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  • Dakar Ford Raptor Team USA Takes Class Win

    Buenos Aires, Argentina - Excitement and dust filled the air of the riverside town of Baraderos, Argentina, as the survivors of the 2011 Dakar Rally completed the final stage of the event and crossed the finish line. Since their departure from Buenos Aires on New Year’s Day, competitors have battled sand, rocks, driving rain and mud, and temperatures hot enough to fry an egg on their helmets. They endured countless nights without rest, limited food, and sleeping, when they could, in the same sweaty race suit they’d been wearing for days. A good day would bring the luxury of a shower, a cold shower, to take the edge off things. In the Andes, ear-popping elevations induced headaches and fatigue, symptoms of altitude sickness. In the process, teams traversed over nine thousand kilometers through the South American continent from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific, and back again.

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    For those who have never experienced the Dakar Rally first hand, it could be said that Dakar is two weeks of hell on wheels. You are on wheels, in a truck, car or on a motorcycle, and you’re driving through hell. Despite the unyielding pace, harsh conditions and relentless abuse of body and machine, the people of Dakar covet all that it represents - All that it brings… good or evil. To finish is an accomplishment of spirit.

    Baraderos, Argentina – Jan 15th 2011
    When the first dust cloud arrived at the finish line, the car in front of it was the #320 VW Touareg piloted by Nasser Al-Attiyah of Qatar. Shortly behind were Giniel DeVillers and Carlos Sainz, also in VW Touaregs. America’s Mark Miller and co-pilot Ralph Pitchford pulled off a sixth place in the T1 Auto Class while California based motorcycle hotshots Quinn Cody and Jonah Street knocked off a 9th and 12th respectively.

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    The Final Count Down for the Dakar Ford Raptor Team USA
    During the first twelve stages and 9000 kilometers of the competition, Darren Skilton and Sue Mead have alternated driving and navigation duties each day. Skilton, a professional driver and racing team manager, shared experience and expertise behind the wheel with Mead as a coach and mentor. For Mead, a journalist by trade, Skilton’s guidance was invaluable, and crucial component of the team’s success.

    For this final leg, an excited and exhausted Mead took the wheel in Cordoba for Stage 13, the final day of the two week competition. It was another scorcher as they made their way to the Special, a 180-kilometer sprint to the finish. Their spirits were high, as they knew they were on the home stretch and only needed to get the Raptor across the finish line. Recent rains left many sections of deep mud, which required the Raptor’s four wheel drive, deep lugs of the General Grabber tires and extra traction from their ARB locker to get through. In areas of higher ground, the searing austral sun had dried the track, and blinding silt became the issue.

    The shock mount, which had broken during Stage 5 and received a field repair, detached itself from the Raptor’s frame again just ten kilometers short of the finish line. Skilton was able to crawl under and remove the shock in less than ten minutes, allowing the team to continue of to a 40th place for the day. From the earlier stages when they were in 126th position, the team managed to move up the Dakar ladder to 110th, 95th, 65th and even 51st position overall - An impressive feat for an independent team with just one support vehicle and a total of five people. At the end of the day, they held 40th place overall, and pulled off a 1st place finish in the Open Production Class. With the team’s success, Sue Mead, who is America’s first female Driver of Record at Dakar, also became first woman to achieve an automotive class victory.

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    Raptor Wrap-up
    Although the 9500-kilometer, fourteen-day race took the team through some of the harshest and hottest conditions known to racing, the Raptor’s gauges deviated from the ‘normal’ position only once. On Stage 10, after powering through several hours of deep, soft sand at 7psi in the tires, the transmission and motor began to heat up. A hundred kilometers from any services, Skilton and Mead decided to shut it down and let it cool. A five-minute cool-down period was all it needed and they were back on the track.

    Though Sue and Darren passed dozens of vehicles with broken wheels, shredded tires, cracked windshield or failed motors, they were graced with very few mechanical issues. For the deep sands of the Atacama Dunes, which require ultra-low tire pressures, they fitted the Raptor with a new set of Grabbers mounted on Walker Evans beadlock wheels. Tire-wise, they completed the entire race with not one puncture or tire failure. From a drivetrain standpoint, the Dakar can be brutal on components. The use of Royal Purple synthetic lubricants in the Raptor’s 5.4-liter Triton V-8, 6-speed transmission and differentials, eliminated any concerns of thermal viscous breakdown during these extended and demanding conditions. Hidden away behind the sheet metal, a set of Deaver springs and King racing shocks managed suspension and dampening duties without complaint. Under the hood, the only modification to the Raptor was the addition of a pair of high-output Odyssey batteries.

    From the driver’s view, comfortable Cobra Racing seats and Crow harnesses kept Sue and Darren securely tucked in place. Because the terrain varies by the hour, the need to deflate and inflate the tires is a regular occurrence in every stage. For quick air-ups, the team utilized a PowerTank from Advanced Air Systems, and also had an onboard ARB compressor mounted in the engine bay. To protect the Raptor’s windshield, headlights and front clip from flying debris and rocks, the entire front end and glass was coated with XPEL protective film. When the dust settled in Buenos Aires, all were in tack and in perfect condition. When the sun set on the Atacama, a set of high performance Soltek LED auxiliary lighting lit the way.

    Team Wrap Up
    Dakar is a like running a fourteen-day marathon. You train and train for months, pay attention to the details and prepare as best you can for the unknown (which Dakar is famous for). But no matter how prepared you are, how much you have fine-tuned your mental and physical being, when you roll into Buenos Aires on the final stage, if you make it that far, you are exhausted. You have pushed the physical and mental limits of mind and body. Your internal clock has counted down this moment, exerting every ounce of energy and reserve. When the moment arrives, excitement and elation battle exhaustion and fatigue. Your body is spent.

    In a moment of reflection after the team took their place on the podium in Buenos Aires, Skilton said, “We all had so much invested in this program, I’m really happy with our results. Everyone brought a unique skill set to the table; they did their job the best that it could be done. Everyone came together as a team and that is one of the things I love about Dakar.”

    Sue Mead:
    When I began looking into making this a reality ten months ago, my greatest hope was just to just get here, to participate. I was turning sixty and really wanted to do something big. I’d navigated for Darren in the 2000 Dakar in Africa, an incredible experience. He knows what he is doing and I knew he had the know-how required to manage the team. As we completed each stage, as brutal as they were, we just rolled into the next. Before I knew it, we were more than half way done. So many others had broken down, crashed or dropped out, yet I began to think we could actually see the finish line. At that point our entire focus fell on keeping the Raptor in one piece and getting it back to Buenos Aires. When we cleared Stage 12 in Cordoba and all the other Open Production cars were out, it sunk in. “We could actually win our class.”

    Troy and Dan, our mechanics, have been amazing. They were always there when we needed them. They worked all night if needed, then drove 800 kilometers the next day, set up for our arrival, then did it all over again. Our media manager Chris Collard was up until 2am each night getting our press releases out and updating media outlets. Many times he would be gone early in the morning, headed out with his cameras before we got up.

    I’m so thankful to be here. I’m a very spiritual person and have drawn on the prayers of friends and family. Getting here has really been on a wing and a prayer. To be the first American woman to race, and then to win, is overwhelming. I’m so proud and grateful to everyone.”

    It is a huge accomplishment and credit to all players involved for a stock vehicle, such as the Ford SVT Raptor, to compete and complete an event as demanding as the Dakar Rally. The combination of the FabSchool’s careful attention to detail in preparing the truck, a few select aftermarket additions, and a team that works as a team, were a winning combination for the 2011 Dakar Rally.

    By Chris Collard
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