What Goes 95 Miles Per Hour for 17 Days Straight?
Credit: Martin Bureau / AFP / Getty Images
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.