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Brabec's journey from rough diamond to Dakar champion

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Brabec's journey from rough diamond to Dakar champion
By:
Co-author: Sergio Lillo
Jan 20, 2020, 2:28 PM

In five years, Honda rider Ricky Brabec has gone from a Baja rider little-known outside of his native California to America's first Dakar Rally winner. We spoke to the man who oversaw this remarkable transformation.

The significance of Brabec's triumph in the Dakar on Friday can barely be overstated. As well as becoming the first US competitor to win the legendary rally-raid in any class (although he was soon joined in that regard by SxS champion Casey Currie), he scored Honda's first triumph since 1989 and ended a mammoth KTM winning streak dating back to 2001.

A little over five years ago, the San Bernardino native was responsible for ending a similarly lengthy unbroken run for a manufacturer on the Baja 1000. Only this time, it was Honda that was left to rue the end of a long winning spell, as Brabec helped Kawasaki to honours in 2014.

It was off the back of that performance that Brabec was spotted, and after a sparkling rally-raid debut in the 2015 Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge, former Dakar rider Johnny Campbell - who would later go on to navigate for Robby Gordon in the cars category - was tasked by Honda with helping Brabec learn the tricks of the trade to become a true off-road rallying ace.

"A friend of mine, Quinn Cody, actually recommended him to the Honda team," recalls Campbell speaking to Motorsport.com. "So they gave him a try-out in Abu Dhabi in 2015. And soon after that, because he’s from my area in California, Honda requested that I connect with Ricky and we start a professional relationship, so that he had a base at home, a team.

"At that point, Ricky was a lot of raw talent, a strong guy. But for rally he needed some refinements for navigation and tactical thinking, strategies. We began training and doing things, and every year we’ve made a step in maturity, in his riding. 

"Last year Ricky was really primed to win the Dakar, so that was a difficult time when he had the mechanical problem. But this year there’s no surprise that Ricky’s been on point. He’s been working at it for five years now, and it’s his time. He’s matured into a champion."

#9 Monster Energy Honda Team: Ricky Brabec

#9 Monster Energy Honda Team: Ricky Brabec

Photo by: Honda Racing

Brabec's Abu Dhabi try-out, which resulted in a superb fifth-place finish on his FIM Cross-Country Rallies debut, led to the American bagging a place on the official HRC roster for the 2016 edition of the Dakar, in which he finished a creditable ninth as a rookie.

Almost unbelievably, that was Brabec's only finish on the event until this year. In 2017, he picked up his first stage win but was forced to drop out two stages from home due to radiator trouble. The following year, the American was set for a top-six finish only to suffer an electrical issue, this time on the penultimate test of the rally.

But it was in 2019 that Brabec was well and truly robbed, as an engine failure - again with just one stage to run - cost him a clear shot at victory. It was that year's performance that marked him out as a true champion-in-waiting, also earning him the number one spot in Motorsport.com's traditional top 10 Dakar competitors rankings.

Looking back on that journey since 2015, Campbell says one of the keys to Brabec's improvement was building up his confidence "around the machine, in himself about navigation, trusting the team around him".

He continues: "When I started working with him, there were some uncertainties, and he wasn’t really confident in the transition from California racer, Baja racer, to rally racer. It was so new to him that he was unsure of himself.

"So it was really important for us to start interjecting some of the experiences of rallying on a more weekly races, of navigation, and different things tactically.

"But now, fast-forward, Ricky has matured to understanding rally, understanding the strategy, when to go fast and when to hold back. His maturity has come up quite a few notches and now you can see the result."

#9 Monster Energy Honda Team: Ricky Brabec

#9 Monster Energy Honda Team: Ricky Brabec

Photo by: Honda Racing

It's also fair to say that this year's Saudi Arabia-based Dakar was an ideal platform on which Brabec could show his talents. As well as providing a level-field, the 28-year-old remarked on the similarities between some of the stages and the terrain of his native California.

"For me [it was] not too tough," he said. "This terrain is like my home so I really enjoyed the rocks, the fast stuff. So that’s kind of where I excelled in the rally. I like it when it’s fast and rough so I’m glad that we are coming back [to Saudi Arabia] next year."

"Because of Ricky’s background in desert racing, off-road racing, Baja, he has talent for reading the terrain at high-speed," Campbell points out. "His size is a benefit too; if you are taller you can see further [Brabec is 185cm or 6' 1'']. He has great eyesight too."

For Campbell, the biggest challenge was trying to keep Brabec focussed on the task at hand and not allow outside distractions to get in the way - a task made all the harder by the tragic passing of Brabec's ex-teammate Paulo Goncalves in a crash on Stage 7 of the rally.

"To go fast over this terrain, sometimes you have to take risks," says Campbell. "But for Ricky, he has such a natural talent to do it, it’s all about just managing the outside pressures and helping keep him focused. Sometimes athletes can be easily distracted by things.

"You have to say, ‘Ok - why are we here, what are we doing, what are we trying to accomplish?’ And keep him focussed on the goal.

"That’s been my job, to help mature him into the racer that he is. And now, being by his side – not always talking to him, but just being there, being calm and speaking some wisdom to him – that’s everything to a rider like Ricky. He needs that security."

Not surprisingly, Brabec himself was keen to pay tribute to his former HRC teammate and mentor Goncalves (pictured together below in 2016) once he'd secured his historic victory.

Paulo Goncalves, Honda, Kevin Benavides, Honda, Ricky Brabec, Honda

Paulo Goncalves, Honda, Kevin Benavides, Honda, Ricky Brabec, Honda

Photo by: Honda Racing

"He was a former Honda guy," said Brabec of the Portuguese rider. "He’s tried to win for years. But unfortunately we lost a good friend, really good competitor in Stage 7. I know he’s up there, looking down… I hope he’s smiling for Honda that we put it together.

"I wish Paulo was here because it would be amazing to share with him for sure."

Now Honda has finally got the Dakar victory that has eluded it ever since it formed its current factory squad in time for the 2013 edition, there's an argument to suggest the Japanese manufacturer could be about to embark on a decent winning streak of its own.

Spearheaded by Brabec, the undoubted standout rider of the past two years, Honda can almost certainly boast the strongest rider line-up now, featuring another rider that should have been a Dakar champion by now (Joan Barreda) and two others (Kevin Benavides and Jose Ignacio Cornejo) who have the potential to join Brabec on the roll of honour in future.

As for Brabec himself, he's already made it clear he wants to return to defend his title next year, and aim to become the first back-to-back Dakar champion on two wheels since Marc Coma managed the feat in 2015. And on the evidence of the last two weeks, it's going to take something special to knock the "polished cowboy", as Campbell calls him, off his perch.

#9 Monster Energy Honda Team: Ricky Brabec

#9 Monster Energy Honda Team: Ricky Brabec

Photo by: A.S.O.

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About this article

Series Dakar
Event Dakar
Drivers Ricky Brabec
Teams Monster Energy Honda Team
Author Jamie Klein