We caught up with up-and-coming American racer Austin Jones during last-minute preparations for the 2021 Dakar Rally in Saudi Arabia. Speaking to us from Phoenix, AZ, Austin races for the Monster Energy Racing Can-Am team in his second Dakar start. Coming off of some solid results this year in European rally raid competition with his Maverick, Austin talks to us about preparing for the Dakar, how to keep his mechanics happy, how he explains his job—and how the Dakar “approach” has made him a better racer in North America.
Can-Am: How are things over there, AJ?
AJ: They're doing really well. Really just trying to get everything dialed before we leave here.
It’s getting close! Is there anything you can really do through the year to prepare for Dakar, coming from over in the U.S.?
AJ: Yeah, definitely. We do a lot of testing out in dunes. We have a replica of the race car that we have here in Phoenix. We take it out to the dunes and we do a lot of road book training. There's actually a decent amount of people who will make road books for us out in Nevada and Arizona and places. So we'll go out and go training quite a bit, and really just run the car as much as possible and get as many miles down.
And have you already been over to Europe for testing through the year?
AJ: Yeah. I've gotten a chance to go over there. I ran at a Spanish rally recently in October and when I was over there, I got a chance to go to Portugal and check out the [South Racing] shop and do quite a bit of testing over there for the new cars, the Monster Energy Racing cars. They're doing really well.
This will be your second Dakar. What's that like, approaching the race for the second time?
AJ: I'm really excited for it. I'm really excited because I'm familiar with the country now, Saudi Arabia, I'm a lot more familiar with the flow of the race and how a Dakar is put on, how to race a Dakar, really. I would say for 365 days, that's all I've been really thinking about is getting back over there and trying again. We thought about it a lot, and it feels a lot better going into it the second time, because I really have better idea of what to expect and stuff like that. So yeah, we're feeling pretty good about it. We're excited.
How is that process being a driver and having to race with that road book and your navigator, Gustavo Gugelmin? Does it take a while to get into a groove?
AJ: Yeah, I mean, it's just like anything else. I mean, you start off a little bit nervous and things like that, but once you start getting into it about 20 kilometers in or so, everything is just like you did it yesterday. You get the flow coming back, and you get into a nice rhythm, and everything starts falling into place. So yeah, definitely, it takes a little bit to get back into the swing of things. But I would say after about 20 kilometers on day one, we're going to be ready to go in our rhythm.
That's fantastic. Do pace notes help you attack the course having not seen it? Is that a good way to describe the rally notes and roadbook?
AJ: Yeah, 100%. They give us a lot of more information other than me just sitting there looking at it. They definitely help, as well as dangers too. If something doesn't look that bad, but then my navigator is telling me it's a “Double” or a “Triple Danger”. Then we know that it's a lot worse than what we see and go cautiously over it. So yeah, the notes are definitely, they're key. They're super important that we have good reliable notes and that he communicates to me well.
Is delivering reliable results each day one of the more challenging aspects of Dakar? Or are there other things that you would say challenge you more?
AJ: Yeah, I would say the consistency of it. To be able to run a good, fast pace and not make mistakes for 12 days in a row, over 250 kilometers (155 miles), usually every single day is mentally and physically exhausting. So you have to really stay on top of your game. You have to be consistent as much as possible.
One of the most important aspects is keeping everything consistent for every single day of the rally, because I can guarantee that 90% of the people, not everyone has a good day, every single day. There's going to be something that happens. So just try to keep those to a minimum and be consistent as possible is really the name of the game.
When things happen during the race—the mechanics are going to find out about it. What’s that pressure like for 12 days straight?
AJ: 100%. We come back to the bivouac and they're like, “Did anything happen? Anything that you want us to look at?” and stuff like that. And I'm like, “Yeah, I'm sorry. I clipped an A-arm on this over here. I'm sorry, bro. I know you're going to have to change it. I'm sorry.”
So yeah, the cooler you are with them, the cooler they are to you. That's really, it's something that I like about the team is that everyone that works for the team, they're all really cool. And we get along really well—that's why I know that we always have a really good car, every single morning when we set out at the line.
What do you do outside of the car that helps through such a long race?
AJ: It's really nice to get back to the bivouac and it's crazy on these rallies—when you're out in the middle of nowhere, it becomes kind of primitive: all you really want is like a nice bed and you want some nice food and a shower afterwards!
Even out there in Saudi Arabia, it feels just like at home when you have everything that you need. That really helps mentally and yeah, my own music and things like that. Just to try and keep us calm and not get all caught up in the craziness of the race.
