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."