Get ready! Our friends at WestX1000 who have been delivering rally coverage over the years are reporting live from Russia as the Silk Way Rally prepares to kick off.
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The Silk Way Rally’s B-Day Bash Begins…
It’s May 2020. Tension is building as a sudden outbreak is causing worldwide shutdowns, ultimately cancelling every single event scheduled within the foreseeable future. The Silk Way Rally (SWR) organization held onto hope for as long as possible, unaware that the pandemic would result in far more devastation than missing their ten-year jubilee. Hardly anyone was left dry after COVID’s first few waves, but now as the water recedes a bit, some are able to towel off and carry on. And perhaps this modest yet substantial race can finally celebrate its birthday in style – but maybe with fewer friends at the party, less countries to hop and much more caution than is usually expected at a bash meant for motorsports’ finest adventure-seekers.
Fast-forward to July 1st, 2021, and a crowd – sporadically veiled by the now customary face curtains – stood closer to each other in Sobornaya Square to watch the starting ceremony than most have stood near anyone else in over a year. 2020 was supposed to honor the rally’s 10th anniversary with plenty of pomp and circumstance, stealing a page from Jules Vernes’ “Around the World in 80 Day’s” in an extravagant cross-continental chase from Moscow to Beijing by way of Kazakhstan, Mongolia and, of course, China. However, with quarantine barely in-conclusion, Deputy Race Director Luc Alphand had to concoct an alternate plan-of-action. Departing from Omsk, Siberia’s former Capitol, the competition will spend two days battling its way through Russia hooking southeast into Mongolia for the remaining eight stages – of which two are marathons. Ten days in total, no breaks and plenty of trials to contend with outside of the Silk Way bubble, this is about to be one hell of soirée. One which, according to the organization, will be the most televised Silk Way Rally to date, receiving extended international TV coverage with the signing of distribution deals in more than 180 markets across Europe, Asia, MENA, Africa and the Americas.
“We are very pleased to note that the TV coverage of Silk Way Rally is growing all over the world. Silk Way Rally is not only a great sporting show, but also a powerful communication platform for leading brands, especially through extensive broadcast coverage. We are confident that this year’s season, will deliver another success story in terms of reach and exposure around the world, building on past successes.” – Natalia Yanborisova, Development Director of Silk Way Rally
Between tv, social media and, of course, editorial, the SWR will invade innumerable screens throughout the first half of July. And with recognition comes responsibility. As part of an eco-conscious initiative, the organizers were particularly attentive to the needs of competitors entering natural gas, methane, propane and hydrogen powered vessels – offering benefits to such entrants. They also gave free entry to all-women race teams or competitors under 30 in an effort to promote this format of competition to those communities. Other noteworthy updates come from the juggernaut KAMAZ-Master team, who came to Omsk ready to dominate – possibly in their remodeled K5 rally truck. The KAMAZ-435091 is a response to upcoming changes in FIA technical regulations being implemented in 2022. The Silk Way is the perfect place to test the rig and see if it outperforms its relatively antiquated cousins. The Russian powerhouse is also running their own “outreach” program, shaping and incubating a group of budding drivers and mechanics – one of the young men at the helm of the team’s newest machine. Whatever the age of the driver or generation of the camiones, these giants have a grace which defies the laws of physics, and they’re anything but gentle.
With the 2019 Silk Way Rally winner, Sam Sunderland, absent from the current edition, there’s a higher chance of seeing the event’s first American at the top of the podium. At Sunderland heels during the race’s last iteration, Andrew Short (#29, Monster Energy Yamaha) took Second Place effortlessly, relying on his famously consistent riding and navigation choices to achieve the accolade. Not too far into his Rally Raid career, transitioning from success in Motocross and Supercross in the US to success with roadbooks around the globe, Short has been a figure in the Top Ten among his Factory colleagues since his inception in 2018 – winning a champion title at the 2019 Morocco Rally. But this year is his opportunity to use his expertise at high-speed, big air and mindful racing to create another historic moment for America on the SWR podium in Ulaanbaatar. It’s impossible to say, yet, if he’ll be able to outdo his adversaries, to include fellow countryman and newly signed Rockstar Energy Husqvarna Factory rider Skyler Howes (#10) – who, if we remember, is essentially wearing Short’s old black, white and gold hat. But he’ll definitely be a challenger of whom we should pay close attention.
