INTERVIEW: Ace Nilson talks road to Dakar 2023

9 Mins read
Credit: Ace Nilson

When the 2023 Dakar Rally begins on 31 December 2022, Ace Nilson will hope to fulfill a longtime dream. The Bike rider received his acceptance message from race organisers in late July, bringing him one step closer to competing at the legendary event for the first time. Of course, in order to take part in the race, one would actually need to be there, and that has its own challenges.

Last Sunday, approximately two weeks after getting the fateful letter, The Checkered Flag spoke with Nilson about his career prior to Dakar, his fundraising efforts to afford the trip, and parallels between rallying and his primary occupation of working in the medical field during COVID-19.

The full interview’s transcript can be read here.

Dreaming of Dakar

A California native-turned-Oregon resident, Nilson submitted his application for Dakar to potential teams followed by conducting interviews to “see if there’s a good fit. I interviewed with, had discussions with BAS Dakar and then talked with Filip (Dabrowski) at DUUST.CO, and just felt a good vibe there and good fit. Invited me to send additional information and results and things of that nature, received an offer from him to me on the team.

Headquartered in Poland, DUUST is a satellite of Red Bull KTM Factory Team that previously fielded Dakar bikes for the likes of 2016 winner Toby Price and two-time FIM Cross-Country Rallies World Champion Pablo Quintanilla. DUUST supported five applicants, with Nilson, fellow American Jacob Argubright, and twice-Dakar starter Konrad Dąbrowski ultimately being granted entry: “They send in all of the information together as a team. [Dabrowski] compiled all our résumés, filled out the applications, and really made it easy on the riders.”

“I really didn’t believe it at first,” Nilson said of his acceptance. “It’s pretty unusual to get accepted on your first application. I thought I might be put into like a provisional status and need another result. Just super pumped when it finally sank in that all the work that I’ve been putting in had paid off and all the people behind me and just, you know, it was a little bit emotional.”

While Dakar is a daunting race, Nilson is no stranger to long-distance rally raids, having finished all four of his tries at the SCORE International Baja 1000 from 2008 to 2011. His most recent attempt in 2011 saw him contribute to a clean sweep for Class 22 as all twelve teams reached the finish.

Although SCORE races are nonstop and point-to-point compared to multi-day and -stage rallies such as Dakar, Nilson finds both to be beneficial to developing his skills as a rider since “anytime you can go out and compete and get your race speed up and kind of see how you are compared to other people, you know, just put yourself in that kind of a stressful situation is a good thing to help prepare yourself mentally as well as physically.”

“[The Baja 1000 is] by far the toughest race in North America as far as off-road racing goes, so to enter that four times and finish four times, that was a great achievement for the various teams that I rode on. I think as far as fun, you feel accomplished. You feel a sense of satisfaction when you finish the Baja 1000. In the moment, it’s difficult to call it fun. It’s a lot of survival, you know?”

When asked for his preference between the two formats in terms of difficulty or fun, he favoured the multi-stage setup as he has “always been more of an endurance athlete than a sprint athlete. It fits my nature, fits my personality better, and I’m more of a slow starter and a strong finisher.”

“I kind of got bit by the rally bug. I’ve always been a fan of it, and it really just never crossed my mind that it would be something that was possible that I could do.”

– Ace Nilson

Besides taking part in events like the multi-stage Sonora Rally and Baja Rally, his training routine for Dakar includes a fitness regimen like cycling and CrossFit. He also leads adventure motorcycle rides via his company High Desert Adventures and followed various roadbooks throughout the United States. While he is more than familiar with competing in North America, Dakar will mark his first foray overseas.

“I was invited to participate and help put on a class: kind of a rally raid navigation school out in Bend, Oregon,” Nilson recounted. “At the time, there was a few guys that were putting on the school and they didn’t have the necessary permits that I did with my company High Desert Adventures. We did just a little bit of conversation about the route and stuff like that, what it was going to entail, and pretty quickly figured that I could adopt the route to my pre-existing approval, with the Forest Service and the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) for Central Oregon that I had. So I helped them put on an event out there. I didn’t ride in it, I just helped put it together and provided lunch and things like that. It was really intriguing to me and that’s kind of what got me started on this journey.

