INSIGHT: Dakar champion Austin Jones charts Rally Raid path for American riders

The Dakar Rally has traditionally been a headache for American racers, until Ricky Brabec’s decisive victory on the motorcycles last year. There have been distinctions among four-wheeled classes in the past, but consistency of performance has eluded them. Enter Austin Jones, son of legendary Baja racer Jesse Jones, himself a Baja race winner (500 and 1000), and recently crowned 2021 FIA T4 World Cup Cross Country Rally Champion, and a pretty cool guy.

Last week Jones, 25, won the 44th Dakar Rally in the SSV (FIA T4) category. Remarkably, he did it without any stage wins. It was a testament to the focus and patience he and his Brazilian navigator Gustavo Gugelmin possess. After he returned from Dakar, I got to chat with Jones about his victory and his perspective on what it all meant.

The obvious question is why Rally Raid? He could arguably stand out in the American Southwest and Baja racing format. Rally Raid is not raced at this level in the United States, the closest equivalent being the Sonora Rally. Even stage races aren’t easy to come by, which is why Americans couldn’t find their way to Rally Raid. But as Jones says, that’s exactly why Rally Raid is for him.

“A few things attracted me to Rally Raid. Overall it’s really different – ​​the stage race format is a really cool way to get out there and race,” he says. “It’s not about going out there at full throttle or whoever is fastest that day. There’s a lot more strategy in there. For example, you don’t always want to win a stage. Finding the right starting position every day is part of the navigation strategy. And if you have a bad day, you still have a few days to try to make up for it. I think this whole strategy is really cool. And the travel part is awesome.

He adds: “If I have a••••n day at the Baja 1000, I have to wait a whole year. If I have a bad step, I can just wait a few hours and try again.

The Baja experience served Jones well where the intensive dune course of Dakar turned into more diverse terrain.

And it doesn’t hurt that he has all that Baja experience. Jones was raised on the tight, technical, rocky, berm-filled, tree-filled terrain of Baja. Rally Raid could feature more dune action, but on those days with Baja-style terrain, that’s where it finds the time.

The other part of the equation is its browser. Jones does not hesitate to share the spotlight with Gugelmin. “I consider him, and I think everyone does, to be one of the best in the world when it comes to boating,” says Austin. “And when it comes to driving Can-Ams, he knows the Can-Ams that South Racing has built – perhaps more than anyone. He’s really smart about letting me know what the car can and can’t do and how to handle anything mechanical. And we don’t really get lost very often.

“That’s a huge thing I learned when I got into Rally Raid, that’s how important the navigator is – more than racing in Baja. With Rally Raid, it’s really a 50- 50 when it comes to responsibilities, and sometimes even more about him.I often tell him that he drives the car, I just steer the steering wheel and press the pedals.

Jones and Gugelmin quickly formed an effective partnership that helped them weather the literal and figurative twists of Dakar.

“It was hard at first to put your destiny in someone else’s hands and obviously it’s really, really frustrating when you get lost, but at the same time you have to understand that your job can be harder than mine. They make these logbooks to try to get you lost on purpose.

“I started racing with Gustavo at the beginning of 2020 right after my first Dakar, when I changed navigators. And it was interesting since his first language is not English. But even so, we won a few stages in our first rally and I was surprised how well we worked together from the start and how easy it was to understand our communication. It worked out really well. I’m super happy with the way which everything happened.

Jones is adamant about the importance of having the right rally spirit between driver and navigator. It’s a step-by-step strategy, no pedal Baja mode to metal for 18 hours straight. He was able to develop that rallying mindset quickly with his full-season entry in the FIA ​​T4 World Cup for Cross-Country Rallies last year.

Referring to his overall triumph without a stage win, Jones says: “Our strategy was not to want to win any stages, especially in the first week. The plan was always: rest the day, get halfway through the race and then make a new plan after that. We wanted to be in the top five every day. After the rest day, we looked at where we were and who we were racing against and how everyone was doing in the race and made a plan from there. We decided which days to push and which days to sit down a bit. It was really back and forth until the last day we realized we had to go.

As for that dramatic last-day finish, in which he came from behind to win, that made such a great story? “For you and everyone else, but not for me,” he laughs. “It’s so epic, but for me it was so stressful.”

Jones feels he has evolved as a runner. “I think I got a lot smarter and grew a little bit here and there. I am much more patient and relaxed,” he explains. “I used to be really pissed off in the car, screaming at every little thing that happened. And now something is happening – you can’t do anything when you’re stressed. You do everything better in life when you’re more calm. I learned to step back for a second and relax and find a solution to the problem instead of getting upset because of the problem. I’m getting older and hopefully getting smarter, which helps me a lot, especially in rallies. Patience and consistency are the name of the game.”

The traits he learned behind the wheel in Rally Raid and which contributed to his success are also reflected in his demeanor. He’s calm on the phone, calmly confident and has a fun sense of humor, but according to Jones, “I wasn’t always like that, I was more on the rev limiter all the time. But I’m definitely much better. And according to my dad, I’m nicer to be around.

Jones’ attitude comes through in his discussions of his future racing plans. It’s clear he loves what he does and will stick with Can-Am “as long as they have me”. He soaks up the cultures he encounters as he travels the world and has a deep appreciation for the countryside he traverses – from the WRC rally-style roads on Spain’s Rally Andalucia, to the open desert of Kazakhstan and to all dunes in Abu Dhabi.

Austin Jones’ future is off to a good start. As the only full-time American entered in the SSV category of the 2022 FIA World Rally Raid Championship, he is well placed to be the first American to add “domination” alongside “winner” to his Rally Raid CV. on four wheels.

About Joseph Minton

Check Also

KTM 450 Rally Replica back to dominate the dirt in 2023

Rally-inspired styling is the current trend in the adventure bike market. Competitors such as the …