There are few major motorsport events worldwide that haven’t seen a winner come from the United States of America, and the list seems to shrink every year. The Dakar Rally is one of the few remaining holdouts on that ever-decreasing list, but it won’t be there for long if Casey Currie has his way.
One of America’s most uniquely talented off-road drivers has been putting his passport to good use this year. He’s earned an X Games gold medal and Ultra 4 wins at both the Mint 400 and Crandon World Championships this year, but he also dove headfirst into rally raid competition with the South Racing Can-Am team and placed fourth in the UTV class in his first try at the Dakar Rally. Now, he’s only got one thing on his mind: Dakar.
Before adding yet another trophy to his mantle with a victory at this year’s Baja 1000, Currie sat down with us to talk about what drew him to Dakar, the biggest differences between rally and desert racing, and how he’s been preparing for an even stronger finish in 2020:
First things first: it’s hard to think of anybody in the world of off-road who’s had a busier year than you have behind the wheel! How has your 2019 been?
It’s been good! We started out with Dakar finishing fourth, which to me is a total loss—but I guess in the overall standing out of 50 other UTVs it’s not really that bad of a day, or that bad of a week. But no, Dakar was a crazy experience and it was good at the same time. We learned a lot, and next year we want to come back and do everything better.
From there, we went straight to Aspen for Winter X Games and the inaugural Jeep X-Challenge which I was able to take the Gold. Then we headed to the lakebed of (King of the) Hammers and I think we finished fourth. Then it was the Mint 400 where we won in the Ultra 4 class. Then we raced the (Baja) 500 for the first time in a UTV which was a brand-new experience. From there I went to Crandon and took the win in the Ultra 4 night race. Also, on the rally side, I went to Abu Dhabi and raced my Can-Am to the win and followed that up with another win at Rallye du Maroc, and now I’m preparing for the Baja 1000.
You must have a lot of frequent flier miles.
Yeah, and the funny thing is I say I gotta slow down. But it’s not getting any slower any time soon!
There aren’t a lot of American drivers at Dakar. What compelled you to want to go to Dakar, and how did you put the program together?
I messaged the guys from South Racing and was like, “Man, what do I need to do?” And they actually gave me the first opportunity, I flew over last year and raced the Merzouga Rally as my first event with the team.
Before all that, I went to Sonora Rally. I was like, “I’m gonna learn, let’s go ahead and do it.” The event is put on by Darren Skilton down in mainland Mexico. I went down there and I fell in love with it. Because the fact of the matter is, it doesn’t matter how much money you have or how big your motor is. It’s about the whole package. You’ve gotta have the navigation skills, you’ve gotta have the team, you’ve gotta have the race car, you’ve gotta have it all. And I love that factor. There’s no helicopter flying over you, there’s no notes or pre-running, it’s all about that day and what you can see in front of you and how well you can drive without knowing the terrain. That suits me well.
After that, I met with Scott at South Racing and he gave me the opportunity to go to Merzouga Rally. I was leading Merzouga overall until the last day, when I actually crashed out. Learned my mistake totally. But from there, Monster Energy got behind me along with Can-Am. And basically we were like, alright, let’s try to figure out how to go compete at Dakar. We ended up putting the program together with South Racing. And from there, the rest is history.
What did you learn in those first few events that you took to Dakar, and what did you learn at Dakar that was totally different from everywhere else?
Well the crazy thing is that all these other rallies you do, racing at Baja, or racing Best in the Desert or SCORE, it’s all doing the same thing. And in rally it’s not. All the events that I’ve done, they’re all very similar. But then when you go to Dakar, it’s a totally different game. Everything about it is more difficult and there’s nothing like it—there truly is nothing like it, and that’s the hardest part.
With that being said, the biggest thing I took away is that you have to learn how to control your emotions. Over 5-15 days of racing, you have to learn that you can’t get all fired up and chew your team out or chew your co-driver out, because you’ve gotta sit with them the next day no matter what. And that’s the crazy part—when you’re racing down there, it doesn’t matter what happens, you’ve gotta keep rapport.
You can have five bad days in a row and still win the rally overall. That’s another hard thing. It gets so frustrating; you think it’s over and you want to quit, you just want to go home. Then you come to find out, you’re only 20 minutes down the next day, then the guy leading the overall crashes and now you’re winning the race again.
After Dakar, you ran in Abu Dhabi for the first time, and took a victory there. How much of a confidence booster was that victory, and with Dakar moving to that area of the world for 2020, how important was it in preparing for next year?
Going to Abu Dhabi was good! It’s basically the same kind of sand dunes we’re going to race on in Saudi Arabia. It was good to learn the culture, learn the atmosphere, and just learn the sand dunes and how to win on them. We studied the terrain, which was beneficial. It was also good that it was an FIA event, so the top guys were there. To be able to beat the top guys—like the guy who got second behind me ended up winning the FIA world championship—it showed me that I’m in a good spot. Another cool part of it was that we finished fourth overall. Out of every category there is in Abu Dhabi, we finished fourth. The three cars ahead of me were all multimillion-dollar race cars running at a factory level.
