CUP: Dakar Rally Opens Busy 2011 For Robby Gordon

Robby Gordon roams around his shop about three weeks before his 2011 season kicks off with the Dakar Rally, and he has a group of mechanics working on his Hummer for that event and a smaller group working on a Sprint Cup car for the Daytona 500.

The three Dakar support haulers, with millions of dollars worth of equipment, were ready a month earlier and left by boat for South America. The actual race vehicles needed to be finished in a week so they could be put on a hauler to Miami and then shipped as air freight to Argentina.

For a guy who finished 34th in the Sprint Cup standings in 2010 and has had his share of spats with sponsors in the last year, Gordon is surprisingly upbeat on what lies ahead for him and his 50 employees in 2011.

He most likely won’t run for any season-long championships. Instead, he will compete in Dakar, in the Daytona 500 and 16 other Cup races, the Indianapolis 500, other off-road competitions, and, when he’s not racing, will go to other motorsports events, such as the X-Games, and promote his new Speed Energy drink.

The 41-year-old Gordon (he turns 42 on Sunday) will race where he wants to, when he wants to.

“This [racing] is what we’ve all dreamed of doing,” Gordon said as he looked at the variety of vehicles in his shop. “They all have engines, wheels and tires. … I just want to race cars. That’s all I really want to do. I like to make a little money, but I really like to race cars. We’re doing a pretty decent job of it.”

Gordon hopes the energy drink market, which he just needs a small fraction of to support his racing endeavors, will fund his program. After a brief hiccup over the logo for his new drink, Gordon said he will be back in full production and distribution by Jan. 11.

Creating and distributing his own product might seem like a big headache, but for a guy who thought he had money in 2010 coming in from Monster (he settled with them out of court and then started his own drink), as well as from an association with BAM Racing (which owes him money but he has no settlement yet and BAM is suing him) and from Extenze (Gordon is suing them), owning a drink company all of a sudden seems simple by comparison.

Gordon figures if he can sell his drink at a lower price than Red Bull and Monster, combined with his popularity, the drink should bring in millions of dollars.

“We’ll generate exposure,” Gordon says before laughing, “good or bad.”

There’s nothing simple nor funny about what Gordon sets out to do, especially in the Dakar Rally as Gordon's two-car operation requires more than a dozen crewmen for the 22-day trip. The team must bring everything from two spare 540-cubic inch production engines (for parts, the block can’t be changed during the event), extra parts of everything that could be put on the cars to take care of at least two rebuilds and to nearly 400 pairs of socks for his crews (they often just give clothing away rather than keeping it with them).

The 2011 version of Dakar will begin with the ceremonial stage Saturday and then the racing begins Sunday in 13 stages over 14 days through Argentina and Chile.

Gordon is excited about a new system that he has to inflate and deflate his tires, meaning he will no longer need a hose that runs on the outside of the vehicle. Last year, he had 20 flat tires and he attributes about 15 of them to complications with the hose getting ripped off. It is important to be able to inflate and deflate the tires depending on the sand level.

If Gordon wins, he has a dream that he’d be able to market the car as a street vehicle – it is virtually street legal as is. Nearly all of the pieces of the cars, Gordon’s team has built itself for one of motorsports’ most grueling events.

Gordon’s one-car Cup operation also has mostly parts built in-house. Once he’s done Jan. 16 with the Dakar Rally, Gordon hopes to be back and ready for the NASCAR test Jan. 20-22 at Daytona International Speedway. After that test, he will go to the Winter X-Games to promote his drink.

Gordon already has 10 race cars pretty much ready for his 17-race Cup season. He believes he has some of the best equipment in the garage. He has CNC machines and a water jet machine to create parts.

“Our stuff, if you look at Jimmie Johnson’s stuff, we look as good as them or better,” Gordon said. “The reason we don’t run better is what’s between the front tires [in the engine compartment] and what we get. … We [also] don’t do a very good job at race craft, what we do on Sundays, what we do on Saturdays.”

A new manufacturer for 2011 – which one, Gordon wouldn’t say – should help and it wouldn’t take much money (about $6,000 per car) to make the conversion from Toyota to a new manufacturer.

In hopes of improving his race craft, Gordon now has Steve Lane, a former crew chief at Chip Ganassi Racing and Front Row Motorsports, as his crew chief.

“The biggest thing is Robby is here to race,” Lane said. “He’s here for the right reasons. The guy is here to work with you. … For a single-car operation, there’s way more than most have.”

The race schedule after Daytona will include Las Vegas, Kansas, Infineon, Daytona, Indianapolis, Watkins Glen, Bristol, Chicago, and Charlotte in the fall. He won’t do Charlotte in May so he can concentrate on the Indianapolis 500 (although he likely will attempt to make the all-star race a week earlier).

He hopes to get retailers on his cars that want to partner with him in selling Speed, much like Red Bull does as it often has a retailer on its rear bumper.

“The races that count [we’ll run],” Gordon said. “Attendance, exposure, races that we can win. … I believe in a championship, I believe in all that stuff but it consumes you. It doesn’t let you think outside [of that larger goal].

“We won a championship last year in off-road and still did the stock-car races. We’re going to do what makes sense for us.”

He said he is 90 percent sure he will do the Indianapolis 500 but will make the decision by March based on the sales of the Speed drink. He plans to build three cars for the Indianapolis 500, with the possibility of selling off one of the cars if he gets in comfortably on the first day.

To some, that might seem a big “if,” but for Gordon, it’s a new way of looking at trying to fund racing and continue what he’s built.

“It’s a big dream,” Gordon said. “But we’re moving some cans [of the drink]. That’s all I can say. We’re still in business. The shop is still open.” • Billy Ballew Motorsports merges with Vision Aviation