CONGRESS, Ariz. — The hands are in constant motion, yo-yoing the wheel left, right, left in small corrections and full turns. The feet dance in the cramped space above the floorboard, stabbing between clutch, gas and brake.
The eyes dart back and forth across the desert landscape, detecting rocks, dips and humps, variations in sand color flashing into view like a real-life scene from “Mad Max.” The brain deciphers the signals and takes action in milliseconds — a process completed every second or so for 12 or more hours a day.
A professional rally racer by trade, Austin Jones looks more like a conductor while driving his car, tuning in to fluctuations in terrain so rugged a miscalculation could end in disaster.
“That’s the thing with racing, especially rally racing: you lose focus for one second and that could be the difference of you ending up on your roof in a ditch or making that turn and going on to the next one,” said Jones, who goes by “AJ” to friends and family. “You can’t let up for one second. You have to be 100% focused and that’s probably the hardest part.”
The Dakar Rally is arguably the most diabolical race on earth.
Originally a circuit from Paris to Dakar, Senegal, the race has been run across Saudi Arabia since 2020. It’s as much an endurance test as a race, drivers and their navigators covering roughly 8,000 miles through the unforgiving landscape of the Arabian Desert over 10 to 15 days.
Jones has won it twice.
The 27-year-old claimed the T4 class (production models) Dakar Rally title in 2022 with Brazilian co-driver Gustavo Gugelmin and followed it up with a win in the T3 class (prototype models) earlier this year. He’s the youngest driver and first American to win Dakar twice.
Jones’ resume also includes wins at the Baja 1000 (twice), Baja 500, the San Felipe 250, a World Rally Raid T4 Championship, a SCORE championship and rallies in Andalusia, Kazakhstan and Abu Dhabi.
All in five years of racing.
“The hardest part is the mental part, being able to stay focused all the time and listen to the calls to the co-driver,” said Jones’ father, Jesse. “At the same time you’re reading the terrain, looking for things that are going to end your day, if you will.”
Though a relative newcomer to the racing, Jones has been around it all his life.
Jesse is an accomplished driver, with wins in the Baja 500, San Felipe, the Primm 300, the Vegas to Reno race and a SCORE trophy truck championship.
AJ had little interest in his father’s profession when he was younger, attending a handful of races. His focus was more on soccer, baseball, football and lacrosse, a sport that earned him a scholarship at San Diego State.
Once he finished college, AJ wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. The family trade was a natural fit, though he didn’t get directly behind the wheel.
He went under the hood.
Working in his father’s shop, AJ learned the inner workings of the car, how every part worked, to fix anything that broke. He came to understand the thresholds for everything in the car; which parts could be pushed to the limit, which couldn’t.
The skill set has been a crucial component to AJ’s success in rally races.
Driving for the Red Bull Can-Am Factory Team, AJ has a team of engineers and mechanics who finely tune the car to his personal specifications.
Out in the desert, it’s all on AJ and Gugelmin if something goes wrong.
The Dakar Rally allows communication for emergencies, which no driver ever wants to use. If there’s a crash or a broken part, the two-person teams have to improvise and fix the car on the spot or wait hours for race officials to come by and pick them up.
AJ got into some tough spots in Morocco and China, had the steering go out during a race in Spain. A crash at a race in Siberia essentially tore off the front of the car, so he and Gugelmin spent hours fixing one of the corners, finishing the stage on three wheels.
“The mechanical knowledge is a huge advantage,” he said. “It’s only you and your navigator, so if you don’t know how to fix something, you’re going to be stuck for a while. There’s been times when we’ve swapped out pieces that have broken pretty quickly and kept the damage pretty minimal.”
AJ’s background in other sports helped fueled his rapid rise in rally racing.
A gifted athlete, he also understood at a young age that coaches knew more than he did and became a sponge for information, always trying his hardest to execute what he was taught.
When AJ decided to go into racing, Jesse avoided the natural inclination to teach his son on his own, soliciting the best coaches to show him the ins and outs of the sport.
AJ absorbed everything, leaned on his dad’s knowledge and raced off toward checkered flags.
“When you’re playing sports at the level he played, with club and college, you have to focus,” Jesse said. “You have to put the noise that’s around you on the outside and focus on your task, be it a midfielder on a lacrosse team or a race car across the desert.”
Or a conductor at the wheel.