What Goes 95 Miles Per Hour for 17 Days Straight?
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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.