The Dakar Rally serves as the ultimate challenge for many rally raid competitors, and the past week saw many of them go one step closer towards their dreams as the Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) sent out acceptance letters to those they deem worthy of competing in the 2023 edition. Besides returning faces and defending winners, many amateur riders will get the chance to run the rally for the first time.
Unlike their four-wheeled counterparts, Bike and Quad riders become eligible through a selection process that includes filling out a questionnaire, which details their participation in FIM-sanctioned world championships and races that fall under the Road to Dakar banner, and a dossier on themselves. Such files were to be submitted by 22 July, and approval letters for amateurs began going out a week later. As part of increasing safety and consequently difficulty in qualifying, the ASO and FIM convened in July and agreed to “allow only experienced riders to participate”.
A multitude of riders who received the letters are newcomers, ranging from those like Tomás de Gavardo who wishes to continue the family legacy to those with experience in World Rally-Raid Championship events like Mathieu Troquier and Fabio Lottero.
Gavardo is the son of the late Carlo de Gavardo, the first Dakar rider from Chile and a multi-time national enduro champion who finished third overall in the 2001 edition. The younger Gavardo will race for BAS World, the Dutch arm of KTM’s factory programme. He won the FIM Junior Bajas World Cup in 2019.
“I am super happy to be able to announce my participation in the Dakar 2023,” Gavardo told El Deportivo. “In recent times, ASO had said that it was going to lower the quotas for enrollees. I was a little afraid that I would not be accepted, but I can already confirm that I will be in Arabia at the end of this year to run my first Dakar, at the age of 23. It’s a dream, I’m super happy and super grateful for the opportunity I’m being given.
“It’s super exciting that the de Gavardo surname is returning to the Dakar after many years.”
In the opposite American continent, riders hailing from the United States who will race Dakar for the first time include Ace Nilson and Paul Neff, who respectively finished second and first in the Enduro class at the 2021 Yokohama Sonora Rally in Mexico.
Nilson had been training for the Dakar Rally for the past four years. He is savvy in motocross and desert racing, the latter seeing him make his SCORE International Baja 1000 début in 2008 as a crewman before partnering with Dean Selph the following year and finishing fifth in Class 30. In 2011, he and his team was part of a clean sweep for Class 22 as all twelve entries completed the race. Outside of racing, he runs High Desert Adventures, which organises nonadventure motorcycle riding throughout his native Oregon and in Baja California.
Like Gavardo, he is a KTM rider who will race for DUUST Rally Team, a Polish-based outfit tied to KTM and Red Bull.
“At 01:16am on Friday July 29th, I received a text from the DUUST CO. team manager Filip Dabrowski that read: ‘congrats!! you are accepted on the list for dakar 2023’,” Nilson wrote in a statement posted online Sunday. “Molly saw the message first as she was getting ready to leave for work at approximately 06:15am. We were both shocked as I wasn’t expecting to hear until the end of August. I texted him back ‘Seriously’? He confirmed.
“Official confirmation would come from Dakar Official email at 06:30am. […] I spent the rest of the day attempting to focus at work but it was a less than productive day!”
Neff is an enduro veteran who owns Cispus Cycles Off-Road Training in Washington. He will take part in the Dakar’s Original by Motul class alongside their team American Rally Originals, which also consists of Dakar rookies Morrison Hart and David and Jim Pearson, as well as 2020 racer Kyle McCoy. The Pearson brothers have competed in SCORE and Best in the Desert, with David winning the latter’s Vegas to Reno in 2009 and now working as ARO team manager. Hart was previously a member of the United States Sailing Team and is currently ARO’s lead navigator. McCoy, a former intelligence officer for the United States Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment who served in Afghanistan in the early 2000s, finished top ten among newcomers at the 2020 Rally. In March, he entered the W2RC’s Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge and finished twenty-sixth overall and fourteenth in Rally 2.
“It’s like choosing to run the Iditarod rather than taking a dog sled,” David Pearson said of the Original by Motul class, a bike and quad division where competitors have no aid beyond very limited spare parts, some equipment, and standard race information.
“The news has finally broke. The entire American Rally Originals group is heading to the Dakar in 2023,” the team stated. “We can’t thank you all for the support to get this far at this point. There’s a long way to go and with all your help we’re going to break some American records.
A former motocross and downhill biker, Troquier’s Dakar dream began in his youth, when the event started in his home France, and he took his first steps towards his goals in 2021 when he ran the Rallye du Maroc. The Moroccan rally raid, the penultimate and upcoming round of the W2RC, is a Road to Dakar race which allows amateurs to gain Dakar eligibility depending on their performance. He will represent French KTM outfit Nomade Racing.
Lottero raced against Troquier in Morocco, also in the Rally 2 class. Although from Bordighera in Italy, the ex-cyclist/enduro rider rides under the Ibizan flag as he has lived there for over a decade. Teaming up with him at Club Aventura Touareg is Fernando Domínguez, whose Dakar début came in 2020.
“For me to race in the Dakar Rally is a dream I have had since I was a child,” Lottero said in an interview with Diario de Ibiza in July. “When I was still very young, only eight years old, I used to get up in the early hours of the morning to watch the race highlights on Eurosport when most of my friends at that age didn’t even know what the rally was.”
He wrote on social media of his acceptance, “It seemed almost impossible two years ago when we got fully into this adventure. First, find the budget, work hard, train, then they lowered the spots from 150 bikes last year to 100 this year. 30 professional pilots, 30/40 semi-professionals, there are 30 places left for hundreds of amateur pilots from all over the world… wow there we are!!! I still can not believe it.”
Despite being virtually guaranteed a spot on the grid, riders will still have to make the trip to the race and receive final approval in scrutineering. The ASO’s approval letter even reads in bold text, “We would like to draw your attention to the fact that your final entry, and consequently your effective participation in the next Dakar, will only be confirmed after having successfully passed the Technical and Administrative Checks. Once this stage completed, we will be glad to see you on the starting line.”
Of course, getting to Saudi Arabia is going to be difficult without money. American Rally Originals and Nilson both started GoFundMes, with donors to the former of at least $500 receiving a team jacket. In Nilson’s fundraiser, sending at least $2,500 USD nets an autographed jersey and photo while $5,000 or more is rewarded with a signed jersey and helmet. As of this article’s publishing, ARO’s GoFundMe has raised $6,045 of the $67,000 goal while Nilson’s generated $2,450 of $75,000.
“To attend an event of this magnitude and finish, it takes a lot of preparation, training and financial support,” continues Nilson’s most recent GFM update. “I have never been one to ask for money to support my racing hobby, but this is one that can’t be accomplished without a lot of support from many.
“To those who have already contributed, thank you from the bottom of my heart. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it!”
Gavardo added, “While the most important part is missing, which is to be able to finance the entire Dakar, being able to get in is super satisfying and I will do everything possible to be on the starting line. I’m going to be at whatever it takes place.”
The 2023 Dakar Rally is scheduled for 31 December 2022 to 15 January. Those competing in the Dakar Classic, a companion event focused on navigation rather than speed and time, also got their green-light messages around the same time as the Rally riders.