Automobiles Dakar Rally Winner Goes from Two Wheels to Four in the Silver State 300After nearly dying in a horrible crash then going on to win the Dakar Rally, Ricky Brabec continues to challenge the odds.
- Words & Images Jason Stilgebouer
In the middle of his 2015 race season, a brutal crash in Snowville, Utah, nearly ended it all for up-and-coming racer Ricky Brabec. Fresh off championship wins the prior two seasons, Brabec woke up in the hospital with multiple serious injuries: a broken vertebra in his neck, a fractured foot, hand, and collarbone, and no recollection of what had happened. Though he cheated death, Brabec was down and out for the season, with no sponsorship and no plan on how he was going to continue to race — that is, until Baja racing legend, Johnny Campbell, approached and encouraged him to try his hand at motorcycle rally racing. Later that year, after making a full recovery, Brabec placed fifth at the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge, his first rally race. The world was surprised to see an American do so well at such a massive rally event, especially with no prior experience in the sport.
Joining the Monster Energy Honda Team the subsequent year, Brabec went on to compete in one of the most challenging — and deadly — races in the world: the Dakar Rally, a grueling 12-day off-road rally through South America. Brabec placed ninth out of 500 racers from 50 countries that year, though a string of mechanical issues prevented him from finishing another Dakar Rally for the next three years.
Still, Brabec returned to attempt the 2020 Dakar Rally in Saudi Arabia. Twelve brutal long stages later, totaling nearly 5,000 miles through the dry and barren Arabian Desert, Brabec ended the final stage 16 minutes ahead of the field. It was the Honda Racing Corporation’s first victory at Dakar since 1989, and Brabec became the first American to win Dakar since the event’s inception in 1979.
We just want to have fun with our friends and get back to the roots of racing for its thrill. Our end goal is to finish the race and have fun doing it.
Fresh off this historic victory, Brabec returned to regular training, but it wasn’t long before he was back to racing — though this time, his father had something different in mind. Years earlier, Rick Sr. had purchased a 620-horsepower Class 1 buggy while taking time off from his industrial sheet metal business. He wanted to get back to their racing roots; not racing for money or sponsorship, but for the sheer thrill of it. This buggy was the perfect means to do so.
They planned to race the Silver State 300 presented by Best in the Desert. Having competed in this event many times on a motorcycle, they thought it would be a fun experience to try it in the family race car. Father and son convinced a few friends to join them as their chase team and set out to Nevada to race nearly 300 miles across the desert.
“We thought it would be fun to race, and there is no pressure to go win,” said Brabec before the event. “We just want to have fun with our friends and get back to the roots of racing for its thrill. Our end goal is to finish the race and have fun doing it.”
Anticipation was high, and it started to look like Brabec might have a shot at doing well. But as trucks and cars passed through, there was no sign of him.
The next day, an hour north of Las Vegas in the middle of the desert at an abandoned dirt airstrip used during World War II, the dust settled for a moment before the race; friends gathered to follow Brabec as he competed on four wheels for the first time. The green flag was out, and the pit crew’s own race began as they tried to beat Brabec to each pit. This is something Brabec Sr. is no stranger to; he supported his son’s racing from a young age and was there for him at almost every race. He was with him in Utah when things were at their worst; he was there at Dakar to congratulate him on his victory.
Starting sixth, Brabec quickly moved ahead of the pack, and every time he was spotted on the course, he was near the lead. By race mile 76, the crew was confident he was sitting in second place.
Brabec Sr. patiently waited for him at one of the remote pits, with fuel for the car and tires ready to change. Anticipation was high, and it started to look like Brabec might have a shot at doing well. But as trucks and cars passed through, there was no sign of him. Radio contact with the buggy was nonexistent; dead silence. Fear and worry came over the crew — Brabec Sr., especially — wondering if something bad had happened. The car Brabec had been ahead of earlier had already gone through the pits.
Thirty anxious minutes later, Brabec finally arrived at the pit. He had rolled the car on its side after cutting a corner too sharply. Luckily, a competitor stopped to help him roll the car right-side up; the buggy had only suffered minor cosmetic damage. Alive and unscathed, Brabec’s spirits remained high, and he was seemingly not too worried about falling behind. The team fueled him up, and he was back in the race.
Due to worsening wildfires in the area, officials ended the race early, shortening it by 80 miles. Brabec placed 9th in the 1500 class. In the end, the crew did what they set out to accomplish as a team: finish the race and have a good time doing it. “Though we were a scattered mess as a team, I’m sure we had the most fun out there,” he says. “And our finish meant more than winning.”
Whether competing in Saudi Arabia at Dakar for the Monster Energy Honda Team or racing in Nevada with his friends and family, Brabec exudes the true racer spirit. Whatever the vehicle, he will do whatever it takes to try for the win and he’ll always have fun doing it, searching for the next thrill time and time again.Follow Ricky Brabec