Race like an Egyptian | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Race like an Egyptian

By Dan Thomas

It’s a rare event where the most-recognized freeskier in the world and motorsports racer is just a support crew member.

Yet, through the 7,000 miles, 16 days and five North African countries of the 2000 Paris-Dakar-Cairo off-road rally, South Lake Tahoe native Glen Plake handled that role with aplomb. Plake, maybe the most recognizable skier on the planet when flying his 3-foot mohawk, joined the first-year Kia Motorsports North America team for January’s Dakar Rally, the second-largest motorsports event in the world after the Indianapolis 500.

Yet, trying to find similarities between the Indy 500 with Dakar is like comparing apples with four off-road racing knobbies: Yes, they’re both round, but Indy doesn’t run 16 extra days, require the mastery of French until it crosses over into an Arabic-speaking Kentucky halfway through the race.

“I got into off-road racing because I have a lot of strength — not only physically, but mentally — to deal with the rigors of 17 days across Africa,” said Plake, who put his skills to work on the mechanical crew for Kia, the only American entry at Dakar.

“You never have a race car finished,” Plake said. “If the race never started, people would be working on race cars until the end of the world.”

That was deceptive truth for the Kia team. While Curt LeDuc, the driver of the second Kia Sportage — the car Plake mainly worked on — ran a perfect race to survive the race and finish 31st. LeDuc’s car was a late entry, and its maiden voyage ran from Hesperia, Calif. to Los Angeles International Airport for the flight to Paris and technical inspection for the race’s start. While the first Sportage — driver Darren Skilton’s car — was ready sooner, Skilton lost his navigator when the crew member’s father suffered a stroke the night before the race started. That forced Skilton, who showed up at the start line in street clothes to drop out of the race the first day because he had no navigator. After running the entire race with a navigator who spoke no English and a driver who spoke no Spanish, the first Kia team overcame its two-hour delay at the start to finish 60th.

For the next 16 days, the cars roared through the desert at 100-120 mph, launching off sand dunes, and occasionally into each other. Crews survived uniquely bizarre incidents — Kia had to repack one of its chase trucks after it launched off a berm, spilling tools and parts over the desert. The race started in French-speaking Senegal, crossed Burkina Faso and Chad, skipped Niger with a four-day emergency airlift after the CIA and French Intelligence intercepted a terrorist threat against the race, for the relative safety of Mommar Khadaffi’s Libya.

The threat forced the entire tour onto Russian Antonov cargo planes — airborne freighters with crews that live three months at a time on board. Real or imagined, the threat delayed the race.

“All they had to say is, ‘we’re going to do it,'” Plake said. “I mean, it’s a win-win situation (for them).”

Four days and nearly 1,000 miles later, the race resumed in Libya, then crossed into Egypt, where the cars finished within sight of the Great Pyramids.

Yet, as much as the geography and culture changed from country to country, the bivouacs remained the same: U-shaped tent villages, where teams demarcated their areas with chalk outlines.

“I saw a lot of airports. I saw a lot of race cars,” Plake said. “It wasn’t like I was on safari.”

Still, little surprise, Plake made the most of it. He toured Niger during the airlift, and was back in time when the race resumed. His mastery of French allowed him to get to know the other crews. He ate licorice with the enigmatic Paco on a blazing desert afternoon on a Libyan airstrip.

A typical day for Plake started in the afternoon, when the drivers rolled into the bivouac. Then Plake and the crew would listen as the drivers recapped the day and described what they needed. One to three hours after the drivers arrived, the chase truck would roll in, and the crew would unpack.

“Once the truck arrived, it was all hammer,” Plake said “Away you went.”

The goal was to finish all the repairs — whether that involved pulling the engine, installing a new transmission or rebuilding the car — by 1-3 a.m. and have the car under the tarp. When the cars left the stage, the crew usually still was asleep. After waking at 7, 8 or 9 a.m., the crew would pack the chase truck and fly to the next bivouac. From there, there would be a little free time until about 5 p.m., when the cars would start rolling again.

After 16 days, race officials lined the cars to drive across the finish line at Cairo in finish order. That is, the final stage was anticlimax for most of the drivers, but not the crew that flipped its car during the ceremonial last stretch.

But Plake helped Kia survive, despite a pair of cars that were clearly overmatched in the high-horsepower unlimited class.

“It’s like saying, ‘We’re going to run a downhill today, but all we’ve got is slalom skis,'” Plake said. “We had a piece of equipment that was capable, but it wasn’t engineered for that purpose.”

Yet, the race gave the team ideas for the future. And Plake wants to be in the passenger’s seat on another trip to Dakar. Kia is making strides, and Plake wants to move into the car after what could be the most significant summer in recent history for off-road rally racing.

“I think I have some skills that work better than anybody else’s in that right-hand seat,” he said.

Photos: Glen Plake hiked to near the finish line to shoot Curt LeDuc’s Kia car coming in to the Paris-Dakar-Cairo finish line, in the shadow of the pyramids in Cairo, Egypt; Plake, left, poses with members of the crew in front of one of the two Kia Sportages the only North American team drove in the rally; Pepo, left, the navigator for Darrin Skilton’s car, pauses with Paco, Kia’s chase crew chief; Kia’s drivers prepare to load their truck onto a giant Antonov transport plane for the airlift out of Niger.

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