Speaking of Howes… After years of hustling the off-road circuit as a privateer – selling all of his most valuable belongings in a Hail Mary attempt to catch OEM attention at the 2021 Dakar Rally, he finally reached his lofty goal of signing with a Factory team due to a spectacular performance in Saudi Arabia last January. It’ll be a while until we stop talking about his 5th Place finish as a grassroots pro, which led him to joining the Husky team in the Spring. No doubt he’ll be bringing his A-game to Siberia because this Utah local has even more to prove. Although we won’t be seeing the likes of ’19 Dakar champ Ricky Brabec (actually, none of the Monster Energy Honda riders will be present), there was still a significant turnout of Factory teams at the Starting Ceremony in Omsk. Red Bull KTM, Hero Motosport and GasGas will join Husqvarna and Yamaha in the Bike category, while the SONIK Team will take on only one opponent in the Quad class. Just twenty-five athletes will grab hold of handlebars on July 2nd, while the auto categories will also see an abbreviated list of entrants. But don’t be mistaken, there will be no shortage of excitement, surprises and that filthy race drama we can’t get enough of.
Between the T1, 3, 4 and 5 classes, the Cars still only count for 30 of the participating vehicles, however, under these circumstances, it’s a generous number as far as safety regulations are concerned. Likewise, the leader in Autos, Nasser Al-Attiyah, won’t be making an appearance this year, which leaves space for other contenders to take his place on the highest step. The Side-by-Sides will see their fair share of fighting with names like South Racing Can-Am, Xtreme Plus and Monster Energy Can-Am in the mix. Austin Jones, the promising young driver from Phoenix, is a favorite for a class win, but he doesn’t plan to let his guard down. Even if he races flawlessly, surpasses opponents in both speed and navigation, it could still all end with too many pinch flats, an electrical gremlin or a broken swingarm – luck has a bit too much to do with the outcome.
“Super stoked to be back here. I raced in 2019 and had a little bit of trouble in a couple of stages. We finished 5th, so I’m definitely excited to have some redemption and achieve a better position with this one. Really looking forward to getting into Mongolia in the really open, fast sections. Something I like a lot. It’s going to rad, and I’m excited for this race!“ – Austin Jones, #400 Monster Energy Can-Am
Omsk sweltered in that same heatwave sweeping much of the northern hemisphere. 95-degrees Fahrenheit seems like child’s play compared to a staggering 114-plus in the Pacific Northwest, but when you’re draped in full race regalia or exposed to direct sunlight or your hotel with a 4.5-star Google rating just happens to not have any air-conditioning (or even just a fan), these temps are debilitating. It adds another element to the complexity of rally raid, not just on-course but in the day-to-day. There’s no rest at night nor reprieve at mid-morning. A breeze through the window carries a variety of winged organisms into the room only comparable in diversity to the inside of a yoga instructor’s intestinal tract. As if dusty face masks, fist bumps for handshakes and ta constant threat of SARS-CoV-2 weren’t enough of a curveball, but yet when you stroll past the team canopies at Parque Firme or scan the audience surrounding the podium, what you see isn’t the agony you’d expect from auxiliary obstacles. Quite the contrary. People went about their business as usual, as if no number of hurdles placed in front of them could hinder their resolve to reach the finish line. And why not? The people at Silk Way want to be here. They’ve all dropped stacks of dollars, euros and rubles, signed up for at least six, possibly eight, invasive PCR throat stabs and dedicated a minimum of two weeks of their time to reach Day One.
So maybe the Silk Way Rally didn’t fill the proverbial venue or half the entertainment cancelled, but at least they know that the few guests who showed up really meant it. And the two countries who engaged the group – especially in this era of uncertainty – will be cherished for a lifetime.