|Dakar Rally kicks off from famed Obelisk|
|Written by Admin|
|Saturday, 01 January 2011 08:08|
The 16-day trek will take drivers 5,903 miles across northern Argentina, through the Andes, the Atacama Desert of Chile and back to the Argentine capital.
The first leg is a 230-mile cruise northwest to Victoria, where competitors will prepare for Sunday's first full race day. Defending champions Carlos Sainz in the cars category and Cyril Despres in motorcycles return to defend their titles.
Officials listed a record 430 official starters, up from the 362 who were enrolled last year. The actual number starting the race is always lower, but is also expected to be record.
The largest increase is in the motorcycle category, where 183 riders were registered to start - up from 151 a year ago.
NASCAR driver Robby Gordon is entered in the cars category for the third straight year and sixth overall. The 41-year-old Californian finished third in 2009 and was eighth last year including a stage win. He and teammate Kellon Walch are driving a Hummer.
Mark Miller of the U.S. is making his seventh appearance in the race coming off a third-place finish last year. Miller hasn't placed lower than fifth in the last five races. He and teammate Ralph Pitchford of South Africa are in one of the four Volkswagen entries.
This year's route goes northwest from Buenos Aires, with the racers crossing into Chile on Wednesday. Participants then head north through the Atacama Desert and next Friday are expected to reach Arica in the far north of Chile, on the border with Peru. The race then turns south and crosses back into Argentina on Jan. 12. It ends on Jan. 16 in Buenos Aires.
The rally was held in Europe and Africa until the 2008 race was canceled because of terrorist fears. Then it was moved for security reasons to South America.
Sainz, in a Volkswagen, may get his stiffest challenge from teammate Nasser Al Attiyah. Stephane Peterhansel, who led much of the race a year ago in a rival BMW, was also a favorite in cars.
Argentina tourism minister Enrique Meyer said he hoped to soon announce the event would return in 2012. The race is run in the middle of the South American summer, a highlight for school children on vacation. Temperatures on Saturday were in the mid-80s with thousands lining the sprawling Avenida 9 de Julio to watch the start.
``We can reach out to the world and show them our culture, population, traditions and landscapes,'' Meyer said. ``The Dakar offers us maximum exposure which no other campaign could give us.''
He estimated the race generated about $170 million.