American Ricky Brabec Is On The Road To Dakar Olympus

From raw talent to polished gem, Honda rider is poised to make history.

Ricky Brabec
Logical thinking and natural instinct go hand in hand at the always challenging Dakar Rally. “You need to be a little crazy, an adventure seeker,” said off-road-racing giant and Ricky Brabec’s longtime mentor Johnny Campbell. “This is Ricky.”Honda

Ricky Brabec is on the cusp of greatness. Riding a factory Monster Energy Honda CRF450 Rally, the 28-year-old Californian took the overall lead of the 2020 Dakar Rally—held this year for the first time in Saudi Arabia—after the third of 12 scheduled stages and hasn’t looked back.

If Brabec is able to maintain his position through the finish in Qiddiya, he will become the first American to win the 41-year-old event. Danny LaPorte was second on a Cagiva in 1992, and Cycle World’s own Jimmy Lewis, riding a BMW, completed the podium in 2000. Chris Blais was third in 2007 on a KTM.

This would also be the first victory for Honda in more than 30 years; KTM has won every Dakar Rally since 2001. But as Brabec is quick to point out, the rider doesn’t win alone. Behind the results is a great deal of preparation—on and off the motorcycle—with a team that believes in, supports, and respects the rider.

Brabec’s tight circle comprises three Americans: mentor Johnny Campbell, mechanic Kendall Norman, and Hide Hanawa, a former mechanic who now serves as crew chief for the team. I spoke with Campbell, Norman, and Hanawa about Brabec’s progression in rally racing.

Mental Training

Baja king Campbell has been at Brabec’s side since he first tested with HRC in Abu Dhabi five years ago. “At that time, Ricky had already finished long races like Baja, but he was new to rally raids and navigation,” he said. “So we started training him with exercises increasing in difficulty. It’s a long process.”

Where do you start mentally with a rider, I queried Campbell. “Firstly, the racer needs to burn inside with the desire to improve and have a strong work ethic,” he replied. “Secondly, even if they fight with you during the training, they need to trust you enough to try your way. This is key: They have to go by faith and absorb it. We start to work on the mental and physical level, navigation, and riding technique. Mental training is by far the most important and difficult.”

Kendall Norman, Brabec, Campbell, and Hide Hanawa
Kendall Norman, Brabec, Campbell, and Hide Hanawa: With Hanawa stepping up to crew chief, Norman is Brabec’s mechanic. “Ricky is a complete rider,” Hanawa said. “He’s very good at navigating, and maybe among the Honda riders the one with more mechanical skills.”Maria Guidotti

How do you prepare for the unknown? “Young riders tend to focus on low levels,” Campbell explained. “They look at what the other racers do or have. Step number one is to learn to focus on what their path is and what we are doing with them. Secondly, we start to work on their weak points—what holds a person back. Ricky showed from the beginning to have a strong and determined character, and he was smart enough to accept our way.”

Learning From Mistakes

Dakar Rally racers need strong temperaments to race 100-plus mph on largely unknown off-road courses. Sometimes, Campbell said, failure, initially, can be good. “For this reason, we create exercises and roadbooks with increasing difficulties. We monitor the rider’s decisions, and then we analyze them together. The goal is, next time when he is in the Dakar and gets to a place where there is confusion, he has a process to minimize doubts and recover as fast as possible from mistakes.”

Determination

Bringing six-time Baja 1000 champion Kendall Norman into the team as Brabec’s mechanic was another winning move. Norman is a fierce competitor, and his race experience combined with incredible determination has contributed to Brabec’s success. Norman may not be a professional mechanic, but he has excellent skills and a unique sensitivity resulting from knowing what it is like to be one with a motorcycle.

In fact, Norman says Brabec’s strong point is his special connection with the bike. “When he returns to the bivouac at the end of a stage, I understand immediately what he wants to say. We speak the same language.”

Dakar Rally Honda Pit
The factory Honda team was conceived around Spanish star Joan Barreda. In 2019, Brabec didn’t feel he was receiving the support he deserved. “Prove it with your results,” Campbell told him. And that’s what Brabec did, winning a stage and taking the overall lead of the rally.Honda

Norman understands racing on all levels. In 2013, he lost his greatest rival and best friend Kurt Caselli to the sport, and ultimately quit racing. “I was lost,” he admitted. “They don’t teach us at school how to deal with the death of a friend.”

Norman turned to farming, growing vegetables, avocados, and breeding cattle. “Cultivating organic food helped me get rid of all the toxins and circular thoughts,” he said. After winning again as a privateer, Norman phoned Campbell and joined the Honda team as Brabec’s mechanic. He also has a role as a test rider. The results of his work are visible.

Disappointment Can Make You Stronger

Last year, Brabec was the revelation of the rally; he won his first stage and was leading the overall classification when his Honda engine quit on stage 8—race over. Because of this catastrophic mechanical failure, preparation for the 2020 event was not easy.

“It was really difficult to have Ricky not stuck in that disappointment,” Campbell said. “But what defines a champion is to turn disappointment into a lesson. It was difficult for Ricky, but he still had in him the desire to win the Dakar. This was the fuel that powered his return.

“Once the emotional side was settled and we decided to continue, the training with the navigation increased in difficulty and now you can see he is more focused, solid, and consistent. He is on a different level.”