Robby Gordon's multiple victories in different types of racing define him as one of the most versatile drivers in American history. Gordon has wins in NASCAR's Sprint Cup, CART's Indy car, sports car's Daytona 24-Hour and Sebring 12-Hour and the Baja 1,000 off-road race. Starting Sunday, on the day before his 43rd birthday, Gordon will try to become the first American to win the Dakar Rally, a 6,000-mile race that begins in Argentina, crosses the Andes Mountain range into Chile and concludes in Lima, Peru.
This will be Gordon's seventh Dakar, his sixth straight as an owner-driver. He finished third overall in 2009. Gordon's teammate will be Nasser Al-Attiyah, the 2011 overall Dakar victor and Gordon has brought on famed off-road motorcycle rider Johnny Campbell to be his navigator. Al-Attiyah's navigator will be Lucas Cruz, who guided him a year ago. The team uses Hummer H3s built by Gordon's team.
"We have two legitimate shots at winning this year," Gordon said. "It feels like we have a lot of experience. To have Nasser and Lucas is a huge boost for our team and the addition of Johnny with his experience sitting next to me makes us stronger. It really turns into a navigational challenge. The course is changed every year and you don't know the course before you go out on it. We're not allowed to use GPS.
"Imagine showing up at a NASCAR race, for an Indy car race and never knowing what is around the next corner. All you get is a compass point and when you get within one and a half kilometers of it, you get another compass heading for say, 20 kilometers, and then another. Some days it's gravel roads, some days it's sand dunes, some days it's a free-for-all. You run every day without a pit stop and the cars can run 500 miles on a tank of fuel. Some days we run 500 miles without a pit stop."
The Dakar runs stages -- daily distances that are timed for 14 days, with one day off in the middle. There are 173 entries in the car class that Gordon's team competes.
"We have sand dunes in the United States, like Glamis [Calif.], but in the Dakar, we have sand mountains," Gordon said. "They're huge mountains and nothing grows on them but sand. It's unreal. There's no trails. We start where we finished the previous day and if you're in that first car, all you have is that compass heading. You're going around bushes, mountains and rocks at over 100 mph. On any day, you don't want to be in the first half of the starters, but the problem with that is it means you've never won a special [stage] and you're not making time on the competition. It's completely different than what we have in off-road racing."
Gordon's early successes were in off-road racing, starting with major desert and short course wins when he was 16. It led to auto manufacturers pursuing him for off-road and he was able to negotiate an opportunity for pavement racing in a contract with Ford that put him into Jack Roush's sports car team in 1989. By 1991, he was in Indy cars. But he's never completely left off-road racing and his team competes in desert racing. Dakar has become one of his team's staples.
"I do it for a lot of reasons," Gordon explained. "First and foremost, it's because I can do it. There aren't a lot of people that can go after it. We design and build our own vehicles and we've had very good sponsorship support from Hummer and Toyo Tires and I'm using it to bring exposure to my Speed Energy drink. I still love driving and have the passion to push vehicles to the limit, sometimes beyond the limit like we did in the Baja 1,000 in November. The navigator didn't tell me and I missed a turn and we crashed. But we still finished eighth."
Al-Attiyah joined Gordon's team late in the preparation period this fall. Gordon's Hummer had already been shipped, but he had a second car ready.
"I was only going to run one Hummer and it had already been shipped," Gordon said. "It had to be on the water two months ago to get through customs. Nasser approached me and we had a second Hummer in a position to run and we had the support trucks and guys. It was fortunate for us. The other Hummer is basically the same as mine."
Al-Attiyah is being backed by his native country of Qatar. For Gordon, it's a chance to extend the reach of Speed Energy internationally.
"It's a great opportunity for us to bring Speed Energy into Qatar," Gordon said. "Nasser is very influential there."
Gordon drove in 25 Sprint Cup races last year, missing some due to off-road and other business commitments. He finished 34th in the points. It was his first season without a top-10 since running one race in 1998. His team entered additional races with other drivers, including five with Reed Sorenson, and finished 38th in owner points. It's possible, with at least four cars in the top-35 in points not scheduled to run in 2012, Gordon could move into the top 35 and be guaranteed a starting spot for the Daytona 500. He plans on being there either way.
"I've got partial sponsorship for the season," Gordon said. "I'll be at Daytona and then it depends on what races would be best for our sponsorship. I would run the whole season if I had sponsorship. We're doing business-to-business deals with Speed Energy, trading space on the car for shelf space in the stores. Speed is a year old and we're in 9,000 locations in the United States and we're legal in Mexico and we'll be done with our registration in Canada by March. We should be able to distribute to about 15 countries in the next year."
Gordon is the majority owner of the privately held drink company.
"We've been telling sponsors for years that racing builds awareness of a company," Gordon said. "We wanted to build a brand that we could do our own sponsorship. I worked for five years for Red Bull, five years for Monster and I feel we have as good a product or better. My goal is to grow Speed to where we have the funding to have a race team that can race to win."
Gordon will stick with Dodge in Cup. He's unsure of how many races the team enters that he'll drive. "Probably," he said of the possibility he'll drive in all the races. "Maybe."
Dakar is an iconic race around the world, but not well known in America. A victory by Gordon would raise its profile substantially.
"I think it would make Dakar more popular to have an American win," Gordon said. "It's probably been the problem with the race's popularity here. I think we've got a good shot at it."