The 2016 OiLibya Rally of Morocco is now underway. One week prior to the opening stages, Pete Mortensen was informed that he should hop a plane (inclusive of multiple 6+ hour layovers) for the Moroccan desert where he will meet up with the X-Raid Mini ALL4 Racing team for a number of days of testing. There he will be trying to add to his codriving skillset without his primary driver (Bryce Menzies who has been sidelined for the moment with needed surgery) in preparation for an expanded season of Rally-Raid events with Bryce in 2017. This seems to be the SOP in Pete’s new world, takes it as a normal course of business and is excited to get to the big sandbox of the Sahara for some navigation training with the premier driving talent X-Raid employs.
Prior to that flight however, Pete has already scheduled some time off from his primary vehicle preparation job to get in some Stateside navigation training with Dakar-ace Quinn Cody and a Red Bull liveried RZR out in Barstow. Excellence never sleeps…
So how did Pete end up getting a seat in one of the world’s top flight Rally-Raid teams without being brought up with a rallycar wheel in his hands or the bank account of a large third world country? As usual its a combination of hard work, ambition and the right relationships.
Beginning work in Bruce Fraley’s shop back in ’05 Pete was hooked on offroad racing in general and worked his way up in skill and experience, first prepping the Menzies’ buggies, then Bryce’s CORR vehicles and finally after the economic rebound following the ’08 bottom, the new LOORRS vehicles and Bryce’s SCORE and BITD trucks. As he worked so frequently with the Menzies he began to push to get into Bryce’s codriver seat in ’10 where he was given an initial chance.
“The first year was rough,” Pete says. “But the second year went great in SCORE.” That’s a bit of an understatement given the team took the 2011 series championship.
In terms of his Rally-Raid career, Pete first began learning of talks between the Menzies team and various opportunities back in ’13 and ’14 with things turning serious when Bryce began doing some Rally-Raid testing in ’15. By that point the driver-codriver relationship between Pete and Bryce had solidified to the point that during the ’15 Baja 1000 prerun, Bryce asked Mortensen if he’d be interested in being on board for the Menzies push into international Rally-Raid.
Pete jumped at the chance, having followed the Dakar for years and having personal and professional connections to some of the few Americans who had participated in the sport at that level including Ronn Bailey and BJ Baldwin’s teams and efforts.
Though Bryce and Pete fall under the Menzies and Red Bull banner for their international competition this is not the Menzies effort we here in the US are used to seeing. Gone are the big Menzies trailers, missing are the staff of mechanics they’ve known for years, there’s no #1 plate to put on the truck, friends and family are not waiting in the pits…This is a pure arrive and drive, you’re-being-thrown-into-the-deep-end-of-the-pool-and-better-be-able-to-swim effort for two sub-30 year old Americans in a decidedly un-American sport.
While Pete accompanied Bryce to FIA Rally-Raid events in Abu Dhabi and Italy earlier this year, he did not sit in the silly seat for these (Dakar winners Andreas Shulz and Tom Colsoul filled in respectively). Instead he has gone through a sort of “apprenticeship”. Shadowing other codrivers, learning the ins and outs of even rudimentary tasks such as scrutineering (tech inspection) and navigating through the endless paperwork required of entrants. “Officials are always very questioning of everything…they look at it all with a skeptical eye and not knowing anyone we have to prove ourselves to get respect” Pete observes. Essentially Mortensen has acted as a fly on the wall, trying to absorb as much this new world as he could.
To date, Mortensen has found the “road book” system his most challenging hurdle in moving between American desert racing and the international Rally-Raid scene. Road books and vehicle gauges are not “dumbed down” for Americans and so a constant conversion of meters to feet, KMs to Miles, Celsius to Fahrenheit, PSI to bar must be done in Pete’s head. Further, while Baja races are pre-run “until we can run the course with our eyes closed” and BITD races are extensively marked in addition to the usual GPS files and TV-like LCD displays lighting the way and detailing every hazard, this new effort is far more “drive what you see” with only general descriptions of headings and distances and minimal hazard notices.
