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