“The next year, I took a school with Scott Bright out in Pahrump, Nevada, and I just really got bit by the bug there and immediately entered the Sonora Rally in 2019. Just been doing as many roadbooks as I can, training with various people in Southern California, Washington, Nevada, Oregon, anywhere you can find a roadbook to ride, you do it. Even done a few roadbooks in Arizona, out and around the Grand Canyon, and stuff like that. That’s the navigation training that’s been going on.”

Nilson and Argubright are not the only American riders invited to Dakar 2023. Newly crowned Vegas to Reno winner Skyler Howes and 2020 Dakar Bikes overall champion Ricky Brabec are entered as factory-backed riders, while privateers like the American Rally Originals led by Paul Neff and David Pearson will also show up as rookies. At least ten Americans have been accepted for the Bikes category, the most of their kind.

“Super excited to see so many of my fellow friends and competitors get their application approved as well because the next thing that I tried was after I got my notification, it was a lot of texting and phone calls and emailing to see who else got in,” Nilson remembered. “I was super excited to see that everybody that applied was able to make it in.

“They’re all really strong riders. Aside from the factory pros of Skyler Howes and Ricky Brabec, Paul Neff, David, Kyle McCoy, all these guys are super good riders. Just really honoured to be included in that group.”

Once Dakar is crossed off his bucket list, he is more than open to trying out other rounds of the World Rally-Raid Championship though, with a chuckle, he ruled out a full-time pursuit unless “money were no object and I was maybe fifteen, twenty years younger.”

“I really want to do the Rallye du Maroc,” he began. “I’ve heard really good things about that rally and it’s the place that we want to do and has a certain charm to it and just an allure of that rally and a lot of history. The Abu Dhabi Challenge is another one that’s got good reviews from a few Americans that have gone and done it.

“Rally is interesting in that it provides you with an opportunity to travel and pursue your passions at the same time as getting to see some of the world that you likely would never seen any other way.”

Working in COVID-Era Healthcare

When not riding, Nilson is the manager for the respiratory and cardiopulmonary departments at Legacy Emanuel Medical Center in Portland (a Level I trauma facility), where he has worked since 2013 while his involvement with the two medical fields spans over two decades. As part of his duties, he leads over one hundred personnel such as respiratory therapists (RTs) and technicians for electroencephalogram (EEG) and echocardiogram tests.

Since 2020, the hospital—like many worldwide—has faced the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic, taking what Nilson called “a big mental toll” on those in the industry. A survey conducted by Mental Health America from June to September 2020 found that among the 1,199 healthcare workers surveyed, 93 percent experienced stress, 86 percent reported anxiety, 76 percent for exhaustion, and 75 percent felt they were overwhelmed by the crisis.

“There’s a lot of mental fortitude that’s required to work in the medical field right now, especially with the recent pandemic of COVID,” he explained. “The hospitals were already strained with enough beds for patients, with enough people to fill the positions we have, with enough doctors, things of that nature, and then to add a pandemic on top of that, it compounded the issues that were already existing in healthcare, it compounded them tenfold.

“The only way we were able to accommodate the patients was to reduce the number of elective surgeries we were doing. That had its own drawback in that the financial bread and butter of a health system is elective surgery. It’s really put the entire healthcare system across the nation and probably the world—I don’t know the status of things overseas, but here at least, there isn’t a hospital that’s not struggling financially right now.”

The importance of Nilson’s specialty is further amplified by COVID as demand for respiratory therapists grows. RTs have a multitude of responsibilities such as aiding patients who have trouble breathing or are in cardiac arrest and overseeing life support in intensive care units. Such a job is so crucial that the United States celebrates Respiratory Care Week in the last full week of October.

