down smashing of the camel grass crossings, that I had barely slept in two weeks and was surviving half the time on hot Red Bull and baguettes. Nor was it just the machine gun–fast disasters: the three hours spent digging the car out of sand as fine as talcum powder, the midnight roadside repairs, the bad GPS heading we followed that took us through a nightmarish series of virgin dunes and more and more camel grass. It was all of this, yes, but also something more: I'd lost my will. At some point, when you've been hanging by your fingers from a cliff, letting go begins to feel like the better choice.

I learned of the rally's first fatality the next morning: Jose Manuel Perez, an amateur Spanish motorcyclist who'd been sharing storage space on our support truck, had died following a crash. I watched one of his teammates, a woman, get the news: She fell to the sand wailing. The next day Fabrizio Meoni, a 47-year-old motorcyclist who was in second place in his 13th Dakar, crashed his bike a hundred or so miles out of Atar, Mauritania. He died in the desert.

"This is not a true rally," a Spanish racer told me several days later in Bamako, Mali. It was 3 am, and we were standing at a table in the bivouac, washing down our dinner with warm French beer from a can. "This is a contest to see who is tougher than who. How many dead already? Two? Every year I vow never to do it again. But then every year I do – for 19 years. Why? Because maybe I am crazy. That must be it. I am crazy."

Insanity – while seemingly accurate, in the doldrums of poststage exhaustion – is too reductive and facile an explanation for why otherwise rational people shell out minor fortunes to suffer like mad and take the fierce chance of losing their lives. Something else is at work here, something I'm just beginning to comprehend. Today is January 15, a golden-hued day, and we're rolling fast on a 140-mile special between Tambacounda and Dakar in Senegal – the last true leg of the rally. The car, it seems, is going to finish, despite its endless traumas, and we are too, despite our traumas. "Double-down hole in 300 meters," I tell Darren, eyes darting from the roadbook to the road and back again. "Then it's shitty and bumpy in the vegetation for 1.5k."

"Does it actually say 'shitty' in the roadbook?" he asks with a smile.

"My loose translation of the French," I reply.

A ticklish new sensation is washing through me, vastly different from the low psychic valleys I mined just days ago – not enjoyment, necessarily, or contentment, but more like understanding. I'm recalling something Darren told me, months ago, when I first met him in California to plan our long voyage. "Will this thing ever be fun?" I asked him. "No," he said, "not fun. Not at all, really. But a few weeks later, or maybe a few months, you'll think back on it and wonder if maybe it wasn't actually fun, because you'll have this great feeling of satisfaction about it." Satisfaction: It's a weak word, the bland stuff of consumer survey cards, yet it's precisely what I'm starting to feel, a kind of past-tense high. You do not race the Dakar to experience it, I'm beginning to see, but rather to have experienced it. What I've been through has plainly been awful, an acid bath for the body and soul. Yet that I'm going to survive seems glorious.

Senegal whizzes by in a greenish-brown blur, the desert having given way to dense jungle, mud huts, windy shaded trails, the promise of water and life. "Keep to the right when you see a well, about 400 meters," I tell Darren. "Double-down descent following, it'll be stony. Then you've got a village, check speed." Villagers line the course on both sides, cheering, dancing, egging us on. What a vast difference from Mauritania, where the women cowered behind burqas and young boys pelted us with stones. Our every slow pass through a village feels like a parade. With the mud huts in our mirrors, and open earth before us, Darren guns it. The car rockets forward, its metallic scars gleaming in the African sunlight – a bright red symbol, like all the vehicles about to pour into Dakar, of speed and survival. "Nice fast trail for 4.5k," I say. "Open it wide."

We finish 64th among the cars. Of the 162 cars that started in Barcelona, 75 survived to Dakar. Of the motorcycles, 104 of 230 made it; of the trucks, 37 of 69. On the last stage, a 19-mile special on the beach at Lac Rose, in Dakar, we come in 29th place, one slot ahead of Robby Gordon, who finished 12th overall. "Toughest thing I've ever done," Gordon says to me later, at the postrace party held at Dakar's Club Med. We're still drinking Red Bull, only now it's spiked with vodka. Several German racers are in the pool, singing beer-hall songs, and the dance floor is jammed, a sweaty jumble of inebriation and exhaustion and relief.

"But I'm coming back," Gordon tells me. "I've seen it, I've experienced it, and I know I can put together a team that can win it." Later at the party I'm startled to encounter Ronn Bailey, whom we hadn't seen since he fell behind on the gruesome stage to Tichit. "We drove to Dakar anyway," he says. "It was amazing – like a grand tour of Africa. Did you know there are crocodiles in the Sahara? I saw them. What a wild ride." He, too, vows to return. The Dakar is a hard mistress, but still she seduces. The glory she promises, coyly, seems difficult to resist.

Whether that glory is worth the Dakar's hulking costs is ripe for argument. Auto racing, no matter where and how the races are held, will always kill and maim; NASCAR's predictable oval tracks and continuing safety innovations have not kept it from sending drivers to their graves, and likely never will. Over the years the Dakar's organizers have made serious efforts to improve safety – linking the horns of race vehicles to receivers in others, tracking each racer via GPS, an additional medical helicopter, strict speed limits through villages. Yet still the deaths pile up: Just outside Dakar, a five-year-old girl was killed when she ran in front of a support truck. Earlier the same day, in Dakar, a pair of Belgian motorcyclists, unofficially following the race, were killed in a crash. With the deaths of Jose Manuel Perez and Fabrizio Meoni, that brought the race's fatal toll this year to five. It seems, darkly, that no degree of safety measures can protect the Dakar from itself. For as long as it continues, it will always be a high-speed, off-road race through the wildest and wooliest corners of Africa, a competition founded on danger and colonial exoticism, designed to thwart and batter those who enter it.

Early the next morning, following the party, as the city of Dakar is stretching itself awake to the rhythmic sounds of the waves, I make a last visit to the car before it's to be loaded onto a freighter and shipped back home. Its windshield is a piece of makeshift Plexiglas. The turn-indicator lights are missing. The rooftop air intake is shredded. The right side mirror is gone, along with the left rear fender and the entire rear bumper. The front fenders are patched and held together with red duct tape. I pat its hood almost fondly, not for what it did – I will always hate it for that – but for what we went through together. "Dakar Ralleee?" I say, imitating the cynical Frenchman from the shop near Barcelona. "Holy sheeeet."