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Casey Currie at the 2020 Rally Dakar in Stage 8

Casey Currie: Dunes Are my Turf

Jan 142020

“One who can exit it must be born again, while those inside remain missing.” That’s what the ancient inhabitants of Saudi Arabia’s Rub’ al-Khali desert reportedly said about this mythical portion of our planet, which covers much of the southern third of the Arabian Peninsula or roughly 250,000 square miles.

Welcome to the “Empty Quarter,” the world’s largest sand desert, whose eastern edges extend to the United Arab Emirates while its southern borders are in Oman and Yemen. A mystical place, indeed, and one that sees Dakar racers face the immensity of this remote and unknown with their roadbook as their only ally for which to safely enter and exit.

Sand dunes may look the same to casual observers, but they are not. These mountains of sand vary in shape, height, color, and depth. If you were not born into this environment, you cannot be one with it. When it comes to reading the desert and its changing and vast terrain, Casey Currie is at home, having grown up in Southern California, just two hours from the desert.


Leading the overall classification of the Side-by-Side Vehicle (SSV) category after eight of 12 stages, the American driving for the Monster Energy Can-Am Team spoke with us about surfing the dunes in what is perhaps the world’s most hostile natural environment.

How many deserts have you tackled?

Two hundred? I have driven in every desert in America, every desert in Mexico, Morocco, Peru, Portugal…

How do you learn to read the dunes?

All dunes are different. In Saudi, like Abu Dhabi, they are shorter and sharper on one side. Here, the wind plays a major role in forming and shaping the sand. Elevations could match the mountains in altitude, some of which reach more than 450 meters. The sand dunes here in Saudi are very soft. When the sun hits them, they can get even softer, making the surfing very challenging. In the US, we have some dunes like in Saudi but not so tall. In Peru, the dunes are very tall and the sand is soft, but it’s white so it makes very hard to drive during the day.

How is surfing the dunes in your Can-Am?

It’s like surfing the waves of the ocean, driving from the top of one dune to the bottom of another one, climbing the top of the next one and so on. It’s all about having the momentum and keeping the flow; you don’t want to stop abruptly.

Do you follow the instruction of Sean Berriman, your co-driver, or more your own intuition?

When it comes to sand dunes, it’s all about feelings. The co-driver helps you to keep the general direction but, as far as the flow, I follow my instinct and how I want to drive. You feel one with the desert.

Technically speaking, how is driving on soft dunes as opposed to hard sand?

It’s easier to get momentum and speed on hard dunes. On the soft ones, it’s more about flow; you have to keep momentum. In the Dakar, sometimes you have to drive in the dunes at night. That’s really hard. You can’t see anything; you are driving blind.

What is the feeling of being lost in the dunes?

It’s miserable. There is no one around, and you have to rely on yourself and your co-driver to get out of it. I have been lost many times in the sand dunes. It’s very easy to go off the CAP (a compass bearing in the roadbook competitors follow to the next reference) because you are focused on keeping the flow and you may end up in the wrong dune and head the wrong way.

What happens if you crash?

You don’t want to crash in the dunes. If you misjudge a dune, it’s easy to crash. With a bike, you can restart. With a buggy, if you are upside down, you need to get assistance.

Which tips would you give a newcomer?

Don’t get stuck! This is the number-one rule. Don’t stop, and try to keep the flow. Tip number two: You need to learn how to read the dunes. It’s actually a feeling. And thirdly, don’t jump a dune. It’s always a big risk because you never know what is hiding behind it.

Finally, how many types of terrain have you driven on this Dakar?

There have been way more rocks and river bottoms that I thought there would be, but the variety of terrain, especially in the first week, was very good for the competition because it made it more challenging. Dunes started with the second week and the discovery of the “Empty Quarter.” With 46 competitors, the competition in the Side-by-Side class is particularly demanding. I also like the new system of delivering the road book in the morning. There is less cheating, and it emphasizes navigation skills and strategy.

All in all, what is desert racing for you?

It’s challenge. It’s my life.