The Dakar Rally has traditionally been a tough nut for American racers to crack, until Ricky Brabec’s breakthrough win on motorcycles last year. There have been stand-outs among the four-wheeled classes in the past but consistency in performance had eluded them. Enter Austin Jones, son of legendary Baja racer Jesse Jones, himself a winner of Baja races (500 & 1000), and recently crowned the 2021 FIA T4 World Cup Cross Country Rally champion, and a pretty chill guy.
Last week, the 25-year-old Jones claimed victory at the the 44th Dakar Rally in the SSV (FIA T4) category. Remarkably, he did it without any stage wins. It was a testament to the focus and patience he and his Brazilian navigator Gustavo Gugelmin possess. After his return from Dakar, I was able to chat with Jones about his win and his perspective on what it all meant.
The obvious question is why Rally Raid? He arguably could be a stand-out in the American Southwest and Baja racing format. Rally Raid is not raced at this level in the United States, the closest equivalent being the Sonora Rally. Even stage racing isn’t easy to find, which helps explain why Americans haven’t been able to find their way to Rally Raid. But as Jones says, that’s exactly why Rally Raid is for him.
“A couple things attracted me to Rally Raid. Overall, it’s really different — the format of stage racing is a really cool way to go out there and race,” he says. “It isn’t going out there full-gas or whoever is the fastest that day. A lot more strategy goes into it. Like, you don’t always want to win a stage. Finding the right starting position each day is part of the navigation strategy. And if you have a bad day, then you get a couple more days to try and make that up. I think all that strategy is really cool. And the traveling part is awesome.”
He adds, “If I have a s••••y day at the Baja 1000, I have to wait a whole year. If I have a bad stage, I can just wait a couple hours and go try again.”
And it doesn’t hurt that he has all that Baja experience. Jones was brought up racing the tight, technical, rocky, berm- and tree-filled terrain of Baja. Rally Raid might feature more dune action, but on those days with Baja style terrain is where he finds time.
The other part of the equation is his navigator. Jones isn’t shy about sharing the spotlight with Gugelmin. “I consider him, and I think everyone does, one of the best in the world at navigating,” Austin says. “And as far as riding in the Can-Ams, he knows the Can-Ams that South Racing has built – maybe more than anyone. He’s really smart about letting me know what the car can and can’t do and how to manage everything mechanical. And we don’t really get lost very often.
“That was a huge thing I learned when I got into Rally Raid, is how important the navigator is — more so than racing in Baja. With Rally Raid, it’s really a 50-50 split as far as responsibilities go, and sometimes even more on him. I often tell him that he’s driving the car, I’m just steering the wheel and pushing the pedals.
“It was hard at first to put your destiny in someone else’s hands and obviously it’s really, really frustrating when you get lost, but at the same time you have to understand that his job can be harder than mine. They make these road books to try and get you lost on purpose.”
“I started racing with Gustavo at the beginning of 2020 right after my first Dakar, when I switched navigators. And it was interesting since his first language isn’t English. But even so, we won a couple stages in our first rally and I was surprised how well we worked together right off the bat and how easy it was to figure out our communication. It’s worked out really well. I’m super stoked with how everything has turned out.”
Jones is adamant about the importance of having the rally mindset right between driver and navigator. It’s a stage-by-stage strategy, not Baja-mode pedal to the metal for 18 hours straight. He’s been able to develop that rally mindset quickly with his full-season entry in last year’s FIA T4 World Cup for Cross Country Rallies.
Referring to his overall triumph without a stage win, Jones says, “Our strategy going in was that we didn’t want to win any stages — in particular, our first week. The plan was always: get to rest day, get to halfway through the race and then make a new plan after that. We wanted to be in the top five every single day. After rest day, we looked at where we were at and who we were racing against and how everyone was doing in the race and made a plan from there. We decided which days to push and which days to sit back a little bit. It was really back and forth up until the last day when we realized we had to go.”
As for that dramatic last day finish, in which he came from behind to win that made for such a great story? “For you and everybody else, but not me,” he says with a chuckle. “This is so epic, but for me it was so stressful.”
Jones feels that he’s evolved as a racer. “I think I’ve gotten a lot smarter and grown up a little bit here and there. I’m a lot more patient and relaxed,” he explains. “I used to get really riled-up in the car, yelling at every little tiny thing that happens. And now, something happens — you can’t do anything when you’re stressed out. You do everything better in life when you’re calmer. I learned to step back for second and relax and just find a solution to the problem instead of getting pissed off about the problem. I’m getting older and hopefully smarter — which helps a lot, especially in rally. Patience and consistency are the name of the game.”
The traits he has learned behind the wheel in Rally Raid and that have contributed to his success come across in his demeanor as well. He’s even-keeled on the phone, calmly confident and has a fun sense of humor, but according to Jones, “I wasn’t always like that, I was pretty on the rev-limiter at all times. But I’m definitely a lot better. And according to my dad, I’m more enjoyable to be around.”
Jones’ attitude comes through in talk about his future race plans. It’s clear that he loves what he’s racing and will stay with Can-Am “for as long as they’ll have me.” He’s taking in the cultures he encounters as he travels the globe and has a deep appreciation of the countrysides he gets to traverse — from WRC rally-style roads in the Andalucia Rally in Spain, to the open desert of Kazakhstan and all the dunes of Abu Dhabi.
The future for Austin Jones is off to a strong start. As the only full time American entered in the 2022 FIA World Rally-Raid Championship SSV class, he is well-positioned to be the first American to add “domination” alongside “winner” on his four-wheeled Rally Raid CV.