What’s it like to have to step back into SCORE after running raid events internationally? Any need to adapt back?
No, I think it all helps each other out. But I think the biggest thing I took from it is the true joy of what we have here. For us, as Americans, we’re spoiled. I love racing in Baja more now than I ever did before. There are days that you just dread being down there—it’s hot, you’re in Mexico, that one day of Mexico is long, you’re tired. But you compare that to going to Dakar and it’s like, dude, do that for 12 days in a row. Most people don’t want to do it.
For me, I enjoy Baja more now than ever because of that. Look, it’s one day. No matter what happens, bad or good, you’re gonna go home, you’re gonna sleep in your own bed. You’re only 5-10 hours from home. There are no airplane rides, there are no logistics of getting everything over, it just makes everything simpler. So now, I definitely don’t take it for granted. We’re very blessed to be in a country where we can go race the Baja.
That takes us to your win in Rallye du Maroc. Is it easier to apply some of these lessons you’ve been learning with a more compressed event?
I have a new co-driver for this year, Sean Berriman, so that was our first event. My new co-driver is from America. He actually works for the Menzies Motorsports team. And I’m very blessed that the Menzies, Steve and Bryce, have allowed him to take the time off and come be a part of my program for Dakar.
That was our first race and we learned a lot. Our goal wasn’t to go to Morocco and win, our goal was to go to Morocco and learn. Taking everything that I learned from the past races, our goal was to put all that knowledge together. We did a lot of tuning and a lot of new development on the car. That was a new motor, with a new ECU and a new clutch. We put on new suspension and new tires and wheels. Everything that I feel is important, we got all that testing and development out of the way. So it was a very good race for us.
Winning the first stage of any event sets the tone, and you were able to do that in Morocco, but you had some struggles in the middle of the event before finally getting back on top. What were those first days like and how much of a rollercoaster was it for the team?
Obviously winning the first stage is good—being able to push hard and see where we’re at, and then take away the knowledge from it. There were some pieces on the car that I wasn’t totally happy with, but we still were able to get what we needed out of it. But with where we need to be for Dakar, I still wasn’t totally happy. We went back that night and made a ton of changes to the car.
The biggest hurdle we had was in Stage 2, we had a major navigation incident. We basically got put into a perfect storm, we got put into a situation where there was a route change in the morning. Then there was a 45 minute delay and then they reset it. On the first stage we put on a gap, and the way the splits work, we had 20 minutes over the second vehicle. We come to find out, going into the second stage, they had moved the motorcycles onto a different route. So we were the first car on road and we ended up getting lost.
We had no tracks, no one to go off of. It took everything for me and my co-driver to keep our composure. We lost an hour, so it took us 40 minutes to figure out where to go. It’s one of those days that you never want to see again, but getting put in that situation was fantastic. Because now that it’s over, now that we can talk about it—what we did right and what we did wrong—we know how to fix it in the future.
Road position is important, but is having those tracks to work with similar to when racers elect to rear start in races like the Baja or the Mint?
Totally different. Because for the Baja, you get to pre-run. So you know everywhere you want to go. So at Baja, to start up front is the most important thing you could ever do. Because then you have no dust. In rally, the goal is to be about fifth or tenth on the road, because then you have about five tracks in front of you. Remember, there’s no pre-running. So if you’re first in the sand dunes, you are the first set of tracks to ever see the ground. The very first guy, every time he goes over a dune, he’s slowing down more than the guy in second, because you don’t know if it’s a drop off, if it’s a cliff, or if it’s flat on top. There’s a lot of strategy in knowing when to push and not push for starting order the next day.
You’ve been pushing and preparing yourself for Dakar 2020. How is that prep work going, and how confident are you going into it?
The car is getting flown over here. We’re in the process of doing a lot more testing. I’d say that right now I feel good, but not yet great. There are some things on the car that I’m not 100% happy with right now. Overall though I feel that once the car gets here for November and December, we’re gonna be in a good spot.
It’s clear just how hungry you are for a win at Dakar. What would it mean to take the UTV class victory this year?
It would change the game! This is one rally that no American has ever won so to be the first, it would be amazing! But I don’t even know, I don’t even want to talk too much about that because my eyes just blow up. It’s gonna be a hard task.
I’m doing everything in my power to be as ready as we can be. That’s where I’m at. Every single thing that we can do, I’m gonna do. We’re training, we’re testing, I’m doing a lot of driving with my co-driver. I have a trainer now, not a fitness trainer, but a trainer for rally. So, I’ve got all that going on. I’m trying everything I can to prepare myself as best I can.
Words by: Chris Leone // UTVUnderground.com
Images via Casey Currie Racing