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Thursday, July 18, 2024
HomeRallyIn The Dust: Dakar Stories Beyond the Race

In The Dust: Dakar Stories Beyond the Race

Masters of Strength – Conquering the Grit of Dakar with Seth Quintero, Daniel Sanders, and Dania Akeel

The fourth instalment of ‘In The Dust’ looks into the gritty reality of the Dakar Rally with reigning W2RC Champion Seth Quintero, Sonora Rally champion Daniel Sanders, and trailblazing rally star Dania Akeel. The trio sheds light on the strength of body and mind required to undertake such a Herculean task, as well as how they take care of themselves during the treacherous 9,000-kilometre journey.

Discussing the gruelling demands of the Dakar, rider Daniel Sanders underscores the peculiar nature of the race. Devoid of a protective cage and lacking navigation assistance, competitors on two wheels encounter unparalleled difficulties, consistently pushing their limits. He emphasises the self-reliance demanded by the rally: “It’s all dependent on us through the stage, every day, and it’s pretty insane because your mistake is your mistake. You own it as well. That, and managing the risk you ought to take to be at the top. That’s probably the hardest thing.”

Dania Akeel, the first Saudi woman to receive a racing license, navigates the Dakar in a car without a windscreen. As she addresses the unconventional setup of her Taurus T3, she says that the feature gives her unobstructed visibility, and it’s not a negative aspect for her. When it comes to temperature or physical discomfort, Dania notes: “I don’t notice [those things] because I’m looking at the track. I’m thinking about the navigation, and I’m just really zeroed in.”

She continues: “On the road sections, it gets uncomfortable after multiple hours. [The back] gets a bit sore, a bit tense. But in the stage, I’m fine – there’s a lot of bumps, vibration, there’s movement. You’re being tossed in different directions, and there’s blood circulation. And the suspensions of our car are lightweight, so we dance.”

Driving is less smooth for Seth Quintero and his new T1 car. He reveals that he can feel the weight of the two-tonne vehicle due to the stiff suspensions, making it a lot less comfortable than his previous T3 cars. The rigidity of the vehicle makes every terrain undulation palpable, with the American describing: “You feel your eyeballs drooping. Whenever you hit the bottom of a dune, you can feel everything compress and fall. The seating position that you’re in isn’t always the greatest either, and sometimes the neck starts to hurt.” But Seth finds some solace in certain luxuries: “You got the air conditioning, the doors, the windows, you got all the hot commodities.”

The conversation then shifts to the mental aspect of Dakar racing, particularly the solitary experience for those on motorbikes. These athletes not only need to follow the road map and determine their direction, but they also must maintain control over every aspect of their motorbike.

“It’s just mental strength,” says Daniel. “You’re playing with your demons up in your head, pushing through everything, and trying to enjoy the ride.” He then stresses the importance of remaining hyper-concentrated on the challenging terrain: “You really have to focus on every stone you see in front of your front wheel, because that could be the end of the race, right in front of you.”

When asked about maintaining concentration on the track, Daniel reveals his method to keep his brain engaged and positive: “For the road sections, there’s a bit of singing going on. You’re trying to get your mood back up because the cold mornings get to you, and you just got to push on through it, and sing along all the way through.”

Music is also what energises the Australian rider in the early hours before the dark and cold start: “I go straight to the jukebox, pump the music to get fired up.” Despite the nerves kicking in, he ensures to have something to eat, and discloses that the first day is the most challenging, as athletes need to establish a new routine.

Talking about their mental state throughout the two race weeks, Dania highlights her approach of treating each day independently, avoiding carrying the baggage of a bad day into the next. Seth echoes this sentiment. To him, “every day is the first day,” allowing for a fresh start and a clear mindset.

The 21-year-old Californian explains: “Bike or car or whatever it is, it’s going to be draining no matter what. Anybody that says this race is super enjoyable, I think they’re lying a little. You can enjoy parts of it, but I don’t think you’re enjoying every second of it. You love racing, you love doing it all. But 12 days, no matter what you’re doing, is going to be a lot.”

But some things motivate riders and drivers to continue their mission of conquering Saudi’s Empty Quarter. Seth says it’s all in his mind: “As long as I can get back, see my crew’s happy, my team’s happy, I made people proud, and I get a text from my family – that’s all I need.”

However, the young W2RC champ has also some secret powers coming from something more concrete and closer to him: “This necklace – my mother gets one for me every year. It’s a necklace with my Dakar car number and my name. On the back, it’s got a bald eagle – the symbol of the United States of America.” He then shows a second necklace with a different pendant: “This one’s the real important. This is my father’s wedding ring. It symbolises a lot for me: it shows me grit, determination, love, all of it.”

Speaking of mental fortitude within the context of the Dakar, some believe the challenge is often represented by the harsh environment; but in some cases, it’s the athletes themselves who become the hurdle they need to overcome.

Dania shares that, before the race, she extensively targeted her mental performance to avoid falling into last year’s psychological pattern. In spite of securing a top-ten position in her first rally in 2022, fueled by high expectations, she anticipated a top-five finish the following year – but it didn’t unfold that way. “I was tense, I didn’t have fun,” she explains. “I just kept thinking about results, and I just became very caught in this mental space.”

Seth chimes in: “You become numb to most of the good-feeling emotions. I showed up to my first race in Dakar, and being a UTV [Utility Terrain Vehicles] guy in the States, I had pressure on me to go out and immediately win. And even now on T1, I’m on the best equipment, so I guess I’m expected to win.”

A video plays, showing Seth driving and not blinking for a long time. Dania notices the detail and says it’s because of Seth’s intense focus; but he responds it’s the look when he’s struggling: “That video right there was just me doubting myself and just trying to push further and further. And it gets frustrating in my own face. So, yeah, I think I’m honestly one of my biggest weaknesses.”

Yet, the right mindset enables riders and drivers to tackle the rough or untrainable aspects of Dakar. Dania attests that things changed for her when she shifted her focus to stage results and started enjoying the ride again. “If you remember that you’re here by choice, it eases everything. I’m not here because of results – that’s an outcome. But I love being here and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else,” she adds.

Seth reinforces the idea: “The more fun I have and the more I smile, the way better I am and the faster I go.” He then reminisces about a specific instance, underlining how revelling the moment can enhance sporting efforts: “I remember one day – the record year, we’ll call it – my navigator Dennis [Zenz] and I talked for the entire stage about sandwiches and food, and what we were going to do when we got home. I think there was only one moment where I thought I was racing. That day we won by almost 20 minutes, and that’s why the mental side of things for me is so much more important than the physical aspect.”

The fourth episode of ‘In The Dust’ invites viewers to contemplate the physical and mental fortitude required for Dakar’s daring journey. Can your average Joe take on such an endeavour? The answer, as explored by Daniel Sanders, Dania Akeel, and Seth Quintero, lies in the delicate interplay of determination, resilience, and a genuine love for racing.



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