Not that X-Raid and Red Bull don’t want Pete and Bryce to succeed. Quite the contrary. WRC and Rally-Raid driver Mikko Hirvonen’s current codriver, Michel Perin, (himself a four time Dakar winner in the codriver’s seat and over 20 years of Rally-Raid experience) would be known to meet Mortensen at the airport in an effort to convey as much information as possible and acclimatize Mortensen to the sport. While this camaraderie ended during the race itself (Menzies and Mortensen would finish Baja Hungary in second, six minutes adrift of the winners, Hirvonen and Perin, also in a Mini) it is clear that the entire ALL4Racing team is willing to help the new kids in town, including the highest levels of the X-Raid organization. No less than X-Raid owner/manager/founder and his son Tobias (X-Raid COO) have taken Mortensen under their wing, pouring with him over Google Maps of the courses, chasing the racers across Italy and Abu Dhabi, practice navigating in a side-by-side and just generally encouraging Peter to watch and learn how the other racers and codrivers go about their business in this style of racing.
Racers outside of the X-Raid organization have begun to take notice of Mortensen and Menzies too. Nasser Al-Attiyah (himself a former X-Raid customer) has been “the nicest guy ever” and has spent a lot of time talking with Pete, including discussions of the Qatari driver coming over to the States, renting a car and racing in Baja. Trying to dispel some of Nasser’s perhaps undeserved reputation amongst armchair racers here in the US, Pete calls Al-Attiyah “a great guy” adding with a laugh “all the top guys head to [plush] hotels at night” and not just the wealthy Arab despite what impression others may have given.
Outside of the aforementioned roadbook, there are differences in vehicle type and terrain that Mortensen has had to adjust to as well. While Bryce’s Trophy-Truck has endless horsepower and is designed to go “in a straight line at high speeds and over bumps” its ability to turn and be maneuverable is not a strong suit. Mortensen describes the ALL4Racing Mini as more of a sportscar in the dirt, far more compact, with a lower center of gravity, an ability to be put wherever the driver wishes and able to take corners at speed that would put a Trophy-Truck on its lid.
The terrain too differs greatly from Mortensen’s typical racing environment. Sitting in the right hand seat in Hungary, Pete was to look out on roads that were more WRC in nature than what desert racers would think of as “off-road”, with very minimal open sections that would allow for true navigation or diverse lines of attack. Mortensen would have to trust that Menzies could drive with a precision not necessarily required in Stateside racing as with no GPS, no road descriptions and no prerunning, neither knew what lay around the next corner or over the next crest. Which brought Pete to a final point, that he and Bryce have had to go through “a bit of a learning curve [regarding pace]…Desert races are sprints, if you get a flat, you change it and keep going but if you don’t break, you generally win. Rally-Raids require more patience…the best guys in the world get lost for an hour simply looking for a waypoint. There is far more uncertainty in this racing”.
One thing that is certain is the direction that Mortensen and Menzies are heading. The desire at the moment is to run as close to a full season of Rally-Raid events in ’17 as they can (there are nine events in the FIA’s World Cup for Cross Country Rallies) while still meeting the needs of all their Stateside sponsors and commitments. Whether that includes a run at the ’17 Dakar or not is unmentioned at this point but they certainly appear on schedule to be a well oiled machine by Dakar ’18. With Pete saying Bryce “continues to get better each time out” and Mortensen himself “grateful for the opportunity and investment of time and money of everyone at Menzies, Mini, X-Raid and Red Bull” this may be the best combination of a top flight vehicle, team support, driver and codriver that the USA has had to root for since Robby Gordon’s effort with Volkswagen over a decade ago.
Watch this space for future updates on Pete Mortensen’s experience at the OiLibya Rally of Morocco as well as updates from the Moroccan desert itself.
Written by Dan Spalinger
Photos from BMW/Mini