2020 Yokohama Sonora Rally
Luis Pelayo Reigns Supreme After Five Days of Battle
Story By: John Rettie
Photos By: Justin W. Coffey
When the sixth edition of the Yokohama Sonora Rally, presented by Method Race Wheels, started in Hermosillo, Mexico in March, the world as we knew it was pretty much normal. Mexico was not affected by COVID-19 yet and the rally was in very little danger of being cancelled… Even so, there were a few US competitors concerned about what was unfolding at home and backed out of participating just prior to.
So it was the 36 bikes and a dozen UTVs that took the start near Hermosillo’s city center. Last year’s overall winner Ricky Brabec was first off the line and was the clear favorite to win. Brabec was fresh off taking the overall victory on the 2020 Dakar Rally, making him the first American to win the prestigious event.
Of course, this meant that he was ineligible to compete for the coveted free entry to the 2021 Dakar Rally, one of the major draws of competing in the Sonora Rally. This is the only North American event that is part of various rally raid events around the world annually known as the Road to Dakar. The prize creates a very competitive race among the pro bike riders, and this year 10 competitors were in the battle to earn that spot.
As the Sonora Rally has evolved there are now just two main types of vehicles competing – bikes and UTVs. There were no trucks or buggies competing this year. In many ways it’s a natural progression since UTVs have become truly competitive race cars that offer much more “fun for the buck” than competitive “traditional” off-road race cars.
The winning UTV driver might not get a Dakar entry, but they do get a pretty good reward – a free entry (worth about $5,300) in the Rally du Maroc which takes place in the Fall in Morocco. This rally raid is considered by many as a pre-test to the Dakar and as such consistently draws top notch competitors from all over the world.
Unlike most forms of off-road racing, competitors in rally raid events do not know exactly what course they will be racing on until the night before the next day’s special stages. To add to unpredictability, they are prohibited to use any GPS systems. All navigation is derived from the information printed in a road book that can look like hieroglyphics to the uninitiated. These road books, or scrolls for bikers, are handed out to competitors upon arrival to time control at the bivouac, a temporary camp setup at staging. You’ll then see bikers and navigators furiously marking them up with colored highlighters so they can read them more easily at race speeds. Continuously seeking a more convenient process to all this, we have seen more and more UTV navigators opting for a scroll instead of the larger book.
There were some repeat competitors among the dozen UTV teams this year, including PJ Jones with Kyle Vestermark as his navigator, David Sykes/Scott Steinberger, Nick Bruce/Cam Muldner and Luis Pelayo/Abelardo Ruanová – all these teams were piloting the rally raid in a Can-Am Maverick X3. A notable new competitor this year, and in a fairly stock Polaris RZR Turbo S, was off-road racer Sara Price navigated by Kellon Walch, who has sat alongside Robby Gordon in several Dakars.
The bikers were running a competitive race but out front were Ricky Brabec and Skyler Howes in a field all by themselves. Brabec won on all but one day and took the overall victory by less than a minute over Howes. Colton Udall finished sixth overall and won the Road to Dakar Challenge.
The competition among the UTV teams was much more ambitious with four different leaders during the five days of competition. The first day featured a single 88-mile special stage in an area not used in previous Sonora rallies. It took the competitors on relatively fast dirt tracks through farmland and over a mountain pass. Sara Price set the pace beating Luis Pelayo by just one minute.
There had been a fair amount of rain the week prior to the rally, which caused many washouts and forced some sections of Day 2’s special stages to be cancelled. Even for the returning competitors, the two stages were quite different from previous years with tracks going up as high as 6,000 ft through spectacular mountain passes. Dave Sykes managed to lead the way on the technically challenging course with an eventual margin of one minute over Nick Bruce.
As dawn broke on Day 3 dark clouds greeted the competitors and forecasts showed a threat of heavy rain. The course was leaving the highlands and heading across flat plains towards the ocean, it seemed inevitable that the day’s second special stage would be cancelled due to flooding. Fortunately the heavy rains stayed slightly north and both stages were run, but rain still fell and plenty of competitors got soaked as they entered Puerto Penasco, the resort town on the Sea of Cortez. This day, the longest of the event, belonged to Pelayo who gained a valuable two-minute lead over Price. Sykes, who had been leading overall, had a bad day with mechanical problems that took him out of the event.
Day 4 was the big day and the one that most competitors really enjoy. Aptly named Big Dunes Day it took the competitors on a 131-mile single stage through the Altar Dunes, the largest set of dunes in North America. This is when navigation skills really come into play. In the dunes there are very few recognizable vehicle tracks to utilize for any kind of additional guidance. Even though one of the known golden rules in rallying is to avoid using other competitor’s tracks as visual reference as they may not be on the correct course.
Several UTVs rolled off the large dunes, fortunately with no injuries, to the crews at least. One was Pelayo, who took a big tumble that looked like it would take him out of the rally. He was able to hobble to the bivouac with a broken front suspension and, amazingly, had only lost 37 minutes to Bruce, who had a trouble-free day.
So it all came down to the final day. Price appeared set to take the overall UTV win after setting the fastest time on the shorter 89-mile loop through the dunes and on elapsed time had won the Sonora Rally. But Pelayo was not out of the running yet, having repaired his UTV overnight, he finished the stage in third place just seven minutes behind Price.
Competitors get penalties for a variety of reasons, such as excessive speed in speed zones, missing virtual waypoints and arriving too early at special stage starts. Sadly Price had accumulated 101 minutes of penalties dropping her down to second overall. Allowing Luis Pelayo to be declared the winner and granted free entry to the Rallye du Maroc.
Just three hours after the awards ceremony in San Luis Rio Colorado, the border between Mexico and USA was closed to non-essential travel and both countries enforcing large events to be cancelled or rescheduled. Crews heading north across the border had abnormally quick crossing time and arrived back to find restaurants and non-essential businesses closed. It turned out that the 2020 Sonora Rally was the last international auto racing event to take place anywhere in the world… definitely one to remember, for many reasons.