NASCAR icon Robby Gordon once labelled the Dakar Rally as “like racing 13 Daytona 500s or Indy 500s on consecutive days.” Any American racing fan will appreciate just how brutal one of those aforementioned events is, let alone multiple goes at them.
While the Dakar has simultaneously been so close and so far from the hearts of most regular motorsport followers Stateside, the grueling rally raid – perhaps the greatest endurance test of all – has always had a particular affinity with US competitors.
After all, it wasn’t all that long ago that an American came very close to winning the Dakar. Mark Miller recorded the best finish for a US driver in the car category when he finished second to Volkswagen team-mate, South African Giniel de Villiers in 2009. Indeed, Miller’s strike rate on the Dakar is pretty impressive, with five top-five finishes in six years.
That 2009 edition of the Dakar was possibly America’s finest on the then South American event, as Gordon completed the podium in third place aboard his Hummer, with Andy Grider as co-driver.
However, since then, US interest in the Dakar has appeared to wane, at least in the car category. The past few years have, though, pointed to something of an American renaissance, with the likes of Casey Currie, Austin Jones and Mitch Guthrie all impressing in the side-by-side (SSV) class.
But if there is one driver able to match – and perhaps better – the achievements of Gordon and Miller, that driver is teenage sensation Seth Quintero. His performance on his maiden Dakar in January was proof enough that if you’re fast enough, you’re old enough.
The son of former dirt bike racer Aaron Quintero, Seth was quick to follow in his dad’s footsteps, stepping onto a bike at the age of four in a local series close to San Marcos, California.
“I always wanted to race dirt bikes when I was a kid, but my dad got hurt once in around 2009, and my mom kicked me off the dirt bikes after that!” Quintero tells DirtFish.
“I fell in love with the idea of racing with dirt bikes, so I started racing them when I was four-years-old; I raced in a local series while my dad was racing so we kind of raced at the same time, which was cool. It was the kid’s version of what he was doing. But to this day, I’m still on my dirt bike, being a [big] kid pretty much.”
With mom putting an end to the dirt bike riding, Quintero was quickly handed another toy to play with, courtesy of his uncle who worked in a UTV (Utility Terrain Vehicle) shop and who gladly used the spare material at his disposal to build Seth his very own UTV car.
For a young kid from the flat, open plains of southern California, it’s hardly a surprise Quintero got in on the dirt bike action from an early age, but few would have foreseen the future Red Bull Off-Road Junior driver taking the UTV Youth Class World Championship title as an 11-year-old in 2014, repeating that feat a year later while adding the World Off-Road Championship Series title as well.
The UTV was the weapon of choice and the Dakar was quickly turning into a reality, even if the event wasn’t always at the center of his attention back then.
“The UTV class is probably the most affordable and easiest class to be competitive in,” says Quintero.
“There’s a lot to be said about this category, it’s the fastest-growing class in off-road right now, so I don’t think it’s going to slow down any time soon.
“When I was younger, I didn’t know much about the Dakar, but the one time I remember watching was when [fellow Californian] Johnny Campbell raced in the bikes. I was a big fan of Johnny, watched Dust to Glory [the 2005 film about the Baja 1000, which Campbell won 17 times] and ever since then, it’s always been in the back of my head to do.
“Five or six years ago, I would say that Dakar wasn’t so well known in the States. People knew about it but never really followed it. But ever since [2020 bike winner] Ricky [Brabec] and Casey won their classes, all of us are near the top of our sports so once we went over there, it definitely opened up a lot of eyes to the Dakar and people paid a lot more attention to it.”
A lot more attention from back home naturally adds more pressure for up-and-coming drivers like Guthrie and Quintero. It’s the sort of thing which makes some revel in the spotlight and others wilt.
Quintero is keen to take stock while he can and concentrate his focus on turning out big performances on some of the toughest tests in motorsport.
“I definitely have a lot of goals, maybe too many goals at the minute,” Quintero explains. “I’ve set pretty high expectations and until now, I’m doing a decent job of getting them done!
“Sometimes I have to take a step back and realize that maybe I am a bit too hard on myself, and I kind of freak out a bit and try and compartmentalize things. I sometimes forget that I’m 18 and when I get beaten by a guy, I’m like: ‘jeez that’s a bummer’ but then I remember that this guy’s been doing this for 20 years. I’ve only been doing this for seven years and I’ve already managed to win a bunch of Dakar stages, some world and national titles and I’m only 18. I don’t know how it’s all panned out in such a short space of time, but it’s definitely been a blessing.”
