By Dale Spangler - Buzz Media
Dirt Buzz: Skyler, you have to be pumped about your fifth overall finish at this year’s Dakar Rally! How does it feel to be a top-five finisher at an event as prestigious as Dakar?
Skyler Howes: It honestly feels really good. It’s nice to set goals and accomplish them. But to accomplish something as big as a top-five at the Dakar and to do it self-funded on a rental bike puts the cherry on top. I feel blessed to have even been able to race in the first place with all the fundraising, and to have a good finish just really makes me feel like the hard work was rewarded.
Compared to 2020, where you went to Dakar 3-1/2 months after breaking your C6 vertebrae in your neck, this year must have been a much different lead-up to the event. What were your expectations coming into this year’s Dakar?
SH: This year was no less stressful, that’s for sure. Last year I had a different mentality. I didn’t have to worry about fundraising as much having a good sponsor, so all I had to focus on was my health. This year I had so much more on my plate that my physical fitness and training kind of took a back seat, which is not what you want heading into Dakar. I lucked out that I was in good health and had some experience behind me, but the stress of trying to sell everything and fundraise took its toll for sure. The mentality was the same, and once I arrived in Saudi and got my negative COVID test back, the stress went away, and I was able to just ride the dirt bike. It may be funny to say, but for me, the least stressful part of the Dakar was when the racing started (laughs).
DB: Finishing that high up in the overall standings with multiple top-five stage finishes, does it change your outlook for what’s achievable for you in rally racing in the future?
SH: Definitely. I had a friend tell me that if you can finish in the top five, you can be on the podium, and if you can be on the podium, you can win. At the time, I kind of brushed it off as an ‘easier said than done’ kind of thing. But this year, it really became clear. Realistically, I had two major mistakes that cost me a lot of time. If I hadn’t made those mistakes, I could have been on the podium, and the podium was separated by like 10 minutes, so a win is possible there. A lot of ‘what ifs’ going on. But it is possible. Minimize the mistakes and maximize the focus: learning that gave me a lot more confidence heading into the future.
DB: What’s the craziest thing that happened or that you witnessed at this year’s Dakar rally?
SH: Oh boy… there are so many wild things that happen every day it’s really hard to pinpoint. I watched a few people send it off of dunes. I had kids throw rocks at me. I had a few close calls with rocks and high-speed corners that just ended up working out. I saw a lot more camels strapped down into the bed of a tiny Toyota pickup (laughs). But probably the craziest thing that happened to me was my handguard getting clipped by a car’s mirror speeding past me trying to take a video of me on the liaison… That was a life flash before my eyes type of moment.
DB: I read where a couple of areas that really helped you this year are your bike setup and logistical support from the Bas Dakar Team. How did the support of a full-on race team make for a vastly different Dakar racing experience for you this year?
SH: The BAS team just runs a really tight ship. The Klymciw team that I was on last year did a really good job, too, and there’s nothing to take away from those guys. The BAS team just gave me more opportunity to set up suspension and test the bike before the race, which was a really huge bonus. Confidence in the bike hurt me a lot last year, it took me a few days just to figure out what the bike was going to do, and then the rest of the race, I was worried about it all the time.
This year I remembered towards the end of the race that ‘I never really thought about what the bike was going to do.’ I just rode, felt comfortable, confident, and was having a lot of fun. I think that made the biggest difference. Leon was my mechanic, and he just doesn’t half-ass anything. He inspects, replaces, and services every square inch of the bike every day, so I never had to worry about it. And Bart was so awesome to sit down at the end of every day, talk about things, discuss tire strategy and overall mentality. A big thing was we had a Physio, Bart Nilesson, who took care of me, so I didn’t get tendonitis like I did last year. We all worked well together, and it all just flowed nicely.
DB: Obviously, your ultimate goal is to land factory-level support to elevate you to the next level and provide a support system that allows you to be a podium threat in 2022. Have you had any interest yet from any of the factory teams?
SH: There’s no one really beating down my door. It’s pretty wild to see the amount of support from everyone saying that I ‘deserve’ a factory spot. I’ve been able to accomplish something special and something that I’m proud of in my eyes. Obviously, I want to continue and improve my results, and I fear the only way I’ll be able to go back again is if I have factory support, so I really hope it comes. But then again, I don’t expect anything. I work hard for things and understand the value of money and support and don’t expect anyone to just give that to me. If it comes, I’ll gladly accept, and I really hope it does.
DB: No one can say Skyler Howes is not committed to racing because you literally sold everything you own to go to Dakar this year. Tell us how you came to that decision and how it affects your racing in the immediate future?
SH: Without direct sponsorship this year, I was more or less on my own coming up with the money. I crunched the numbers and figured even if I absolutely crushed t-shirt sales and had a good fundraiser, unless someone came to me with a $50k sponsorship, I’d have to sell all of my bikes. It borderline came down to selling my bicycles and pretty much everything. But I was extremely fortunate enough to have many people come together and donate to the SH Squad, some small local businesses stepped up, and it all made the difference. It all came down to one thing, ‘what if?’ What if I go ‘all in?’ I’ll never look back and say, ‘man, I wonder what would have happened if I did?’
DB: What’s next on the agenda? Are there specific races you’ll focus on in the coming months and through the remainder of the year?
SH: Sonora Rally is a must. I’ll try to hit a couple of the Baja Rally events if I can make it work. And then a couple of the Best In The Desert races. I need to figure out a bike to race; right now, I’m borrowing a friend’s bike. There’s a lot that needs to happen before I can race, so I’m going to put a little more focus into my physical fitness to make sure I’m ready for any opportunity and then head back to work. Also, I’m going to put more effort into finishing up my pilot’s license and hopefully get a side business going flying hot air balloons.
DB: Speaking of the future, back in December, you entered your first UTV race and took the win. Any aspirations for a carrier in four-wheel racing someday?
SH: Absolutely. Four-wheel racing is my family’s history. I love driving and wish I could do it a lot more! I was fortunate enough to get the win in the Pro Turbo class in my first race, so it would be really cool to get an opportunity to chase that side of racing more and get a chance to drive a full-size car or truck of some sort. The biggest thing is I don’t personally have the cash flow to push that side, so I just need to get lucky and have someone that needs a driver. I have the gear, so if anyone needs a driver, I’m in!
DB: If everything goes according to plan, where do you hope to see yourself in the next 2-3 years?
SH: On the top step of the Dakar, in some sort of four-wheel machine racing some desert races, a commercial hot air balloon pilot, and having fun in between with family and friends.
DB: Skyler, thanks so much for this interview. Who out there would you like to thank for helping you achieve your top-five finish?
SH: Every single person who donated, bought a t-shirt or stickers, came to my fundraisers and joined the SH Squad. You all came together and really made this all possible for me. The handful of local businesses who supported me: Labache AG, INC, Carter Allen Inspired Homes, Summit Spa and Float, Rohma, KORR, Fasst Company, Rocky Mountain ATV/MC, DeJongh Construction, ADV Addicts, Leaf and Bean, Vapor Works, Molco Car Parts, Yellow Stone Rally Riders, DMC, West Village Contracting. And my main sponsors: BAS Trucks, Rebellion Racing, LPOR, Red Wolf Rock Walls, Parrot Surf and Skate, Fly Racing, Scott, POD, Alpinestars, Hammer Nutrition, Beam Designs, KTM, Motorex, Twin Air, MIRA, and of course — UPSHIFT!