If Ernest Hemingway was living, he would undoubtedly be part of the Dakar Rally. The famed novelist and journalist chased adventure around the world, running with the bulls at Pamplona and going on safari in Africa. He'd find the Dakar irresistible, too, the basis of his next great work. It is an ultimate challenge for man and machine.
The Dakar is one of the world's most popular races, but it barely blips on the radar screen in the USA, suffering from a similar problem as Formula 1.
Mario Andretti's victory at Long Beach in 1977 followed by winning the world championship the next year and Dan Gurney's legendary victory at Spa in 1967 prompted a surge in American interest in F1. Once they departed, F1's visibility subsided. No American has won the Dakar, which began in 1978 as Paris to Dakar, and few compete in it.
Mark Miller and Robby Gordon are the USA's hopes in the 2011 Dakar, which begins its marathon two-week crisscross across South America in Buenos Aires, Argentina on Jan. 1. Gordon's exploits are widely known, a race winner in the Baja 1,000, NASCAR Sprint Cup, IndyCar and the Daytona 24-Hour. This will be his seventh Dakar. Gordon finished eighth overall last year and third in 2009.
Miller holds the distinction of being the highest finishing American in the Dakar, second in 2009. A factory Volkswagen driver, Miller and navigator Ralph Pitchford finished third last year. Miller was sixth in 2005, fifth in 2006 and fourth in 2007, also driving for Volkswagen.
The Dakar, which covers a total of 5,965 miles, 2,828 of them in 14 racing stages this year on its journey to Cbile's Pacific Coast and back to Buenos Aires on the Atlantic, is the entire focus of Miller's season.
"This is my full time job," Miller explained. "All I do is train, prepare and work on Dakar. It's the largest motorsport event in the world. Look at the press, look at the big manufacturers involved and the money they spend to win it. If you look at the guys who have won it, it's the who's who of off-road racers in the world.
"This is the real deal. Everyone is getting paid to do a job at the highest level of off-road rally racing. The level of competition is very high. The organizers' job is to put together a course that is difficult. Day after day, you're in a car eight hours a day and every day takes its toll on you and the car. It only takes one mistake to end your rally. That's asking a lot.
You're eating your food in a bivouac, you have a lack of sleep. It's a combination of all those things that makes it very, very difficult."
There were 132 starters in the car class and 57 finished in last year's Dakar.
Miller, of Phoenix, has his roots in desert off-road racing. He began his career on motorcycles in 1979 and competed on two- and four-wheels in the '90s. Miller, 48, moved into the SCORE Series' premier Trophy Trucks in 2000 and won the class and was second overall in the Baja 1,000 with co-driver Ryan Arciero in 2003 and 2004.
Miller set a goal of winning Dakar in 1998.
"I ran the Atlas Rally in Morocco on a bike," Miller said. "I'd never been on a rally bike. My KTM teammates were top guys who had run Dakar. I won the fifth stage, the longest of the rally, and was sixth overall. It told me I could do this. I was sitting in an airport in Marrakech on the way home and it hit me that my purpose in life was to go and win Dakar. I liked the challenge and I've been pursuing it ever since."
Miller raced in the Dakar, held in Africa from 1978 to 2007 before a threat of terrorism forced it to be canceled in 2008 and led to the move to South America, for the first time in 2004 in the Truck class.
"I went there on my own and realized you have no chance unless you're on a factory team," he said.
Volkswagen invited him to try-out for a factory deal in 2005.
"I was pushing hard for a couple of years and I was recommended to Volkswagen," Miller said. "They invited me and Ryan Arciero for a try-out. We drove the 2005 Dakar-spec car, the Tauareg I. We did some test laps on a short course, then we ran 400 miles on a test run with the same navigator and I got the job."
Miller is part of a four-car Volkswagen team in the Dakar. Carlos Sainz, a former two-time World Rally champion, and navigator Lucas Cruz won the Dakar last year. Teammate Giniel de Villiers and navigator Dirk von Zitzewitz won in 2009, beating Miller by eight minutes, 59 seconds. Volkswagen also has entered a car for Nasser Al-Attiyah and navigator Timo Gottschalk.
Volkswagen has developed a new Race Touareg 3, powered by a five-cylinder, 310-horsepower diesel, for this Dakar. It made its debut in the eight-day Silk Way Rally in Russia in September, with Sainz winning the event. Miller, in last year's Race Touareg 2, finished third.
"We started testing for Dakar in Morocco in July," Miller said. "We tested for six weeks, took two weeks off and did the Silk Way Rally."
Next, Miller went to Germany for mechanical training. He and navigator Pitchford have to make repairs on the course to have a chance to win the rally.
"The stuff we can repair, we have in the car. We can put in a new drive shaft in three and a half minutes," Miller said. "We can replace a turbocharger in about 40 minutes. We have a support truck chasing us, but if we have to wait for them, we won't win the rally."
Gordon has put together his own operation and returns to Dakar driving a Hummer. He was the first American to win a stage in 2005.
"To win a state of the event was great," Gordon said, "but to be the first American to win the Dakar Rally would mean so much more. With experience also comes the understanding that you have to beat the rally before you can beat the competition."
"Robby has a chance to win it," Miller said. "And I wouldn't do it if I didn't think I could win."
If either American wins the Dakar, the adventure that races across the Andes, they'll become superstars worldwide and heroes, like Andretti and Gurney, at home. It would be a monumental achievement.