Rallying: Labour of love for dust devils: The Paris-Dakar Rally is a challenge for the well-heeled and lone adventurer alike. Jeremy Hart reports from Nouakchott, Mauritania, on the spirits of the desert

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The Independent Online
BRITISH adventurers of the Mark Thatcher kind have given up on the Paris-Dakar Rally, or so it would seem. One lone Briton is lost in a multi-national mish-mash of 1,500 party-poopers who chose to skip new year in Paris, Rome or Tokyo for their annual opportunity to eat desert dust. The token Briton is Tony Savage, and after a week on the road, he has yet to be spotted in the nightly 'bivouac' camp - not because he has done a Mark Thatcher and got lost; he is navigating one of the slower variants of vehicle in a convoy of 231.

If Britain is losing interest in an event that is still gripping for French, Spanish, Italian and Japanese television audiences, the United States could be the saviours of Anglo-Saxon automobile adventure.

Four Americans are currently dicing for places midway down the leaderboard of the 1994 Paris-Dakar-Paris Rally, amateurs all, but converts to the surreal world of a rally long enough to cross their homeland two and a half times.

There is a stockbroker from Colorado, who, to be honest, would look more the part in a two- piece pinstripe than a one-piece flameproof racing suit. 'I got the time to do this bacause I own the company,' Steve Fossett boasted in true Victor Kiam (the owner of Remington and the New England Patriots) style. Maybe, if he likes the rally enough, he will buy it.

In less style, but more in the spirit of the annual African rally, are Paul Blevin and Douglas Neal, ambulance drivers from Los Angeles and Seattle. The pair were chosen from the 4,500 employees of Secomerica, a Japanese-owned American corporation, who, as an incentive, offered their workers a chance to compete in the rally.

Their only preparation was months of training in California's Mojave desert and on the indecipherably signposted roads of Japan. 'If you can find your way around Japan, the desert should be easy,' said Neal, the navigator aboard their Toyota Land Cruiser.

'A lot of the weeding-out processes in the selection were simple, like being able to pinpoint Paris on a map,' admitted the team manager, Eric Smith, who was chosen as the third member of the team. 'We went through training with Rod Millen (a New Zealand rally driver and expert on the Baja 1,000 desert race), getting stuck and unstuck. He wanted to see who worked well together and who had the best leadership qualities. It turned out that Doug, Paul and I pretty well stayed together, and it was us who were chosen.'

A former buggy racer in the annual races held on the Baja peninsula in California, Blevin was the obvious choice for the driver from the trio. 'I have finished the race, but not in a very good position, and I work with Mickey Thompson's off-road stadium races,' said the 31-year-old, whose birthday it was on Sunday. 'I celebrated it by going to bed early, which is no mean feat. Sleeping in the bivouac is like sleeping in a gas station. At two in the morning someone will try and do a tune-up.'

Aside from his limited racing experience, Blevin's only other qualifications are as an ambulance driver in Orange County, in the southern suburbs of Los Angeles.

'There's not a lot of similarities, especially having to deal with erratic drivers. Here you either join in or get passed,' Blevin admitted. 'But compared with the other drivers I think we have been really polite. Others will wave you past when there's a big rock in the road. Sometimes I wish we had our lights and sirens, to go 'hot and heavy', as we call it.'

Wearing garish pink board shorts for the rally, the self-confessed beach bum is as far from most of the pseudo Lawrence of Arabia-styled competitors as you can get.

'I had to put on some pants today when it got a bit cold, otherwise I wear the shorts all the time,' Blevin said.

Strangers until the team training in the California desert, Blevin and Neal have become close friends. 'We're not quite a couple, although I have missed my wedding anniversary and Christmas with my wife doing this,' Neal shrugged. 'But it's the chance of a lifetime.'

The two Americans are due into Dakar, the half-way point on the 8,500-mile return journey to Paris, tomorrow. For the first time in a week they will shower, sleep in a bed and eat 'right'. Currently in 48th place, ahead of such luminaries as Bruno Saby, last year's winner, their position is of no great importance, so they say.

'We are just a couple of goofballs from LifeFleet Ambulance; we just want to finish. That's the aim anyway,' Neal said.

Details, Sporting Digest, page 31