Son of offroad motorcycle racing legend Malcolm Smith to compete in 2016 Dakar Rally.
Alexander Smith is his own man: business professional, college graduate and accomplished racer. He also happens to be the son of offroad motorcycle racing legend Malcolm Smith. When your father is as famous as his, to be involved and successful in the motorcycle industry seems pretty natural—a given even; yet Alexander Smith has followed his own path to success. Hard work and business savvy allowed him to move through the various roles within his family’s motorcycle dealership; where in 2009 he started as Service Advisor, moved to Service Manager, then to his present role in 2014 as General Manager. Today he is responsible for the day-to-day operations, planning, and financials of Malcolm Smith Motorsports. In addition to his job at Malcolm Smith Motorsports, Alexander serves as Trail Boss for Malcolm Smith Adventures, which specializes in motorcycle adventures in Baja California. He also helps out with the Malcolm Smith Motorsports Foundation, a non-profit community-based organization that gives back to the children of Baja by funding the El Oasis orphanage in Valley Trinidad Baja and an endowment fund responsible for making university and graduate level education possible for all the children of El Oasis.
As if his list of responsibilities isn’t long enough, Alexander Smith has decided to take on a new challenge in 2016: the Dakar Rally. Known as one of the most difficult stage races in the world, the Dakar Rally (or simply “Dakar”) was created by Thierry Sabine, who after being lost in the Libyan Desert during the 1977 Abidjan-Nice rally, promised himself that he would share the sands of North Africa with as many people as possible. He imagined “an extraordinary journey originating in Europe” that crossed the Mediterranean to Algiers and continued on to its final destination on the west coast of North Africa in Dakar, Senegal. On December 27th, 1978, Sabine’s Paris-Dakar became a reality when its first racers departed from Place du Trocadéro in Paris, France—not far from the Eiffel Tower.
Paris-Dakar quickly grabbed the world’s attention and established itself as the premiere motorcycle rally-raid event. Acceptance from motorcycle and car manufacturers alike helped legitimize the race; and the importance of a class win and/or event finish helped establish brand credibility. Dakar became a proving ground not only for man, but for machine. The event continued to grow during the 1980s, surviving the tragic loss of event founder Thierry Sabine and four others in a helicopter crash, and continued through the 90s and on into the current millennium.
The Dakar has not been without its challenges, as terrorist threats in North Africa became increasingly more of a challenge, to the point where the 2008 event was ultimately canceled in order to ensure the safety of race competitors; and because the French Foreign Affairs Ministry recommended the race not go into the country of Mauritania. Dakar in Africa may have been finished, but the event was not. Dakar simply reinvented itself and resurfaced in 2009 with a move to another continent altogether: South America. Staged in a new environment every bit as challenging and dramatic as Africa, Dakar in South America takes place in the countries of Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile; with competitors being challenged by the varied terrain of places such as the Atacama Desert, the Andes mountains, and the largest salt flat in the world—the Salar de Uyuni.
The Dakar is more than a test of a rider’s ability to ride a motorcycle; it is a test of navigation, mechanical and survival skills. Dakar is not just a motorcycle race; it is a challenge to the limits of the human capacity to endure suffering. One prologue, thirteen days of stages, one designated rest day; each stage anywhere from 271 to 578 miles in length (not including transfers) followed by bike maintenance and a bit of recovery sleep. Wake up and repeat. Wake up and repeat. This is the challenge that Alexander Smith has accepted for himself. And with the support of the HT Rally Raid team, he will line up on January 2nd, 2016 for the prologue aboard his Husqvarna 450RR and put himself to the test. Learn more about Alexander Smith and his drive to challenge himself with this massive endeavor of a race.
Alexander, first off, thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to tell us about your Dakar 2016 Rally plans. What was the biggest factor that made you decide that 2016 was your year to take on the Dakar Rally?
I don’t remember a time when Dakar wasn’t a dream of mine. My father raced the Dakar Rally in the late 80s and came home with stories about racing across the dunes of Northern Africa. The imagery stuck with me for the rest of my life. I have always wanted to do it but it seemed so unlikely that it would ever happen. After my win at the 2013 Baja 1000 someone asked me what was next and half-joking I replied, “Dakar.” Even then it was far from a sure thing. I knew the financial cost of such a race and thought it would be a long shot. I raced the Baja 1000 again in 2014 and ended up crashing 30 miles from the finish. I nearly tore the middle finger from my left hand and knocked myself out. The finger took two surgeries to get back to where it is now, which is about 50% of normal function. During my recovery, Quinn Cody reached out to me and asked if I was interested in racing Dakar. Of course my answer was ‘YES!’ so we started working out how it would happen and how we could make the budget work. It took a solid five months to figure it all out but once I got that first call from Quinn I knew I wouldn’t stop pushing until I made it happen.
