It was a dream two-time Dakar class winner Darren Skilton and Daker veteran Scott Whitney had for years. Last week, the partners successfully launched the first annual Cortez Rally, a true off-road navigation rally coming for the first time to the deserts of North America. The three-day event featured competition through intoxicating and massive sand dunes of the Sonoran desert in Mexico that rival those in Africa and surpass those found in South America.
Skilton and Whitney spent several years finding a challenging route that would offer their racers both beautiful Mexican vistas and boundless adventure.
Comprised of five total stages, the inaugural Cortez Rally attracted 18 total competitors; a field comprised of 14 bikes and four, four-wheel vehicles. Among the entries were several Dakar Rally veterans, including Baja champion Quinn Cody. Besides lending his expertise and enthusiasm to the event, the talented American rode his well-equipped KTM 450XC to the Modern Open and overall Cortez rally victory by edging fellow KTM rider Scott Bright by 18 minutes, 53 seconds. Third in class and overall was the Honda CRF 450X of Mike Johnson.
“I have been dreaming about holding a rally in this desert for many years, and now it’s a successful reality,” explained Skilton. “We wanted to start small this first year, using the feedback from first-year competitors and the racing community at large to build a great event for next year – and for years to come.”
The only rally of its kind in North America, racers had to use true, Dakar-style “HP Navigation” (coming from the French phrase “Hors Piste”). This meant that competitors followed existing trails, but once they arrived in the sand dune areas the only way to get through and to the finish was via compass and expert Scott Whitney’s Roadbooks.
Authentic Mexican hospitality was also an important component of the Cortez Rally. A two-night bivouac was set up by AventuraTravel.com, 30 minutes outside of San Luis Rio Colorado. It was located in the middle of the desert with a view of the sand dunes on the horizon, providing beautiful scenery and a great place of camaraderie.
“We built on what was already there, an old abandoned brick building with sweeping views of the dunes,” added Aventura’s Erin-Lee Skilton. “After adding lights, tables, Mexican blankets, Tecate and some tequila — Cortez Cantina was born. We were lucky to have the local off road club, RPM, make Carne Asada BBQ each night with proceeds going to local charities. The local truck stop “Ceasars” provided breakfast burritos, fresh coffee and OJ each morning. Locals, racers and crew members traded stories of years past at day break and shared new Cortez experiences each night by our camp fire.”
It was diverse group of competitors, with experiences ranging from the Isle of Man TT to a brave Oregon husband and wife team (Paul and Laura Fournier) who had driven down in their modified Subaru hatchback. Both the Subaru and the rally’s only UTV, a Polaris RZR 1000 driven by Joe Bolton, completed the challenging event.
The race started in Mexicali with two short stages that combined fast roads, fun scenery and beautiful dunes. Day 2 featured a 165-mile loop starting on sandy trails outside of San Luis, Sonora then ran near El Golfo before finished once again in the rally’s specially created bivouac. The third day was spent heading back into Baja, running some of the more famous roads before racers got a well-deserved checkered flag and an awards celebration outside of Ensenada at Horsepower Ranch.
Cortez Rally Results
1 Quinn Cody Modern Open KTW
2 Scott Bright Modern Open KTM
3 Mike Johnson Modern Open Honda
4 Mike Shirley Modern Open KTM
5 Bill Conger Modern Open Husqvarna
6 Daniel Bartolucci Modern Open KTM
7 Luc Valentin Modern Open Husaberg
8 kevin heath Modern Open KTM
9 Jason Adams Vintage Open BMW
10 Paul Fournier Rally Raid Production Subaru
11 Joe Bolton UTV (side-by-side) polaris
12 Tim Lett Modern Open KTM