“There’s issues with throughput trying to get patients out of the hospital to the next care facility, whether it’s a long-term care setting, a rehab setting, or a homecare setting,” Nilson continued. “It’s difficult to move patients right now because everybody is full. As far as the pandemic itself and COVID for a respiratory therapist, the normal tools in our toolbox that we used to treat people and help them get better really didn’t work with this virus and the way it attacks the lung. It was really disheartening and a lot of clinicians, RTs, nurses, physicians all experienced some trauma from that and some depression and anxiety and all the things that you feel when you kind of feel helpless when you’re trying to treat somebody like that.”

“You see some of the same things when you’re racing and preparing for an event and going through a week or six, seven days of rallies. It’s similar because that’s what we’re experiencing now. Healthcare is day after day after day with no break. The patients just keep coming.”

Despite the tribulations, Nilson can seek escape from the world in riding.

“I find a lot of peace when riding on the motorcycle and I’m able to tune the day-to-day of my job and life in general is just kind of put on hold while you’re riding because you have to focus on exactly what you’re doing. You can’t have any lapses in focus or else you end up on the ground. You got to have a hundred percent focus on where you’re going, what you’re doing, especially with rally when you’re trying to read a roadbook and navigate at the same time. You can’t have any distractions.”

Credit: Ace Nilson

Raising Money

There’s a reason the old adage proclaims those wishing to become millionaires in racing start as billionaires. Compared to their factory-backed counterparts, Nilson and his fellow independent riders are subject to a plethora of expenses which they have to cover themselves if they want to afford the trip to Saudi Arabia. Nilson’s GoFundMe to help pay for the journey has a goal set at $75,000 USD but mentions total costs will go over $100,000. For an example of where the money goes, DUUST charges a $75,000 fee that “does not include travel, it does not include lodging prior to or after the event.

“That makes up the majority of the fees. The registration for the event, the rental of the rally bike through KTM, and then the pit crew, they also include a physio or a doctor on the team, a nutritionist, and it includes all the meals. There’s lodging that travels from bivouac to bivouac that’s included in that fee, and then there’s a week and a half to two weeks prior to the event of training in the dunes (in Abu Dhabi) that’s also included in that.”

Besides the GoFundMe and pulling money out of his own pocket, he is also accepting donations to his Venmo, hosting community fundraisers, among other fundraising methods.

“Right now, we’re doing fundraising and a variety of events, barbecues, rides,” Nilson said. “We did a sprint enduro a few weeks ago, and then some of the funds are coming from my business that I do tours in Central Oregon and Baja. There’s a tour in November that is specifically dedicated that the funds from that event will go towards my Dakar fund and then personal savings. That’s the balance of it, whatever isn’t covered by fundraising.”

Consequently, while any Dakar rookie’s main priority is to complete the race, Nilson’s gameplan has another wrinkle: “This year, first goal is to get there, get to the starting line, and the second goal is to finish. Those are the two main goals.

“I don’t have a bone that says quit in my body, so my intention is to be there at the finish line barring any catastrophic failures of the bike or myself. I’ll be there.”

As of this article’s publishing, the GoFundMe has raised $4,090. While not close to the posted goal, Nilson has continued to garner funding through the aforementioned alternatives. GFM contributions of at least $2,000 will receive an autographed jersey and photo, while those exceeding $5,000 also get a signed helmet.

“I’ve literally got checks in the mail for varying amounts of money and checks, donations, we have Venmo, and like, coming from people that are complete strangers to me. I have no idea who they are. It’s really just been touching to see the support that’s come from the motorcycling community and beyond. Just really, really grateful for the support thus far.”

Nilson’s GoFundMe can be accessed here. Donations can also be made to his Venmo at @Ace-Nilson.

Interview audio

Subtitled version coming soon.
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Justin is not an off-road racer, but he writes about it for The Checkered Flag.
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