Fallen heroes Chapter from Chasing Dakar

This post is a revised version from the Chasing Dakar book about Fallen Heroes.

The other part of this chapter is devoted to those among us who have fallen chasing their dreams. As the risk is inherent in our sport, losing riders is a reality we have the potential to face unfortunate situations in our riding careers. I have unfortunately been a first hand witness in many of these deaths during my many years at the Dakar Rally. This latest death in the Dakar Rally reminded me of Fabrizio Meoni’s death in 2005.

During the 2005 Dakar rally, Fabrizio Meoni was in a serious crash between Atar and Kiffa. Despite immediate medical attention, it was not possible to save Fabrizio Meoni’s life and he died of his injuries at the scene of the accident.  Some months earlier, Richard Sainct had lost his life in a similar type of crash in the rally of Egypt. KTM lost two of its best rally pilots, Fabrizio Meoni and Richard Sainct, within a year.  During the 2006 Dakar rally, another factory KTM rider, Andy Caldecott crashed and lost his life; ironically in the same stretch of Africa that took Fabrizio Meoni. In 2007, Elmer Symonds crashed trying to catch up through the dust and was likely killed instantly from his crash. Finally, Paulo Goncalves passed away during the 7th stage of the 2020 Dakar Rally in Saudi Arabia.

Fabrizio Meoni (December 31st, 1957 in Castiglion Fiorentino, Italy – 11th 2005 in Kiffa, Mauritania) was an Italian off-road and endurance motorcycle rider, a member of the KTM Factory Team. For years Fabrizio Meoni had a formative influence on rally racing. Twice he won the toughest rally in the world, in 2001 and 2002 and he departed for yet another Dakar Rally on New Year’s Eve, his 47th birthday. His 13th Dakar Rally was to become his last. Already one earlier he had promised his family to stop racing altogether; he wanted to spend more time with his wife and his two children. But once again he wanted to endure the pain; rally racing was his absolute passion. He rode his first rally in 1989. During his career he won several rallies: five times in Egypt, four times in Tunisia and one time in Dubai. But without a doubt, his largest successes were the two Dakar victories in 2001 and 2002.

For most, just being next to the man was like being next to electricity. He represented pure passion and commitment to rally racing; words cannot justify his character. Meoni, like Sainct, knew the road book better than anyone that is one reason why their deaths are so hard to take.  It is hard to believe that the two best Rally racers (besides Stephan Peterhansel) from this generation were gone in an instant.

Fabrizio symbolized the ideal racing driver. Most will always remember his birthday on New Year’s Eve in Barcelona. The room was full of balloons and he burst all of them. He was just like a little boy. One wasn’t enough for him. He had to burst them all. Whatever Fabrizio did, he did it properly. Fabrizio personified the Dakar rally; he lived it. Everyone looked up to him. Always looking for challenges, he wasn’t satisfied with the simple, and he always wanted to fight. One team manager stated, “He was such a nice guy, a friend. Fabrizio was a true Italian, one who knew how to live.”  For many he was a hero; it was incredible to see someone who was 47 years of age in such a fantastic physical condition and in such high spirits.  Fabrizio was a great motorcycle rider and an extraordinary man. He was always open-minded and honest. Everyone who knew him just had to like him.

Following the Death’s of Richard Sainct and Fabrizio Meoni, KTM’s Heinz Kinigardner explains, “With Richard Sainct and Fabrizio Meoni we have lost two of the best and most experienced rally riders on their jobs within the previous four months. Fabrizio had personified our idea of rally racing. He won many rallies. The Dakar rally is certainly no walk in the park.

Richard Sainct (April 14th 1970 – September 29th 2004), a native of Saint Afrique, France, he began his racing career in enduro and then lead into rally racing. He had won the Dakar rally three times. His other notable achievements include winning the Tunisia Rally twice in 1998 and 1999; the Moroccan Rally in 1997, 1998, 2001 and 2002; and the Rally of Egypt in 2002. He also won the FIA Rally Raid World Cup in 2002.

Richard was also a fierce competitor in rally racing, but his mild-mannered personality would lead one to believe otherwise. He raced with a cunning ability and was at times known to lead his competitors astray from the course, pretending as if he had a mechanical problem and then he would take the correct route. Although he was known for his trickery, he rarely had to use them because he was usually ahead of his competition in any case.

Andy Caldecott died chasing his dream (10 August 19649 January 2006). He was born in Keith, South Australia and won the Australian Safari Rally four times consecutively (2001-2004). He competed in the Dakar Rally in 2004, 2005, and 2006 when he was killed during the 9th stage of rally, 250 km into the 599 km special stage from Nouakchott to Kiffa. He was the 23rd death in the 28 years of the rally. Caldecott won stages of the rally and even though he pushed himself to the limits he was known for his easy-going manner and humility.

Elmer Symons was a very good friend and someone I helped train en route to his Dakar Rally career. Elmer worked for KTM as a mechanic and finally got his chance to become a legitimate Dakar Rally racer in 2007. He had placed well in numerous competitions such as the Roof of Africa and had participated in the 2005 and 2006 Dakar Rally as a support mechanic. He crashed his privateer KTM and died at the scene at 142 km into the fourth stage in his first attempt to complete the Rally as a rider. Symons was the rally’s 49th fatality. A side note, Elmer was not the first mechanic turned rider to compete in the Dakar Rally, Cyril Despres was a mechanic before he started his very successful Rally career.

Paulo Gonçalves, a Portuguese rally rider, died Sunday during the 7th stage in the Dakar Rally after crashing in Saudi Arabia. Gonçalves was about halfway through the 339-mile seventh stage south of the Saudi capital of Riyadh when he fell and suffered an apparent traumatic cardiac arrest. Three riders, Stefan Svitko, Toby Price of Australia and Kevin Benavides of Argentina, stopped to offer aid. Toby and Stefan stayed with Paulo until he was taken by helicopter (rally organizers said on their website that a medical helicopter arrived within eight minutes). Gonçalves was pronounced dead at a hospital. Organizers canceled Monday’s eighth stage for motorcycles and quads.

I vividly remember Paulo Goncalves when he entered his first Dakar rally in 2006. He had a very aggressive riding style and was always a threat to win a stage. He, like Andrew Short, was a former motocross racer turned into Rally racer. Paulo found most of his motocross success in the MXGP in Europe. Paulo was one of the few Rally racers that raced in Africa and South America. The rally in Africa is considered the “real” Dakar since the finish was actually in Dakar. But it was much more, there were none of the amenities for racers and crew that exist today, and it was much more about human survival and the sheer diversity of landscapes that make the African Dakar so special.

Godspeed Paulo!