Sunday, January 25, 2009

American Andy Grider talks DAKAR, Robby Gordon and Off-Road racing

An American in South America

"One recent Saturday night, when the Santa Ynez Valley YMCA held a father-daughter dance, one of the evening’s party-goers could have easily been excused for being too tired to cut a rug that night.

While Andy Grider of Los Olivos and his daughter Marley may have had fun at the party, Grider’s already had more fun and excitement than some of his neighbors might see in a lifetime.

Grider has returned to the Central Coast after having spent most of January in South America as the navigator for Team Dakar USA in the 5,948-mile Dakar Rally, the world’s longest and most dangerous racing event.

He navigated while riding in a Hummer H3 driven by NASCAR owner-driver Robby Gordon.

It was a fruitful trip for Grider, whose wife Annie accompanied him on the trip for the two-week race (Jan. 3-17) through Argentina and Chile. He and Gordon took third place in the car category — the glamour division of the event — with a finishing time of 45 hours, five minutes and 50 seconds.

“Our goal going into this year wasn’t to win a stage,” said the 37-year-old Grider, a native of Bellflower. “If you look in the past results, guys have won the rally and never won a stage. So our goal was to be in the top five every day.”

That was a goal that Gordon and Grider were able to accomplish: While the Hummer — sponsored by energy-drink maker Monster Energy — didn’t claim victory in any of the 13 competitive stages, the duo did land in the top three five times, including four of the last six. That, along with mid-race leader Carlos Sainz of Spain dropping out, helped them move into the final podium position, behind the Volkswagens of Giniel De Villiers of South Africa and American Mark Miller.

While the victory puts Grider’s name out there in the world of international motorsport, the competitor in him feels that the podium finish could have been a little sweeter.

“It’s incredible to finish third in the Dakar Rally, and I’m very happy about that, but it was a different Dakar than normal,” he said. “ (Perennial contenders) Mitsubishi came down with some new vehicles that weren’t really proven yet, and only one finished. Guys like (France’s) Luc Alphand (the 2006 winner) and (2007 champion) St/phane Peterhansel were out of the race due to mechanical failures, not because of navigation or driver error.

“That takes away a little bit, but third is still third. You have to finish the race, and they knew they were going there with untested equipment,” Grider added.

“Volkswagen stepped up big-time this year. At one point, they were 1-2-3 for a majority of the rally, and Sainz (a two-time FIA World Rally Champion) just lost it towards the end and made a mistake. When we win, or beat the other guys, we want to beat them fair and square. We’d rather not beat them on a mechanical; we’d like to know that we’d beat them because we’re better than they are.”

That competitive fire was stoked in Grider at an early age, as he started his way in motorsports at the age of 9 on motorcycles. He worked his way up the two-wheeled racing ladder until reaching the AMA Supercross series, the top American series for motocross.

However, several major injuries in a rough sport brought his AMA career to an end, setting up the transition to the next phase of his career.

“I’d been hurt several times, and realized that I didn’t want to do Supercross anymore,” he says. “I took some time off, and my father had always raced in the desert, stuff like the Baja 1000, Baja 500. So I followed him into it, got into local desert racing in California and Nevada, and it eventually just grew into doing the Baja.”

That racing experience in the high deserts of the West paid off for him down the road, as he found himself invited to a tryout session for renowned Austrian motorcycle maker KTM outside of Las Vegas in August 2004, with a berth in the Dakar Rally on the line. Grider finished third, making him first alternate. However, a series of injuries to fellow rider Kellon Walch gave Grider a shot with the main team, and it paid off with a third-place finish in the 2005 Rally of Tunisia.

Then came the 2006 Dakar Rally, what would turn out to be Grider’s only ride for KTM in the legendary race. During the event, he suffered a crash that broke his pelvis in three places, forcing him to withdraw. That has left him with the thought that unfinished business still lies ahead.

“I still to this day will do it on a bike and finish it,” he says. “It’s something I have in my head that I want to do.”

Grider admits that he was looking to get off the bike and into a four-wheel vehicle for his next assault on the trails and dunes of northwest Africa, where the Dakar had always been run. That’s where a bit of good fortune came his way: During the 2006 Rally he had befriended Gordon, himself part of a West Coast off-road racing legacy, mainly in the annual Baja 1000 race. Being two of the few Americans in the field, the duo spent several post-race hours together, forming bonds that would pay off down the line.

