Ricky Brabec Is The First American To Win Dakar

The Honda racer breaks an 18-year KTM streak.

Ricky Brabec
Ricky Brabec is the first American to win the Dakar Rally, breaking an 18-year KTM winning streak.Monster Energy Honda

“It will be a day to remember.” Ricky Brabec didn’t cry in his helmet, but his past five years came rushing to the forefront at this moment. “I made it! We did it! The win is not only about one person. It takes a team to do it!”

Ricky Brabec dominated the 2020 Dakar with two stage wins, and led from Day 3. He maintained a consistent and solid pace till the end, finishing first in Qiddiya after 12 days of rally, and 7,000 km (4,350 miles); Ricky Brabec is the first-ever American to win the 42-year-old event. With this success he also gave Honda its first win since 1989 with Gilles Lalay, when the epic rally was still in Africa. The 2020 Dakar win represents Honda’s sixth victory and follows the five clinched in Africa with Ciryl Neveu in 1982, 1986, and 1987, Edi Orioli in 1988, and Gilles Lalay in 1989.

At the finish line in Qiddya, a big surprise was waiting for him. His father, Rick Sr., had flown in from the United States just to hug him. Yoshishige Nomura, HRC president, and Tetsuhiro Kuwata, HRC director and general manager Race Operations for MotoGP, came from Japan.

“After what happened last year (Ricky withdrew on Stage 8 while he was leading because of an engine failure), I checked the phone when I landed in Dubai,” Kuwata confessed. “There was no message. What a relief!”

At the podium, the KTM team and KTM Team Manager Jordi Viladoms were the first to congratulate the HRC team. Not only had Brabec given Honda a win that was missing for 31 years, with his success the Monster Energy Honda rider interrupted KTM dominance that had lasted since 2001—an 18 rally winning streak.

Brabec at Dakar
Brabec’s victory at Dakar is the first in 31 years for Honda.Monster Energy Honda

What was your first thought when you realized the legendary Tuareg Golden Trophy is yours?

I couldn’t believe it! It was a dream come true. This sport is so dangerous; I embraced all the good and bad of the rally, and I enjoyed every single moment.

You took the lead from the third stage. How could you manage the pressure?

Last year, there was a moment when I saw my hands already on the trophy. The win was already in my head. Then all my hopes went up in dust, when my engine stopped on Stage 8. When you are knocked out, it hurts a lot. I learned the lesson. You cannot win in your head before you win in real life. You need to be humble. This year I tried not to focus on winning, but to be competitive and solid every single stage. “One day at a time” was my mantra, and I have to thank Johnny (Campbell), for calming me down when I was nervous.

First American to win the Dakar Rally—writing history must be pretty amazing?

This was my first thought and also the satisfaction to give Honda a win that interrupts 18 years of success for KTM. When I approached the rally in 2016, this was the goal. But it still feels surreal. When I did the first test in Abu Dhabi, the front-runners were flying in the dunes. It took me five years to be on top, and I have to say that it feels great up here. It was a perfect race, and I want to thank the team.

What’s next?

Now, no more riding for one month. We rode more kilometers in two weeks than a normal person does in five years! Winning the Dakar is a dream come true, and I’m so grateful. I accomplished this and we will do more Dakar, but I want to do other things also. I want to accomplish as many things as I can until my time is up.

What do you have in your bucket list?

It’s too early now. I want to go home and enjoy this success with my family and friends. I will take my time to figure it out.

How has the loss of Paulo Gonçalves marked the rally?

All the bivouac was in shock. He was one of the most respected riders in the sport. He rode for Honda for many years. This victory is dedicated to Speedy. I wish Paulo was here and we could celebrate together. It was good that Stage 8 was canceled out of respect for such a tragic loss. It also allowed us to regroup and calm down our nerves.

Was it tough this year?

Not too demanding. We found lots of rocks and fast tracks. I love the speed! This is the kind of terrain I have at home. I’m happy we will return here next year. Saudi Arabia was a revelation for the variety of terrain and the amazing landscapes. It’s the perfect playground for the rally. Unfortunately, we didn’t get the time to slow down and enjoy the scenery.

Brabec gets his first victory at Dakar
“It was time to win—for me, my team, and for Honda.” Brabec gets his first victory at Dakar after a heartbreaking engine failure in 2019.Monster Energy Honda

In the past, Honda had the potential to win the Dakar but, in one way or another, wasn’t able to translate that potential into a success. In contrast, you were strong and consistent from Day 1.

Honda has had strong riders also in the past, but we also had some bad luck and some mechanical failures. Finally, we found a way to make all the pieces of the puzzle fit together. We all made it, and I’m the first American rider.

What was the key to winning Dakar?

For sure to keep focused and healthy; with 12 stages in a row, you don’t want to crash. You have to protect your body. Then you need a solid team and a good bike. I felt more comfortable this year because I had more Americans around me—the right ones: Hanawa, Norman, Campbell, and Lewis. It builds confidence in myself knowing these guys are behind me 100 percent. We have done massive amounts of testing at home—three to four times a week training with the roadbook. The bike was awesome this year. We had no problems. It was time to win—for me, my team, and for Honda.