Hockey has the Stanley Cup. Soccer has the World Cup. And motor sports has the annual Dakar rally, which kicks off Jan. 1.
It's the ultimate off-road endurance race attracting more than 350 entrants mounting motorcycles, quads, cars and trucks.
Only a handful of elite racers with manufacturer support vie for a podium spot. Most are amateurs chasing the quixotic dream of trying to be among the two in five starters who finish.
In the 32-year history of the race, only six Canadians have ever finished. These are the three who are trying this year – one on a motorcycle, and two in a car.
Don Hatton has completed more motorcycle endurance rallies than any other Canadian, but he has yet to achieve his lifelong dream and finish the ultimate rally of all: The Dakar.
So the 53-year-old former insurance broker and bike-shop owner from Duncan, B.C., has fixed up the motorcycle he crashed out on in 2009, reassured his wife, and is back for a fourth try.
The first time you attempted the Dakar, it was cancelled because of terrorist threats. The second time, you nearly died in a 140 km/h crash. The third time, you broke your hand in training and contacted H1N1 before the race, nearly lost your motorcycle at the start when the one next to yours went up in flames, and rode through food poisoning only to have fuel problems end your race on the third day. This is your fourth attempt. Why do you keep coming back for more?
It gets into your soul and because I haven’t finished, it becomes an obsession to get to the end. I just can’t seem to let it go. Believe me, I’ve tried to say, “I’m not going” and I end up going anyways. I tell myself at the end of the Dakar that I’m not going to go back, and then a couple months go by and I start thinking “Man, I can do it.”
So, what’s gone wrong already this year?
The Dakar seems cursed for me. This year I had sponsorship from Yamaha, but then we shut down our motorbike shop [in Duncan, B.C.]and I couldn’t very well take their bike. The economy also makes raising money more difficult.
And my wife’s enthusiasm for the race isn’t where it was five years ago. We’ve lost friends, and good friends have been injured really bad. Her fear is that I might not be so lucky this time.
You’ve finished just about every other major motorcycle rally in the world. Why do you think a Dakar finish eludes you?
I think it’s just a curse.
The Dakar is not that challenging. It’s long, but I’ve been in rallies that are 100 times harder, and I have no problem finishing those. Everything has to go your way in the Dakar, and if one ingredient is missing, you’re not going to make it.
How did the Dakar become your passion?
Years ago, Wide World of Sports covered the first Dakar, and I thought, “Man, I could do that.” For the past 30 years, every January when the Dakar was on, I’d say to anyone who would listen, “One day I’m going to do this race.” About six years ago my wife said “you’ve been talking about it for so long. Why don’t you do it.” And since then I’ve done more rallies than any other Canadian.
People have lost their marriages, their homes and more chasing a Dakar finish. What are some of the sacrifices you’ve made?
There’s a lot of money that goes into it. We gave away our retirement to chase my dream.
How much does it cost to attempt the Dakar?
You couldn’t do it for under $100,000. The first year we did it was probably closer to a quarter of a million dollars.
How much do you think rallying has cost you over the years?
I hate to think. I’d say $600,000-$700,000.
What advice do you have for people out there who’ve always dreamed of entering the Dakar?
First of all, do it. You don’t want to be an old person on your porch one day thinking, “I wish I’d done that.”
Second, seek the help of someone with experience. You have to be a good rider, but that alone is not going to help you. You have to learn how to navigate, how to pace yourself, and how to deal with all the things you run into on a rally.
The rules have changed since you last rode the Dakar, and now all bikes are limited to 450-cc. Tell me about your bike for this rally?
It started out as a KTM 525EXC, and we converted it to a rally bike. I rode that one in ’09, and it got beat up pretty bad in the crash, so we brought it back to life and put a 450 cylinder in it for this year. A lot of the privateers are doing that this year to keep costs down. Those bikes aren’t cheap. They’re $60,000 to build.
So you’re not superstition then, using the same bike you nearly died on?
I’m not superstitious about the bike, but I’m starting to get superstitious about the rally.
What’s going to be different this year?
I’ve done a lot of races since 2009. I finished the Baja 1,000, and had the opportunity to ride with the factory KTM team and [three-time Dakar winner] Cyril Despres for a week straight, so I feel fairly confident this year.
If you don’t finish this year, will you ever try it again?
Yes. I’m going to finish this race.
You’re 53 years old. How long do you think you can keep doing this?
The Dakar and rallying rewards older riders because it’s more about intelligence, and we have a tendency to be a little bit wiser.
Not to mention we’re a lot fatter, so we can live off our fat longer. We’re riding for 12 to 14 hours, and you only get one small, quick food break. The skinny guys wear out quick.
This interview has been edited and condensed.