Skyler Howes has gotten choked up during the 2023 Dakar Rally, which is understandable considering the overall leader has made an extraordinary comeback from devastating injuries.
But it wasn’t personal accomplishment that moved the American rider while keeping his Husqvarna pinned to the front during the first week of the nearly 8,000-kilometer, 14-day odyssey across the Saudi Arabian desert.
Howes was overcome simply by making soaking in the scenery during the grueling rally raid endurance classic that is better known for its brutality than beauty.
“We’re supposed to be like macho guys out there riding,” Howes told NBC Sports with a laugh. “It’s funny to say, but I actually got emotional on Stage 3. We went through the most insane mountain terrains. It’s green out there with all the grass and all the rain. We went through these crazy rock formations. The navigation was nuts, we had wet dirt to ride, which is always incredible in the desert.
“And it’s just like I legitimately got emotional, because I had the best time on my dirt bike ever. I was by myself. I was alone. And it was literally so cool. Coolest thing ever. So cool it’s funny to say. I laugh now. But I actually got emotional. I was like, ‘I can’t believe I get to do this. This is the coolest thing ever.’ ”
Howes might be the most philosophical and spiritual contender in this year’s Dakar, but he certainly has ranked among the fastest and most consistent of the more than 900 competitors (and 171 riders in the bike category).
Through nine stages, he is first on his Husqvarna Factory Rally 450 by 3 seconds over two-time champion Toby Price. Though he has yet to win a stage this year, he has been on the podium five times while leading the overall standings for five consecutive stages.
It’s been markedly different from last year when Howes, 30, was eliminated by the fifth stage after he had emerged as a Dakar Rally title favorite with consecutive top 10 finishes in the overall in 2020-21.
There’s been a steady personal and professional growth for Howes, who is making his fifth consecutive start at Dakar. In his 2019 debut, the St. George, Utah, resident (who originally is from Riverside in Southern California) battled through illness and the crashed out in Stage 6 with a dislocated shoulder.
“If you took my first Dakar and compared it to now, I was a completely different person then,” Howes said. “I have so much expectation on myself and got such not the result I was looking for and also had to abandon the race.
“To even have had the opportunity to have raced this many Dakars is incredible and is more than I ever dreamt for myself, and it’s important to realize if you have goals and dreams, don’t set yourself at those limits, because I’ve already surpassed so much more than I ever dreamed. But that experience from that one to the next to the next one until now has helped me so much more as a racer but even so as a person, because the challenges you face and the things you have to put your mind and body up against is incredible.”
In addition to spending his first two years at Dakar as a privateer who was scrounging to pay his way through crowdfunding, Howes overcame a broken neck three months before the 2020 Dakar to finish ninth in his second start.
Overcoming that adversity caught the eye of the BAS world KTM Team that hired him for a fifth place in 2021, and it helped reinforce an attitude that works well at Dakar: Take nothing for granted and everything as a teachable moment.
“There’s so many things that can happen just on one day of the Dakar that it teaches you incredible lessons as a racer and as a person,” he said. “Struggles kind of make you who you are as a person. I’ve had success and am very proud of that but also had tough times, and those tough times have now put me in a position to really enjoy what I’m doing, and that’s probably the most important lesson I’ve learned over my last Dakars is to enjoy this moment and literally have the best time possible.
“Because just being able to compete here at the Dakar is an incredible dream that not many get to accomplish in their life. And for me, to do anything but have the best time in my life, would be a discredit to everyone else who maybe wouldn’t come do this or anyone else that’s here. This literally is a dream of mine. And to be able to be a factory racer and do this for a job is the next level. So I think obviously the training and the roadbook time and the other world rounds and all that experience of course has helped me. But the biggest lesson I think I’ve learned is just enjoy every single moment that you possibly have and go as fast as possible.”
Howes has done that in his 10 years of riding professionally that has included some big wins such as the 2020 Silver State 300, 2019 Morocco Desert Challenge and 2018 Baja Rally.
Last October, he won the Rallye du Maroc in Morocco (beating virtually all of the top Dakar bike contenders) and then hustled to Mexico the next week to win all five stages and the overall of the Sonora Rally in Mexico.
It was a sweet redemption for a season that started off with disappointment at Dakar, where he had limped away after finishing Stage 5 and was forced to withdraw after being checked at a Riyadh hospital for serious injuries.
“I think last year I tried to really stay focused on more of doing things according to plan,” Howes said. “And as we know in desert racing and Dakar, there’s so much stuff that can happen and to say, ‘According to plan,’ is incredibly difficult.
“I operate off being happy, enjoying my time, positivity, and I think having a plan that is not going the way you expect it can just bring a little bit of extra stress. Last year, I felt comfortable, I felt confident, and I was ready to do my best and get a good result. That’s the Dakar. Every single day has its challenges, and last year I got bit. But I think not much as changed as far as anything else. I’ve been training hard and working hard for this moment. I feel I’ve always been capable. And now I’m just putting a little bit more of the pieces of the puzzle together.”
He also has been helping advise and guide the next American hopeful. With 2020 champion Ricky Brabec sidelined by a Stage 3 crash, the U.S. flag has been carried by Howes and Mason Klein, who has been a revelation in only his second start.
Klein, 21, has been a stage winner this year while riding for BAS world KTM in a ride that Howes helped broker.
“Skyler Howes since the beginning has been there for me along with my parents of course,” Klein told NBC Sports. “He’s been a total mentor. Without him and his advice going to BAS world.
“It’s because of Skyler I’m here. And still gives me tons of advice. I’m always making mistakes and just talking after every stage and going over things. ‘I had this problem here what would you do different.’ He helps me a lot for sure. It’s all the mental side that I struggle with and having conversations with someone like him that you trust and know is on your side. It’s great.”
For Howes, the wisdom runs in the family.
His grandfather was an early winner of the Baja 500, and his father got his first motorcycle from Steve McQueen and began racing bikes in the desert. Both his father and grandfather raced with notable mustaches, which is why Howes has sported a finely crafted handlebar at this year’s Dakar as a tribute.
“Racing has kind of been in my blood and my heritage,” Howes said. “My grandpa has this super cool photo with his racing goggles with his big mustache sticking out. One of my favorite photos ever. My dad also has this super awesome mustache he’s always had.
“I break out the mustache every once in a while, and I thought I’d keep it this year and make it a tribute to my dad and grandpa because they’re essentially the reason why we get to do what we do here.”