What is it about race car drivers that they seem to have no pulse? In my experience, they are the calmest, most laid-back people you’d ever meet. And Mark Powell, the driver of this rally car, was no different. Soft-spoken, gentle and utterly unflappable, you can almost imagine him yawning as he’s hurling himself and his car off of mountainous dunes at 120 mph or more. It’s really quite amazing to witness. Sixth overall in this year’s Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge - one of the most extreme and prestigious cross-country rally races in the world - Mark, in my mind, is a buddha in a fire suit. It’s why I trusted him so completely when photographing him as he was flying around the Rub’ Al Khali Desert outside of Dubai. For the most part I like to shoot with wide lenses, which means, for the most part, I have to be very close to my subject matter - and in this case, very very close. It may not look like it, but one second after this shot was taken, I was completed covered in sand as Mark flew by just in front of me. It didn’t bother me in the least. I guess that makes me a buddha with a camera.
Not for the faint of heart or weak of knee, these desert racers are launching themselves off of mountainous dunes at speeds approaching 120 mph - and they’re doing it for five days straight. They’re insane. Think Mad Max but without the weapons and you’ll start to get the idea.
Dawn in the middle of the desert near Dubai with Mark Powell. Who wasn’t present for this shoot was Mark’s co-driver. While co-drivers don’t actually drive the car, they are equally responsible for the final success or failure of the race. Rally car racing is the only motorsport in which drivers race blind, going from Point A to Point B with no real idea of what’s in front of them. And that’s where co-drivers play a critical role. They are the navigators and the true eyes of the driver. Reading off a highly detailed set of directions called pace notes (which can be encyclopedic in size), the co-driver will tell the driver where to turn, when to turn, what to look out for and what’s ahead over the next dune. It is a highly complex, trusting dance between driver and co-driver. Using a crazy shorthand, which to the untrained ear sounds like gibberish, a co-driver can give his driver an enormous amount of information instantly - "100k left 2, 100k right 2, 2000 square left, 100k right 4, 50 caution jump into right 2 tightens, don’t cut, 100 oversquare right, 400 flat to crest into k left 4.” And that’s just ten seconds of instructions. Imagine having to do that for 8 hours straight all while racing at speeds of 120 mph or more? Fantastic stuff.
There, up in the sky, is it a bird? A plane? No, it’s Mark Powell flying up a giant sand dune outside of Abu Dhabi - with “flying” being the operative word here, for, at speeds approaching 120 mph, I swear Mark spent more time off the sand than on it