Saturday, March 2, 2024

INTERVIEW: Sara Price breaks down 2024 Dakar Rally ticket, Mexico triple

Sara Price has raced nearly everything off-road, ranging from motocross bikes at the X Games to the Spark ODYSSEY 21 of Extreme E. In January 2024, she will add a Can-Am Maverick X3 at the Dakar Rally to that portfolio after clinching free admission to the race by winning the Sonora Rally‘s National Car/UTV class in late April.

While that alone is already an achievement, it was also the first race in a very busy two weeks for her in Mexican desert as she immediately followed with victory in her category at the NORRA Mexican 1000 and a runner-up at the Dos Mares 500. By the end of the stretch, she had run over three thousand miles (4,828 km) in the same X3 despite not having time to catch her breath or practice.

The Checkered Flag had the opportunity to speak with Price on Friday about her “triple duty” and qualifying for Dakar in just her first year as a Can-Am factory driver.

“It was crazy. It was 3,000 miles too, not kilometres, which is crazy. I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, we went that far,’” Price remarked. “It’s been absolutely amazing and I leave on Monday again to go back down to Mexico to go do Trail of Missions with all the factory Can-Am racers, so I’m going to hop back in my race car that I just raced 3,000 miles in and we’re about to go do it all again just for fun this time, so no racing.”

Winning Sonora

She arrived at Sonora as one of nine UTV entries in National Car/UTV, which is separate from the FIA-sanctioned World Rally-Raid Championship that oversees such vehicles in T3 and T4. She began the rally on a strong note by winning the Prologue and went on be the category’s only multi-time stage victor as she also took Stages #2 and #3. Even in legs she did not win, she still finished second twice while the last leg was overshadowed by a thirty-two-minute penalty after otherwise setting the second-best time of the day.

Officially, she set a total time of seventeen hours, fourteen minutes, and four seconds. Runner-up Jorge Antonio Cano Félix placed nearly an hour back at 17:59:33. Both drivers, along with Carlos Castro and defending race winner Daniel Gonzalez Reina, were part of the Road to Dakar subcategory for those who without Dakar Rally experience to earn a free slot in the event if they win certain races like Sonora; Francisco Alvarez won the RtD in bikes.

“A difficult thing was because we were in the national class, meaning we used a different rally system than the FIA classes, so we actually had to be about sixty meters closer to our waypoints,” she explained. “All the FIA classes took off before us, so a lot of their lines missed those waypoints, so we had to be on point with our waypoints no matter what because we could be on a road to the left of a fence but our waypoint’s through the fence on the right, so we have to definitely be on our ‘A’ game in order to hit our marks and be on point. It was very important to do so but the main thing was keeping the car together. In rally racing, it’s definitely a longevity thing in the attrition rate.”

Besides Dakar, the victory was a strong rebound for Price after her 2022 Sonora Rally ended in disaster: on the third day, National Moto rider Sebastián Olarte went off course after misjudging a corner and attempted to make up lost time by going backwards on the route in the dust, only to be hit by Price’s UTV head-on. Olarte suffered just a broken finger and eventually returned to compete in the 2023 race.

“It was the scariest moment of my life to be honest, to think that I hurt someone or potentially worse,” Price recalled. “But he was all good, he is awesome. He’s a trooper and he actually raced this year and I got to see him, so that was pretty cool.

“I’ve had some unfortunate luck at Sonora over the years, so this year, to turn my luck around my first year with Can-Am, doing it in the X3 for the first time, absolutely it was amazing. I can’t say enough about the unit and the team that I brought down there. I had Alsup R&D down there and their whole crew and I just was blown away with the camaraderie we had within our team and this little, small but mighty team and it obviously showed in the results.”

After a longtime stint with Polaris, Price made the jump to Bombadier Recreational Products’ Can-Am for 2023 and established her own team SP Motorsports. It did not take long for her to adjust to life with the Maverick, excelling at King of the Hammers in February before mechanical problems ended her race. A month later, she won the Mint 400’s UTV Pro Super Stock Turbo class.

Her new Can-Am colleague Rodrigo Ampudia, who has also chatted with The Checkered Flag, was the highest finishing UTV overall at the SCORE International season-opening San Felipe 250 in early April, four weeks before Price claimed Sonora.

“Can-Am has been absolutely amazing,” Price said. “The professionalism, the quality of people, equipment, just the way they handle themselves has been such an amazing thing to do with them. I can’t say enough. Even when I need parts last minute, like I got signed by Can-Am at the beginning of the year, I had three weeks to prepare for King of the Hammers and I had parts in two weeks. That’s unheard of, and that does not happen with the OEM.

“It’s been honestly incredible, and their support from the side of racing, you have Simon (Belzile, BRP racing technical manager), you have the R&D department that works closely with me and us to make sure we have the best equipment and teach us about it. It’s been incredible. I’m very grateful to be a part of the Can-Am family and I’m absolutely loving it. Maybe my missing link was Can-Am and then also my team I created this year because now we’ve kind of been unstoppable and I’m so proud of it.”

