How did it all start?
I grew up in a motorsport family in Anaheim Hills, California, two hours from the desert. At home everything was about off-road racing. I started competing on motorcycles when I was a kid. By 16 I jumped behind the wheel of my first race truck. My highlights? Three Baja 1000 wins, I won two Torc Short Course World titles and scored the Torc Short Course and the Score Baja championships. Last January, on my debut on the Dakar with the Monster Energy Can-Am Team, I finished fourth in the “Side by Side” category.
What was different on this Dakar?
Many things, starting with the terrain. Peru was mainly sand, here with an incredible variety of terrain: rocks, sand, high-speed piste, dry river beds, canyons.
As for my race, last year was my rookie year, and I made the mistake of facing this new challenge with a co-driver I didn’t know, and this created a lot of misunderstanding in the cockpit. It was frustrating; I should have taken it more seriously. We also faced many technical challenges, but it was a good lesson. I also learned about the format of the race, the strategy and the fact that winning stages doesn't put you in a good spot for the following day as you generally lose time opening the track. It’s better to have a consistent pace every day in the top three, top five.
How was the atmosphere in the car with Sean Berimann, your navigator?
This is a lesson I learned last January. The rhythm and the pressure are so high that you need a perfect understanding in the cockpit. Back from the Dakar last January, I started to look for a nagivator among the close circle of professionals around me. The name of Sean came up. I’m really happy of this choice. Speaking the same language is crucial. We understand each other, more and more every day. We also make jokes or we speak about common friends in the long liaisons.
Who has more adrenaline between the two?
We are a good combination! Sean is there to tell me where to go, but it’s also good to calm me down. The last two days were very stressful, as we were leading and we were getting so close to the end. We wanted to make sure that we did no mistakes.
What about the vehicle?
It’s a young project and we had a new Can-Am that was completely rebuilt after testing. This Dakar was definitely an ultimate test also for the vehicle. The weakest point was the axle, but the team has already identified the issue and they will work on it. All in all, I’m very satisfied.
You were leading from Stage 3, was there a particular day when you could make the difference?
There was not a particular moment. We went through lots of up and downs, with the battle for the win open and the gaps being closed. A lot of the guys behind us started to push hard, making more mistakes and breaking their cars. This went to our advantage, but we had to keep a consistent solid pace without navigation mistakes. We had to keep the car in one piece till the finish. Day after day we built some margin, but this didn’t allow us to sleep well. Even when we arrived on the eve of the final stage with 45 minutes lead.
Who were your main rivals? Were you studying them along the stage?
Our main competitors were Chaleco Lopez, winner of the last edition, and Kariakin Sergei from Russia. Every day when they were catching us or we were catching them, we would study each other and try to stay together so the car in front showed if there were ditches.
How do you prepare for a stage?
The night before we go through the stage. Attending the evening briefing is very important because it gives you an idea about what we will go through the following day in terms of terrain and difficulties, info about tyre pressures and if we have to tune the suspension a little bit different for the day. That fine tuning is very useful. From his side, Sean prepares the road book, so afterwards he has a deeper vision of the stage.
The success was also the result of a perfect team work.
Till the rest day there were no team orders; everyone was fighting for the lead. It was just unfortunate that our two team-mates at Monster Energy Can-Am, Gerard Farres and Reinaldo Varela, broke in the early stages and lost a lot of time, so they were out of the battle for the win.
On the rest day we had a team meeting and defined a strategy to make sure that the team was united to achieve the ultimate result.
How did it feel to have Gerard and Reinaldo riding with you in the stage?
It’s a sense of security and to know that if something happens, they can help us to fix the issue. They carry spare parts for us. In the end what counts is bringing the team on top of the podium. For example, on Stage 7, we were taking the start in seventh behind Gerard and Reinaldo. They pulled over 500 metres from the start to wait for us so that we could ride together that day. Gerard was in front, opening the track, so that we could have a better understanding of the terrain and Reinaldo was behind us, in case something happened.
What was the most challenging moment?
The sharp stones in the first days made our life more complicated. This is a point we need to consider and try to find solutions for in next year’s event. For example, on Stage 2, we had two punctures and used up our spare wheels. We were nervous because you know you don't have any more of them, so we were forced to slow down.
Which stage do you remember with pleasure?
The first one brought us from Jeddah to the north of the country. We had the Red Sea on one side, the mountains on the other. The variety of terrain was impressive, a rich appetizer of this year’s rally.
Do you have time to make jokes with Sean on the stage?
Sometimes, especially when we see someone driving wild! But in general we are fully focused and the conversation is all about directions. On the long liaison, it’s a different story; we chat about our common friends at home, we make jokes. Sean lives in Las Vegas, three hours away from me, but we are in the same circle. It’s good to talk, but it’s the same noise for a long time. The speed limit is 130 km/h…
Today Sean celebrated his 28th birthday, you couldn’t make a better present…
Yes, it was awesome. It was great to share this experience with him. He is on his sixth Dakar, and he has a great achievement to celebrate.
What was running through your head when you knew that you had won the Dakar Rally?
I felt blessed for the opportunity to be here. It’s a lifelong dream. I cannot believe that it’s real.
How does it feel to be the first American to win on four wheels?
I’m very excited for the United States. For me it’s the highlight of my career. I will need some days to settle down and realize that this is real. It’s a great day. With Ricky in the bike category, we had two Americans on the first spot of the podium. Unbelievable. It will be a day to remember!