It is January 1986 and Karel Loprais is driving his red and white Tatra 815 to the finish line of the Dakar. Second place in the truck category on the very first Tatra mission seems like a huge success, all that remains is to successfully complete the penultimate stage and then not make a mistake. A few kilometers before the destination, however, suddenly everything is different – a muddy road through the village with cars and trucks stuck in it. There wasn’t much to think about, what with the fact that the time limit for arriving at the destination was running. Loprais, together with Radomír Stachura and Jaroslav Krpec, harness the ropes and begin to fight against the elements and time, pulling the other opponents from their muddy captivity…
“There, if the truck didn’t help, no one else would,” Loprais recalled immediately after the race. “In the end, this adventure cost us absolutely everything. We were hoping that we would reach the finish line within the limit and that we would only receive a penalty, but when we arrived at the place, there was no one there, everything was packed and we knew that this was the end. The fair play award was at least a little consolation for us.”
There was no trace of bitterness in his memories even after almost thirty years when I finally met Karl Loprais for the first time. After all, Monsieur Dakar had no reason to be sad. A year later, he really finished in second place and turned his third Dakar start into a victory. “The second place at the finish line was perhaps worse than not finishing. The second is the first loser. The winning truck, the winning car and the winning motorcyclist went to the parade. We knew we had what it took to be among them and a year later we really succeeded,” Karel Loprais recalled about his first ever victory.
“In our first year, the navigator was engineer Slávek Krpec, who built the cars and knew the most about them. During the race, he already talked about the fact that you can race with a six-wheeler, but it doesn’t have the speed of a four-wheeler. So he decided and built a quad bike. The very year we were second, however, he started working on a new model, and when we won, he wasn’t with us to prepare the car for production. Still, it was his merit,” said the legendary racer modestly, as he always did when talking about his successful racing career.
In the days of Karel Lopraise, racing truck drivers were not recruited from racers weaned off rally, circuit, let alone go-karts, and he himself was shining proof of that. Little Karel spent most of his free time in the workshop with his dad, where he created vehicles of his own design. The school years had the same form until 1967, when he started working in the Kopřivnice Tatra on assembly and then as a test driver. He was one of the best, testing the Tatra 815 in Africa, and that’s what made him a good race truck driver. “In the early 1980s, I tested the Tatra 815 and the older model 148 while building roads in Libya to determine the pros and cons of the new cars.”
“A year before us, colleagues from Liaz were already at the Dakar, who actually raced with a road truck that had been modified for off-road use. We used the off-road Tatra 815. We rode under the common banner of Motokov and helped each other, after all, that was the custom at the time at the Dakar,” recalled Loprais. I found my mouth hanging open as I listened to him. Don’t be surprised, the nineteen-time participant of the legendary competition was its third most successful driver with six first places, after the unattainable Peterhansel and Rus Čagin.
About the first years
“When we went to the very first Dakar, we drove in two crews, each time three, that was our entire racing team. We slept either on the back of the car or under the car, we only had an air mattress and a sleeping bag with us. It was twenty during the day, below zero at night. No accompaniment, no background. We had canned goods, sausages, pasties and salamis with us, and we also took Czech bread. The first year we took pilsner beer with us, then only Radegast. And of course Becherovka and slivovica. This was our medicine, often also a currency in barter or thanks.’
“Back then, it was common for us to come to the bivouac and sit together by the same fire when it was done, or to help each other with car repairs. The distances between the crews used to be much bigger at the finish line than they are today, back then we didn’t have any navigation devices, and if you saw someone on the go, you simply helped him, because maybe he could help you tomorrow.
Anyway, when we finished in first place in 1988, Liaz Jiří Moskal finished only ten minutes behind us.
Only later did we start racing with an escort, it was much more pleasant when we slept in residential Tatra, we had mechanics with us and we didn’t have to embroider cars late into the night or into the morning.”
About the rivalry between Liaz and Tatra
“We raced as one team, then we represented Czechoslovakia, and our whole desert adventure was financed by Motokov, the only company that had foreign currency. Not Tatra or Liaz, we were represented by a foreign trade company. At the time, someone came up with the idea that we were supposed to break the window of a rival liquor store, but that was a complete fabrication. We competed with each other for the position, that’s clear, but at the same time we pulled together.”
About Tatra as such
“I started behind the wheel of the Tatra and I ended up behind the wheel of the Tatra. Her timeless chassis design is something that has been the envy of all our rivals since our first entry into the competition. Then when we came with the car, which was only two-axle, we knew from the first stage that we had done well. The car was fast and at the same time kept all its great off-road qualities.”
