Dakar's Behind-the-Scenes Heroes: Chasing the Race with Ford Super Duties

Dakar's Behind-The-Scenes Heroes
by Sue Mead

San Francisco’s Robb McElroy just finished his third Dakar Rally. Don’t run to the record books to see his name, though; McElroy, his driving team and the three Ford F-350 Super Duties that he “built” for the Dakar weren’t on the rally clock, nor were they tabulated in the overall race results. Even so, McElroy, his crew and the trucks they drive are among the heroes of the rally.

They were an integral part of what allowed 500 racers to compete in -- and 271 to finish – this year’s edition. Registered as support trucks for the rally, they had to conform to the rules and regulations for their category of vehicle and were part of the entourage of some 2,200 people and 900 vehicles set up in the Dakar bivouac each night.

It’s well known that the Dakar Rally is the longest, most rigorous race on the planet. Participating means having bragging rights around the globe, regardless of how you finish. If you finish, you’re a true hero, and if you win or post high standings in your class, you’re nearly a god. The recently completed 31st annual rally will go down in the record books, as it made an inaugural run through South America rather than Africa, its ceremonial home. It traveled a course of 9,578 kilometers through Argentina and Chile, with temperatures hotter and altitudes higher than ever before (please see the sidebar at the bottom of the story).

F-350-Desmond Mc Donald-#640

Unless you were on the ground, in the middle of the action that went on nearly 24 hours a day for 16 days during the rally (there was one “rest” day in the middle), you might not know or think about the fact that racers and their support teams spend months preparing for the rally, then a good chunk of time following the rally’s finish getting their race vehicles, support vehicles and gear back home and sorting  through all the bits. It’s then that many begin the process all over again — particularly those who are hooked on the thrill of this competition that challenges man and machine far beyond what any other motorsports event does.

McElroy is hooked; this year was his third Dakar. He completed two in Africa, then this year’s South American rally. It was also the third run for one of his workhorse Super Duties, which now has 130,000 miles on the odometer and runs like a draft horse. All were purpose-built by Mc Elroy for the Dakar.

The offroad adventurer built his first Ford truck for the Dakar in 2006. He rebuilt it the following year, then made the decision to add to his fleet.

“They have a big advantage over the large trucks,” McElroy said, referring to the bulky, hefty, top-heavy Man, Kamaz and Hino trucks whose size darkens the sky when they pass by. Those are the trucks that have traditionally been used by teams to carry gear and spare parts.

El Dakaro Mendoza to La Rioja 360

“The Ford Super Duties are not as tall and can travel much faster on the surface and back roads along the Assistance Route,” he said. “They can also carry far more than the smaller support trucks [a cadre of midsize trucks and SUVs].”

“Plus, the F-350s are more comfortable,” said Desmond McDonald of Los Angeles, who drove one of the three F-350s on the rally this year, along with a crew of three mechanics in support of four motorcycle teams. “We also can have a special ‘Assistance Speed Limit’ because we’re shorter and, therefore, we can travel 20Ks faster.”

The Ford Super Duties are equipped with 7.3-liter turbo-diesels, and McElroy has kept the running gear “fairly stock.”

“Everybody I talked to said, “Don’t touch this stock truck,’” McElroy said.

He listened. While the trucks are set up largely the way they come off Ford’s assembly line, Mc Elroy upfitted stiffer anti-sway bars for bigger loads; used helper springs in front and airbags in the rear, with twin Bilsteins; and replaced the stock fuel tank with a 58-gallon tank.

“I worked with Transfer Flow Tanks Inc., which does big tanks made out of quarter-inch steel,” he said. “I was worried about a skid plate, but it wasn’t necessary because the tank is so tough.”

F-350 Rally Pan Am #634

The trucks are also roll-caged and have Mastercraft race seats, which McElroy said were “a lot of work” to install.

The team is also quick to brag about its tire selection.
“We have BF Goodrich 10-ply TAs (285-75-16s), and we have never had a flat,” Desmond said.

This year’s rally had its fair share of time- and energy-sapping tire fixes along the route, for competitors and support alike. The route consisted of nearly every type of backcountry terrain imaginable.

“It’s the perfect vehicle: We can go faster, carry a lot of stuff; it’s comfortable inside and has cruise control and air conditioning, which a lot of the big trucks don’t have, plus it handles great,” McElroy said.

As for fuel economy, “it’s a small part of our budget in the big picture, and it’s not something we stress about,” he said, although there is clearly a significant savings over running one of the large trucks.

