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