In October you competed in the Moroccan Rally, for as you describe it, a “warm-up” for Dakar. Tell us a little about how that rally went and how you think it will help you prepare for Dakar?
Morocco was a steep learning curve for me. My Husqvarna 450RR rally bike is unlike anything I have ever ridden. It carries eight gallons of fuel, is almost four inches longer than my Husqvarna at home, and has tons of navigation equipment. Nothing on the bike is the same as my regular Husqvarna: frame, suspension, geometry, swing arm, engine and body work are all very different. I think the hardest thing to get over was how the bike handles when the rear tank has four gallons of gas in it.
As if the physical bike differences were not enough there are so many technical things to think about while rally racing it changes the way you ride. The format of a rally is so different from anything we do here in the U.S. it took some time to understand what was happening. No one can really understand rally navigation without having done it. Your navigation tools are a road book (think big paper roll chart), an odometer, a speedcap (compass heading indicator), an ERTF (computer that knows where hidden waypoints are but doesn’t tell you until you are within 1km) and a backup odometer. Using all of these pieces of equipment together while trying to go race-pace is difficult to say the least.
The first three days were pretty rough on me. I was trying to get comfortable with everything and not make any mistakes; it resulted in my 38th overall position at the end of the 1st day which didn’t feel very good. I was questioning what I was doing there and questioning myself. As the race progressed I started to figure it out, felt more comfortable and I think my results showed that. I ended up 21st Overall which wasn’t where I wanted to be but I learned a lot.
With the long days in the saddle, and minimal recovery time between stages, has there been a specific training regimen on the motorcycle and in the gym you have used to prepare for the extreme physical stress your body will undergo in the Dakar?
I started a training regimen back in 2013 when I first decided to race the Baja 1000 solo. The training is extremely motorcycle focused and hasn’t changed much since then. It involves lots of cardio work like running, cycling and rowing, also core and strength work. Everything is done at low weight and high reps to minimize muscle mass and maximize muscle endurance. I’m in the gym five days a week and riding as often as possible. It’s difficult to maintain a balance between my personal life, professional life and my training for racing; the result is my seat time tends to suffer. I don’t expect the long days and short recovery to be a problem.
Racing the Dakar when it is a rider’s singular focus seems like it would be hard enough, yet you’ve decided to race this event even though you work 40+ hours a week at your day job. With your relatively new position as the General Manager of Malcolm Smith Motorsports, how do you find time to train and organize for the Dakar Rally?
I love my job. I never once wanted to be a professional motorcycle racer; I have always wanted to be a business professional. The sense of victory and accomplishment I feel with success at work is much greater than I feel racing. Malcolm Smith Motorsports is my primary focus but I also love to race motorcycles and the two can conflict with each other. I try to only do one race per year that will take me away from the dealership for longer than a weekend. It’s a big ship with lots of moving parts and requires attention but I’m fortunate to have great managers in place that can handle almost anything. Trying to fit in work, training, riding and a personal life makes for some long days but I think I would be bored otherwise.
I feel very lucky to have a ride with the HT Husqvarna rally team. They take care of all organization and make it very easy for me to show up and ride. I was very impressed with their level of organization and professionalism at the Moroccan Rally. It actually took me some time to feel comfortable letting them do so much for me on a daily basis. I tell people it is the closest you are going to get to a factory ride without being a factory rider. Without a professional team like HT Husqvarna it would be impossible for me to try to put it all together.
You’re involved with Malcolm Smith Adventures as its Trail Boss. During those rides you help keep a group of riders together for 1,400+ miles over seven days, which seems like not only a logistical challenge but a mental and physical challenge. Would you say your experience with Malcolm Smith Adventures is something that will help you in the Dakar Rally?
Malcolm Smith Adventures is another piece of the Malcolm Smith family of companies. We offer world-class motorcycle tours in Baja and all over the world. Our annual ‘Malcolm’s Baja Ride’ is our flagship event and is invite only. We typically have around 50-60 clients on the ride, all are successful business professionals who ride dirt bikes. Even with a fairly experienced group of clients it can still be challenging. We typically cover around 1,500 miles over the course of seven days of riding which leaves a lot of opportunities for things to go wrong. My responsibilities on the ride have grown over the years and I’m now responsible for basically anything that happens while the clients are riding. I know it sounds crazy but I get to work while riding my motorcycle. How cool is that? It’s not all fun and games, emergency medical logistics are my responsibility and it has taught me how to make quick decisions when the situation is dire and consequence high. Our clients depend on us to be there if something goes wrong and to get them to safety as quickly as possible. I think this experience will prove valuable at Dakar.
To finish a grueling event like the Dakar requires that you minimize navigation mistakes and keep your bike running for the entire rally. We read that you’ve chosen to work with Dakar veteran Quinn Cody to help with navigation. How much of your preparation for this event has involved honing navigation skills as well as mechanical knowledge?
