Canadian racing pioneer shares his death-defying tales of the Dakar Rally 

Three-time rally racer Don Hatton coming to Squamish Motorcycle Festival

click to enlarge PHOTO SUBMITTED - ADVENTURE SEEKER Motorcycling and thrill-seeking fans alike can hear some of Don Hatton's tales at the Squamish Motorcycle Festival this weekend.
  • photo submitted
  • ADVENTURE SEEKER Motorcycling and thrill-seeking fans alike can hear some of Don Hatton's tales at the Squamish Motorcycle Festival this weekend.

For most races, ending up with a DNF next to your name is a disappointment.

For those challenging the Dakar Rally, it's the norm, with only about 30 per cent of entrants completing all 9,000-kilometres of the ride across deserts in Argentina, Bolivia and Chile. The treacherous conditions can accurately be described as killer — since the race started in 1978, 69 competitors have died trying to complete it.

Don Hatton, the first Canadian to take a full team to the Dakar, didn't complete the race in his first three attempts, the first of which came when he was 50.

As close as he's come to being a rare finisher, he's edged even nearer to the race's other extreme.

"The Dakar Rally is the most dangerous motorsport race in the world," Hatton, now 57, said. "There's no help, so if you can't do the repair yourself, you're left out in the desert. There's lots of things that happen that you can't do yourself, so you do get stranded sometimes."

In his first race in 2009, Hatton crashed on the fifth day of the race and spent a week in intensive care after breaking eight ribs, his sternum and both shoulders while also having lacerated his lungs and internal bleeding on his heart. After checking out of the hospital and meeting his team at the finish line, the teammate who kept him alive while waiting for help broke down in tears, Hatton recalled, assuming he had become one of the race's grisly statistics. The following year, he got severe food poisoning on the race's first day, suffering from severe vomiting and diarrhea and riding all the while.

"I would shower in my riding gear to clean it up because I was a mess," he said, noting he'd hook up to an IV immediately afterward. Despite finding a way to keep his body from breaking down entirely, the same couldn't be said for his bike, and he was forced to withdraw on the fifth day once again.

The last time Hatton took part, he and death danced once again. He was stuck in a sand dune and though he had triggered a warning device to advise other racers to steer clear, one truck didn't notice it.

"One of them ran me over," he said. "I was fortunate enough that I didn't get hurt, but the guy helping me did get hurt.

"(The truck) did a lot of damage to my bike, so I repaired my bike the best I could and I rode for another 16 hours... I had no navigation device, no headlights. I made it all the way to four kilometres before the end of the stage, and if I got to the end of the stage, my team could help me. My bike quit, wouldn't go forward."

With the sun having set and nothing but a headlamp to light the way, Hatton climbed the dune and made heel prints to mark his place. He lost the bike, and when he eventually found it, it wouldn't go even with a new clutch. A race official found him and informed him that even if he got his bike going again, he wouldn't arrive for the start of the next stage.

Each day was treacherous, Hatton explained, as he would go for hours without seeing another competitor. When he did see someone else, there was a reasonable chance that person was in peril, as he rode past everything from a motorcycle hanging from a barbed-wire fence to a fiery rally car that had a navigator trapped inside. The man later died, Hatton discovered.

With minimal direction provided and GPS technology prohibited, he was never certain if he was actually on course or not.

"They do everything in their power to not make it easy for you. The start times are all over the place. There's no consistency to anything. You're on the bike for hours, 18 to 20 hours sometimes, so the only food you've eaten is what you ate at four in the morning when you left," he said.

The race Hatton grew up dreaming of didn't quite end up being the one that he ended up taking part in. The original routes took riders from a starting point in France, Spain or Portugal through Africa, but after the 2008 edition was cancelled because of terrorist threats, it has since been held in South America. The scuttled event was slated to be Hatton's first, and he lost $75,000 in the process bringing four team members, a truck and his spare parts to the race.

Not to be deterred, he made his debut a year later and last raced it in 2013.

Hatton said he saw an early running of the race on Wide World of Sports and made it his goal to eventually take part himself. Thirty years later, he eventually made it.

Hatton will be coming from his Duncan home to attend the second Squamish Motorcycle Festival this weekend with three rally bikes in tow. The festival runs from July 3 through 5 and features a show and shine, vendor sale, group rides, stunt show and other entertainment. For more information, visit www.squamishmotorcyclefestival.com.

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