Rally Raid U.K. was the first team to bring a Ford F-350 to the Dakar, in 2005, and Rally Pan Am brought another the next year. This year there were at least six Super Duties.

McElroy set up his Rally Pan Am truck this year to support talented biker Jonah Street because McElroy was excited about supporting the young competitor from Ellensburg, Wash., who began riding at the age of 6. Now 34, Street is a world-class motorcycle racer who has won numerous international championships.

Bivouac #631

The Team Rally Pan Am F-350 is the only truck McElroy owns right now. Don Hatton, of Canada, bought the red Super Duty that McElroy built for last year’s race from Portugal to Dakar, which was canceled. Hatton has now set up his own rally-support business. McElroy and Hatton sold some seats in their two trucks to other bikers and put together a top-flight mechanical/support and driving team.

Jonah “Privateer" Street is the lead rider for Team Rally Pan America. Unlike corporate teams with considerable financial backing, Street and Team Rally Pan America race independently. Funding comes from supporting fans and sponsors, including Top 1 Oil Products, Double Diamond Athletic Club and Plan Administrators Inc.

“Jonah hurt his wrist in June at the Baja 500 and gave this year’s rally his best shot, but re-injured the wrist early in the rally and had to drop out,” said a disappointed McElroy, who is bullish on the young biker who has already showed great talent and stamina. Street won Stage 5 in this year’s Dakar and was in second place overall after stages 4, 5, 6 and 7 before having to drop out.

McElroy’s second F-350 is now owned by Clive Dredge and Pasty Quick, of England. Patsy is a mechanic and former Dakar moto competitor, and she and Clive have dubbed their team “Desert Rose.” The couple have a business running support for the Dakar, and they set up rental motorcycles and provide mechanical support for bikers from England.

F-350 Camp 2

“The great thing is that the three trucks team up -- if one truck goes out, we all help out,” McDonald said. “It’s how we roll.”

“This year’s rally has been different,” he said. “The tracks are difficult and challenging, but it’s not as remote as Africa, where things can be desperate and you go to huts for help and there are no phones. Here, there are phones, but we haven’t had an idle moment.”

“Some of the mystique isn’t there” said McElroy, who spent a year riding his motorcycle around South America and using his RallyPanAm.com truck. “In Africa, you’re in a two-bit town, at an airport [because of the bivouac setup, there is a need to move mechanics and organization from air strip to air strip each day, as the rally progresses], and you can’t run into town to a Home Depot. Here, in South America, there’s an infrastructure.”

What are McElroy’s plans for the future?

“We have plans to help Jonah Street win this race, which he is capable of doing,” he said. “We need more people, but we would like to come back and win this race. We need at least two more trucks to leapfrog -- the three different trucks working together is good, but we came working with a small budget.”

That’s something they hope to change.

One thing the team wouldn’t change is its Ford Super Duties.

“Every rancher in the U.S. and every farmer drives one,” McElroy said. “There is nothing they can throw at it that it can’t do on the Dakar. There’s no reason to come if you can’t have fun. You’re exhausted, you’re in the dust, but we have a good time.”

Bivouac set up #624



In the 31st edition of the Dakar Rally (formerly the Paris Dakar Rally), the fabled most grueling motorsports event in the world found success in its new venue: a 9,578-kilometer run through Latin America.

Although the rally’s home had been Africa since its inception in 1979, last year’s event was canceled as a result of terrorist threats and the killings of French tourists and members of the Mauritanian military along the rally route, which included a rigorous section of the Sahara Desert.

The 2009 Dakar started in Buenos Aires, Argentina, drawing 500 entries from around the globe to motor south to the shores of the Atlantic, west across the Andes to Chile and the Pacific Ocean, north to the Atacama (the world’s highest and driest desert), then east across the snow-capped Andean spine to follow a southerly track ending back in Buenos Aires. Out of 500 competitors, 271 finished: 113 bikers, 13 quad riders, 91 car teams and 54 truck teams.

When the dust settled, this year’s South American event was distinct as a result of the exceptional enthusiasm of passionate fans in Argentina and Chile, hotter temperatures and higher altitudes than Africa, and some of the best offroad tracks and dunes found on the planet to test the mettle of man and machine.


Desmond McDonald, a support team member in the 2007 Dakar Rally and a friend I've known since he was 5 year old, died Saturday. He died from a heart attack while doing what he loved, motorcycle racing in Baja California.

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