Can-Am: How are things over there, AJ?
AJ: They're going really well. Really just trying to get everything set 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 roadbook training. There's actually a decent amount of people who will make roadbooks for us out in Nevada and Arizona and elsewhere. So we'll go out and train quite a bit, and really just drive the car and get as many miles down as possible.
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 get into 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 key. It's super important that we have good reliable notes and that the co-pilot communicates to me well.
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 something that I like about the team: that everyone who 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 good 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 to 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 quickly, 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 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.
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 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 really puts their time and their effort into making these cars as perfect as possible for us.