INSIGHT: Dakar Champion Austin Jones shows the way to rally raiding for American racers

The Dakar Rally has traditionally been a tough nut to crack for American racers until Ricky Brabec’s landmark victory on motorcycles last year. In the past, there have been excellences among the four-wheel classes, but consistency in performance has eluded them. Enter Austin Jones, son of legendary Baja racer Jesse Jones, himself a winner of Baja races (500 and 1000) and recently crowned 2021 FIA T4 World Cup Cross Country Rally Champion, and quite a cool dude.

Jones, 25, won the SSV (FIA T4) category at the 44th Dakar Rally last week. Remarkably, he did it without any stage wins. It was a testament to the focus and patience he and his Brazilian navigator Gustavo Gugelmin possess. On his return from Dakar I was able to chat with Jones about his win and his take on what it all meant.

The obvious question is why Rally Raid? He could arguably be a standout in the American Southwest and Baja racing format. Rally Raid is not raced at this level in the United States, the closest equivalent is the Sonora Rally. Even stage racing isn’t easy to find, which explains why Americans couldn’t find their way into Rally Raid. But as Jones says, that’s exactly why Rally Raid is for him.

“A couple of things drew me to Rally Raid. Overall it’s really different – ​​the stage race format is a really cool way to go out there and race,” he says. “It’s not about going flat out or who’s the fastest that day. There’s a lot more strategy involved. For example, you don’t always want to win a stage. Finding the right starting position every day is part of the navigation strategy. And if you’re having a bad day, you still have a few days to make up for it. I think this whole strategy is really cool. And the travel part is great.”

He adds, “If I have a ••••y day at the Baja 1000, I have to wait a full year. If I have a bad stage, I can just wait a few hours and try again.”

The Baja experience served Jones well as the dune-intensive Dakar course transitioned into more varied terrain.

And it doesn’t hurt that he’s got all that Baja experience. Jones grew up on the narrow, technical, rocky, hilly, and tree-covered terrain of Baja. Rally Raid might offer more dune action, but it finds time on those days of Baja-style terrain.

The other part of the equation is its navigator. Jones isn’t afraid to share the spotlight with Gugelmin. “I think he’s, and I think everyone does, one of the best in the world at navigating,” says Austin. “And as far as driving the Can-Ams, he knows the Can-Ams that South Racing built—perhaps more than anyone. He’s really clever at letting me know what the car can and can’t do and how to handle everything mechanically. And we don’t really get lost very often.

“That was a big thing I learned coming to Rally Raid, how important the navigator is – even more so than racing in Baja. With Rally Raid it’s really a 50-50 split in terms of responsibilities, and sometimes even more with him. I often tell him that he drives the car, I just turn the steering wheel and pedal.

Jones and Gugelmin quickly formed an effective partnership that helped them weather the literal and figurative twists and turns of Dakar.

“In the beginning it was hard to put your fate in someone else’s hands and of course it’s very, very frustrating when you get lost, but at the same time you have to understand that his job can be more difficult than mine. They do these road books to try and get you lost on purpose.”

“I started racing with Gustavo in early 2020 right after my first Dakar when I changed navigator. And it was interesting since his native language is not English. But we still won a few stages in our first rally and I was surprised at how well we worked together straight away and how easy it was to understand our communication. It went really well. I am super excited about how everything has developed.”

Jones stresses the importance of having the right rally mentality between driver and navigator. It’s a phased strategy, not full throttle in Baja mode for 18 hours. He was able to develop that rally mentality quickly with his full season participation in last year’s FIA T4 World Cup for cross country rallies.

Referring to his overall win without a stage win, Jones says, “Our strategy was that we didn’t want to win any stages – especially in our first week. The plan was always: rest day, halfway through the race and then make a new plan. We wanted to be in the top 5 every day. After the rest day we looked at where we were and who we were up against and how everyone was doing in the race and made a plan from there. We decided which days to push and which days to sit back. It was really a back and forth until the last day when we realized we had to go.”

As for the dramatic finish on the final day where he came to victory from behind that made for such a great story? “For you and everyone else, but not for me,” he says with a smile. “This is so epic, but for me it was so stressful.”

Jones feels he has evolved as a racer. “I think I’ve gotten a lot smarter and a little more mature here and there. I’m much more patient and relaxed,” he explains. “I used to get very angry in the car and yelled at every little thing that happened. And now something happens – you can’t do anything when you’re stressed. You do everything better in life when you are calmer. I’ve learned to take a step back and relax and just find a solution to the problem instead of getting angry about the problem. I’m getting older and hopefully wiser – which helps a lot, especially in rallies. Patience and consistency are the name of the game.”

The qualities he learned behind the wheel of Rally Raid that contributed to his success are also reflected in his demeanor. He’s calm on the phone, confident, and has a funny sense of humor, but according to Jones, “I wasn’t always like that, I was always pretty much on the rev limiter. But I’m definitely a lot better. And according to my father, it’s nicer to be with me.”

Jones’ stance comes through when discussing his future racing plans. It’s clear he loves what he drives and will stay with Can-Am “as long as they have me.” He absorbs the cultures he encounters on his travels around the world and has a deep appreciation for the landscapes he will traverse – from WRC rally style roads at the Andalucia Rally in Spain to the open desert Kazakhstan and all the dunes of Abu Dibi.

Austin Jones’ future is off to a strong start. As the only full-time American to compete in the SSV class of the 2022 FIA World Rally-Raid Championship, he is well positioned to be the first American to add “Dominance” to his four-wheel rally-raid resume alongside ‘Winner’ “ adds.

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