SKYLER HOWES HEADS TO HONDA
BY: CHAD DE ALVA AND SCOTT BRIGHT
On January 15th, 2023, after more than 44 hours of racing, Skyler Howes became the fifth American in history to podium on a bike at the Dakar rally with a 3rd place overall finish. Riding a factory Husqvarna rally bike, Skyler lead six of the rally’s fourteen stages, and was just over five minutes behind first place overall – an impressive ride for sure. Skyler’s journey to the podium of the world’s toughest race has also been quite the ride – starting from humble beginnings, he has quite literally bet the farm to go all in on pursuing his dreams. At the 2023 Colorado 600, I had the opportunity to get to learn more of Skyler’s story, and to find out what’s next for this hard working, strong mustache growing, and all around outstanding human.
A big thanks also goes to Scott Bright, who provided many of the questions used for this article.
How did this all get started?
My grandfather built a famous race car that won the first Baja 500. Steve McQueen ended up buying that car and racing it, and my grandfather would trade drive time for mechanic help. As my dad was growing up, he would work in Steve’s shop, and he kept sweeping next to a bike in a box. So the floor in front of that torn down motorcycle was really clean. Steve finally told my father that if he could get the bike back together, he could have it. So indirectly, my father got his first bike from Steve McQueen, got it going, and used it in pre run Baja racecourses for my grandfather. That’s the short story on how my family got into off-road racing.
What was your first bike?
My first bike was a Honda XR75. I was two and a half years old when my dad put me on it. The bike had a clutch and everything, but I couldn’t reach the foot pegs. So my dad would sit on it, put me on it, and ghost-ride me off in the empty lot behind our house. I kept getting more comfortable, so my dad would let me take the reins, and we’ve got all of these home videos of my dad yelling at me to slow down. All of my childhood memories are of me coming by my dad on the racecourse and him yelling at me to slow down!
Early on, I was instilled with the real reason we ride dirt bikes, and that’s because it’s fun. I went out and I won a race and I really liked that, and I got this cool trophy. The next race I went out and I didn’t win. I started crying and I had a big problem with it, so my dad picked up the bike and put it in the back of the truck and said, “Alright, we’re going home.” I said, “Wait, I have another race to do!” My dad responded, “No, if you’re going to cry because you didn’t win - that’s not what we’re here to do. We’re here to have some fun and ride dirt bikes. If you’re going to cry because you didn’t win, we’re going to go home and I’m going to sell the bike.” So from the time I was three to four years old and started racing, he really drove home the point that riding dirt bikes is fun – and I think that’s what really lead me to the point that I’m at now.
Tell us about Baja?
Baja is a wild place, and I loved racing there. It’s a great place to go if you have a bucket list, want to do wheelies on the beach, eat tacos and drink beers. It’s also a place you can go and get your butt kicked, which I definitely did.
What Baja taught me is that no matter how cool you think you are, the desert is always in charge. Baja also taught me life lessons like don’t step over dollars to pick up pennies. It’s interesting how many parallels there are between dirt bike racing and overall life: if you decide to skip out on some things because it’s an extra three dollars, and it ends up costing you seven thousand dollars in the long run, it’s better to just spend the money and do the right thing the first time. I ended up going broke and having some gnarly crashes, but you learn from failure. It’s interesting to look back on that – if you’re mentoring someone, you don’t want them to go through that, to have the same problems that you had, but from failure and adversity you get some of the best life lessons… looking back on that now it makes me appreciate what I have so much more.
How did you get into rally?
15 miles from the finish line of Vegas to Reno, I broke my chain guide and didn’t have the tools to fix it. After four hours stuck in the desert, a guy named Garrett Poucher stopped and had the tools I needed. We got to talking while working on getting my bike back together, and he invited me to come race the Baja 1000 with him and to try rally racing. We ended up on the podium of the score championship series, and then he got me to the Sonora rally.
I didn’t really know what I was doing. I thought it was a race, and that you have to go fast to win. I had only seen a roadbook once before, so I had no idea how to navigate or do any of this. I started the race just trying to go as fast as I could, and I’d get lost, go back, figure it out, keep going, try to follow Scott, realize I could go faster, pass Scott, and get lost again. By day two or three, Scott was so tired of me that he stopped in the middle of the race and explained to me why I kept making mistakes. Scott was trying to win the race, but he stopped his race to try to help me, a competitor, on how to do better and not get lost.
I ended up winning Sonora, and won the Dakar challenge, which got me a free entry to the Dakar rally. I went to Peru and raced there, and got my butt kicked again. I learned a bunch of gnarly lessons, but all of this just kept tracking me to where I am now.
Tell us about going from your first Dakar race to your first Dakar podium?
My first Dakar, I went into it thinking that I needed to do well to get a factory ride. The second time, I thought, well, I’ve got the opportunity to go again, so I’m going to do nothing besides ride every mile, and just enjoy my time on a dirt bike – and I got 9th overall.
I had some serious adversity on my second Dakar. I broke my bike in half and Garrett had a big crash and he decided that he didn’t want to race or support the team anymore. I was on a stock bike at the time and knew I could do better with a better bike and no mechanical issues. I got a call from the BAS racing KTM team, and they told me they would give me the proper machinery, but it would be about $100,000. I told them I had about $2,000, so I’m going to need your help and if it comes down to it, I’m going to have to move to Holland to work in your shop to pay off my bill. I sold everything – my Hondas, my first Dakar bike Garrett gave me, my truck, everything that wasn’t nailed down. I got extremely fortunate selling shirts, doing riding schools, and from the help of so many people. I made it back to Dakar and got fifth overall.
Then the most gut-wrenching thing happened. I got fifth overall and thought now for sure I’m going to get a factory ride, but no call came. So I’m thinking, what did I do wrong? I sent email after email, just started getting after it putting myself in front of their faces until finally I got a response. Three weeks after that, I signed on to the Husqvarna program. In 2023 I became the 5th American to finish on the podium at the Dakar rally.
You got a new bike – tell us all about this new chapter?
I’m super excited to sign with the Monster Energy Honda rally team. When I got started into rally I was on a Honda and my dream was to sign with the Honda rally program. Now to come full circle and end up here is such a cool feeling. Just in the short time that I have been on the team I’ve seen a huge shift in my motivation. To have the resources from such an iconic company like Honda and all of the perks of Monster Energy, it has opened a lot of doors and shined a new light on my training program and daily life.
But as far as racing goes, nothing changes for me. My focus stays the same, which is, just do the best I can. I came to the realization that this won’t be forever and I need to enjoy this part of my life as much as possible. I’m going to take every opportunity to the fullest and just give my all. When I look back later in life I’ll never be able to say “what if I tried harder.” Every day I will do my best and be happy about it.
Anything else you want to add?
I want to give a big thank you to Upshift for always having my back and being a big supporter of me all the way from the beginning; and to be on the cover of such a rad publication is an honor. Thank you!
Skyler’s first rally aboard his Monster Energy Honda will be the Rally Du Maroc on October 12th. Here’s to seeing Skyler and his outstanding mustache on many more podiums in the years to come.