The two met again several months later at one of Gordon’s NASCAR Sprint Cup events in Las Vegas. During the conversation, Grider inquired about Gordon’s off-road program and Dakar.

“As I was walking away, he asked me why (he was asking),” Grider said. “I said that I was hoping to go, just to try and keep my navigation skills up; you take too much time off, and you can’t ride the motorcycle.

“So he said, ‘Here,’ and gave me one of his posters, wrote his cell number and e-mail address on it and said, ‘You’re my navigator,’” Grider added. “I said, ‘Huh?’ He told me to call him Monday morning, and we’ll get everything done with contracts and stuff, and go from there.”

Grider’s job as navigator in a rally is both simple and complex: He is given a notebook filled with the directions for each day’s stage, along with the areas marked as competition areas and liaisons (untimed transition roads between competition areas). While Gordon drives the vehicle, Grider is in charge of giving the directions, along with monitoring the myriad gauges that show the car’s overall condition.

While the ride is bumpy for the two inside the car, Grider says that his experience on two wheels has made the transition to four all that much easier.

“Physically, it’s not that tough for me, because of coming off the motorcycle,” he says. “... Now, it’s almost like I’m riding in a couch.”

As for the mental side of the job?

“Mentally exhausting for me. If I’m not looking at the road book, which most of the time I am, as you can see from all the markings every couple of (kilometers),” he says. “I mean, one kilometer’s not very far, only 1,000 meters, and it goes by quickly when you’re traveling 60 to 100 mph. So I’m constantly reading the book off to Robby, letting him know what’s coming up in advance.

“He’s really good at it … I can tell him something three or four notes ahead, and he remembers that,” Grider said. “I hear a lot of drivers can only do one note at a time. I can look forward in the road book when I have time and tell him, ‘Well, we’ve got this coming up, like washes or dangerous rocks or a sand section.’ We can get ready to deflate the tires or whatever. There’s always something going on, and if it’s not the road book, I’m looking at all the gauges: Tire pressure, engines, just making sure that everything’s in good working order.”

The issue of trust inside a car that travels faster than 100 miles per hour over rough terrain is tough to build, but Grider says it came relatively quickly for him and Gordon.

“At first, I wasn’t too sure on Robby, but after the first few days, I became comfortable with him, and now I trust him 100 percent,” he said. “I can just sit in that car and do my job and not worry about what he’s doing, letting him do his job.”

Since he signed on with Gordon, the duo has teamed up in three major races — the 2007 and ‘09 Dakar races, and the 2008 Central European Rally, which was held after Dakar 2008 was called off due to terrorist threats in north Africa.

But then the Dakar race was offered use of the countries of Argentina and Chile for 2009, allowing the competitors to race in much safer conditions. That had Grider excited, in at least one respect.

“For me, the reason I was so ecstatic was because when I first went to Africa, both on the motorcycle and with Robby as his navigator, the navigators and other competitors know Africa like I know Baja, like the back of their hand,” he says. “They’d get the road book at the beginning of the day, and would glance over the day’s route with ease. They had a huge advantage over us, just because it was like their home turf.

“Now, everybody’s going to South America, it was free game,” Grider adds.

One thing that Grider still carries with him in the weeks following the trip to South America was the sheer volume of fans on hand for each of the days, and the hospitality that was shown by the hosts.

“I’ve never seen fans like that. They were so proud of their country and where they were from, and they were so generous,” he says. “Every person wanted to invite you into their house, cook you dinner, give you a gift. Robby does his NASCAR thing every weekend, and they average about 300,000 fans a weekend … organizers told us we were getting close to half a million people every day. In his eyes, Robby said it blew away NASCAR. Just amazing.”

The schedule for Gordon and Grider this season will include all of the SCORE off-road events for 2009, with the San Felipe 250 in Mexico on deck in mid-March. That schedule concludes with the Baja 1000 just before Thanksgiving.

While Gordon will be off driving his own NASCAR Sprint Cup car, Grider will also be competing as a driver in the Best of the Desert Racing Series, but hasn’t any firm rides just yet.

“I don’t have anything right now, but I’m starting to make the phone calls, talking to people. Things always seem to come up last-minute,” he said.

But come next January, whether in Africa or South America, Grider says that he and Gordon still have a goal to reach.

“Our goal was to win it this year, and we got close, but we were still (106 minutes, 15 seconds) behind,” he says. “Still, I most definitely know that we can win Dakar.”"

Baja Racing