NORRA and Dos Mares

Price did not have much time to celebrate her win as her team took off from the Sonora finish in San Luis Río Colorado to the Mexican 1000’s contingency and start line in Ensenada. She was not the only competitor doing both races as bike riders Matthew Glade, Mike Johnson, and Matt Sutherland also took part; Glade and Sutherland, the latter the Sonora Malle Moto winner, rode on their own as part of the Ultimate Ironman Challenge.

Racing in Evolution Stock Turbo UTV, Price finished fourteenth overall among the four-wheel vehicles. After placing second in the class to wrap up the first of five days, she led at the end of Days #2 and #5 to set a total time of 19:51:46. Even twenty minutes in penalties did not dent the final result as she beat Benjamin Crawford by 21:15.

Price was not her team’s only happy camper after completing the long-distance double as the effort was a family affair for her co-drivers Jeremy Gray and his daughter Saydiie Gray.

“That family is absolutely amazing,” Price began. “Jeremy has such a pedigree behind him and knowing what he knows about the Can-Am platform as well as the navigator, so it’s been great having him because he’s so knowledgeable when it comes to the mechanics, how to drive them to keep the car alive, and he’s just such a great human being. To have him in the right seat and the way he is just always so enthusiastic and nice and motivated, it’s just been great.

“Last minute, all of a sudden, Jeremy was already going to NORRA with (Mitchell) Alsup, and so I didn’t have a navigator and I decided to go last minute as well. I was like, ‘Okay, so who’s going to ride with me?’ And he’s like, ‘Let me call my daughter.’ She’s only sixteen years old, and that girl has such a bright future ahead of her, she absolutely killed it. I’m blown away with her. She reminds me of my best friend and my navigator mainly, who is Erica Sacks who owns Waypoint Nav, and I was like, ‘You talked to me just like Erica does.’ I was like, ‘That’s impressive.’

“Like it’s pretty cool. Me and Erica, years and years and years in the seats next to each other, and so to have someone get thrown in there at such a young age and be so confident and on point is huge.”

Her fortnight of action did not stop there. Already in La Paz for the weekend, she decided to check out the adjacent Dos Mares 500. Of course, this rather spontaneous decision came with catches of not having pre-run the track beforehand and even the language barrier as she and Alsup were not Spanish speakers. Both predicaments were even exacerbated by her and Alsup deciding to trade driving and navigating duties during the event.

“I don’t like the navigator seat,” Price quipped with a laugh. “Mitchell absolutely killed it in the driving seat. He did in the navigator seat too. He’s all around great from navigating to me and then also driving, but I was just so worried. It was a night race so then I’m just trying not to make sure I don’t get sick or if I’m starting to get sick, I need to take some Dramamine to make sure we capitalise on it. It was a rough navigator seat for me, but I think we did okay. We did pretty good, so I still had my wits about me. I did a good job, but I feel like I could have been a lot better, but I was just so worried about getting sick.

“We had nothing, like we legitimately didn’t even have fuel stops. We technically did have fuel stops, but we didn’t really have them planned and so we missed all of them, and so we had to just keep stopping and asking people for fuel. We stopped probably ten times, which I guarantee you we probably would have won if we would have had our programme a little more dialled for Dos Mares.

“We definitely didn’t have anything planned when we were on the starting line. Mitchell just looks over at me and he’s looking through the notes and he goes, ‘Sara, these are in Spanish. We don’t speak Spanish.’ So then we were kind of like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ I have a full dictionary, like I started writing down notes in my Notes in my phone and I was going to save it to the back of my screensaver so I could just hit it and it would give me a key like, ‘Dere means right’, like, ‘IQZ means left’. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, how are we going to do this?’ We ended up getting notes last second, like as we’re lining up to take off. A fellow American team came over and was like, ‘Hey, we got notes for you.’ I was like, ‘Thank you so much.’”

Despite the language scare and lack of vehicle prep beyond standard tuning, the Price/Alsup duo still finished second in Class 29. Their time of 7:06:35 was slightly over twelve minutes back of winners Tomás Cantor and Steve Barry.

“It’s been unbelievable,” she described. “One race after another and it was non-stop. We had one day of rest in between Sonora and NORRA and it wasn’t really rest, it was pretty much make it happen to get to NORA and tech and get everything done. And then to do Dos Mares, we’re already there, why not add another one to it? We didn’t even trailer our car to the starting line. We went from Cabo in the race car, total rally style, and drove it to the starting line of Dos Mares. We just kept it going.”

Credit: Colin McMaster

Chasing Dakar

“It’s fully sunken in and, as you guys know, making the commitment is a huge one itself, but now it’s putting the pieces of the puzzle together in order for us to make it happen. Either which way, I’ll break the bank account to make it happen, so we’re going.”

Sara Price

Running the legendary Dakar Rally will be a culmination of eight years of dreaming and even longer of racing practically everything in the off-road realm. She started her career in motocross and medalled at the X Games before switching to four wheels. In 2016, she became the first female Stadium Super Trucks driver and made sporadic appearances through 2020. Another truck racing milestone was set in 2019 when she completed the Baja 1000 solo en route to SCORE’s Trophy Truck Spec title.

