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Dakar 2007: Petersen/White Lightning Reflects on Dakar Rally 2007

The challenges are great. The risks are greater. The financial rewards are small. So why would a combination that has won Le Mans twice in its class (’03, ’04), the American Le Mans Series GT2 Driver and IMSA Cup titles twice (’05, ’06) and three times overall at the Baja 1000 opt to risk everything to race at the world’s most grueling endurance race, the Dakar 2007? Because Petersen Motorsports/White Lightning Racing had never done it before. Now that the event has been run - Michael Petersen (USA) drove to 23rd overall finishing the full distance - the Nevada-based team can look back with a sense of accomplishment and pride but, more importantly, vastly more knowledge to go back and challenge for overall victory in January, 2008.

The 6,906 km journey from Lisbon to Dakar takes its participants from the tight, wooded, stages of Europe to the spectacular vistas of the Atlas Mountains, then to the wind-open dunes of the Sahara Desert before the final stage around Lac Rose in Dakar. Rookie teams are not expected to finish this daunting, 15-stage, 16-day mission across the desert, let-alone earn a finish near the top of the 177 car field. Nonetheless, that is exactly what driver/owner Petersen and entrant/program manager Dale White accomplished. Petersen and co-driver Matthew Stevenson earned an extraordinary 23rd overall in the car class - fifth in the two-wheel drive category - in the No. 351 Chevrolet T1.3 class buggy.

"The experience overall was a good one," reflected Petersen. "We had some problems; we had the serpentine belt that cost us about two and a half hours, we had the air compressor hose for the tire inflation system and that cost us about 30 minutes, we pulled Philippe Gache (Team SMG owner) out and then got stuck ourselves. We had a couple of driver errors on my part and a couple of navigational problems that cost us. If you look at the overall time I don’t think it was representational of our performance. But, the race is all about overcoming obstacles. There were quite a few more finishers than everyone expected. My goal was to finish and the problems that got most of the guys were because they went out to win the whole thing in the early stages. Where I felt comfortable, I attacked and on other days we wouldn’t attack."

The goal for their first attempt at the event was simple: learn. Final finishing position was not important as long as they could acquire as much data as possible - both good and bad - in the effort. There were no delusions of grandeur that the Buggy would cross the finish line first, the hope was that it would cross it at all. With each mile, Petersen White - who was driving the Toyota Land Cruiser - and longtime team technicians Nico Castellaccio and Dennis Chizma - both of whom were in the six wheel, three-person, T5 class support truck - added to a library of notes that each was taking to prepare for the 2008 return.

"I completely filled a notebook with ideas for our return," said White. "I have followed this event for many years and not too many things surprised me but I did not realize the number of support trucks/vehicles. Each day the assistance vehicles follow the same type of road book and GPS paralleling the race course. It is a race within a race but with a speed limit. It was an unforgettable experience and I am very proud of Mike. I’m also really proud of Dennis and Nico who really put in some tough hours and all-nighters working. I feel like I have been prepared by all of my personal and racing experiences for this event and look forward to our return." "We learned what we need to be in the desert and what it takes to finish," offered Petersen. "From a team standpoint we are looking forward to going back. My goal for next time is a top-15 finish."

On January 6, four vehicles associated with the program left Lisbon, Portugal with the vision of reaching Dakar. On the second stage, the T4 category support truck of Darren Skilton had an engine failure and was out of the event. With no one in direct support of the No. 351, the event took on an even more trying aspect. Now, if anything were to happen on the course, Petersen and Stevenson would be left to their own devices and the mercy of fellow competitors. As a testimony to Castellaccio and Chizma, as well as Team SMG who built the buggy for Petersen/White Lightning, the Buggy suffered only one mechanical failure on course- a serpentine belt breaking on Stage Seven (January 12).

Stage Seven was to mark the low-point for the team in the overall standings. Not only had the belt repair cost the driving pair, but earlier in the stage they had stopped to assist Team SMG owner Philippe Gache who had become stuck in the sand. In the process of helping, the Chevrolet Buggy also became ensnared. They lost several hours to the leaders at the end of the stage and fell over seven hours behind. They finished 80th on the day and dropped from 21st to 34th overall.

Petersen rallied back however, showing his strength in the sand dunes of Mauritania with consecutive finishes of 17th, 16th and 18th in the next three stages (Stages Eight through 10). Petersen/White Lightning was again knocking on the door of the top-20 when two consecutive problems knocked them back first one position and then two. Petersen and Stevenson became lost in the dust on Stage 12 - not uncommon at Dakar but a first for the pair - and had to slowly make their way back on course. The next day, after being slowed by making his way through the traffic of slower cars and trucks, Petersen was caught-out and struck a tree in the savannahs of Senegal and sustained heavy damage. They finished 57th and 54th respectively in the two stages. Now entering the final off-road stage of the rally, from Tambacounda to Dakar, Petersen opted to conserve his equipment and just make the finish line. The end result was the team’s worst stage finish of the event, 91st. However, he held the 23rd-place ranking overall and, more importantly, was there to start the final stage in Dakar on Sunday, January 21. The final stage, Stage 15, offered a short, blast around Lac Rose outside of Dakar. Petersen made the most of it earning his highest stage finish of the event, eighth.

At the end of the Dakar 2007, Petersen/White Lightning was 23rd overall, 14 hours, 14 minutes and 22 seconds behind overall winner Stéphane Peterhansel who earned his ninth Dakar victory. In total, it took Petersen, who ranked as the third-highest American, and Stevenson, who was one of only two Brits still running, 60 hours, seven minutes and 59 seconds to complete the thousands of kilometers of special timed sections.

Petersen summed-up the feelings of the team; "It didn’t sink in until I was up on the podium what we accomplished. I was approached by many people at the last stage that told me about all the people that paid a lot of money to get where I was standing and never made it. You can probably count on one hand the number of first-time amateurs that have finished this race."

"I have to thank the guys because without them we would never have made it half-way through, Petersen continued. "It was a total team effort. My part was rather small. A lot of mornings I woke-up and the guys had never been to sleep. Matt was a total asset through the whole thing. He knew his navigation and he is mechanically inclined. Maybe even more importantly, he has been around and he knows everyone. Knowing people makes a big difference in whether you’ll get help if you need it or not. I want to thank not only our guys but Team SMG and Darren Skilton. We never had one single puncture, the BF Goodrich tires were incredible. Our relationship with BFG goes back a long way and they are still the best in the business. Also, a special thanks to all the people that made it possible for us to go; especially my Mom and my fiancé who support me through all of my wild adventures."

2007/02/02 | 13:14 CET | Editor: MR/HS/Petersen Racing

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