And when something crazy happens while you’re in the car or something breaks…how do you handle that? Scream into your helmet? What goes on?
AJ: [Laughs] Yeah, there's a few words that get said within a quick amount of time, usually pretty loud. My navigator, he knows me. He knows, “Okay, AJ's going to freak out for a minute. But as soon as he's done freaking out, we can get right back in it.”
When situations like that happen, I mean, we sit there for a second, like “What?! That just happened to us!” What are we going to do? Sit there and look at the situation for a minute. And then instantly just start working on the car, starting to pull out the tools and just really adapt and overcome, do whatever you can to get to the end and try and do it as fast as possible.
You can't sit there and dwell on something and yell about it and yell about and yell about it. For every second that you sit there and freak out about it is another second that you're not driving towards the finish line, and that's valuable time.
South Racing has been developing the Maverick for a few years now, are they the same race cars now as they were for the 2017 / 2018?
AJ: I've been racing with South Racing—I think this is going to be my third year now—and yeah, it's insane how much the cars have changed, and they've just gotten better and better and better.
When I was at the workshop in Portugal where they prepare the vehicles, I saw all the work that goes into them, and I saw the drawing board where they make the changes. I saw the specs from the ‘Gen 1’ car in 2017/18. And now, the specs now for this car 2020/21. It's incredible how much work they've done and how much research and development they've really put into it.
And just little tiny things that you wouldn't think really make a difference. Take 10 of those little tiny things, and it's much better. They improve constantly. It's good to be a part of a team that they really put their time and their effort in to make those cars as perfect as possible for us.
Trade secrets aside, do you have an example of one of those tiny things that has improved or changed over the years from the ‘Gen 1’ car to a 2021?
AJ: Just overall—the stance of the vehicle, that hood scoop and the roll cage design. When I very first started racing, they were very tall. And now they've brought it down quite a bit, and made it a little bit more of a sleeker look. And that might give a bit more speed. So just things like that.
Fascinating. With what you know now about racing overseas, what have you been able to bring back to racing in North America? Have you changed your approach to anything?
AJ: Yeah, definitely. In North America, it's not a several day race. It's a one day race so it's very different. I mean, there's not, “Okay, we'll get them tomorrow” or “We can have a bad day today and then we'll have a really good day next time” and stuff like that. It's really just “Go, go, go!”
So definitely, with that, the more you go fast, obviously the easier it is to break things. Just bringing that little bit of that rally mentality of basically taking the Baja 1000, for example, and splitting it up mentally into stages, say, 250 miles a piece. So you check off the stage: we have this section to this section, check it off. Splitting up races in my mind and creating stages is really been something that I brought back from rally aspect that helps quite a bit.
Whether you did well or did poorly, at least mentally you can kind of toss that in the trash and move forward.
AJ: Yeah, yeah. 100% just like, “We maybe lost a minute there or we gained a minute there.” And so the next race, we can go into it with a strategy and we can adapt it on the fly: “We just did that section fast, so we should maybe slow it down for this next 250 miles.” And then the next one we'll see where we're at.
Or likewise, we got a flat tire, we lost five minutes over here. “So this next 250, this stage here, let's go ahead and push.” So yeah, it definitely helped quite a bit to learn how to do that and just kind of compartmentalize the race mentally. And I got all that from rally.
Do you have friends or family who aren't in the Dakar off-road kind of world and they're like, “What do you even do!?” How do you explain what you do for a living?
AJ: Other than really my dad and my mom, all my friends that I went to school with and things like that, they're not fully aware of even how it works. I'll show them the map and they'll be like, “You do all of this? You go around the entire country?”
And I'm like, “Yeah, man!” And they're like, "You race day after day after day?"
It's definitely a foreign concept to a lot of people in America, so it's definitely hard to explain, but yeah, it’s clear once we really show them the map and kind of explain everything like that. I like to compare it to the Tour de France. A lot of people understand it like that.
What would be something that would help people better understand the sport of off-road racing?
AJ: I think that a really good way to describe it is it's a lot more mental than people think. It's a lot more than just driving a car. Obviously, your car position and your aggressiveness and things like that and driving ability are huge. I mean, that's obviously the name of the game.
However, the mental aspect of it, being able to be consistent, being able to stay calm when not every single thing is going perfect.
Being able to deal with situations on the fly, say that your brakes are going out or something like that, steering isn't completely right, then to being able to adapt and overcome. It takes a lot more than just driving the car really fast. You have to have good predictability of the maneuvers of the vehicle.
It's a lot more thinking than just driving a car through the desert really, really fast. It's complicated.