“It’s a day to remember.” Austin Jones shed a few tears in his helmet in the liaison after crossing the finish line of the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge. His past three years came rushing to the forefront at this moment together with the smiling face of his dad, Jesse, who was waiting for him at the arrival together with the Monster Energy Can-Am Team. “We made it! We did it!”. On the right seat of the Maverick X3 his faithful co-driver Gustavo Gugelmin.
“It takes a team to win. Thanks to Gustavo for being on point all week and doing an incredible job navigating and keeping me on pace. He is the best navigator in the world, especially in the Can-Am with his precious mechanical expertise. We get along so well in the cockpit. Although we live in two different continents, he is my best friend.”
All the hard work, the sacrifices, and the traveling from the USA back and forth to Europe, Africa, and Asia for the Dakar Rally and the five rounds of the FIA World Cup for Cross-Country Rallies paid off. Finishing sixth overall at the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge behind race winner Nasser Al Attiyah, American Austin Jones, and Brazilian Gustavo Gugelmin secured their FIA T4 crown in the FIA World Cup for Cross-Country Rallies after having dominated the season.
After two other Monster Energy athletes being the first American to win the Dakar Rally; Ricky Brabec in the bike category in 2020 and Casey Currie in SSV the same year, Austin Jones is the first American to take such a success in the FIA World Cup for Cross-Country Rallies. With this result, “AJ” - as he is called on the bivouac - continues to build a dynasty for the USA in the Cross-Country Rally discipline on a global scale.
We chatted with him after an emotional podium in Abu Dhabi, the fifth and penultimate round of the championship.
What does it mean to be the first American to win the FIA T4 World Cup in a sport dominated historically by Europeans?
It means a lot. It’s an amazing achievement and I’m proud to show the world that we have some good drivers. We proved that.
What are the sacrifices, and efforts that an American has to face to compete in a sport that takes place mainly in Europe, Africa, and Asia?
It’s a big commitment and a hard job considering that every flight takes around 20 hours of traveling with the connections. I remember when we were competing in Kazakhstan: it was great to explore for the first time a completely new country, but at the same time it was tough, considering that we had a 12 hour- time difference from home. Despite all, we made it. Kazakhstan was our second win after the Andalucia Rally.
Becoming FIA World Cross Country Rally Champion aged 25 and with only 3 years in the sport is incredible. How did you succeed to excel in such a short time?
A lot of work and dedication, for sure but you have to love and enjoy it. I inherited the passion for off-road racing from my dad Jesse. I spent my childhood watching him racing Trophy Trucks. He was my inspiration. This win is also for him. I know he is so proud of me at this moment and it’s fantastic that I could make this dream come true for both of us. We did this adventure together.
How did it all start?
It was in 2018 that I spent a year as my dad's co-driver in trophy trucks. The same year I won the Baja 500 and Baja 1000 in the Trophy Truck Spec class. Scott Abraham from South Racing was there to watch, and he invited me to participate in Baja Aragon and the Morocco Rally. I accepted and really enjoyed the format. This is how it all started.
Looking at the 2021 season, what was the turning point?
It was actually after the Dakar. Having finished second so close to the first was a bit disappointing, but also an extra motivation to improve all the aspects to become a better racer. Head down and I worked harder. Shortly, I realized that we were ready for the FIA World Cup, not only for participating but for winning.
You won the first two rounds, what was your approach afterward?
Winning is important because it boosts your confidence, but strategy is crucial. After two consecutive victories in Spain and Kazakhstan, we became strategic. Consistency was the winning key: we have finished in the Top5 every single stage of the championship, except when we suffered a mechanical issue on stage 4 in the Morocco Rally.
Can you describe your race strategy during the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge? And in the last stage?
It was the first time that I was racing there so before the race I went out to study the terrain. We wanted at least one stage win and we got it on day 2, then it was important to do a winning strategy. We went into the final stage with only one minute of advantage on our first title contender. The target was to score points. We took it easy at the beginning and then we pushed towards the end because we all want to do well. We finished second but with enough points to clinch the world title with a round in advance.
Finishing 6th overall in the car category won by Nasser Al Attiyah on a factory Toyota Hilux is a superb result.
Yes, to fight with the Toyotas, the buggies… on a Can-Am Maverick was something.
What do you bring back home from this long and intense 2021 season?
A lot of confidence. Race after race it grew in us.
Looking at the 2022 Dakar, do you consider yourself the man to beat?
We go there to win: this is the target. But we need to keep our head down and work hard because winning a 2 week-long race is the sum of many factors. For sure we start to make the difference, always with Gustavo as co-driver and the full support of the Monster Energy Can-Am Team.