Dakar Rider Search Challenge - Chris Blais - Marathon Man
Blais-Ing A Trail To Dakar
Photographer: ScottCox, Jonty Edmunds, J. Van Oers, Story from Dirt Rider
Since participating in a 2004 Red Bull-sponsored Dakar Rider Search Challenge, California's Chris Blais has become one of the top "raid-rally" protagonists on the planet. His three successful attacks on the mother of all off-road races have yielded finishes that most Dakar entrants only dream of: ninth overall in '05, fourth overall in '06 and a spectacular third-place podium visit this year. Now a seasoned Dakar vet, Blais has every intention of returning to the Dark Continent for his fourth attempt in '08. But in the meantime he is maintaining the rigorous training schedule that has transformed him from just another AMA District 37 fast guy to an elite rally racer.
"In hindsight, it was kinda crazy how I got involved in the first place," Blais reflects now. "I think most people wouldn't have agreed to go, but my entire life was in change mode back then. I'd just quit a good job at American Honda in Torrance [California] and my wife, Patty, and I had moved all of our belongings to our new home in Apple Valley [California]. Next thing you know I'm heading off to Death Valley in the August heat to compete for a chance to ride the Dakar Rally!
"Some great racers were invited to the Dakar Rider Search Challenge, so I knew it was gonna be tough to go up against guys such as Andy Grider, Kellon Walch, Jonah Street and Kenny Bartram," Blais recalls. "Casey McCoy was there, too. He was originally selected to ride in the '04 Dakar, but he'd broken his leg testing in Tunisia and never made the rally. I thought it was cool that he was there with us and getting another chance to try out for the '05 team."
Blais continues, "The judges Scot [Harden, Red Bull/KTM U.S. Dakar team manager] brought along with him were pretty intimidating, too: Malcolm Smith, Danny LaPorte, Jimmy Lewis and Joe Barker, the team commander. A film crew was there shooting a two-segment reality show, so not only were we trying to look good for the judges, we had to make sure we didn't do anything stupid in front of the TV cameras.
"A couple of weeks after the Death Valley challenge, Scot called to tell me that I'd made the cut and that I'd be joining him and Walch in Dakar. Needless to say, I was pretty excited," Blais says.
Soon thereafter, Blais headed south of the border to join Harden, Walch and Dakar team alternate rider Grider to contest the '04 Baja 1000 aboard a unique KTM rally department-built 710cc factory Baja machine.
Recalls Blais, "The plan was to use the Baja 1000 as a shakedown for Dakar and ride a rally bike-based machine for the first time. [KTM] made a couple of bikes for us to test, but the one we settled on was the 710. That thing had so much power and top speed it was just insane. On wide-open sections it was a blast to ride-just endless top speed that no other bike, and few cars, could even run with. But if you weren't careful and didn't approach things properly, the bike could be terrifying. Some who rode during testing were intimidated by it, almost to the point of not wanting to ride it. The 710 wasn't what I would consider to be an ideal choice, but it's hard not to like all of that power on tap to play with."
Say "Hello" to My Leetle Friend "First week of December 2004, Scot, Kellon and I flew to Tunisia to test rally bikes and shoot PR photos," Blais says. "I remember seeing the bikes for the first time and thinking, 'Geez, look how freakin' huge those things are!'" As Blais spent more time on the KTM 660 Rally bike, he became pleased with its immense power and surprisingly good handling.
"It didn't take long to get used to the 660. It's so trick, and it performs better than I ever thought it would. The factory rally department technicians are really good, and nobody knows more about how to build a rally bike than those guys."
Within a matter of days, Chris Blais flew to Barcelona, Spain, to ride his first-ever rally and begin a journey that continues to this day.
A little-known fact about Blais is that he's equally adept at splitting the cases of his big KTM 660 Rally bike as he is at tearing across Mauritania at its controls. Blais learned the ins and outs of wrench spinning from his dad, Martin, and as the proprietor of his own off-road performance and prep company, Blais Racing Services, he's gained the respect and repeat business of racing customers on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. Ask anyone on the Blais Racing client list and they'll tell you that Chris is among the best in the business.
