Dakar Rally Off to a Roaring Start

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The annual Dakar Rally, an off-road race from Europe to Africa, may be the world's toughest motorsport event. This year, a long line of cars, trucks and motorcycles set out from Lisbon, Portugal, on the 5,619-mile journey.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

It's called the world's longest and toughest motor sport even. Not the Indy 500 but the annual Dakar rally, an off-road race from Europe to Africa. Today was the start and reporter Jerome Socolovsky was in Lisbon as the long line of cars, trucks and motorcycles set out on the 5,600-mile journey.

(Soundbite of activity at race)

JEROME SOCOLOVSKY reporting:

One by one, the race vehicles cross the starting line in front of the Mustadaeu-mushne-muni-mush(ph). This ...(unintelligible) monastery was built on the spot where the Portuguese explorer Vsaco da Gama set sail to the Orient more than 500 years ago. The Lisbon Dakar Rally is no less a challenge. The race takes two days to get to the Mediterranean. Then after a ferry crossing to Morocco, the nearly 500 competing vehicles, along with hundreds more support trucks and helicopters, continue through Mali, Mauritania and Guinea. They finish in Dakar on January 15th.

The rally dates back to 1979. In the beginning, it was known as the Paris-Dakar because it started in the French capital. Since then, the routes have changed but the competition is still dominated by French drivers like Stephane Peterhansel who revved his engines after yesterday's inspection.

(Soundbite of motor)

Mr. STEPHANE PETERHANSEL: You know, the Dakar is like I want you. I want you, you know? It's not only a race, it's--it's never easy to do a race in Africa because it's desert from--anything can happen.

SOCOLOVSKY: In the Sahara, the vehicles will churn through the sand, leap over dunes and dodge camels. And since it is Africa and they will be driving through some very poor countries, the support vehicles also bring aid for the locals. Dutch driver Chris Leyds says the rally also creates jobs.

Mr. CHRIS LEYDS: They have to put up tents, they have to make arrangements, people have to arrange the traffic. There's work to be done and people earn money out of that, so that's a good thing, I think.

SOCOLOVSKY: Leyds drives a Desert Warrior which was inspected yesterday on a lift.

(Soundbite of lift)

SOCOLOVSKY: The Desert Warrior is a 4-wheel drive with a 200 horsepower turbo diesel engine and bullet-proof armor. But it's tiny compared to the vehicle American NASCAR driver Robby Gordon showed up with here, a Hummer.

For NPR News, I'm Jerome Socolovsky in Lisbon.

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