“I didn’t give up Tatra, even though we basically raced as privateers. My absolute favorite is the Puma model that we raced with between 1998 and 2001. We won three times with it and finished second once.
And it’s good to remember our invention at the time, the so-called pedals. While before we used a shovel and roll-out plates, here we mounted the plates from the outside on the wheels, and after turning them, the car lifted on them. It helped us a lot in the dunes.”
The hardest moments
“There were more of them. We probably experienced the biggest disappointment in 1991, when we were in first place with a big lead in the middle of the last stage, but the victory was ruined by a burnt piston and then a flat tire. Our other car helped us get to the finish line, but we came in just short of the limit and ended up fourth due to a penalty.
But the worst for me was definitely in 2003, when we had a serious crash. On impact from an unremarkable jump, our left front left wheel came off and we spun once over the roof and five times on our axis. But I don’t remember anything from the accident.
Well, it was also difficult in 1998, when armed bandits raided our two Tatras. They shot a tire on one car, loaded the other with everything of value and disappeared into the desert. Of course we were aware of all the risks, we knew we were racing in no man’s land, but we didn’t admit it. And suddenly machine guns, shots and the realization that it could have been us and that everything could have turned out completely differently.
This whole incident took place in Mali, about twenty kilometers before the destination, already at night. Back then, when you saw flashing lights in the desert, you drove there because you didn’t know if any of your rivals or friends had a problem there. And then there were bandits waiting for our friends…”
And the most beautiful…
“Of course, all six victories, no question about it. The first one is unforgettable for me, but the most valuable is the one from 1994. That was such a special Dakar, when we started in Paris and the finish was also in Paris. That was the year it was called Paris-Dakar-Paris, and we won the truck category and finished sixth overall in the car and truck category, which is still the best ever for a truck in the Dakar.”
About the moniker Monsieur Dakar, i.e. “Mr. Dakar”
“It was made up for me by the organizers, one of them talked about me like that in the press after the race in 1994.”
About Dakar in Africa and America
“When we started racing, it was in areas where no one else raced. Uncharted territories, often completely abandoned. We drove in difficult terrains and without assistance. Of course, Africa developed and modernized quickly, but it was still dangerous. Then when the raid came in 1998, of course it was bad. We won that year, but it was so bitter. A year later, there was no racing for five days, and for safety reasons, they rode in a column and under supervision.
And then in 2008, when the rally was canceled for security reasons just before it started, when the organizers frankly admitted that they were unable to ensure a safe passage through Mauritania, it was clear that something had to change.
The whole competition has been constantly evolving since its first year, and I myself may have had more reservations about how it changed from almost unsupported marathon racing to what it is today than when the Dakar moved to South America. No one shoots at the competitors there, and the stages are shorter, but also extremely difficult.”
“That’s one of the three things that changed the Dakar. I rode with Pepa Kalina and he was the best navigator. Instead of GPS, we only had a compass in the car and that was the real navigation. Now you also drive on the azimuth and according to the itinerary, but a few kilometers from the checkpoint the arrow already shows the direction. If you didn’t hit it earlier, you had to stop, pull out a map, a ruler, count it all, and then find an alternate route. Now it’s more like a race against time.
The second thing that has changed is security. Each car has GPS and the organizers know exactly where the crew is. But GPS is also used so that the organizers carefully monitor the speed in places where it is limited, and then distribute penalties.
Well, the third is the background. Now the competitors will arrive at the bivouac, where the mechanics are waiting for them, often also a meal from the cook or a massage. I would let the escort cars back on the track.’
About how his wife coped
“There were a few newspaper reports then, but no online coverage. It was possible to make phone calls from the plane because the stages ended at the airport, but there were such queues that we always gave up. After all, we didn’t even have phones at home. So the wives didn’t know what was going on, so they couldn’t be afraid.’
About his nephew Aleš
“For me, he is one of the best racers behind the wheel of a truck. There was a time when I could give him advice and reason, but that is gone now. Unfortunately, they are racing at a time when small teams are opposed by an army of kamazs with an almost unlimited budget.”
And finally, about the fact that he “only” drove nineteen Dakars
“Of course, we talked about it many times, that it would be great to go even twenty-two times, but then we definitively rejected it, because it would be a gamble with our health. I had injured my spine twice in the Dakar and I just didn’t want to try it. In the first year, we could still have seats that were sprung, but then the regulations changed and the seats must now be fixed. And we were sitting right above the front axle, so all the shocks went through the seat straight to the back. Although the truth is probably that I’ve been riding with Tatra all my life, and we’ve had more trouble testing on the range than at the Dakar.”
Mr. Loprais, thank you for everything, you were a great rider and person!