"I enjoy building and maintaining motorcycles, and given the opportunity, I have always preferred to build my own race bikes," Blais contends. "If something goes wrong during an event, I can usually figure out a way to fix it and get rolling again. There's also the confidence and satisfaction in riding and racing a motorcycle that you've built versus showing up and riding a machine that was built for you and that you know little about.
"My mechanical ability came into play in the last two Dakars, when I was able to overcome technical issues that might have either forced me out of the rally or dropped me out of contention," Blais says. "It's amazing that people will spend a fortune to enter the Dakar and buy expensive gear with no idea how the motorcycle (that they'll be depending on for the next couple of weeks to take them several thousand miles) even works. If there were only one thing I'd tell other off-road racers, it would be to learn your bike-learn how it works and learn how to fix it. Sometimes the simplest tweak on the trail will get it back in the race, but if you don't know how to deal with it, you're screwed. Rally racing isn't for everybody, and an event like the Dakar Rally is for very few."
Highs And Lows
By stark contrast to the controlled environment of motocross or supercross, the typical rally takes its riders thousands of miles during the course of a single event, routinely placing them in challenging (read: dangerous) situations. Throughout the 39-year history of the Dakar, there have been more than a few catastrophic incidents, including the deaths of former Dakar champion Fabrizio Meoni in '05 and of Blais' friend and training partner, Elmer Symons, in '07. South African expatriate and Roof of Africa titleholder Symons was introduced to the American off-road scene a few years back by Malcolm Smith, and while here he made a name for himself in desert, GNCC, hare & hound and enduro racing. However, Symons' lifelong passion was the Dakar Rally, so with substantial support from friends and family, his lifelong dream was to be answered. As expected, he rode well in the opening European stages, and despite a support-vehicle failure that nearly ended his rally, Symons and his mechanic (his brother, Philip) somehow made their way across the Strait of Gibraltar to continue the rally. Sadly, on the fourth day of the rally and only his second day in Africa, Symons died as the result of a high-speed crash in the Moroccan desert.
"Elmer was a good friend, and his death was a result of him riding the way he always rode: charging hard and pushing the limits of his skill and equipment," Blais says. "Elmer was an incredible guy-always friendly, always smiling-and he really loved to ride."
Always In The Saddle
An off-road racer's life is linked from event to event, and while it would be nice to be able to sit around and wait for the factory rally manager to ring you up from Europe, sometimes you're just too hungry to think anymore. So you prep your bike and head for the next race. For a racer like Blais that means more than AMA district races-a lot more. Case in point is his ambitious 10-event schedule that kicked off March 10 in Ensenada, Mexico, and his entry into the SCORE Baja 250. Blais was joined by up-and-coming Nevada desert specialist David Pearson aboard a specially built '07 KTM 610cc machine not unlike the 610 that KTM's Kurt Caselli rode to victory in the recent Adelanto Grand Prix.
"The bike has based on the one-off bikes that the KTM rally department has built for us over the past few years. We've had 690s, 710s and a couple of these 610s to experiment with. They are very powerful, and crazy fast-for some courses, way too fast-but when they stay together, nothing can run with 'em," Blais notes.
Unfortunately, shortly after rolling off the starting line as first bike in Ensenada, Blais' number-2X KTM 610 suffered a cracked engine case, resulting in a steady loss of oil and the life-sustaining qualities it provides. Calmly, Blais surveyed the trouble and immediately went to work. Two long hours later, Pearson mounted the bike and headed back down the course. Lesser teams would have thrown in the towel and called it a day, especially when chances for a win or podium finish were nil.
"Hey, that's racing," a surprisingly upbeat Blais commented after seeing that his corider made it safely to the finish line. "Ask any veteran rider down here (in Baja); they've all got their stories of being broken down but somehow making it to the finish line. If you're smart, you learn something every time you come to Baja. The lessons are tough, but the final exams are still worth taking!"
The road to Dakar is never easy, and a lot of the journey is in just getting to the starting line in '08. Blais is heading there with high hopes.
Top American finished 3rd place overall in the 2007 Dakar Rally
Top American finished 4th place overall in the 2006 Dakar Rally
First American Rookie 9th place overall in the 2005 Dakar Rally
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