Navigation mistakes can ruin a perfectly good Dakar race. I knew going into this, navigation would give me the most trouble because I’m so accustomed to riding with a GPS in Baja. Quinn Cody offered to help me prepare and give me navigation training. He has been very generous with his time and the training has helped tons. He has raced Dakar multiple times and knows what to expect, just being able to ask someone questions was very important to me. Now I just need to get some of his speed!
I always build my own bikes and work on them myself. Mechanical knowledge should not be a problem at Dakar. I am confident I will be able to fix what’s thrown at me.
You’ll have your father along on your Dakar adventure in one of the support trucks; how much does that mean to you to have your father’s support at such a challenging and prestigious event?
My dad raced Dakar back when it was a real man’s race. In the late 80s there was very little in the way of safety precautions and you were truly on you own in the middle of Africa. There were no Sat phones, no satellite trackers and no GPS units in the vehicles. If you got lost you were going to stay lost until you figured it out. Plenty of competitors died during those years and the event took on a notorious reputation. He knows what the race is all about and he can understand what makes me want to race because he was that way too. It will be great to have him there during the rally. I think he will enjoy himself and it will be a great bonding experience for the two of us. Fifteen days of sharing a tent will test our relationship.
Changing gears, we noticed that you graduated from Sonoma State University School of Business with a double major in International Business and International Economics. Commitment and completion of a four-year college degree program, in our opinion, is a test of one’s grit and perseverance, and one that often helps overcome obstacles later in life. In a time when many young motorcycle racers choose home schooling in lieu of high school, and often forgo college altogether, how much would you say your college education has influenced your professional life as well as your drive to succeed in an event such as the Dakar?
The day I graduated college my Dad said, ‘I didn’t think you would do it!’ Thanks Dad. I was never a great student in high school so I guess he didn’t think I would like college. Once I got to college I got serious about my education and buckled down. I always knew I wanted to study business but it wasn’t until my first economics class that I decided to study economics as well. Finishing my BA in Economics was one of the most mentally challenging things I have ever done. I earned my two degrees in four and a half years then immediately went to work at Malcolm Smith Motorsports. No amount of schooling can fully prepare you for the challenges you face in your career but my education made the transition to my work life much easier.
I think too many young kids bet their entire future on racing, eschewing education for the off-chance they have successful racing careers. The chance of a young racer being the next RC is very slim. Even if they have the skill, there is a risk of injury that has sidelined so many careers. I understand the allure of professional racing and see how a family can get caught up in the hype. Unfortunately the nature of our sport demands the young rider give up everything and focus solely on racing motorcycles, however the downside is great if it doesn’t work out. I’m not saying to not follow your dream of becoming a professional racer. I’m just cautioning all young racers and their families to have realistic expectations and know when to call it quits on a professional racing career. I’m personally glad I never went down the professional road myself. I think I enjoy motorcycles more because I never felt a burden to go fast or else.
I have never been one to have a singular focus in life and I made sure my college time was not lacking motorcycles. Throughout my time at college I raced AMA District 36 (northern California) enduro, met a lot of great people and had some great races. I miss the northern California racing, they have some great places to ride and the clubs do such a great job.
Thank you for sharing your story with us, Alexander. We look forward to following your Dakar Rally experience this January. Who would you like to thank for helping make this a reality?
Husqvarna NA has been instrumental in making this program possible for me. I am very excited to be riding for a brand that has so much history both for the motorcycle industry and for the Smith name. MSR has been my gear brand for life (of course) and they have stepped up in a big way to support my efforts. Also my father’s longtime friend Mark Mitchell was the first person to pledge his support and my largest private supporter. A few of my longtime supporters have also stepped up to support my effort. Motion Pro, makes the best tools and controls. They are also a sponsor of our Baja rides. Troy Lee Designs, I have been wearing TLD helmets since 2002 and I love the creativity at the company. IMS Products makes great tanks and pegs, I’m happy to have them in my corner. I’m also working with an oil company for support but don’t have anything solid at this point.
2016 Dakar Prologue and Stages
Dakar Website: www.dakar.com
Jan. 02: Prologue / Liaison to Bivouac close to Rosario
Jan. 03: Buenos Aires - Villa Carlos Paz
Jan. 04: Villa Carlos Paz - Termas de Río Hondo
Jan. 05: Termas de Río Hondo - Jujuy
Jan. 06: Jujuy - Jujuy
Jan. 07: Jujuy - Uyuni
Jan. 08: Uyuni - Uyuni
Jan. 09: Uyuni - Salta
Jan. 10: Rest day in Salta
Jan. 11: Salta - Belén
Jan. 12: Belén - Belén
Jan. 13: Belén - La Rioja
Jan. 14: La Rioja - San Juan
Jan. 15: San Juan - Villa Carlos Paz
Jan. 16: Villa Carlos Paz – Rosario
Look for a full NBC Sports television broadcast schedule soon.
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