Dakar Rally 2023: Luciano Benavides saves Ricky Brabec and goes on to triumph

I never expected to come out of a dune and encounter a scene so brutal. I saw a red motorcycle, which had tumbled down the sand. Ricky Brabec laid down on his side with blood in his mouth and his helmet broken.

  • 1 year ago
  • March 9, 2023
7 min read
Luciano Benavides racing through the dessert | Photo Courtesy of Dakar Press Luciano Benavides racing through the dessert | Photo Courtesy of Dakar Press
Interview subject
Luciano Benavides, an Argentine native, started riding motorcycles at the age of five and is currently a two-time Argentine enduro champion, and junior world rally champion in 2019.

Since 2018, Benavides competes in the Dakar rally raid, first as a member of the KTM team and now with the Husqvarna Motorcycles team. He became the second Argentine driver to win a Dakar stage and the one to win the most stages in the 2023 edition overall.
background context
The Dakar Rally is a 9,300 mile race over continents taking riders up to two weeks to complete. It has been held every year since 1978. It is one of the toughest and most demanding in the world.

Since 2020, it has been held in Saudi Arabia. Throughout its history, 33 riders have died in the competition, most of them in the motorcycle category (23), in which Luciano Benavides and Ricky Brabec compete.

HA’IL, Saudi Arabia — I rushed alone through the desert nearing the third stage of the Dakar Rally. I kept thinking, “Crap, this wild. I am racing on Daring Dunes!” I maintained my focus and headed uphill on the sandy ground. Suddenly, my motorcycle’s alarm system went off, indicating an accident.

I looked around and spotted another motorcycle 200 meters away, between dunes. I slowly approached the scene, and to my shock, I recognized American Ricky Brabec laying in the sand. My hands felt weak as fear overcame me. I always try to forget the dangers of the race. If not, I cannot give 100 percent. Accidents happen and I risked my life at the Dakar Rally, like all the racers, but encountering the accident overwhelmed me.

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Finding Ricky Brabec injured on the dunes

I never expected to come out of a dune and encounter a scene so brutal. [The Dakar Rally covers 9,300 miles through southern Europe and Africa before finishing in Dakar. The grueling event can take a motorcyclist 10 to 15 days to complete, as they face incredible dangers.]

I saw a red motorcycle, which had tumbled down the sand. Ricky Brabec laid down on his side with blood in his mouth and his helmet broken. I lowered my speed to zero and felt the adrenaline of the competition vanish. My heart throbbed as I realized the magnitude of the blow. Many thoughts crossed my mind, and to my surprise, Brabec muttered, “My whole body hurts, especially my neck.”

Hundreds of kilometers away from anyone or anything, I felt helpless. With my nerves on edge, desperation set in. I followed the only remaining protocol and waited for the helicopter to fly in to assist Brabec. I waited there until the team arrived. It took about fifteen minutes. Without causing any damage, I moved him to a slightly more comfortable position and stayed by his side. Once the rescue team arrived, I continued my journey.

As I attempted to refocus, the weather turned hostile, and a heavy storm beat down on me. Lightning struck dangerously close. I would be the last pilot to reach the end of the stage, but luckily, the sports organization called it. Powerful and opposite emotions consumed me. I had high expectations for my results, and those were dashed. At the same time, I helped a fellow racer.

Besides the accident, each stage of the Dakar Rally challenged me mentally. I did some things wrong, but the most difficult part was racing alone. When I race in a group, I can measure myself against my competitors. Racing alone, I lost my rhythm. Still, through it all, I got to know myself better and grew as a person and a professional.

Overcoming my fear, I attacked the Dakar Rally and pulled into second

During the first stage, I lost focus for a split second and gave up ten minutes of advantage. My name inevitably moved down the scoreboard. The second stage felt underwhelming, and in the third, I came upon the scene of Ricky Brabec’s accident. By the fifth day, I made another costly mistake and lost nine minutes. That was when I began to feel very upset. I saw the race slipping from my hands. Yet, falling behind triggered my expectations and allowed me to pressure myself.

Throughout the entire rally, I talked to my psychologist every day. After several sessions and conversations, I began to understand my issue. I needed to forget the fear consuming my mind and have fun without thinking about anyone or anything else. The next day, I came out relaxed. My spirit soared and I won my first stage at the Dakar Rally. After that, I felt convinced I could win some of the stages.

Luciano Benavides Dakar Rally 2023 | Photo Courtesy Dakar Press

At a mandatory stop that day, I calculated my distance from the other riders and realized I moved into second place, less than a minute behind the leader. I covered the remaining 50 kilometers taking extreme risks and I thought, “Today is my day.” Giving it 110 percent, I accelerated through the dunes without knowing what awaited me on the other side. I felt crazy, but I could not miss this opportunity. From that point on, I surprisingly won another two stages. In fact, I won the most stages in the Dakar Rally my year, even more than my brother Kevin, the current champion.

Brothers on bikes become world class racers together

I followed my brother Kevin into the sport. He already started riding a motorcycle by the time I was five years old. When I turned five, I hopped on one for the very first time, and I never stopped. At first, we approached it as a hobby, just for fun. We looked at riding as a boys’ game, something we could spend time on. Soon, however, my brother would embark on his professional career in motorcycling.

Seeing him do it, at fifteen years old, I started to take it more seriously. Every time I got on my bike, I felt pure joy, especially after competing. My brother seemed untouchable to me. A huge age gap existed between us. When I started to seriously train, I imitated him. I wanted to race like him. Each time, I watched as the gap in our talent grew smaller and smaller. Today, we race evenly.

I look up to my brother and always have. He serves as my role model. As a kid, I felt some pressure standing in his shadow, so I used it as motivation. I always felt the need to achieve something big on my own. I wanted my name to become a topic of conversation as the result of my achievements, and not just my association with my brother.

Still, he gave me my start. My brother raced at enduro before moving on to Dakar. He achieved good results. A company approached him with a contract offer but he could not engage in it. So, he told them about me. Even though I had never raced in this modality, on my brother’s word and my other career achievements, they offered me a three-year contract with the option to extend for one more year. this felt like an immense and unprecedented vote of confidence.

Luciano Benavides earns his nickname “Faster”

I participated in my first race in a town in Salta called La Merced. I crashed midway through and felt furious. When I recovered from the crash, I went twice as fast. That feeling of adrenaline is what I keep looking for in every race. It becomes like a drug. I cannot compare it to anything else. When that pump of adrenaline goes away, something remains missing and I cannot push it to the limit. I feel like someone else.

To be successful in this sport, it takes 80 percent mental energy. Riding in the Rally makes me a better driver. This type of competition depends upon confidence and determination. My improvements do not happen from pure will. Daily video calls with my psychologist, analyses of each stage, and planning for the next day ensure my success and incremental improvements. I must believe in myself and stay safe.

Before I won my first stage at the Dakar Rally, I felt blocked. I had the speed but not the readiness to win. With these tools I rely upon, I figured out a way to rid myself of that mental block and won my first stage in Abu Dhabi, then another in Morocco. I experienced an enormous transformation.

I entered the Dakar Rally with high expectations based on my success in the world championships. When I lacked any early wins in the competition, I began to question my nickname “Faster” at an identity level. It weighed on me and I had to carry its meaning as I felt I underperformed. How could I be called “Faster” without winning?

After pushing myself deeper and harder, and winning the most stages of the Rally that year, I did earn my nickname. Now it all makes sense.

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