Without doubt, the victory at the Dakar had turned into something much more than a dream, a desire, or an aim. It had been that way ever since Honda made their official return to the world’s most gruelling off-road race back in 2013. The project had continued to evolve and forge a team which had learnt from its mistakes and the tough blows dealt out in each of the editions. It is not for nothing that Dakar is so closely associated with the phrase ‘anything can happen’. The success finally came in mid January 2020 with the entire Monster Energy Honda Team entourage celebrating the long-awaited triumph on the final podium, with Ricky Brabec and the Honda CRF450 RALLY on the top step of the podium.
Ricky Brabec’s bid to win the Dakar, however, began long before the race-start on January 5 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. It dates from when the 29-year-old Californian first decided to pursue his passion for off-road bikes. Brabec threw himself into desert bike racing. In 2014 he bagged every prize, a feat not to go unnoticed by one of Honda America’s big wigs; Bajas record-holder Johnny Campbell, who saw in Brabec a rough diamond. Alongside former Dakar rider Jimmy Lewis, third in the 2000 edition – the pair set about refining the brilliant young promise, who on occasions, had difficult making the transition from ‘good rider’ to a ‘better rider’.
Campbell has since been Ricky’s mentor and knows him better than anyone. ‘I started with Ricky back in 2015. He came to the team and needed some help here in the United States with Honda. So we naturally gravitated towards each other’, confesses Johnny, who defines Ricky as “a young kid with a lot of energy who needed guidance and needed direction. Where to go? How do I do this? How do I ride rally? So we formulated a plan. We got it straightened out race-wise. We connected with Jimmy Lewis. We started doing some more advanced rally training.” And he continues. “What I saw in Ricky was someone who had already been champion in the U.S. with some desert racing out there. Somebody that can fight and have the desire to be a champion. Once we started doing some rally training with him and he started advancing. He really hated it. He didn’t like all the drills that he was being put through. But he stuck it out. He kept pushing and seeing the results from the training and the different skills that he was learning.”
In 2016 Brabec was signed up by the HRC factory team and after several years learning the ropes, delivered an outstanding performance in the 2019 edition of the Dakar, having led the race up until the two final stages. The following year the rider started among the favourites and the rest is history. He went on to claim the top prize as the race wrapped up at the finish-line in Qiddiyah. Mission accomplished.
“Winning the Dakar was great. A lot of people thought that an American couldn’t win. But it feels really good to be the first. I’m very fortunate to have Johnny at my side and be training with Jimmy Lewis, and also to have Kendall (Norman, mechanic) as part of the team now. We work all year for this and some days we don’t want to be there and don’t want to be working and training, but that’s what it takes to do the job and to seal the win. So it feels really good. Hopefully, we can be able to repeat it next year and remain on the podium for the next two years, which will be the ultimate goal. We’ve already won the Dakar so now I believe we all know what it takes to win. Hopefully, as a team at Honda, we will be able to stay the same and work just as hard as we did in Saudi Arabia.”
Ricky Brabec is savouring the triumph while taking to the role of champion: everyone wants to be a part of the success from Saudi Arabia to the United States. Received as a hero, he was even acknowledged on the track of the prestigious AMA Supercross championship.
“Nothing’s changed for me,” states the Honda rider, who claims “I’m going about my life every day and training just like last year, still going to the gym and cycling. Dakar is definitely a legendary race that we want to win and finish every year. But you can’t let it change you. You can’t let it make your head too big. You can’t let the Dakar make you feel bigger than you are. You want to stay humble and stay focused and work hard at rallying every day,” outlines Brabec who still finds time to “get outside, enjoy the weather and hang out with lots of friends and have a barbeque.”
Meanwhile Johnny Campbell continues to have every faith in the lad, “The following year after the 2019 edition the chips were down. It was really tough on him mentally. He dug deep. He wanted it bad enough. He went after it. That’s what makes a champion. Ricky is a champion. We continue to work with him. We are going to the next level for the 2021 Dakar. You’ll see a whole new side to Ricky.”