For the last year-and-a-half, Quintero has been part of the Red Bull Off-Road Junior team, which fields an OT3-02 in the Lightweight Prototype class of the SSV category. The OT3 is a relatively new piece of kit, developed and prepared by Overdrive Racing, and has emerged as one of the biggest threats to the dominance of Can-Am.
Such has been the meteoric rise through the off-road ranks for Quintero, it was hardly surprising that he made his Dakar debut earlier this year and became the youngest ever stage winner in Dakar history.
It was utterly impressive, but 12 months prior, Quintero was a picture of disappointment after being denied a start on the Dakar – the first edition held in Saudi Arabia – due to being too young to take part.
While the frustration was a tough pill to swallow, it also served as extra motivation to launch a full-on attack on the Dakar 12 months later.
“Not being able to race last year definitely fuelled the fire to do it this year,” he reflects.
“In 2020, I felt like I got shorted of the biggest race in the world, I felt like I was the most prepared I could be, but it was kind of a blessing in disguise as it gave me a whole year to get ready for Dakar 2021.
“This year, I was able to achieve a couple of goals I set before the rally, which was one, to win a stage and two, to make it halfway through at the very least.”
He wasn’t the only member of the Red Bull Off-Road Junior team to raise eyebrows on the Dakar this year, as team-mate Mitch Guthrie again showcased his talent at the wheel, despite suffering various misfortunes, while X44 Extreme E driver Cristina Gutiérrez stunned everyone by winning the opening stage and leading the overall SSV class for two days.
Quintero, by and large, had things all his own way, until a gearbox failure ultimately cost him a shot at the overall SSV – and the T3 Lightweight Prototype class – victory within touching distance of the finish.
“Not being able to race last year definitely fuelled the fire to do it this year,” he reflects.“We had just got past the fuel stop, we were a few minutes in front of the overall SSV leader, so we knew we were sitting good on time,” the American remembers.
“We came out of the fuel stop and I was just going through the gears: second, third, fourth, fifth and then the sixth gear decided to give up and I just went spinning down the gears and stopped.
“I didn’t want to give that easily; I don’t know if it was just me being dumb or just wanting to prove a point, but we had a T5 truck tow us for 14 hours to reach the end of the stage and try to start the next day. So, we got back [to the bivouac] at 4:30 in the morning and the stage started at nine o’clock the next morning.”
It’s that sort of dedication that makes Dakar what it is. The rally raid demands far more of its participants than any other event, and it’s certainly not for the faint-hearted. Nor for those in it for an easy ride.
“I have no problem working on the cars, so when someone asks me to get dirty and do some work, I’m straight in there,” says Quintero.
“Because I didn’t come from money in the family by any means, I’m a lot more appreciative of what it takes to make it, and of course, on the Dakar, you need to be able to get your hands dirty and fix things out in the desert, so it comes in handy.
“Maybe it’s because of my background, but I really don’t like asking for things either, so [financially] I usually scrape by with the bare minimum and have always hated asking for things. “I’ve stuck with all the sponsors I’ve had since I started racing and haven’t really asked for anything more than they gave me on day one, they took a chance on me and it’s up to me to get it done.”
Quintero says he is keen to one day make the step up to the car category and do what no American has been able to achieve so far in the 43 previous Dakar editions: win overall in the car class.
US success has been increasing gradually in other categories, most notably a double triumph in 2020, with Brabec and Currie, but for Quintero, his eyes are on the big four-wheel prize in the future.
“I’d like to step up to the car category, not staying in UTVs my whole life. I still want UTVs in my life in the future, but I like to see myself stepping up to the cars, maybe some trophy trucks, a WRC car even, that would be cool. I’ve got my eyes on a lot of things so hopefully, I can achieve all of them.
“I want to make sure I do it for America and to be that kid from California, growing up on a dirt bike, to win the Dakar would be awesome. I like the pressure of it all and there’s a lot of support for, not just myself but guys like Ricky, Casey and my team-mate Mitch, it pushes us on a lot.”
This year’s Dakar Rally winner Stéphane Peterhansel claimed his record-equalling 14th victory at the age of 55; his three-time winning X-raid Mini JCW team-mate Carlos Sainz is a few years older at 58. While Quintero has “probably too many goals to achieve”, there’s no doubt that America’s latest off-road sensation has both time and age on his side.