Price was also first driver signed to an Extreme E team from outside its “Drivers’ Programme” for the inaugural season in 2021, spending two years in the series with Chip Ganassi Racing and winning the first Island X Prix the following season. Other series in which she has competed include the Lucas Oil Off Road Regional Series and Nitro Rallycross’ SxS division; Price first spoke with TCF in 2017 after testing a Global Rallycross Lites car, though she ultimately did not race. The 2016 Off-Road Motorsports Hall of Fame Rising Star has also worked as a stunt performer for films like Jumanji: The Next Level.

Sonora was not Price’s first forays into cross-country rally either as she and Sacks raced a UTV at the all-women’s Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles in Morocco in 2015.

“I’m always up to racing something new and challenging myself to learn to get better and better,” stated Price. “I’ve raced all sorts of different disciplines and all sorts of different kinds of vehicles. One thing for sure is I’m really quick at adapting and so I can get into a new vehicle and have a pretty good pace off the bat, and I think I’m a very smart driver as well as smooth and aggressive. Those three make for a good recipe as long as I keep my aggression under control when it comes to longevity stuff.”

She will be the ninth driver with Extreme E experience to have raced at Dakar, joining Nasser Al-Attiyah, Mattias Ekström, Cristina Gutiérrez, Jutta Kleinschmidt, Sébastien Loeb, Carlos Sainz, Laia Sanz, and Molly Taylor. She is also the fourth SST alumnus to race at Dakar after series founder Robby Gordon, Sheldon Creed, and unrelated bike racer Toby Price.

Al-Attiyah, Ekström, Gutiérrez, Loeb, and Price raced at Sonora for the W2RC, with Al-Attiyah winning the FIA overall.

“Nasser has always been a big supporter and advocate for me to get to Dakar, so that’s pretty awesome,” Price commented on the defending World Rally-Raid Champion and five-time Dakar winner. “The others, they all know how much I’ve been wanting to go to Dakar. It’s such a big deal for me, and they all say like, ‘Hey, they need an American female over there to represent America and they’re lacking that and they’re missing that.’ They see it. It’s just the hardest thing is the disconnect from America to the European racing. It’s very hard to know the people there because obviously we’re not there. There’s just a huge disconnect that makes it very difficult to be an American to race that race.

“But now, it’s starting to open doors, starting to get a little bit more accessible. I switched to Can-Am because I knew you had to be in a Can-Am to race Dakar and to be competitive, and that’s been my goal and they know that from the start. It’s been an amazing journey so far, and I’m super stoked to have all this support from the people that currently do race Dakar.”

Even with her ticket punched, she still has much to get sorted out including a team to drive for and a co-driver. It is likely that Price will compete in T4, which is reserved for production UTVs versus the race-specific prototypes in T3.

South Racing Can-Am is one of the top UTV outfits in the W2RC, while FN Speed Team is also a Can-Am T4 operation; Red Bull Can-Am Factory Racing, although leading both T3 and T4 points, is obviously out of the question as Price is a Monster Energy-sponsored driver. Can-Ams have won T4 at Dakar every year since 2018, with Eryk Goczał achieving it on début in the most recent edition.

“We’re still trying to put the puzzle together, so it’s securing a team first, which team I will be on, and then after that it will be training, lots of training with Jimmy Lewis, so Jimmy Lewis is where I’m going to be living at,” Price explained. Lewis placed third in bikes at the 2000 Dakar Rally and currently runs the Jimmy Lewis Off-Road Riding School. “Just trying to secure a team, secure a navigator, if it’s going to be Sean Berriman (2022 Sonora navigator) or if it will be Jeremy Gray, and go from there.”

With Dakar being one of, if not the most daunting off-road race in the world, Price is not setting her expectations excessively high. Like TCF interviewees Aliyyah Koloc and Ace Nilson prior to their maiden Dakar Rally last January and virtually everyone when they go there for the first time, her primary objective is to complete the race.

“I think overall, Dakar is a whole ‘nother monster, right? Go in there your first year, you got to stay humble,” she opined. “I think going there and finishing is the goal. That would be the ultimate goal. Hopefully have some good stages in there that can highlight that we belong up front, that would be a cherry on top of the whole thing, but that is definitely the goal is first to finish and then after that, just go.

With Dakar eight months away, Price is unsure about what else she wants to do afterwards but expressed her interest in contesting the W2RC.

“I want to do the World Rally-Raid Championship, that is the goal, as well as Dakar, so that’s the ultimate goal,” Price concluded. “After that, I don’t know. I honestly can only think about maybe going back to Baja in a Trophy Truck or having my own team of some sort, but yeah, that’s honestly the ultimate (is) to do the World Rally Championship.

“Just all my sponsors, thanks to them and everyone supporting and our incredible team that we’ve built. It takes everyone to kind of make this all happen. I’m just super grateful and happy that we have such a good fan base and such a good group of family and sponsors.”

Interview on YouTube

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